One of my reasons for visiting West Africa was to witness voodoo at its height. Ouidah, Benin, is where the voodoo religion started and it remains hugely popular throughout this region. National Voodoo Day is when the largest celebratory festival occurs, and is when this small town sees scores of visitors – me being one of them.
The voodoo experience is not complete without a trip to the local market to hunt for the voodoo section. This is typically tucked away from the main thoroughfare and takes some determination to find. I eventually found it. The potent smell should have been a giveaway. Not for the faint-hearted this area was filled with dead animals in various states of decay, including skeletal. I won’t go into detail, suffice to say that the variety of animals was vast. Sadly pangolin, which have recently been identified as an endangered species, were amongst the gory display. This was the worst element of my trip and whilst I can appreciate the significance of animal remains in different religious practices, I physically baulked at the rarity of some of the species for sale here.
Like other religions, ceremonies and practices occur throughout the year. But I am presuming it reaches fever pitch close to the designated Voodoo Day, as there was plenty of entertainment going on during my whole time in Benin. It certainly wasn’t unusual to see religious processions with musical accompaniment, along with people dancing dress in elaborate costumes or adorned with body paint.
I shall say now that I am not exactly clear as to what was happening most of the time; or what certain dances and rituals meant. But I will try to describe the three which I seemed to have a clearer idea on, I have named them in my own way:
- Goat Sacrifice – Again not for the faint-hearted. An important element of the religion is the sacrificing of a goat. The practice here is to sacrifice the goat by slitting its’ throat and throwing it high into the air. How the goat lands determines the future.
The throat of the lifeless goat is then placed between someone’s teeth. The chosen individual then dances by spinning around and around in time to music. The audience who absolutely loved this ceremony, were also dancing and chanting. When the goat swinger tired or got dizzy, a new person stepped up for the honour of dancing with the goat. Interestingly this was gender neutral, with both men and women taking the lead role.
The hashtag for this ritual must surely be #Beninforstrongteeth
- The Haystack Spirit – a large conical pyramid made of long grasses, spins continually around clockwise and then anti-clockwise, speeding up and slowing down in time to the drumming and singing. Their assigned trainer has a stick and seems to herd the haystack-like shape ensuring they remain within the circle of spectators.
After displaying the spirits’ agility, strengthen and skill at length they stop the dance routine. The haystack is immediately laid on its side displaying a hollow empty space underneath. Where is the person who was surely controlling the spirits’ movements? Gasps of surprise emanate from the spectators, while the performers grin with delight at showing their voodoo magic. The shape is placed back the correct way and upended again, this time a small plant is on the ground. This is done again and ta-dah the plant has grown in size.
I am unsure what this represents, perhaps the birth of new life?
- Tag on Speed – This could be the most intense and fun of all the voodoo events. Individuals dressed as spirits parade through the street with musical accompaniment. Observers get as close to the spirits as they can, whilst keeping a small distance away. Because those who are in the audience need to get a head start, in what could be the scariest moment of their lives.
At a random time during proceedings the spirits spin around and start to chase the onlookers. Pandemonium breaks out. People scatter in all directions, but they don’t go too far as they want to watch what happens. However they are running for their lives. For if the spirit touches you, you will die.
How crazy, scary and fun? The voodoo religion simply has it all!