Voodoo Central – Benin

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.IMG_2435

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:IMG_2361

  1. 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

  1. 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?   IMG_1884 (2)

  1. 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!

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Africa for beginners…..

Apparently this is how Ghana has been labelled, and having now spent time there I can understand this sentiment.  English speaking, regular transportation and tourism savviness makes Ghana a good introduction to West Africa.


Talc coffin

Religion is paramount to life here, and plays an enormous role in everyday existence.  Most shops have wonderfully religious titles such as “Hallelujah Welders”, “Praise Be Hairdressers” and “Peace Be With You Ladies Fashion”.

One night when I was having street food in Accra I was asked by a fellow diner what my religion was, my answer clearly didn’t suffice so he then offered a string of biblical quotations as encouragement.  So ingrained is Christianity* into the lives of Ghanaians that this ability to quote verses from the bible is widespread amongst the population.

I could write several paragraphs about the embracing of religion in Ghana, but I will just mention their view on death.  I visited an interesting carpentry workshop who specialise in building personalised coffins.  In an upbeat way relatives of the deceased select an important factor in their loved ones lives and the carpenters magically create it as a coffin. The examples on display included a spider, a capsicum, a video camera and my personal favourite – a bottle of talcum powder.

On a more sobering topic, sporting 37 forts on a 500km stretch of coast line Ghana was the key departure point for the most significant human migration ever


Slave fort

recorded – the slave trade.  It is unclear exactly how many millions of men, women and children were shackled together, and led through the door of no return to the waiting ships.  Taken from their homeland, their families and their existence they exited Ghana through this narrow doorway into a life of slavery in the Americas.  A very poignant place to visit.

There are some other interesting and definitely more cheerful things I want to mention about Ghana.  Sounds good I hear you cry.

  • People are often called by the day of the week on which they were born, with different conventions for male and female. The most famous example of this being Kofi (Friday) Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
  • A sign of respect is shown through shaking hands – but not your standard handshake. This is a special handshake that upon exiting you click your fingers, it’s quite hard to describe in words.  But this manoeuvre takes skill, and I often felt like my fingers were going to break such was the force on my fingertips.  One to practice for next time I think!


    Christmas Day drumming

  • I was there a few days after the 2016 General Election, which saw a change in Presidential power. The election passed peacefully and the subsequent Presidential handover went smoothly.  As a nation such pride was taken in this process and billboards across Accra declared the Election as another triumphant success for Ghana.
  • This is a country of typically happy and friendly people. Everyone wants to stop and chat, give you directions or make sure you alight from the bus at the correct location.
  • Almost every second shop is a hairdressers. Women pride themselves on their appearance, and have the most creative large hairstyles.  They are also comfortable, and I think even proud, to be seen in the streets with hair curlers in.

*there are also many Muslims living in Ghana, but Christianity is the religion of the majority.

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Namibia – Taxi anyone? English not essential….

Due to vast distances and a tiny population public transport doesn’t appear to exist.  Making independent backpacker travel impossible!  If you don’t have your own wheels you simply can’t explore the country.  And if you do have your own vehicle you end up with a variety of hitchhikers tagging along – members of a nomadic tribe, villagers needing medical care in the closest town and those who I could only communicate with through a series of facial expressions!

“Think I have some sand in my shoe”

  • Work those calf muscles and ascend sand dune after sand dune at the beautiful Soussusvlei.  More importantly have oodles of fun running down them.
  • On average there are two people per square kilometre.  As I mentioned, it is seriously deserted in Namibia.
  • I saw an anteater!   Total highlight at one of the National Parks, who wants to see the Big 5?  Something unexpected and interesting is much more my cup of tea.
  • Travelling in a Kia Picanto following the wettest wet season for decades is NOT fun. The largely gravel and pothole ridden roads are tricky enough in a small car. Add copious amounts of water and you get mud, rivers across roads and lots of abandoned plans.

Himba tribe

  • Meet a Himba tribe.  Due to the usually arid conditions there is insufficient water to wash; hence the tribal women cover their bodies with a mixture of red mud and herbs.  This leaves them with a most distinctive colouring, which fashionably goes well with their animal hide minimalistic clothing.  And no they didn’t smell………
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Discover the fun of Botswana

I had no preconceptions about Botswana whatsoever, and was unsure exactly what gems it had to offer the visitor.  However it turned out to be one of my favourite places to travel.  It was pure and simple fun from end to end. 

  • The currency is called Pula meaning rain.

    Watch out for hippos….

  • The Okavango Delta is the world’s only inland delta.  It is an idyllic, waterlily covered expanse of river and a haven for wildlife.
  • I got charged at by a family of warthogs. This is not actually funny, the biggest was my size! Three of us were out trekking and looking for wildlife.  After accidently passing too close to a warthogs burrow they charged.  Obi (the guide) ferociously waved a stick at the oncoming beasts, and in the ensuing scramble to “escape” we all ended up in a heap with me at the bottom so I missed most of the action.  Luckily none of us were hurt.  I think they just wanted to scare us – mission accomplished!!

Anyone thirsty?

  • Chobe National Park has no perimeter fences; instead locals have fences around their properties for safety.  In town it’s not unusual to see an elephant outside the post office!
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Will Mozambique live up to the hype?

Sadly no.  It was most disappointing.  I’ve met many a person who’ve raved about this country which boasts swathes of South African coastline.  I personally failed to see what all the excitement was about and the logistics are a total headache. 

  • There is no infrastructure, so I spent days on a bus getting to a beach on a par with Scarborough, Yorkshire.  Now don’t get me wrong I love Scarborough, but I’d never board a bus for two days to get there.
  • A mouse ate my pants. They were a decent pair too, why couldn’t he have chewed through my old ones??  Typical!

Mozambique flag

  • Watch a football match.  I’ve been to some serious matches but the security at this one was intense.  Armed police in bulletproof vests manhandled me through the gated entrance, whilst fierce police dogs pulled at their leashes.  I expected violence, but thankfully none erupted, even though a group of home supporters did a couple of circuits of the stadium carrying a coffin with RIP Zambia on the side.  Outrageous!!  Mozambique played poorly and deserved to lose 2-0.
  • There is a machine gun on their flag.  Random.
  • Ranking right up there with my worst nights sleep ever was staying in a brothel in Tete.  Once again due to a lack of planning and no available accommodation, I had to make the best of a bad situation.  Conditions were horrible, there was no runnning water, no locks on the doors and it was filthy.  Thankfully it was a week night so not much in the way of workers nor clientele, but it remains an experience I don’t wish to revisit.
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So what does Malawi have to offer?

However much I enjoyed my time in Malawi, and believe me I did, there was just nothing to keep me there.  Once you’ve seen the enormous lake sadly it’s game over. 

It’s a pretty big lake…

  • Whatever the genetic make-up that causes someone to be predisposed to albino-ism appears to be abundant in Malawi.  I have never seen so many people with this rare condition.  For them to live here in the harsh unrelenting sun, seems like such a cruel fate.
  • The people of Malawi are genuinely interested in your story, they have so many questions and are a joy to spend time with.  I wish more countries had such a rich human side.        
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It’s a circus in Tanzania!

Fish for tea?

Home to some of the top tourist attractions in Africa, including Mt Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, ensures that Tanzania has a continual stream of overland trucks.  Cue exhorbitant prices and scams for the naive. 

  • I hate to say it, but out of all the countries I have visited this is my least favourite.  I found the people unfriendly and aggressive, and not just to tourists.  I saw locals punching each other to board buses first.  A woman was hit with force in the head by a bus wing mirror, only to be laughed at by bystanders and the driver himself.
  • It is illegal for buses to drive at night, due to a significant number of accidents.
  • On Zanzibar there’s a strange custom to rip off baby girl’s eyebrows and paint them back on. Combine this with oodles of eye make-up and the hideous resulting effect is a four month old looking like Robert Smith (The Cure).
  • I was “arrested”.  The guy I was travelling with lit a cigarette after disembarking a long distance bus.  Two police proceed to get into our taxi into the city centre, and declared smoking in public illegal.  They demanded US$1,000 or they’d take us to court. After much discussion and waving of hands (plus our insistence on going to the police station) we were released with all our dollars intact.  Phew!!
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Act like a local in Uganda

During my time in Uganda I got involved in their culture.  I taught at a school, got to know the people and washed using Nile water.  An unforgettable experience.

  • The number of seats in a shared taxi is not equivalent to the number of passengers.  A standard five seater car can apparently hold nine people, including the one the driver is sat on!  Luckily I never got that seat but I had my face regularly squished against the window.
  • Votes please…

    Watch a general election take place in the capital, Kampala.  The polling stations were extremely rudimentary, although police and officials were in attendance.  The “anonymous” vote was cast in a washing up bowl, unsure how much privacy that actually gives the individual though.  To stop anyone repeatedly voting a black marker pen was used on voter’s thumbnails.  Interestingly people were happy to talk to me about their hopes and aspirations for Uganda.

When the results came out President Museveni, leader for three decades, won again.  Rumours circulating amongst locals claimed the election was rigged.  This is Africa and often people vote for stability rather than uncertainty so who can say?  But I have my own ideas…

  • Volunteer at a rural primary school.  Classrooms were full to bursting; my largest was crammed with 118 children eager to learn mathematics.  With resources limited and a vast number of pupils an old school approach of chanting in unison and copying from the blackboard is used.  Unsure how effective this methodology is, as the homework I marked was unexceptional.  The children come from a farming background and after paying school fees little money is left for extras.  Only a fortunate few possess shoes, uniforms are often missing several buttons and some children dearly clutched their only pen.

One of the most eye-opening school lessons was an art class.  Myself and another volunteer decided to draw wild animals.  On the blackboard we drew a giraffe, an elephant and a zebra.  In a bid to get pupils involved we asked for volunteers to come and draw a monkey, no takers.  A lion?  Again, no takers.  Eventually it dawned on us: the children don’t have access to books, nor is there electricity and hence no television.  As such they don’t know what these wild African animals look like!  It was a shocking revelation to me, we take so many things for granted, without a second thought, and here people survive with bare essentials.

After school sport was relished.  I opted to join the girls for netball.  An uneven court with no lines, and goalposts which frequently toppled over due to lack of support, paved the way for fraught matches.  I struggled to keep track of who was on my team, a blur of school uniforms and shaved heads all shouting my name caused chaos.  I was left bruised after each lawless fast paced match, almost breaking my toe once on a huge stone that was somehow on the court.  Had lots of fun, sport is such a great way to build friendships and trust.

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Ditch those mis-conceptions of Rwanda

Yes it has a turbulent recent past.  Yes it is set in deepest darkest Africa.  But this country is amazing and it most certainly has a special place in my heart.  I loved the people, the way of life and the beautiful tiered countryside.

            • Star of the show!

              Spend a precious hour observing the endangered mountain gorillas. The authoritative silverback appeared very much in control, keeping a watchful eye on his family group whilst giving us sideways glances just to let us know he was aware of our presence.  The youngsters, merely meters away, were playing energetically and chasing each other.  I was lucky enough to see a two month old baby clinging to her mother.  This expensive escapade is worth every cent if it keeps the species from extinction.

  • Plastic bags are illegal.  I kid you not!
  • Personal space means nothing. Frequently I had members of the public sleeping on my shoulder on arduous bus journeys! It’s weird.
  • At the peak of the genocide in 1994, in just 100 days 800,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s were murdered. For non- mathematicians that’s 8,000 a day – devastating!  Hundreds of people sought refuge in churches only to find themselves a cornered target, and unable to escape their horrific fate.
  • Ginkongoro houses a unique memorial centre for victims of the genocide.  It displays the preserved bodies of 482 people fixed in motion at the point of death.  The horrific nature of their poses and evidence of machete wounds send shivers down your spine.  Crouched foetal positions, curled toes and arms covering heads in protection stances.  Screaming open mouths ensured you could visualise their terror.  The idea behind this museum is to shock, and repel people in a bid to stop anything so inhumane occurring anywhere, ever again.
  • There are NO dogs…
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Ethiopia does EVERYTHING differently…..

A historic and arid land which does everything in it’s own unconventional way.  This equals confusion for the visitor…….

  • At the time of writing globally the year was 2010 and the time 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  But in Ethiopia

    Market day….

    it was 2003 and 11 o’clock.  This stems from them having their own calendar and using sunrise as a time barometer.  As the sun rose eleven hours ago it is clearly 11 o’clock.  Confused? Hope so!!

  • There are more donkeys here than anywhere else in the world. OK so this may not be a fact, but I have never seen so many in my life – total donkeyrama!!
  • Lalibela is THE drawcard.  This town boasts eleven 12th Century churches carved in rock.  The unique feature here is that they are carved from the earth’s surface downwards; so when you stand on the ground you are level with the roof and have to peer down to see the whole church.  They really are remarkable, a most unusual way of deciding to build a church.
  • Ethiopians practice Orthodox Christianity, using a combination of old and new testaments.  The resulting effect is 241 days of fasting a year!  So for two thirds of the year food cannot be consumed between midday and 3pm.  On these days no animal or animal products can be eaten.
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