Vodou Footprints: Origins of Vodou (West Africa)

The Mono flows out into the sea on a bleak, wind and sand-blasted beach that is not very likely to entice you in for a swim…If your interest is in Voodoo then with luck (and some bravery) you might be able to persuade someone to paddle you over to one of the villages hidden on the backwaters where the Voodoo spirits are especially active…One village especially, Kpossou Gayou, would be fascinating to explore, but the chances of getting someone to take you are very remote because of the sheer power of the Voodoo here and the bad vibes surrounding it. It’s said that the fetish is so strong that almost anyone can hear it speaking quite openly and most of the boatmen in the area are much too frightened to take a foreigner there.

Butler, Stuart. “West of Cotonou.” In Benin: The Bradt Travel Guide. Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides, 2006.


These were the words that sealed my fate—that stirred an inexplicably ancient power and compelled my to explore. Something deep within was awoken. Something unfamiliar, incomprehensible, perhaps unknowable. While the boatmen supposedly trembled with fear at the mysterious forces, I tingled with desire. With each new mist-shrouded image or wind-savaged vision, a growing vortex drew me down towards the vague, inscrutable center. Determined not to flee, I embraced it unnervingly.

The more I read, the more I realized the sheer inevitability. Wants became needs, and more than curious, I was famished for answers and driven by pure adventure. There was no turning back.


But first, some backwater backstory: Vodou, established by short-term president Nicephoro Soglo, became the official religion of Benin on Jan. 10, 1996. Subsequently, this day became the National Day of Vodou, when the world’s largest Vodou festival occurs every year in the old slave port of Ouidah. And yes, I soon realized I was going.

A project plan emerged. Guesthouse. Driver. Guide. An itinerary with just enough structure, but purposefully rough to match the raw mystique of our journey. In total, 37 hours of travel, 37,000 feet above the earth, separated us from departure in Seattle to touchdown in Cotonou, the unofficial capital of this land called Benin. Across ocean, sea and desert, those fateful readings would finally come to life.

Of course, Vodou (or voodoo to our ears) is anything but the doll-and-pins novelty it’s often indifferently ascribed. Rather, it is an active mysticism that has weathered thousands of years on the continent of humanity’s birthplace. As such, in undertaking our own journey, we also endeavored to understand Vodou’s journey: from its cradle in West Africa, its reluctant passage across the unforgiving slave route, and its ultimate assimilation into the cultural and religious stew of the West—thousands of miles and meanings away from its native land. But I digress; it’s time to approach the destination ahead. Pluck up your courage. Open your eyes and ears to the spirits. And follow closely as we enter: Vodou Footprints – Origins of Vodou.

Next essay –>


The heart of the Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia


Hamar territory – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia 


An orphaned elephant being fed at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – Nairobi, Kenya 


 A dry riverbed in the Lower Omo Valley. The government’s proposed dams have dried up the Hamar’s traditional water sources


In the riverbed – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia


The Wild West of Nigeria – Niger Delta, Nigeria


Jinka’s town square – Jinka, Ethiopia



  1. According to the ancient Romans , Africa lay to the west of Egypt, while “Asia” was used to refer to Anatolia and lands to the east. A definite line was drawn between the two continents by the geographer Ptolemy (85–165 AD), indicating Alexandria along the Prime Meridian and making the isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea the boundary between Asia and Africa. As Europeans came to understand the real extent of the continent, the idea of Africa expanded with their knowledge.

  2. a related but distinct set of religious practices, as well as to separate Haitian vodou from the negative connotations and misconceptions the term “voodoo” has acquired in popular culture.

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