Vodou Footprints: A Faraway Land in Benin’s Cradle of Vodou

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Geography, for many Americans, is that daunting and embarrassing mystery—a dim knowledge largely confined to wartime allies, historical enemies, and the occasional topical hotspot. Beyond this so-called important handful—Western Europe, the Middle East, possibly China or Japan—everything else is clumped together into a world of unknowns.

When I told acquaintances of my impending trip, the average response was somewhere between hesitance and puzzlement. Like a jargoning doctor to the common patient, my words didn’t ring many bells.

Well, perhaps Benin is a faraway land.

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Admittedly, I too couldn’t place Benin in its exact location prior. West Africa, I’d say evasively, somehow hopeful that several nations would willingly surrender their unique identities to their greater region. Technically, I wasn’t wrong. But not surprisingly, I soon discovered that Benin deserved far more respect and scrutiny than I had originally expected. Take a closer look and you’ll begin to unravel a majestic tangle of complexity and misconception.

Benin borders Nigeria’s western edge, touches Togo’s eastern boundary, and supports Niger and Burkina Faso above. It is one of those tiny West African countries that stretch north to south. Sneeze and you’ll miss it. In fact, picture Africa’s western shoreline as a nose. Benin sits just beyond where the mouth and the nose would meet—at the nostrils, if you will—a sliver of land anchored by the fabled Bight of Benin.

And then there’s magic. In the West, the word conjures up David Blaine, television’s greatest living magician. A levitating, fire-breathing, death-defying illusionist. A beloved celebrity of record-setting endurance. A talent, no doubt. From the Beninese perspective, however, he is not a man of magic. Call him master of deception. Magic in Benin is a way of life.

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Everywhere there is magic. It’s in the red earth of the landscape, the throbbing fury of the sun, and the relentless currents of the great flowing rivers. It’s their religion—a religion in which the interactions between nature and humanity are cherished and respected every day. Magic is Vodou. And with 4,000 years of magic backing it up, Benin is the undisputed cradle of Vodou.

Personally, I believe in magic, both as a form of deception as well as a supernatural expression of the energies beyond ordinary comprehension. For millennia, Homo sapiens—the self-proclaimed wise man—has existed, evolved, and generally erred, all the while attempting to explain: What lies beneath? What forces create the churning seas of the ocean and the gyrating clouds of the sky? What energies course through veins and roots alike? Indeed, what does our cunning and craft amount to aside vast incomprehensibilities? Our attempts to solve breed yet further questions. No matter our advancements or industry, the sun still rises and the moon ever orbits to a language seemingly all their own.

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Countless cultures have contrived to explain these fundamental phenomena. Some grow. Most fade beneath the all-consuming flames of war and oppression. And yet, incredibly, amidst the largest powerhouses of the world, there exists a small country—undeterred by the folly of others and sorely ravaged by the horrible histories of slavery—where the primeval practices still prevail and the honor of the mysteries of the world take precedence.

Cast aside the linear mindset and the textual teachings of the West. Simply observe what is before you and what has come to pass. Only then will you understand Benin. Here the supernatural and natural worlds converge; everyday occurrences take on special meanings; and the privileged traveler may join the setting sun into the obscurity of a secret and sacred society to appreciate the mysteries of what Benin declares its official religion: the worship of the Vodou.

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It is a world of shadow and dance. Of masks, scars, and tattoos. A country where Kings remain the Kings of Kings, and the leopard and snake reign in the household tale. Feel the pulsing rhythm of Vodou, transcend the merely tangible, and let the beat of the drum lift your mind into the realm of the metaphysical. Once you have crossed this threshold, once you have heeded this singular call, the world around can never be the same.

For us, there is no retreat. There is only the universal language of Vodou, and together we will drink from this bottomless cup.

Together we’ll reach a faraway land.

Next essay –>

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Comments

  1. What gorgeous images, Cameron! So glad you’re keeping us all up to date back on the West Coast.

  2. Patrick Bradley says:

    Cameron, between the images and your writing I feel like I’m there. Which helps when it’s 10 degrees here in Michigan. Can’t wait to see and read more.

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