Vodou Footprints: Cotonou’s Spark

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I’m four beers deep and still have the need for another. It’s only 90°F, but 85% humidity feels much hotter—as though my blood is simmering from the inside out. I’ve sweat all water from my body and therefore have settled for the coldest beer a man can find. Here it’s Castel, a favorite from Ethiopia. Although I know it’s not scientifically sensible, the heat has decreed my parched lips the ultimate authority. At one point, it looks as though the barman has run out. So when a case of chilled Les Beninoise is proudly unveiled, the relief amongst the patrons is palpable. I might just survive this after all.

Cotonou is an African mega-metropolis. This means it’s not fun. Streets are clogged with dirt, dust, and worst of all, a constant plume of suffocating exhaust. It is full of life, and yet its conditions seem to defy it. Nevertheless, with population estimates exceeding one million, the inhospitality of this land simply cannot match the resilience of its inhabitants.

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Welcome to Benin’s unofficial capital and undeniable commercial force. It is a city of hustle and bustle—a city whose voice is a cacophony of screaming motors and exposed engines. Where bush-taxis appear and dissolve at each shifting gear. Monstrous lorry trucks creak from bent chassis and blare horns willy-nilly. And the omnipresent zemidjan (motorbike) blisters the road with fearless abandon. A mind will not rest in a city with such movement.

Of course, there is no way to avoid this city. One must fly into the airport of Cotonou Cadjehoun to land in Benin. This is how I arrived, after 37 hours of relatively painless travel. Upon arrival, however, my body instantly succumbed to the shock of the heat. A heavy sweat filled the creases of my back and brow. My nose filled with a miasma of burning trash and hot spice. I was disintegrating. At customs, the usual challenge of patience became nearly intolerable in this climate. Time above the desk registered 2AM. I was exhausted, and still there were cases to collect—not only those filled with more or less replaceable clothes, but also thousands of dollars’ worth of photography and video equipment. My mind wandered. I was helpless among the fray of fatigue.

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Incredibly, everything (including my arranged pickup) arrived incident-free, and I quickly secured the necessities of bed, air-con, and mosquito net. The next thirteen hours were nonexistent.

When I awoke, Constantine had arrived and was similarly in need of recovery. He slept. I slept more. Instinctively, we both knew that whatever lay before us demanded the utmost mental and physical preparation—no matter how unforeseeable and incomprehensible.

***

The Dantokpa Market is over twenty hectares in size and grosses over a million dollars a day. We met its alleyways with amazement—the endless stalls contrived of scraps of wood and stacked with every conceivable produce, electronic device, food, and knickknack. Baguettes abutted sunglasses. Plastics flanked pottery. Eerie fluorescent liquids from Passotome glowed in unlabeled water bottles. Fried fish charred under a searing sun-glare while flies swarmed in frenzy. And no matter what the ware, a smell that can be described only as uncomfortable pervaded. But these things only piqued minimal interest. We sought something more bizarre—something more truly sacred to the people of West Africa: the fetish.

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We had met at the Eddie Adams Workshop in upstate New York a mere three months before. As we traded stories and aspirations of travel and photography, we quickly formed a strong connection—a common desire to capture beautiful images of cultures around the world. On the second day of the workshop, he had approached me with a simple enough question: “How ‘bout a project?”

“Well, yeah. I’m interested.” Unbeknownst to me, he was proposing a much larger collaboration than I understood at the time.

“How about Voodoo?” he asked.

My hesitation was barely noticeable. “Hell, yes,” I blurted. Just like that. Although I knew little about Voodoo (or perhaps because of that ignorance), I couldn’t turn down such an enticing opportunity. It hadn’t been a question; it had been a summoning.

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Three months later, we saw our first glimpse of the fetish. At Marché Dantokpa, we came across a table laid with an assortment of dried animals and constituents: monkey heads, gator claws, mandibles, chameleons, snake skins, and numerous bone fragments. To our untrained eyes, most of it was practically unrecognizable; but we knew we’d hit the jackpot.

It was guarded by two young Beninese men who clearly wanted nothing to do with us. At first, they simply ignored our presence. Undeterred, we continued to ogle the various items with wonderment—all the while attempting that woeful balancing act of respectful distance and inquiring curiosity. A few moments later, it was obvious that we weren’t intimidated by their coldness, and so the guards began to shoo us away: “No tourists! C’est mal por vous!”

We had no choice but to leave, and leave we did—but not without first satisfying and redoubling our growing determinations to see and to know what exactly had sent us halfway around the world in the first place.

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Even still, little could we have predicted that within hours of dismissal we’d suddenly find ourselves thrust headfirst into the ceremony of the Thron god, face-to-face with Egungun spirits, and openly accepted into the Vodou community. Ultimately, the fetish market of dried livers and crispy hyena hairs, fascinating as it was, would be but a rousing sip from the bountiful tonic of Benin.

We had caught the spark of Cotonou.

Next essay –>

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Comments

  1. Amazing Cam. We were at dinner two nights ago with a friend living in France part time and Togo part time. Not sure how similar it is to Benin even given their extreme proximity but it was really great to hear about the country from her. We have seen some very different cultures during our travels but at the foundation of all of them, things still seem tied to the more global picture. Africa seems to be a completely independent world. Maybe that’s why you are so drawn to it? Anyway, great photos, great writing as always. Good luck and be safe!

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