Vodou Footprints: To Where the People Don’t Go

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Ouidah was absolute shit. The first words I had ever read about the historic slave port west of Cotonou suggested the opposite. It sounded downright enthralling:

In the nineteenth century the Kingdom of Dahomey was a Black Spar squeezed between the Yoruba tribes of present-day Nigeria and the Ewe tribes of Togo. Her Kings had claw marks cut on their temples and were descended from a Princess of Adja-Tado and the leopard who seduced her on the banks of the Mono River. Their people called them Dada which means “father” in Fon. Their fiercest regiments were female, and their only source of income was the sale of their weaker neighbors.

Abomey was the name of their upland capital. The name of their slave port was Ouidah.

Here, in the opening pages of Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah, I was immediately lost—caught in the mystery and myth of a city, lying on the edge of the Bight of Benin, where hundreds of thousands of humans underwent the horrific transformation into slaves. Captured, sold, and shipped to the Americas as commodities, they were stripped of freedom and left with only their skin, the memories of their community, and their Vodou faith.

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Understandably, expectations were high. Mere days from our first Vodou experiences in Cotonou—the electric Thron ritual and riveting Egungun ceremony—and we were already feeling an insatiable urge for more. More history, more stories, more magic. What then could possibly be more exciting than arriving in Ouidah on January 10th, the annual National Vodou Day? We foresaw it vividly: Vodou would reign down upon the crowd from spirits on high, transforming all in its wake into full-fledged initiates. Clear skies would suddenly give way to huge rolling thunderheads whose gray suffocation heralded a torrent of water-filled miracles. There would be lightning. Plenty. It would be a sign of the power of the Vodou. Thousands converted. Peoples overcome by the reality of this cosmological magic.

Okay. Perhaps the imagination deserved reigning in, but we had little reason to doubt the event of the year, tourists and all.

Well, tourists we got—by the acre. Copious heaps of burnt red flesh pecked and pried and gawked like avian inspectors armed with unscratched point-and-shoots, DSLRs (many still proudly adorned with Samy’s Camera price stickers) and the one medium format bull’s eye. It was ridiculous. The hallowed history of the place seemed an afterthought amongst the farmhouse throngs. The site on the beach near the memorial Gate of No Return looked like a pasture of naked sheep corralled under desperate shade. Instead of troughs, the flocks clustered around nourishing drum circles with scary predictability. Souvenir stalls lined the road like fencing. Bottomless piles of goods dotted the grounds like mounds of manure. Everything from native instruments to woven fabrics and cheap coconut-shelled carvings with market-flooded beads filled the space-fearing JanSport sacks and fanny packs. We’d been had. Whatever power once flourished here had longed dried up. So, under the stifling heat of man and sun, I downed three gourds of fresh coconut juice, recalculated our position, tossed the emptied containers, and hurriedly fled the scene.

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It’s fitting, I suppose, that a place of such historical horror should remain so true to its roots, but nevertheless we were ill-prepared for the commodified abomination of Vodou found in Ouidah—and likely spoiled by the day before.

In Allada, an inland town with a storied lineage of powerful leaders, His Majesty King Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla reigns as the King of Kings of Benin; elsewhere, he remains the Jerk of Jerks of Humanity. But despite his ample shortcomings and long litany of offenses, the man in silk can admittedly host a hell-of-a Vodou ceremony. Twenty-four hours earlier, without the whisper of a mention of National Vodou Day, the people of Allada celebrated with a candor that made Ouidah’s festivities look like postcard imitations and a beauty of song, rhythm, and movement that was simply spectacular.

Moreover, for every hastily-shined statuette that Ouidah’s shop stocked, Allada had the real thing: colorful, sinuous, vibrant, and alive—woman.

Women are the dance and song of West African Vodou. Gathered in seated circles, singers clap in time and harmonize through stretching syllables of choral softness. Voices like dreams rise from the village valley. Through song, the women praise their ancestors and the strength behind their past, while keeping a hopeful eye towards the future. As music fills the willing space about them, attending dancers twirl, twist, and undulate center stage. Arms flail. Spines pulse. Bare feet stamp red earth, kicking up dry dust like herds of wild mares. The song feeds and fuels the dancing bodies in a swarm of heated energy. On the outside, dresses swing with strands of shell and metal that clank like wind chimes in storm, while bracelets slide up and down the arms and ankles as though remnants of their ancestor’s shackles. Freely, they surrender themselves to the rhythm, the tam tam drummed up from man’s force.

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Situated at the heart of song, the beat provides the basis and soul. Here, a group of men beat animal skins in a rain of sweat. Muscles taut. Stern. Eyes fixed in concentration. Each of them lost in the trance of uninterrupted reverberation. Ultimately, everyone is involved. Dancing the stage. Singing a history. Drumming the timeless beat. Taking turns in yielding to ancient tradition, they build something special—a collective power greater than its parts.

For hours, we watched the performances in Allada with transfixed fascination. The King, followed by his egg-shell-walking procession, arrived fashionably late and scornful as ever. His servants shuffled with the weariness and fear that results from near-constant royal berating. There were also other dignitaries, along with their own escorts. And then there were the stilt-men.

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To fully understand these towering oddities, it is helpful to begin by imaging how they came to be: Take a young boy. This boy is curious, active, and dedicated. Curiously enough, he has personally constructed and assembled a pair of stilts, and for many years, he has practiced on them. Instead of sports or games or troublemaking, he spends every spare hour honing his skill on the stilts. When he isn’t working the fields or helping his mother with choirs, he’s on his stilts—from the break of dawn until much past his bedtime.

Now, he is grown. He’s a stilt virtuoso. Not only can he walk, jump, hop, skip, and do practically anything that a normal human can on solid ground, but he’s also a Juilliard-level contortionist: A nimble and confident master of the art. Years of practice have paid off. The boy is now a man, and his name is Djagli.

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At this point Djagli is not even human. In Vodou, Djagli is an ancient warrior god protecting villages from witchcraft. Dressed like a giant stiff-legged stork, this god will actually transform into one as soon as the initiate enters the trance state. For less conspicuous sneaking, witches too are believed to turn bird, but fortunately fail to recognize the bird state of Djagli. The two feathered vertebrates are basically immortal tricksters, chasing each other out of town into the countryside. Once captured, the witch relinquishes her powers, and Djagli heroically restores village life to normal.

The Djagli-entranced performers in Allada were amazing. Five in total, they spun, dipped, and ran with incredible perfection. They scattered dirt at screaming children. Their trained movements were masked by a kind of uncontrollability, but I witnessed not a single error or misstep. Surely, if the talent scouts of Vegas ever caught wind of this feat, the tawdry cabaret and lowly magic club would be swiftly trampled into history. But while this spectacle started the Vodou party, it was the Zangbetos who topped it off.

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In ancient Vodou life, there is no need for traditional policemen or guards. If a civil dispute arises, the King’s administration or Vodou priest listens. Details are discussed. Many suns and moons pass. Rituals performed, concoctions prepared. Eventually, issues are resolved. It’s not a knee-jerk society. Instead, it’s actively preventative; disputes are snuffed out well before they can mature. And under the dark West African skies, the all-seeing Night Watchmen keep the peace.

Known as Zangbetos, these enforcers patrol the streets by moonlight. Dressed in bushels of hay, they possess unspoken amounts of magical powers. They’re feared, respected, and little discussed. In performance and in trance, the gods spin—and then spin like hell. If you’ve ever seen an upside down six-foot spinning top composed of a hundred bristling broom heads, then you know exactly what this looks like. With abnormally wide hay-loads and reckless whirling, these gyrators manage to stir up more plumes of dust than even the dust-loving Djagli. Mouth-spit gin and sodabi (local palm liquor) glistens on their shells as fresh chicken blood drips down their crowns. They’re on the move with the drumming. And like all things Vodou, they possess a seemingly-endless supply of energy.

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We watched this otherworldly culture with awe. All around us, villagers danced. They moved around the Zangbetos with anticipation and excitement. The spirits’ guards helped clear the crowd, pushing the souls along, shouting calls for the energies of Vodou to hear. Then everything stopped.

In a flurry, stacks of hay were thrown off and the inner cores of the Zangbetos revealed. I peered inside. Dirt. Nothing but open air and dirt. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a small woven basket. Evidently, not only do the Night Watchmen serve death sentences to the unruly of Benin, but they also present a variety of gifts to the lawful.

A guard quickly snatched and tossed the basket to the ground. People oohed with wonder and gawked with greed. Scurrying around the basket like hungry piglets at a sow, all approached. I too neared, hopeful to grab a few gold coins in reward for a lifetime of somewhat goodness. Dramatically, in one swift motion, the guard flicked off the lid.

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You guessed it: crabs. This Zangbeto had fooled us, sending into the crowd a dozen live crabs. With red snapping pincers, they dispersed and the people were sent in a frenzy. They screamed, hollered, leapt onto chairs. Some collided into one another as they ran in opposite directions. Tucked away in this upland village, most had probably never seen a crab before. They were terrified and justifiably so. But for every trick-playing Zangbeto, there were a few kindly offering presents of rice and corn, sodabi, gin, or cigarettes—the necessities.

Later, west of Allada on Lac Aheme, we would have one more opportunity to witness the Zangbetos. We would stop on our way to the famous fetish markets of Togo, at a village we were advised not to enter. Don’t enter, a stranger had told us. Don’t enter—unless you want your heads cut off. So naturally, we entered.

Next essay –>

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Comments

  1. Robin Karsten Tremper says:

    Wow Cam! Captivating and thrilling! Thank you.

  2. Sandy Hilton says:

    What a fascinating world we live in. And once again you have captured it wonderfully through your amazing photos and story telling. It is amazing how travel has now made the world accessible to everyone and even these remote places and old traditions have been transformed by tourism.I can only imagine your disappointment at arriving at the tourist filled first location. How fortunate to have experienced the second location.

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