Vodou Footprints: Beheaded Coconut Stories & More Blood

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Stuck at the typical Vodou crossroads, I’m sitting with a Kokou priest in Possotome. Outside, spinning Zangbetos litter the pathways like rebellious street sweepers. Dust flies up in thick clouds and chokes the fiery hot air while children run haphazardly between the boundless spirits, daring to touch. Their screams confess both joy and fear. The gyrating hay whizzes past and down an alleyway. For once, I’m not in the midst. Instead, I’m inside and removed from the immediate action—approaching something far greater than any dried grass dance routine.

Under the shade of a corrugated steel roof, seven of us are clustered together in a small room, no more than 40 square feet. Thick ochre clay walls confine the space further.

A stream of sweat rolls off my face as I struggle to operate the monopod—finding angles, details, close-ups. I notice a growing puddle of soft mud at my feet. Sweat and soil. My partner is grabbing the formal headshot on tripod. He too wears a noticeable layer of sweat. It’s 95° Fahrenheit. The palpable humidity pushes it much higher. And the interview is just starting to heat up.

Under these conditions, a simple lapse in concentration can be disastrous. The desire and curiosity to capture once-in-a-lifetime moments must constantly be tempered with a commensurate patience and circumspection. Maintaining this balance is ridiculously trying. Opportunity and safety wrestle round after round in one’s mind. One tempts: This is Vodou. It doesn’t wait for me, and it doesn’t care whether I’ll be back or not. I must be willing at all times. The other balks: I’m messing with a fire I barely understand. One sorcerer crossed and I could be finished. One wrong room discovered. One performance witnessed—with the wrong witches, the wrong witchdoctors, the wrong evil spirits. Am I in over my head? Back and forth, the two breed a mounting doubt. And in this land, doubt is a dangerous thought to entertain.

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At a moment’s reflection, I recall the calming words of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great 19th-century bastion of English exploration and curiosity—a man of uncharted territories: “Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands.” In a place like this, the cradle of Vodou, his dauntless philosophy rings especially true.

I turn back to the talking priest with renewed composure. His name is Anansihounde Kouassi, and he is a priest of Kokou—one of the most feared and violent Vodou warrior gods. His warnings are strong, but I’m pushing him to see the act. I want the ceremony I’ve come for.

“Kokou is not for children,” he urges. “It is only for the mature. Before you go into trance, you fall first. Then you rise and begin cutting yourself.”

Odd as it sounds, this is exactly why I came to Possotome. Not for the impromptu Zangbeto party, but for the blood-soaked Kokou ordeal. Piqued by tales of 12-hour trance, I’m here with open eyes and ears to understand one of the most violent forms of Vodou celebration.

As with all Vodou ceremonies, the Kokou ceremony involves an essential act of mollification—but for this particular god, blood alone appeases. Through violence, incantation, and the incessant beat of the tam tam, a bewitching trance transforms the initiate from mortal to willing capsule. It is then that the god enters.

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In Kokou practice, the participant wears a hay skirt, which acts as both conduit and protection—allowing the initiate to perform the celebrations unscathed. The priest continues, “It’s the Vodou Kokou that has this power inside of it. If you are an adept of this Divinity, you have to cut yourself. The day they carry the weight, I’m talking about these fetishes here that we carry, the Divinity himself exists, and when you have him on you, you go into a trance.”

To my linear Western mindset, these words are incredibly intriguing, if not baffling. With each explanation, several new questions arise. But by now, I have a solid foundation to work with: Vodou, an ancestral worship of cosmological-supernatural forces predating the advent of Christianity, is about respect to the gods. Beyond that, of course, Vodou is so much more. It is thousands of specific and varied acts. It is priests, drums, prayers, dancing, initiation, sacrifice, preparation, and celebration. It is ritualized offerings, daily sanctimonies, and monthly ceremonies that involve a lifetime of commitment and intense moments of trance to confirm one’s devotion. It is the exchange of constant devotion for health, prosperity, happiness, and protection. It is appeasement and guidance. It is guardianship. It is community. And ultimately, it is power. For the people around me, this knowledge is as old and as constant as the night stars. It is known deep inside. For myself, I place the new words of the priest carefully into my fluctuating understanding.

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I realize too that when the Kokou Priest says “weight,” he’s referring to the burden of trance. It’s not easy to become an initiate. Often it can take an entire year, in which young Vodou adepts vanish into the forest adapting the song, dance, prayer, and langage (or language) of a certain divinity. Other times it’s as short, and as painful, as one severe night with both heaven and hell. For Kokou, this is unspecified. But the weight alone is enough to prevent many from initiating—and understandably so. It must be a tough sell filling seats to a half-day conscious-altering trance and possible mutilation.

“You will start to have the power within you,” continues the priest. “Sometimes we can take a sharp knife and start to cut our skin. You won’t see anything. That’s how this Divinity manifests. If you have problems, the Divinity will work them out for you. You won’t have any death or pain.”

Once in trance, Kokou seeks the taste of human blood, and so, with either knife or broken glass, the initiates appease with cuts to the arms, legs, face, chest, and tongue. Blood like red yarn adorns the twirling skirt. They are said also to swallow sharp objects, razor blades, and syringes, and smash their heads on hard objects to further beat in their devotion. I push for more access, but no blood will be shed today.

He ends the interview: “You never know the day you’ll have to face Kokou.” That’s our cue to depart.

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After Possotome, I head west along the coast to Grand-Popo, a town determined to overcome its woeful name. The long beach, as it opened into the vast Atlantic, was a sight to behold. Deep churning currents with thick waves pummeled the steep embankments and large sweeping sands. Tides so strong they resembled a river. Stunning and alarming. Beauty and danger colliding. I was warned that uninformed Beninese sometimes entered for a quick dip only to end up disappearing some distance down the beach. The cautions didn’t seem exaggerated.

I arrived at Grand-Popo in time to witness a massive haul—a communal event of gargantuan proportions. Folk of all types, young and old, joined together to bring in the fishing net set the previous day—hundreds of yards of straining rope weaving through salty hands. It’s an effort that can take nearly five hours to finish. All involved will have the first pickings before being sold to the fish-buyers of nearby markets. Back-breaking work, but the rewards are sweet. With evening descending, I took a turn—up for the challenge, but also compelled by sheer energy to contribute. The distant sounds of tam tam and chanting lulled me into an immediate rhythm. After a minute or two, it felt strangely natural, as though I had done this many times before. Net metaphors aside, I felt genuinely connected. I sensed that timelessness of community, which in urban society appears increasingly and dishearteningly rare.

Muscles sore and spirits lifted, I bade farewell to the haulers and followed the sounds of a growing crowd along the nearby riverbank. From my distance, the running and circling figures appeared like shadows of schoolchildren on a playfield, but I sensed Vodou. Approaching closer, I could distinguish several towering shadows above the rest—telltale signs. A spectacle to the spectator and anathema to the village witches, those stilted bird-spirits, the Djaglis, were on the prowl.

With a swift pirogue (boat) ride across the water, I found myself immersed in the ceremony—the spiritual complement to the feast on the shore. As I had come to expect, my partner and I were the only two foreigners among a throng of dance, music, and sodabi (palm liquor). And aided by my evident innocence and intrigue, I was welcomed like an old friend to a holiday gathering. The Vodou gods, of course, were also present. The air was intoxicating. The dusk spread an otherworldly gauze upon it all. Even the typically tameless toddlers succumbed to this Vodou spell. Enraptured, they crawled on the ground and waddled fearlessly towards the lofty Djagli. Incredibly, two tots even began to scale the Djagli’s twelve-foot wooden stilt legs. Any danger was lost upon these brave babies.

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Not to be outdone, the showy sun, now clung low to the horizon, lit the sky into a tangerine haze and transformed the thick swaying trees into bold silhouettes. Burton’s mantra was now solidified: Exploration. Unfettered. Unexpected. Unadulterated discovery. The trail’s reach down the beaches, across rivers, and deeper into the heart of the cradle of Vodou became limitless. I was scratching the surface of a new world—my Western ways and presumptions one-by-one becoming exposed, overturned, and finally restored to something at once ancient, yet refreshingly new. I felt a tipping point.

Once back on the opposite side of the river, I came down from the high of energy and collected myself. I was back at the site of the great haul, now prepped for dinner. The place was abuzz with the steam and smoke and splatter of busy cooks and their hungry hoard. The pure mass of ridiculously fresh seafood was almost absurd, but somehow my appetite was still set on something else.

Incidentally, besides its impressive beaches and bountiful marine life, Grand-Popo also guards a coveted jewel of Vodou history, a place whose legends had stirred my imagination long before my first real taste of the Vodou—a place of fear and wonder. Warily, I approached a fellow sitting near: a pirogue captain, a man trained to navigate the merciless seas with a wooden boat and a single pole. Capable and tested, he was no stranger to risk. I reckoned he knew his way around, too. He met me with a wry smile.

“Excuse me. We want to see the village of Kpossou Gayou. We want to visit Les Bouches du Roi.”

The smile contorted and faded. His eyes widened briefly, and then narrowed. I could see the thoughts passing through his mind. Finally, the smile slowly reappeared, though not quite as it was before. He motioned for me to wait, and walked quickly off.

A few moments later, he returned. This time, his hands were stacked with steaming plates of food—the catch of the day, expertly filleted, seasoned, and stewed. It was a delectably soft and tender fish, stewed in a spicy tomato sauce and served with the region’s ever-present cooked cassava paste—a kind of necessary neutralizer to the powerful flavors. Any sane tourist would have been in absolute heaven, but surely he misheard me. “I’ll take you on the Mono River down to Les Bouches Du Roi where the river meets the ocean. Many animals and wildlife. It will be a half-day for $80 per person. For lunch, I’ll cook you fresh shrimp with bottles of Les Beninoise.” Okay, so he hadn’t misheard at all. Instead, the daring tour of the Vodou backwaters had been upgraded to a sedate and romantic river cruise. It was close, but not close enough.

“Kpossou Gayou,” I insisted, brandishing a large piece of fish in my right hand. “We’re only interested in Kpossou Gayou.” I casually ran the fish through the thick sauce and into my mouth.

“No. Not possible.” He watched me intently. “I will not take you there.”

“No problem. Then I’m not interested.” I finished chewing and took a strong swig of beer. I had learned to control my emotions during negotiations.

He shook his head. “The Vodou power is so strong there that if you go you will meet the same fate. You will have your heads cut off.”

I turned to my partner and we smiled at one another. So be it.

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The next morning, undaunted and unfazed, I pressed our hotel owner for directions. He relented with little fuss. Whether he knew more or less than the worrisome captain, I’ll never know. Nonetheless, with a driver, our guide, and a young Kpossou Gayou local named Donald, we sped off down the highway towards the infamous village. I took a last deep breath. From here out, I put my trust in Vodou.

Twenty minutes in, we turned off the pavement and met a narrow dirt road overhung with dense palms and gnarled vines. Behind these draping green serpents hid cloisters of red palm nuts. Grasses swayed on the ground, where pigmy goats and so-called bicycle chickens darted across our path. Labyrinthine and wild with life, the road seemed to open and close in a space around us—like some twisted jungle drive-through car wash. Winding on, I spotted banana trees, yellowing with age, green with unripe fruit, tucked beneath the shadows. We turned a corner, round another, past dirt walls and homemade brick fences. Signs of human life signaled our approaching nearness. We felt that distinctness of eyes upon us. Eyes on the flesh. With a flash of bright cloth, or a ducking head, I stole mere glimpses of the locals. As usual, the fearful became the feared.

Parked and stepping out into town center, we were greeted by the village chief: Chief Domingo Xavier. He was of small, almost miniature, stature. Yet head shaven and lean with taut muscles, he displayed a visible strength—a strength of totality that doesn’t come from lifting cold weights in a gym. The rumors led us to imagine a man of brutal power, yet when I looked into his eyes to speak, he shied away, casting his gaze downward to his hands. At his side, he carried a well-worn machete, and he held himself with a kind of confident ease. After the exchange, we were led away from the village into a maze of coconut tree trunks. The setting was incredible. Pure, untouched beauty. The grasses covered the flatlands as towering coconut trees burst skyward from the blades. Surely, no one would ever find our bodies.

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We arrived on the banks of the Mono River to find a concrete structure latticed with makeshift scaffolding: a temple seated at a place of convergence—where the land meets the water, where the Vodou spirits are most active. He led us close. We knew the spot well, for it’s here where many in this area consider sorcery strongest—where passing boats can hear the cries of the dead, the whirling white noise of the spirit, and the many other voices of the devil. The chief pointed with his machete to the fateful and much-feared shrine. Below, two decapitated heads were historically secreted. In the local Mina dialect, he explained:

At the time of war between the various kingdoms, many fought over the land we stood on. But the river was strong and people were swept away to drown in its waters. There were two military men that were powerful. Their names were Kpossou and Gayou. They had special powers given to them by Vodou priests. They came from Abomey in the north, where many people have such powers. Once they crossed the river and reached the village, they waged a violent and bloody war. However, the locals were determined to care for their land and defeated the invading army. Eventually the warriors were captured and for their powers they were turned into divinities. Through a divinity called Legba, they were worshipped and buried here beneath this shrine.

News reached the Kingdom of Abomey about the defeat and loss of their warriors. In response, a dispatch was sent to the village by sea to recover at least their heads. As they attempted to dig up the warriors’ bodies, which had turned into fetishes, the locals began to hear voices screaming, alarming them about the grave-robbery. They went to the river’s edge and discovered the strangers, fighting them off to preserve their shrine.

At this, he lowered his head. The story ended.

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I looked anew at the concrete that surrounded me, its fortress-like appearance suddenly apparent. Once an open shrine, the temple was today a permanent and guarded enclosure, deeming it neigh impossible to disturb the famous warriors’ heads tucked inside.

The chief stood briefly by the small Legba shrine, remained sullen during quick portraits, and soon made his departure known. The tour was over. He followed behind me while I walked back through the tall grasses and tree trunk mazes of Kpossou Gayou. It was an odd relief realizing my body wasn’t worth fighting over, but I embraced that relief wholeheartedly. Let the warriors war.

Back in town, I was treated to a feast and a show. Our once-somber chief, now quite animated, performed daring feats as he scampered up trees to fetch bundle after bundle of coconuts. Like a squirrel after a nut, he was up a 30-foot trunk by the time I turned my head. Questions of his strength evidently absurd, Chief Domingo Xavier was undoubtedly the area’s finest coconut climber-gatherer. All around me, the dropping fruit hit the jungle floor with the thud of distant bombs. Echoes of ancient war came alive as the tranquil village transformed into a hungry combat zone. The alarm had been sounded. Villagers emerged with battle-ready machetes. With deft hands and sharp thrusts, they discarded husks and collected loot of sweet water and white shiny meat. The wars had left these lands, but the strength and memories had not.

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I had my fair share, and then some, of the sweet coconut and bark-soaked sodabi (the barrel-aged version of the local liquor). My belly full, camera cards data compact, humbled and grateful, I left the infamous village much as I had come—with my head intact.

With Kpossou Gayou behind, I traveled west out of Benin and into an equally mystical land. A place where the fetishes remained supreme and the corruption blatant, where dried pelts and bones crowded the marketplace, where endangered implied only precious, and where living jaws and beaks cried for justice.

There was no justice in Togo.

Next essay –>

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