Vodou Footprints: One Goat, Two Goats, Three

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A most powerful fetish.

At this we were not phased. It was a must.

So powerful, practitioners didn’t even require a priest to commune with the divine.

So we drove. Andretti, our crazed young Beninese driver, swerved around potholes, weaving through the dry desolate land into Northern Central Benin. There was a dead flatness that prevailed. Dried cracked brambles. Dead trees and scorched earth. Every 50 miles a knoll of granite rose from the aridity that made it feel like we were driving across the moon, on our way to the dark side.

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Dankoli, they called it. Dankoli of Savalou. We were going somewhere, as were the large mega trucks headed for Niger, a three-day’s drive from Benin’s Port of Cotonou. Pineapples spilled from crates. Folds upon folds of mattresses built a Tetris game atop chugging Renault’s revived from a colonial era. They were massive and frightening, death traps for any other motorist on the roadway. I just thought of Dankoli of Savalou.

It sounded so romantic, the words and their syntaxes flowing out of the mouth with linguistic poetry—flicks off the tongue—as if Fon were in align with French or Latin. Fon is ancient. Dankoli is ancient. It is anything but romantic. I would never take my wife here, or a child under fifteen. The boy would probably become a sato-masochist following the traumatization of Dankoli.

The road north seemed to end. We turned east and drove for another ten minutes. My Italian Cinquterra suddenly vanished.

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Stepping outside the car young boys rushed us seeking to fill our Vodou prescriptions. With each customer that arrived, they had first dibs on a commission. The faster and the pushy the better. Plus tip. But we had neither.

Immediately another vehicle arrived, this time a small red motorbike. A man in traditional West African garb drove and strapped to his back seat was a pile of squirming fur. Five live goats hung from one another’s pelts, baying as the driver stopped and propped up his bike with trepidation. The young boys were already at his side, negotiating, untying the animals and preparing them for their fate.

Dankoli is a place where Vodou practitioners come to ask for a blessing to the Vodou gods. They don’t need a priest due to its’ power, which is claimed to be a direct connection to the spirits. No other place in Vodou culture can offer this. Practitioners need nothing special—no powers, initiation rights or meditative skills—just palm oil, sodabi and a stick to club into the fetish. And what is this fetish? It is comprised of two conjoining mounds built up over the years with sticks, oily earth and gallons upon gallons of alcohol. Oh and also unquestionable miles of drained veins of blood given up by innocent chickens, goats and who knows what else. There were feathers everywhere, as well as bile from the butchered goats. It quickly stuck to the inside of my toes. Sandals aren’t recommended here.

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After a practitioner comes to Dankoli, asks for a blessing and promises of an offering in return, they leave. As soon as their blessing is fulfilled, the practitioner is then required to present the offering in the form of a sacrifice. Say your grandmother is ill. You come to Dankoli to ask for her health and long life, pound in a stub, pour palm oil and spit spicy sodabi over the fetish, all the while repeating your desire. Eight months later she’s healthy, vigorous like a 35 year old. So you return to this all-powerful fetish and offer your promised sacrifice. This young man offered five goats—roughly $100US. One by one they were given to the gods.

Assistants held the goats by the legs while another outstretched the neck. They were chanting, speaking to the Dankoli fetish, while the goats panted, overheating with fear. Behind them stood the practitioner, who oversaw his offering, and most likely expressed an internal gratitude. Suddenly, another assistant took up a rusty machete, rubbed it across the neck as if warming up, feeling out the arteries, before forcing the blunt blade into the throat and nearly severing the neck from the body. Blood flew like the millions of flies who shared the space, coloring the black fetish with spurting bright red. One after another. The assistants covered all sides of the fetish’s mounds, draining the lifeless creatures before hurling their bodies off to the side.

Once the offering was complete and new blood was poured over the satisfied fetish, nothing went to waste. The goats were immediately covered in dry grasses before being lit with a match. They charred, hair burnt off and meat preserved. Then rinsed and butchered, all parts of the goats divvied up among the assistants and keepers. Ribs split. Thighs carved. Belly diced. The head savored. And the practitioner, with his offering complete, saddled up his red motorbike and drove away with a plastic bag of meat hanging off the handlebars. Vodou success!

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From goats to chickens, the sacrifices came and went with the Vodou blessings. Often times the ambiance was dead like a long-gone roadside fill station until a roaring lorry truck blazed passed. We waited. We chatted with the locals, discovered their customs and dug further into understanding this ancient belief system. We had seen so much Vodou in such a short amount of time. We had to admit we had come upon good luck, good karma, good Vodou juju that allowed us to meet the right people and come upon the right ceremonies.

Vodou practitioners were friendly. They were open to our questions and cameras. All we wanted to know was the truth and share the power of Vodou with the rest of the world. There were no pins and needles and no dolls to poke, but there were sacrifices and other things we could not describe. So we let them be and swallowed our guts to watch the miles of veins drip with blood onto the various sacred spaces. One goat, two goats, three goats. One chicken, two chickens, three. One human, two humans…

“You want to be initiated into Vodou? If so, you will see many things. There are practices unknown and hidden. Only initiates can see. The Egungun initiation takes only one night. One night to hell and back.”

This was Alexander. We would meet him later down the road back in Ouidah. He wanted us to return to West Africa again in order to show us more secretive societies behind the veil of West African Vodou.

“Yes, Dankoli is strong. Many animal sacrifices. But there is human, too.”

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I could not and would not believe it. Maybe this guy was pulling our legs. Two days after becoming desensitized to the mass sacrificial offerings of Dankoli, we headed back south and into one of those moments we were trained not to believe, but first we need to honor the gods of Dankoli.

I took my turn. Bought a wooden peg, carved from a nearby tree, and with a wooden club made from another nearby tree, pounded the peg into the black oily fetish, repeating my wishes as I worked. Once it was firmly snug within Dankoli, I poured palm oil over it, again repeating my wishes. Then with a swig of a locally brewed sodabi, my lips puckered before spitting the rancid liquid over the pegs. But I forgot to mention two other nearby shrines, both honoring two distinctive characters within Vodou.

First was Legba. Legba is represented by a huge phallic symbol, similar to the lingam of Shiva within Hinduism’s pantheon. In Vodou mythology, Legba is the gatekeeper between the human world and that of the gods. He is the first to be invoked and the easiest to offer praise. He is also a figure of strength and virility, hence the penis shapes everywhere. So we poured our palm oil and spat on Legba.

Lastly, there are les Jumeaux. These are the twins, interesting stories within the Vodou culture.  Considered a sacred gift, the birth of twins is extremely profound and throughout their lives is treated with honor. Dankoli has its own shrine dedicated to the twins—two holes in the ground. We poured and spat in these, thus completing our Vodou wishes, which are not to be shared with anyone. From here we left and entered into a moment in time that seemed too mystical, too impossible to be possible. We would discover ourselves amidst a rare ceremony long believed to be dead within Vodou society: The Resurrection.

Next essay –>

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Comments

  1. owh,,, it is good culture. but i’m a bit scared with that bloods.. huuuhu ^_____^

  2. Better goats then ppl

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