Vodou Footprints: I Have a Fetish For You in Togo

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Stepping out of the car, there is a flurry of excitement. Not the over-zealous, exaggerated enthrallment of celebration, but one of sprinted adrenaline, like termites scurrying from an anteater’s invasion.

We emerge from our vehicle as another approaches, spitting up dust from a pair of screeching rear tires. We have just pulled into a fenced compound in the middle of a thick market district of Lome, the capital city of Togo. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low, casting a beautiful soft orange light through a low-hanging haze that spills across the bamboo sheds. People suddenly go from lounging on benches in shadows to shouting amidst a frantic escapism. But it’s not because of us.

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Walking into Togo, one has to step out of one’s car and pass through a series of guarded gates. First stamp passports at the Beninese customs stand. They couldn’t care less who you are. Next pass through a doorway where a man checks you have been stamped. Then into another concrete bunker where you’re waved through into Togo. Follow signs, enter another building. Stand in front of two Togolese officials and hand over your passports. They’ll take them and slowly go through the process of filling out a handwritten visa; and if you stand in front of their television, with a flick of the wrist they’ll tell you to move because they’re busy watching a dubbed-over original 1950’s version of Rashomon.

Looking around the scabby office, one will notice a few framed photographs of Togo’s president, Faure Essozimna Gnassignbe. He’s a round young looking man (actually he’s 48), comfortable and content with an education from George Washington University and the Sorbonne in Paris. Next to him is an intriguing sign. My partner points it out:

If the sheep’s courtyard is dirty, it’s not for the pig to say it.

I repeat it in my head while he silently laughs under his breath. We look at each other and then back at our guide Stephano.

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When passing through the series of gates from Benin to Togo, we realized Stephano presented no papers, no identification, nothing. Entering Togo he joked with the official and slipped him a quick cash-laddened handshake. When we asked him about this he shrugged and shook his head.

“Fucking Togo. I hate these corrupt bastards.”

Our eyes lit up and we laughed slapping him on the back. “But you have no ID,” my partner said.

“No. I don’t need one.”

“What do you mean you don’t need one?”

“I didn’t bring one,” Stephano confirmed. “I don’t want these fuckers to know me.”

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We couldn’t believe it until now, until we stood affront the two absorbed Togolese officials underneath the sign that spoke the truth.

The officials charge us both ten extra dollars for our visas and without argument we hand it over. The sheep’s courtyard is definitely dirty, but the pig’s is dirtier. We’re the pigs. The government claims to be the sheep. How dare we judge them as mere citizens.

We jump in our car only to be accosted by another Togolese official, this time a soldier wielding a heavy semi-automatic rifle. Stephano puts up a fuss. The soldier is adamant and so is Stephano. They argue back and forth, the soldier’s grip firm on the trigger, Stephano glaring into his eyes. He leaves the car. Surrounding us is Togo and numerous roadside stalls. They are selling fresh meats fired on grease-stained grills. Kabobs of red encrusted chicken legs and thin slices of beef steak sizzle. Towers of glass bottles reading Jack Daniels and Crown Royal. Packets of gum and tissue. Young men walking around selling toilet paper. And the older ones seated on stools with handfuls of currency from neighboring countries. Apparently, we weren’t supposed to get in the car at that particular point along the roadway. Fines are dished out.

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An hour’s drive and we’re in Lome. Nothing special. Just another African city. We find our hotel. Check in. Leave. Pass a restaurant called Mama Tampons. And then enter the market district. Today, we come to Togo for one thing and one thing only: The Akodessewa Fetish Market.

Tables and stalls of dried animal parts. Bones, skins and pelts, organs and jars filled with more anatomical remnants of species once living; we begin to take it all in as a man says goodbye. He’s thrown into the car that sped up behind us, the one that sent the market sellers in a frenzy. He’s cuffed and guarded by two soldiers harboring those semi-automatics. Everyone is dressed in civilian clothes and as quickly as they came, they’re gone. Just another day. Just another illegal deal.

A local takes us around. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a nice man, completely welcoming and excited we’re here. This is a new feeling to us because most individuals are suspicious, albeit welcoming, but suspicious. Steve, however, expresses none of that and kindly guides us from stall to stall explaining the uses of the ingredients and their importance to Vodou culture.

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Fetish. Not the toe-sucking fetish. The spanking, pulling hair, hand-cuffed lashings of S&M fetishes in Hollywood, but the West African fetish. You mention fetish to a Ghanaian and they shriek. You say fetish to a Beninese, they smile. You say fetish to a Californian, their eyebrows lift licentiously and they begin to think. That’s what my partner first thought. That’s what I was imagining. But a fetish in Vodou is a powerful tool, a magic ingredient, and a witchdoctor’s answer to the spiritual, which allows him to communicate with the gods and deliver their healing powers.

Take for example this live hawk. It looks depressed and any bird lover would see it in his eyes. The hawk has been underneath the table, tied at its fleshy leg to the wooden leg by a thick nylon cord. There is plastic debris surrounding it, along with a filthy bowl of water. I watched one of the hawks poop in the little plastic bowl, which is meant to be their drinking source. So much for nature.

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Well this bird is a tool used by Vodou practitioners. If a client comes to a Vodou priest explaining evil spirits possesses them, the witchdoctor will consult the god specific to his/her temple and discover the necessities to treat. Out at the market, the priest will purchase the ingredients, one of them being a live hawk. And the following day with the possessed client present, the doctor will perform the rituals and as a symbol of letting go, the hawk will be released with the client’s evil spirit upon it’s back. Client healed. Exorcism complete.

This is just one version of many different possibilities. Vodou is an open book and anything is available. At the fetish market, young boys run around showing us whale vertebrae bones, live baby crocodiles in yellow plastic jerry cans, stacks of dried herbs, cages of mice, frightened turtles, boxes of dried chameleons, enormous mummified cockroaches, shelves of stacked monkey skulls, decapitated wild dog heads with jaws open as if frozen in time, hippopotamus skulls, antlers four feet tall, snake skins, baboon, hyena and leopard heads, as well as the most poignantly disturbing of all.

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There was one little boy. He was the quietest of the lot. Others yelled out Monsieur! Monsieur! incessantly. But this boy was calm, tapped us on the shoulder and held up a foot.

There is that famous photograph of local rangers in the Virunga National Park within the Democratic Republic of Congo. The photograph by Brent Stirton is taken from above of a silverback lying on its back upon a tourniquet made of branches. Wrists tied back over his head. Feet tied at the ankles. A huge protruding belly facing the heavens. Locals are beneath the animal, carrying it through the war-torn jungles of the DRC, dead because of gun shot wounds by supposed illegal charcoal traders. This was the image I thought of as I saw the little innocent child holding up a dried gorilla’s foot. He wanted his photo taken.

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The next morning we return to Vodou’s largest fetish market. The oddity strikes and we know we want to discover more. For hours we linger, wandering the stalls, photographing, talking to the kids. A Vodou practitioner arrives on his motorbike. The sellers scramble, running toward him to garner the morning’s first sale. Then I realize, this is the first pharmacy ever. Take away the metal fence, the motorbike and the corrugated tin roofs. What you have left are wooden stands, bamboo walls and dirt. Locals come, foreigners from afar—they’ll all seeking a cure. If you have tendinitis. There is a cure. If you have a wart on you finger. There is a cure. If you want to win your next soccer match and score a hat trick. There is a way. Come to Akodessewa Fetish Market in Lome, Togo.

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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.

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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.

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Vodou Footprints: A King, Kings, and Posers

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Advice: When offered royal gin by a king, heartily accept—for drink is delectable. When pressed for support by the same king, heartily acquiesce—for money is replaceable. And always, when graced with the presence of royalty, let your intuition, not intellect, reign—for what a yes-man loses in pride, a dead man can’t retain.

Twenty-five minutes into our interview, we realized we had accomplished very little, if even pronouncing his name; but we were happy. We were seated before our first Beninese noble: His Majesty King Gbesso Adjiwatonou Allodji II, the King of Abomey-Calavi. Ancient tradition aside, the man himself looked old. Deep, furrowed wrinkles revealed a long and eventful life. His grandeur was undeniable, despite clear Parkinsonism; and, to our joy, he was noticeably flea-free. In fact, there wasn’t a flea in sight. Hell, we were sitting shirtless, out of the high noon sun, in a throne room at the feet of a Beninese king, with a human-powered palm fan at our backs and a row of gin shots by our sides. This place was not fit for a flea.

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The walls were painted a crusty turquoise. A half-opened doorway, the only source of light, led into the red dirt courtyard and washed every attendee’s face with burgundy. In its center, the room held an ample leather loveseat with lion-inscribed armrests. The king appeared relaxed.

His royal raiment was made up of loose cotton pants and a stylishly-matching long cotton top. Instead of a crown, he was surmounted by an elegantly folded origami napkin. The corners of his hat were floppy, such that when he smiled, he looked uncannily like a basset hound. In each hand, the King held a golden scepter, likely made of bronze. We gathered these were his two most important possessions.

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What are my scepters? My scepters are the King’s power!” We respected that without question.

Behind his right shoulder, and above a sizeable tube television, was a shelf lined with an ornate assortment of teddy bears. They were of all shapes and sizes, some brown, others black, but invariably covered in dust as though abandoned by a child in the field trash heap. We never learnt the where or why of this over-cuddled collection; but considering how he answered our questions—as though choosing responses at random—I’m sure our curiosity into the fixation would have been equally futile. It was obviously odd, but in a Vodou environment, the bizarre slowly becomes normal.

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Adding to this sensory jumble, the King possessed a lovely ringtone, which sounded throughout our interview. Here, he would pause mid-sentence and begin frantically digging through his deep pockets. The searches were always long, and the ringtone loud. Eventually, the orange screen would be revealed, and the King would plaintively mutter like a lonely bird high on a perch.

Despite all this oddity, he was a hospitable character. One could only smile and appreciate him, for his days were numbered. Moreover, within Beninese politics, the King of Abomey-Calavi barely qualifies in the rankings of power—his dominion solely with civil disputes and local village development. Nevertheless, as with any Beninese king, he remains the final decision-maker regarding Vodou—and to him, Vodou is everything.

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The word Vodou, or Vodun in Fon, means essentially the inexplicable. It is a way of life and a communing with the totality of earth, sky, and water—everything that has ever come, the entirety of today, and all that will ever be. It encompasses the physical, the spiritual, and the unnamable—forces and energies unseen, unknown, and even undetectable. It’s the living connection to the trees, the monkeys, and the snakes. To animals and ancestors alike. It is the source for the people to welcome these forms and to accept that some things are better left undefined; the mystical must remain so. In Vodou, once this understanding has been breached, the essential connection will be lost forever.

Each king we interviewed, each Vodou priest and adept—every person paying their respects and presenting their offerings—expanded on this vastness of Vodou. It was their path to achieving hopes and wishes, their health and fertility. It fed their families and fulfilled personal growth. Simply put, Vodou provided them with everything.

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In Dana Rush’s Vodun in Coastal Benin, this pervasiveness is wonderfully described, even while the religion as a whole again resists simple definition. Rush relays Suzanne Blier’s conversation with two diviners who offer the emblematic image of Vodou: resting to draw water.

The essence of Vodun…lies in the need for one to be calm and composed. One must take time to sit quietly rather than rush through life. When women go to the spring or river to draw water, they rest for a moment on the bank before filling their container…Within the concept of Vodun there rests a deep-seated commitment to certain forms of human conduct in life. In this translation [of Vodun] we are made to understand in an ideal sense what it means to be human and how one’s life should be lived.

This is not something easily turned off and on. It is not a weekly visit, nor an annual feast. It is life. In Rush’s words, “Vodun constitutes a philosophy which places a primacy on patience, calmness, respect, and order both in the context of acquiring life’s basic necessities and in the pursuit of those extra benefits which make life at once full and pleasurable.”

Such a bountiful understanding of Vodou is often lost beneath the pin-pricked trinkets and cinematic horrors. Oddly enough, it is also occasionally lost upon the practitioners themselves. If you didn’t guess, I speak of the King of Allada—one obscene, headstrong, and utterly bad apple of a man.

Compared to Abomey-Calavi, the town of Allada is the central power of Benin. Its King is the Beninese King of Kings, and all political decisions go through him and his Vodou priests. We were in Allada for the Vodou festival, but prior to its start we hoped to have a sitting and spare a few minutes of His Majesty Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla’s time. At that point, we knew little of his demeanor.

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The process was decidedly rigorous. First before us, the King’s secretary—a wry little man of wild sweeping gestures and legendary disorganization. He stuttered and rattled with the grace of an addict. Somehow, we got the thumbs up for the interview. Next, we waited. And waited some more. We were then led to another room, which turned out to be yet another waiting room. We sat. We waited. I began to contemplate that crucial concept of patience in Vodou philosophy. On cue, someone entered. He demanded a sum of money and instructed us to remove our shirts. Normally, this would be a cause for concern, but when waiting for a king, this was a good sign.

Before long, we were kneeling in the King of Beninese Kings’ royal throne room and frankly impressed. Like Abomey-Calavi’s room, this one contained stuffed animals: two FAO Schwarz life-size leopards on either side of his throne, surrounded by walls of photographs. The colors were ornate: gold, maroon, turquoise, yellow, green, and bronze. Amidst this outlandish splendor, we set up the cameras and audio. Then we waited.

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After fifteen more minutes, the King Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla finally marched in. Kneeling shirtless on the floor, we bowed and touched our heads to the mats as a show of respect.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Constantine from Los Angeles, California.”

“I’m Cameron from Seattle, Washington.”

“Oh, Washington D.C.? Good.”

“No. Washington State. Way north, near Canada.”

The correction was instinctive; I didn’t want any misunderstandings. And after our grueling wait, my patience had worn thin. Our guide, Stephano, graciously intervened and explained our intentions to ask a limited amount of questions regarding the history and power of Vodou. The King paused. He sized us up. Then, in one brief instant, all semblance of civility fled from the room. The throned one was unleashed.

He thrashed and stormed about as words and spittle flew from his mouth. His eyes were furious. He pointed and flailed. Like a cornered leopard, he launched into a heedless attack. What could have been a fruitful and fascinating conversation became a diatribe against two allegedly brazen journalists and a boastful self-exaltation of international education. He veritably boomed with derision: How dare we come to him with such little prior notice? How dare we ask questions we knew so little about? How dare we even speak to him? The King went off his rocker.

Incredibly, throughout this madness—sweeping green silk robes rousing the plumes of pale dust—his elderly female assistants performed unflinchingly. One fanned at his right, while opposite, another held high the royal umbrella. (Mind you, we were still indoors.) Then, after five solid minutes of scorn, he ordered a photograph of us at his bare feet, the stuffed leopards on one side, walls of photographs on the other. And just like that he departed.

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Slightly shocked and sixty dollars lighter, we walked out of his royal room with only one good photograph: a picture of a picture of Muammar al-Gaddafi—Africa’s late King of Kings—next to a bundle of flowers. Evidently, the two had been close friends, with Gaddafi coming to Allada on several occasions to share servants and converse. Of course, those times were over. And with Gaddafi’s demise, it’s safe to assume that His Majesty Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla of Allada—Benin’s own King of Kings—rightly recognizes that a large crown entails a large target. In his case, the spirits of Vodou may very well prove the opposition. We were eager to find out.

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Vodou Footprints: Legends and Lore on Lac Nakoue

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We speed north on a stretch of highway made just for the zemidjan, the motorbike of Benin that far outnumbers any other form of transportation in Cotonou. (For comparison, I’ve yet to see a single bicyclist.) In the local Fon language, the word means “take me quickly,” and they are not exaggerating. My driver weaves past other zems with mere inches to spare—honking, leaning, and accelerating in a mad death-defying ballet. It’s a test of stomach and sanity that I’ve never experienced. Plus, it’s early. We’re on our way to Ganvie, twenty minutes out of Cotonou. We leave the choked city with all its grinding muscle and hopeless might to enter a land of lizards, chickens, and goats—where you’re just as likely to see a Chinese migrant worker as a magical animal. And yes, there are plenty of both.

Ganvie is special, or so they like to recount. It’s a stilt village, built on things of legend. Known as the Venice of Africa, it is everything but. With wooden poles in place of granite columns, thatched walls instead of marbled halls, and corrugated steel roofs in lieu of frescoed cupolas, the village looks much like the rest of the African countryside—except that every structure floats above water. Fortunately, while the city’s foundation is only mildly intriguing, the history behind it is truly fascinating.

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Benin, as both the willful cradle of the world’s most magical religion and the bound epicenter of one of mankind’s darkest hours, is a land like no other. Its past overruns with incredible lore, otherworldly powers, and inexplicable possibility. And Ganvie, that fabled stilt village, is a microcosm of this concentrated complexity.

At the height of the slave trade, the Kingdom of Dahomey reigned over present-day Benin with fearless authority. Opposition was swiftly dispatched, often through shackles and a sentence south into slavery. The Kingdom walls in Abomey are purportedly constructed of human blood, and the King’s throne built on the skulls of his Yoruba enemies. Of course, this ruthlessness was not without reward. In exchange for the capture and sale of slaves, Dahomey received weapons of warfare. To the Portuguese, a healthy grown man was worth twenty-one cannon balls; a woman or child, fifteen. Various rifles, jewels, and other luxuries were similarly bartered for the slaves that passed through the port village of Ouidah—more than 20,000 per year during its height in the 19th century. But for every ironfisted oppressor, there is a legendary resistor.

In 1717, the King of the Tofinu, a magical gent by the name of Abodohoue, felt the Amazonian warriors of Dahomey breathing hotly down his neck. Sensing imminent danger, he transformed himself into an egret and flew south from modern-day Allada over Lac Nakoue in search of a new homestead. What he knew was vital: the people of Dahomey had taken a religious oath promising that all humanly capture was acceptable unless it required passing over water. King Abodohoue kept this in his little egret brain and soon discovered an atoll of mud islands in the middle of Lac Nakoue.

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Next, the question of transport crossed the bird-king’s mind: How would he safely ferry his people to the islands? Well, like any capable land-of-Vodou king, he simply morphed from egret to crocodile, swam over to the local bask of reptilians, and requested their assistance. The crocs heartily agreed, and King Abodohoue’s plan was set into motion. With local lumber and the backs of numerous newfound friends, the Tofinu people transformed the center of Lac Nakoue into the Venice of Africa, a suspended village that today boasts of nearly 30,000 residents (and is Benin’s number one tourist attraction).

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We’re here to see it firsthand. Joined by Stephano, our guide, we jump aboard a hefty, water-soaked outboard canoe to the marooned village. Despite our eagerness, we don’t spot any descendants of the loyal crocodiles. (Later, we learn that their population has dwindled to a paltry few—a case of the tale outlasting the tail.) Passageways are filled with pirogues and paddlers, reeds and water lilies. Life is simple. Sustained by fish farming, traded goods, and the slowly rising costs of tourism, the people manage a relatively normal lifestyle, in contrast to the environs. We come. We go. In truth, the town doesn’t live up to its past.

Along the nearby shores of Lac Nakoue, however, sits a much more intriguing town. Rich with Vodou and layered with countless stories (many of which we’re hoping aren’t true), Abomey-Calavi has long been a must-visit stop following Vodou Footprints.

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Except for a handful of curious anthropologists and open-minded theologians, the Western world places Vodou somewhere between pseudo-religion and marketable nightmare. It’s a doll probed with pins and needles. The musty pages of a leather-bound spell book. A dark evil force. Something to openly scoff at, but secretly question. More importantly, it’s equated with fear.

For this (as with copious other misconceptions), we can thank the silver screen. Beginning in the 1930’s, Hollywood started crafting a crude and compelling mixture of back-alley-New-Orleans Hoodoo with plantation-Haitian Voodoo. Replete with unlikely plots and zombie-inducing potions, these films convinced the terrified, uninitiated masses (outside of Vodou itself) that this was the actual religion—emphasis on the fear.

Vodou is, of course, less than these depictions would suggest, but in many ways more enriching and exciting. And crucially, Vodou is not to be feared—just as the police are not to be dreaded unless committing a crime. Some call it justice, others karma. In its stead, respect and prudence are superior traits. For the long-deceived Westerner, however, leaving the fear out of Vodou is easier said than done—especially in Abomey-Calavi, a town known for the unknown. After arriving on the shores of Lac Nakoue, we quickly disappear into its narrow passages. We’ve arranged a meeting with the king.

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We aren’t quite trembling, but conversation has crawled to a tense halt. We enter a doorway, where we’re instructed to remove our shoes, socks, and shirt. Silently, we do as we’re told. Already, I feel like a child awaiting sentence outside the principal’s office. With our heads slightly bowed, we step inside the dark room.

We’ve heard stories of contamination; read about incurable and miserable plagues. I remember one tale and instinctively I scratch my forearm. Fleas. Everything we’ve read refers to fleas. The King of Abomey-Calavi is apparently infested with them. Carpets in the royal chamber are reportedly saturated with the miniature black parasites—a blood-sucking legion stealthily waiting beneath the shag for the white flesh of a foreigner. As I begin imagining my skin as the feast’s main course, I notice my partner with preparatory scratching of his own. I can’t help but picture our future together—collars tight around our necks, huddled on the floor of some quarantined windowless research lab.

We take a few more cautious steps.

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Any one of those rumored tragedies would put an instant end to our journey, if not more. We’ve neither time nor funds for borax soaks or chemical treatments. But we’re here, and we’re ready to accept the risks. If you want access beyond the books and into the unknown, you don’t have a choice.

As my eyes adjust to the dimly-lit room, I see no carpet. No fabrics of any kind—only woven mats and further, a gently waving waxy palm. Slowly, I begin to make out a large seated form. I take a final deep breath, and the fleas fly from my mind. We are face-to-face with our first Vodou king.

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Vodou Footprints: Egunguns and Other Souls of the Dead

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It is staring directly at me—there’s no doubt now. Looming up like a mythical beast, the spirit with bright blazing eyes has targeted me. Sequins, from mighty crown to lowly street, adorn the form in a glittering mist. Folds of thick fabric obscure the possessed body inside. Cowrie strands dangle and clash in the breathless fervor. Its movements are creased, unpredictable, and otherworldly. Transfixed, I turn to the face—yearning for the reassurance of something distinctly human. But no detail has been spared. Beneath the thin chainmail mask, all I can discern is the eerie soft suggestion of features as if pressed into a bedsheet—the phantasmagoric picture of death presiding over me. Now, I’m cowering.

A finger suddenly points in my direction. I raise a calming hand in supplication and instinctively squat lower. As the figure nears, I begin to hide my camera further below. My partner is but a few feet away and still squinting into his viewfinder. There is a brief moment of stillness. Then chachachachacha! His camera fires a fusillade of high-speed clicks.

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The spirit turns sharply and reveals a rising whip. The black crowd surrounding us joins in an uproar as the Egun slowly approaches my companion.

The whip is a tattered five-foot branch, split at its end into numerous lengths, which multiply and expand its powerful lashing. There are eight such instruments around the dirt field, each wielded by its own menacing spirit. Anyone foolish or daring enough to cross the area receives a brutal flogging—ceased only through rescue by the spirits’ guardians or that other time-honored savior, money.

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Lavishly costumed, variously colored, and elaborately festooned, these ominous dancers are the Egunguns. With garlands of yellow and orange, sequined waves of blue and green, and cloths of blood red, they are at once absurdly threatening and enchantingly beautiful. Atop each figure of dark elegance is a hat fit for a queen. Regal and lethal. The one bearing down on my partner also has a shield of horns on its back. And with each stride it twists and turns like a knife into flesh. Mortals cry beneath the might of the Egungun.

We’ve been accepted into this ceremony by luck (and a little loot), buying our way into the Yoruba ritual via our guide Stephano. In a backroad ghetto of Cotonou, we’re the only white people in a sea of a thousand celebrating Beninese. Men carry large cans of Guinness and Efes, while all are dressed in their Sunday best. With our pragmatic clothing and shiny camera gear, we admittedly stick out. Each time we raise a lens to shoot, even more attention is drawn by shouts from nearby spectators—and evidently, the spirits don’t need an excuse to investigate.

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Egungun, literally “powers concealed,” are the souls of the dead—departed ancestors who have returned with advice to the living. Oddly, there appears to be more punishment than advice during this particular ceremony; but despite the imminent peril, it’s impossible not to feel something deep and ancestral about the whole spectacle. As these lively ghosts skate across the dust, they jump and stomp to the rhythm of the pulsating drums. The movement is infectious. With fluctuating spines and flailing arms, they fly as parrots in a trance.

And, in fact, the Egunguns are in a trance. Like all of Vodou, the Egungun society is a secret organization where only initiates are allowed access to the understanding, appreciation, and practice of opening one’s soul to trance state. Under the spell of music and sodabi (local palm alcohol), the Egungun spirit enters the body and becomes a direct translation of God. The Egungun’s words are final. Community members must obey; otherwise, their houses will be shaken. This obeisance is an essential tenant of any divinity in the ancient practice of Vodou.

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And right now, with the spirit upon us, obeisance sounds perfect. We can hear its breath. The whip is raised and threatens unmistakably. I keep my camera low. Hastily, our guide throws a wad of cash at the Egun. A guardian reaches down and examines it. The spirit, with a final glare, accepts and moves on. Others are not so fortunate, but the only two yovos, or whiteys, are spared today.

***

This was one of our first direct Vodou experiences—with many to follow. The energy was electric. The celebrations were riveting. The whole event seemed a fulfillment of spiritual rawness that transcended ordinary comprehension. Vodou is undoubtedly the inexplicable—and when we returned back to our room that night, we quickly rediscovered why.

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During the negotiations to attend the Egungun ceremony, we were told that if our offerings to the spirits were not accepted and we still remained to photograph, the mere presence of the Egungun within our lenses would completely halt our cameras’ systems. Memory cards would be wiped. Shutters locked. Only once departed would our equipment resume its normal operations. Fortunately, our offerings had been accepted.

That evening, however, something wasn’t quite right. While transferring our files—a task we’d each performed tens of thousands of times—we noticed that many were curiously missing. An entire flash card was corrupted. Substantial video footage from one of mine had also disappeared. There was no explanation. Our gear had worked flawlessly the whole time since arriving in Benin, including throughout the ceremony, and had never left our possessions. Bemused, but not convinced, we shook our heads and blamed the unbeliever’s trusted scapegoat, coincidence.

We set the room lock from the inside, as every night, and crawled off to sleep—the images of the day soon flashing and dancing beneath closed eyes. And as my mind began its graceful lengthening and gradual tumble into slow peaceful repose—I bolted up. Sunlight streamed in from the blinds. It was morning. Early. Then the door—the locked door—started to creak open, revealing the hallway’s dim florescent glare. Rising, I closed it. Reset the lock. And sneaking hesitantly back to sleep. I knew that coincidence had some serious explaining to do.

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On the following evening, I was again abruptly awoken, this time to two bewitching cries and a loud unnerving hiss. I had heard that wild cats occasionally roamed the guesthouse grounds, but these sounds came from an animal much larger and nearer. With my eyes alert in the pitch-black, I could just make out my partner upright in his own bed. Silence. Darkness. No more sounds were heard, but it was the feeling which followed that kept me wide awake—a feeling of otherworldliness and possession, as though in some other room, an inner spirit animal was haunting a fellow resident. I realized then that we were not alone in our endeavors. The Egungun had followed.

For the remainder of the trip along Vodou Footprints, similar oddities revealed themselves—occurrences that spun the uninitiated Western mind into perpetual circles of questioning and doubt. Everything that we had ever known suddenly became totteringly balanced on a precarious ledge of belief. A witchdoctor we would come to know and respect put it perfectly: “Human beings own the earth. But above the earth, there is only Vodou.”

After tales of human resurrection, piles of animal sacrifice, and bottles of snake venom wine, such simplicity resonates. Vodou is that onion whose inner ways are revealed only through time, discipline, and absolute respect. It will know when your purpose is false or uncertain—and if so, will shake your house to its feeble foundation. Remarkably, following Vodou Footprints, mine was only beginning to be built.

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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.

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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.

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