GEO Magazin Vodou Article

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Translated from German to English thanks to the talented Martina Moores. Original text by Andrea Jeska. Publisher GEO Magazin. Thank you and enjoy!

VODOU

… is the state religion of Benin. A faith like a perpetual feast. Fantastic, alive and expensive for all its followers.

Text: Andrea Jeska    Photos: Cameron Karsten

The sky was just blue. Now clouds move in and rain starts pattering the corrugated roof. The cackling chickens fall silent. A woman suddenly lashes about, her hands, arms and back of her head crash into a wall, her face shows pain. With a deep voice, seemingly in trance, a spirit speaks through her: the European visitor is not invited. He did not honor Ogoun respectfully before entering his home. He has to undergo rituals and bring offerings. After all that, he will be allowed to enter the temple.

People take me outside, wrap me in white cloths as a symbol of innocence and have me kneel in the sand. I have to give money in order to honor Ogoun. Ogoun likes expensive gin, lemonade and cola nuts. It takes time to get all this, long enough that I get dizzy from the sun above the stench of a white, dying duck as it quacks its last breath.

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Cotonou, a city in Benin, West Africa. At a farm close to the beach, I can hear the sound of the waves from the Atlantic Ocean, the roaring of old cars and mopeds, the never-ending honking and the booming of bar music—a shrill mélange, which nearly drives me crazy.

In a distant house on the farm, within crumbling walls and under a roof sagging from many heavy rains, Towakpon Amankpe has paid homage to Ogoun for 30 years. Towakpon was still young when the god and ancestors elected him to become a Vodousant, a follower of the faith. After many ceremonies and years of learning, Towakpon is now a priest, which is a marriage of sorts to the warrior god Ogoun. All of Towakpon’s efforts revolve around his god, whose wishes should be granted so he will remain gracious and continue protecting those who bring him offerings.

“Vodou” says Towakpon, “is the entire life”.

And death. Today as well as yesterday and tomorrow. Vodou is the cosmos and the bridge that spans all contradictions of the world’s course. It can be translated as spirit, soul or intangible being. This is how Vodou is in Benin. The question of reality or myth, sense or madness, is completely irrelevant. Likewise my hope to just observe. Gods and spirits simply don’t care whether they will be noticed or not. In Benin, they simply surround you until you stop trying to apply any kind of logic.

Huts are temples. Trees are spirits. Every event, illness, wish and hope is embedded in ritual and tradition. Every sentence and every movement resonates with what drives humans: dreams and death, coming and going, hope and fear. Vodou is the state religion in Benin. Whoever thought Vodou was just for occultists and horror movies, will learn different while visiting this country.

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The priest guards secret knowledge and is also a mediator between gods and people.

The morning started peacefully in Ogoun’s temple. Towakpon sits on a foot stool. His skirt is wrapped between his legs. Except for a string of cowries, his upper body is naked. I see that his body is well trained. He tells me that for Ogoun’s sake he stopped having affairs and became a faithful spouse. He snaps his fingers against his six-pack as if to prove what he has just said.

A pink clock with a glitter border hangs on one wall. Another wall shows the following words written with chalk: Please, my dear friends, be completely quiet. Switch off your mobile phone. Ogoun never talks to you on the phone.

The priest’s brother, who has not done so well in the Voodoo hierarchy, assists Towakpon to prepare the offerings. Tirelessly, he molds large clay figures, which represent Legba, a heavenly messenger, the gate-keeper. Legba allows people to contact the spirit world. Each figure gets a hat made of cowrie shells, chicken feathers, bits of tortoise shell, scraps of goat and leopard skin, as well as some bark. The room is filled with people who seek advice. They squat on their mats. It smells of sweat and offerings; palm oil, lemonade and gin being served in small glasses. Most of it is consumed in one shot. A few drops get poured on the ground. This is for the god. The lemonade follows suit.

The priest listens patiently to all the stories and lamentations of man: one has pain in his hand, the other suspects his wife is having an affair. Towakpon promises to prepare the proper offerings. What these offerings are and how they work remains the secret knowledge of the priest. On one side of the room are wooden boxes filled with junk. Only on closer observation can I gradually make out individual items: bicycle chains, nails, rusty metal bits, and then shells, feathers, wood, clay figures in another.

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The objects are fetishes that represent the tangible version of the god they are dedicated to. Towakpon tries to explain this strange collection. Fetishes are inanimate and unfold their power only if infused with spiritual energy. My attempt to find out what is “spiritual” and what is “god”, fails miserably. So I settle for the following: the wooden box is a gift from Ogoun, who was a piece of metal before he became god and helped make the earth livable by clear-cutting trees and cultivating fields. He showed people how to handle fire and metal—like a West African Prometheus.

Another box with fetishes is dedicated to the god Sakpata, keeper of the Earth. He brought crops to the people, but also smallpox. He spreads diseases and helps to prevent them at the same time. Towakpon explains further that what looks to me like random junk, are actually carefully chosen objects for ceremonies. He keeps a book with the names of his clients and the reasons for their visits, along with a list of the fetishes he will need for each patient. These will then be symbolically offered to the god. Most of the time the priest will keep those offerings or the client will take them home.

He has long lists.

“The more complicated the world is, the more complex are people’s problems. And the more laborious the offerings,” says Towakpon. The search for the right objects in the fetish markets is a time-consuming affair. He starts filling small hand-woven baskets with pieces of guava and banana while he talks. He wants to put these offerings in the sea. Ogoun is the god of all four elements, therefore offerings should be of earth, wind, fire and water. Offerings keep a god in a good mood and guarantee his goodwill.

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Messages, mysteries, wishes, threats, intoxication and trance—this is the stuff Vodou is made of. Vodou is magical, great, unaesthetic, dirty and wise. Above all, it is profoundly human, and so are the gods. Or maybe people are deeply divine. My logic is unable to follow the confusion of responsibilities, rituals, gods and spirits. The Greek gods on Olympus, in contrast, are clear.

It takes awhile until the offerings are purchased. During that time the duck dies, the sun burns even hotter and my legs, which are not used to the kneeling, fall asleep. The Vodousant washes me with fragrant water and powders my neck and back. Finally, the messenger boy comes running. He bought a bottle of gin called Stark. The label promises an elegant taste. The lemonade was only available in grapefruit flavor, but the priest nods and disappears behind a curtain to the most holy place that only he is allowed to enter. Still on my knees, I have to slip back into the hut and hand the offerings through the curtain to the priest. The female students of Vodou, who complete several months of training, come back with more fragrant water. The priest touches my shoulders and head with a palm frond. For purity? He nods.

I spill gin on the floor as a sign of respect, and finally there comes Ogoun out of his medium, showing up as an exhausted woman leaning like a saggy wrap against the wall. It is suddenly quiet in the temple.

At the crossroads of life, an oracle provides information on your destiny.

The gods use priests and mediums speaking in trance to inform the people. The pure expression of divine will and wisdom is Fa—the oracle. Fa is the soul of Vodou. This alleged 10,000-year-old religion arose in the region of Yoruba, which is in current day Nigeria. How the religion together with Fa came to the country currently called Benin can be explained by Sagbadjou Glele as part of the Glele royal dynasty along with a bokounon, or a priest of the oracle. But whomever wants to hear this legend, needs to have a lot of time. The story intertwines with the daily chores on the farm of the priest, which is in Abomey, the former capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey.

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For now, advice seeking people stand in front of the round hut in which Sagbadjou sits on an ornate throne-like stool, holding court under a canopy roof. He wears a hat, a skirt made of heavy fabric and handmade shoes, bearing the name of his dynasty Glele. The day is almost over, the priest waves his hand to send the remaining advice-seekers away. He asks for a beer and puts his elbows on his knees. “A story,” the children whisper, rolling like little balls toward his feet.

“It was at a time,” begins the priest, “when the people already prayed to the gods of Vodou, but they could not understand their will. Then a drought came, and all the offerings brought little to no rain. The twins Sossa and Sousson traveled to the kingdom of Yoruba and learned about a powerful oracle. They were taught the art of Fa and on their return to Dahomey, they went before the king and told him they could bring rain. Five cowries they demanded for their services, and if they could not succeed, the king could chop their heads off … ”

The bokounon is a big man with a chunky face and only few teeth. His voice is deep and loud. His Fon—the language of Benin—sounds drawn-out and melodic. On dramatic points of his story, he raises his arms in the air. “Wee!” he cries out as he talks about the beheading, running his hand along the edge of his neck. Ooooooh the scared children chirp. Another pause, and even though the tension in the audience is bursting, the narrator is hungry for corn porridge and chicken in spicy red sauce with beans. A feast. The children sit desirously glancing at the plates. They grab at everything Sagbadjou and his guests brush aside.

It has been dark for a long time. The smell of wood fires comes from numerous houses. When the priest casts the Fa at his feet, he resumes the story. The Fa is a sacred instrument consisting of a cord, on which eight halves of an oil palm nut hang. The oracle’s answers to questions are shown in the way the nut halves are positioned after cast to the ground. Fa reveals destiny through a mathematical system. The eight nut halves form 16 allegories that are called Du. It are these Du that create 256 combinations with 4096 interpretations. Priests use a kind of manual to interpret the positions and meanings of the Du. Every single one has been handed down orally.

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“The Fa that was cast by the twins Sossa and Sousson, was the first oracle ever that has been interviewed by us. It’s called Letaip Leteigbe” says Sagbadjou. He asks one of his 23 children to bring him a piece of paper so he can draw the position of the nut halves. “Seven point outwards, one is inward. Even today, this sign announces rain or that problems will be gone before the evening comes.”

In fact, it should have poured rain at that time, the drought was over, the twins could keep their heads.

Fa never speaks in riddles. The advice seeker whispers his question or desire in his fist, silently and only for himself. The bokounon throws the oracle and then delivers the god’s message, even though he does not know the question. The Fa is consulted on all crossroads of life, especially at the birth of a child. Are strokes of fate awaiting the baby? Will it stay healthy? If the oracle predicts something bad, offerings must be given to avert the disaster.

Most of these offerings are expensive, some take several months worth of pay. The Beninese say that about one third of a year’s salary is spent on Vodou. In years, in which they consult Fa, even more. Many people are in debt because of these rituals and offerings. However, not providing the offerings, would be asking for disaster. The acts of a person affect his next life, and a successful life consists of worshiping the gods, the ancestors and questioning the oracle. Serious offenses against the order of things or even turning away from the faith will be punished with illness, malformations, mental derangement or even death.

The priest will soon be 70 years old. But he does not think about quitting. “The gods and the people, both need me.” His father and his grandfather were interpreters of the oracle, and they sent him to famous teachers so he could follow in their footsteps. Thirty years ago he was the one who warned the Marxist President Mathieu Kérékou not to mess with the gods. The President wanted to exorcise Vodou. Temples were closed. Priests fled to neighboring Togo. But even Kérékou was uncertain of his future, so much so he consulted Sagbadjou. “Here with me he sat,” says the priest. “The oracle revealed that he would win the election, but also that he would eventually lose the favor of the gods and men. And so it was. ”

Unlike other religions, Vodou does not give people the choice to confess. Instead, it is an obligation from birth. Most people in Benin believe that Fa links the ancestors with their descendants, inseparably. The covenant is sealed typically just before a child begins school. Fa reveals which ancestral soul resides in each child. This affiliation locates the child in his family lineage like a pearl on a continuous string. Because Vodou is so inextricably part of being human, the gods can be forgiving. If someone also believes in Allah, in Jesus Christ, in Buddha, or in a self-proclaimed savior, Vodou gods simply don’t care. Sixty percent of Beninese say they are Christian or Muslim. The vast majority are Vodou followers as well. To sing a Hallelujah to Jesus Christ on Sunday morning, bring offerings to Ogoun the same afternoon and enthusiastically join one of many magical Vodou ceremonies with dance and masks later that evening is absolutely normal.

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Vodou is an everlasting process. How could such an irrational and colorful faith based on godly megalomania and human fear, survive colonialism and post colonialism? And how could globalization, neo-capitalism and cybermania not harm it? The believers’ answers are always the same: adaptation and tolerance. It has come a long way from the kings of Dahomey to the modern day priests who use social media networks to market themselves. The less powerful gods surrendered during this journey through time.

The temple stinks like a pub. The gods like to drink and smoke, as do their priests.

“The goal is key. And the goal is to believe in and respect the sovereign god Mawu. It is not important how we achieve that” says Zanzan Zinho Kledje, who is known as “Zanzan, the Great” in Benin. His godly ties are particularly tight, which gives him significant power with his god Damballah. Zanzan’s temple is in Ouidah, which historically was one of the main West African ports that sent hundreds of thousands of slaves to America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. National Vodou Day is celebrated here every year in January, where the gods love the drama. They love the dances and jokes, the bright colors and costumes. Vodou festivals are a blend of carnival and antique theater, wild dances and the finest ballet choreography, with poetic downfall and shy resurrection. All at the same time. The whole town is in delirium on that day, which also attracts tourists. Zanzan finds this annoying because strangers disturb the gods by standing around taking pictures. It also creates the impression that Vodou is a big show and not a serious religion.

Zanzan pays homage to the god Damballah, a sort of spiritual head of all Vodou gods. Similarly, Zanzan calls himself the spiritual head of all Damballah priests. “The Pope of Benin,” he says, holding up his hands in despair. “Do you know how many envious people there are? How many times someone tried to poison and jinx me?”

Damballah is the god of snakes, his symbol a python, or often a rainbow. Just like the one that God sent Noah as a promise not to destroy the people again. It is possible that Damballah adopted this symbol. He is a friendly god and popular with women who want to have children or are looking for a husband. However, he is not particularly health-conscious. He drinks and smokes. And Zanzan does too. His temple smells of a pub in the morning, afternoon and long into the evening. Cigarette butts and empty gin bottles are everywhere. Stone images of gods have cigarette butts in their mouths, their heads are a yellowish grease from the mixture of palm oil and maize flour that is poured over them as an offering. There are old un-used fetishes made of stone, feathers, fur and hair, all soaked in oil. These seem to form numerous black piles in the corners of his room. But all this supports a trusting dialogue with the gods. Gods provide protection, therefore they demand honor and sacrifice.

However, sometimes the gods can be abused, for revenge, for viciousness. What is the dark side of power about? What about the curses, the witchcraft? What about pushing needles in dolls?

Zanzan laughs. “All created by the West. But the evil in Vodou, yeah, that’s real and it’s ordinary. ”

And why should it not be? “Everything has a brother. The good has the evil. The day has the night, the sky has the earth, and water has fire. Vodou is duality. Whoever wants to live must be able to die. Whoever wants to stay must be able to go.”

The gods are male and female, healing and destructive, preserving and threatening, loving and mean, caring and cruel all at the same time.

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Zanzan believes the dark side of Vodou won power when the slaves were shipped to America. They beseeched the gods, taking revenge on those who shipped them away from their homeland. The dark side of Vodou is still present in today’s Haitian Vodou. Believing in witchcraft is also a strong part of Benin’s culture. Mental and physical diseases, death, disability, bankruptcy or other misfortunes are blamed on witches.

Zanzan has a five-liter bottle in front of him. It is wrapped in leather and bark, with a small gourd strung to it. He generously pours gin from this flask. “Anyone who believes that Vodou is a dream machine is wrong,” he thunders. He blows out the smoke from one of his many cigarettes, doing it so vigorously as if to blow away any kind of misapprehension.

Vodou has, like Christianity, a moral code, similar to the Ten Commandments. “Anyone who infringes the rules will be punished. A murderer will die by murder. A thief will loose everything through theft. A sinner who does not respect the gods will loose his mind. Without the spiritual support of Vodou men will die, not because they will be killed by gods, but because they will wither physically or mentally.”

Nobody really knows how many Vodou gods exist in Benin. At least a hundred, the priests say. Every single god has its’ own tasks. Some limit their power to a village, others dominate vast regions and are worshiped across national borders. When times change, even the gods go out of fashion, and some are forgotten. New cults are suddenly hip, smart phones will become fetishes, and priests are YouTube Stars. Yet despite all of this flexibility and perseverance, the Vodou religion is threatened, mainly from competing religions. These other religions find followers among intellectuals on one hand, and the poor on the other. The average income per year is around 620 euros, and one third of the population in Benin lives below the poverty line. People in need are seduced and easily intimidated with the promise of quick salvation. The pastors of evangelical churches, for example, preach about God’s wrath if believers worship other gods. They are gradually becoming successful doing so.

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Reality changes fast in big cities like Cotonou and Porto Novo. Rural areas are still spared, but Cotonou and Porto Novo are both on their way to becoming an urban nightmare. Uncontrolled development, traffic jams, smog and unbearable noise. Their population is enviably young and fun-loving, but unfortunate with limited opportunities. These young people dream like all young people do; dream about money, travel and fast new cars. Vodou does not support that. Vodou tries to control their desire for freedom.

Although young people do not dare to question the covenant between ancestors and the gods, they do disregard it wherever they can. They participate in family ceremonies, but forget about their spiritual tradition in daily life. To be seen as the reincarnation of an ancestor and therefore chosen to be a Vodousant is no longer considered an honor.

“I would actually prefer self-determination,” says Stephano Medatinsa, a young entrepreneur from Cotonou. His family belongs to the middle class and lives in a large house on the outskirts of the city. Father Etienne, mother Catherine, three adult children, one grandchild and at times grandmother Sissethinde, a Vodousant since the age of four all under one roof. The grandmother never went to school, but is seen as a wise woman. She can see the future, people say. And Catherine is a Christian. A cross with Jesus is in her living room, as well as a statue of Mary.

Religious conflicts? The Medatinsas say that everyone can believe what they want. Etienne is practically an atheist. Catherine goes to Christian worship service on Sundays. Sissethinde practices her own rituals. But the wise woman will soon be 90 years old, and it is expected that her spirit will soon need a new body, a young and strong body since her spirit is strong. The spirit will want to continue to pay homage to Vodou and preserve its’ knowledge and power. Sissethinde’s daughters are too old. Moreover they are apostates. That leaves Stephano, who is in his late twenties and a straightforward, intelligent young man, to follow Vodou’s call. But this would limit his business activities, or even force him to give them up completely. It would also mean he could no longer party with friends and would have little time for family.

Stephano hopes that the cup passes him completely. He knows people who tried to run away when they were chosen. Some even fled to Europe. “But the ancestors and the gods will always find you,” he says cheerless: “Vodou is everywhere. One cannot escape.”

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Stories of the World: A Q&A with Photographer Cameron Karsten

A while back, I was fortunate to be interviewed by WordPress.com’s Discover, a fantastic blog platform that I’ve been using for years. Below is a great post from last week about my work as a professional photographer and the range of projects I’ve had the opportunity to work on. Enjoy, share and spread the love!

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Give photographer Cameron Karsten an assignment, anywhere in the world, and he’ll bring the story to life with his lens. From documenting the Vodou religion in Benin to exploring the remote Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in the US, Cameron photographs people, customs, and processes, breaking down the barrier between viewer and subject in vivid scenes and stunning landscapes. We’re thrilled to chat with him about his body of work and the photography on his blog, Cameron Karsten’s Imaginarium.

You photograph a range of subjects, from oyster harvesters in Washington State’s Puget Sound to American children holding toy guns. What attracts you to a story?

I’m attracted to people, and events that will make a significant difference in our lives. My oyster harvest photo essay is a larger project about ocean acidification, which is little known to the public and picked up by Bloomberg Business. The story will potentially endure beyond this generation and not just affect the oyster industry, but the entire seafood industry and the chemistry of every ocean. That’s huge, and the story is extremely complex involving all kinds of individuals.

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The American gun culture project involves a disturbing matter: children playing with guns, bringing them into our schools, and the consequences.

Originally, these projects started with questions and a deeper curiosity I wanted to explore. Stories are ever-evolving and they take me to new places of understanding, meeting new people, and learning what is happening within our society.

For one past project, you joined All Across Africa through Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Can you tell us about it? What are your goals as a photographer on a trip like this?

All Across Africa (AAA) is an organization based in San Diego that helps build women-owned cooperatives who specialize in artisanal East African crafts. These women have been affected by their country’s violent conflicts and geopolitical histories. With business training by AAA, they’re able to lift themselves out of their past to create job opportunities to send their children to school, put a roof over their heads, and empower their lives.

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On the assignment, I traveled with the COO, Alicia Wallace. With her familiarity of each country and individual involved, I was able to photograph people who were filled with excitement, appreciation, and joy. Their energy was infectious and inspiring, and it was such a fulfilling assignment, which I think shows in my images. That was the end goal: beautiful images of the women and people involved with AAA.

You effortlessly capture warmth in your images, especially in your portraits. Can you talk about your approach to photographing people?

I look forward to photographing people when I pick up a camera. I approach a person not as a subject but as a person who has needs and wants, a history of joys and sorrows, of gains and losses.

I’ve never connected with the industry’s idea of using a camera to hide behind a lens as if to separate myself from the rest of the world.

I’ve never connected with the industry’s idea of using a camera to hide behind a lens as if to separate myself from the rest of the world. People aren’t subjects to me. Inanimate objects are what I call a subject. I first try to relate to and connect with a person by just being myself. Taking the photograph comes later.

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Your photo essays are a rich, vivid mix of image and prose, as shown in your Vodou Footprints series. What’s your thought process when creating a photo essay for your blog? How do you know when a photo essay is complete?

With each photo essay, I hope to create a compelling story. I want to develop a sense of intrigue, curiosity, and awareness. I want consistency and development in my own work, so I’ll edit and edit again. Then I’ll add more and edit more. But I realize I am my own worst editor and have begun to work with professional editors to hone my craft and present more polished stories.

In terms of form and style, I know I can always improve a piece. But it’s complete when it feels complete. I also remind myself that less is more.

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You’ve traveled widely, documenting different locations, cultures, and people. What has been your most challenging shoot?

I love to travel. My blog began as a travel blog, backpacking around the world as an aspiring travel writer. Storytelling with words developed into storytelling with photographs. Today, I enjoy creating photographs as much as I enjoy traveling because of the unknown within each situation. Problems arise and you have to think and act quickly to continue. That’s like any photo shoot.

One challenging project was a shoot for a foul-weather gear company in the Hoh River Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, in which I joined a hunting team in search of the elusive blacktail buck. It poured for four days and three nights, with few breaks in the weather. We rose every morning at 4:30 and spent the day bushwhacking through the forest — in silence.

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The challenge was getting the right shots in the pouring rain, while also experiencing fatigue and hunger — as well as giving up all sense of control. But in the end, it was a fantastic experience, and my client was happy.

What’s your go-to camera at the moment? What equipment do you always take along with you on outdoor shoots?

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III. It’s a durable workhorse, rain or shine. And for the size of the camera, the video is superb. For shoots, I’ll bring a variety of Canon and Zeiss lenses, as well as filters, a tripod and monopod, light stands, pocket wizards, portable strobes, batteries, and more. Now that I’m shooting more motion work, the list increases with audio gear, stabilizer, and slider.

It’s one thing to put this in the back of your car — it’s quite another to bring it into the rainforest. (And it’s an entirely different beast to pack it and put it on a plane to Africa.) Good insurance is a must.

Next step is a medium format Phase One 645DF+ with an IQ back, and a Sony a7R II for video work.

As a working photographer, what have been the benefits of having a blog?

My blog is a clean and simple outlet to share new projects, new adventures, and new stories. It exposes my work to an ever-widening audience and allows me to connect with like-minded storytellers. In the digital age when blogs seem as ubiquitous as photographers, my blog was an easy setup, allowing me to publish and share new work in minutes for my family, friends, and subscribers.


Follow Cameron Karsten on WordPress.com at Cameron Karsten’s Imaginarium, his website, Facebook (Cameron Karsten Photography), Instagram (@cameronkarsten), and Twitter (@CameronKarsten).

Vodou Footprints: A Wonderful Machine Interview

Below is an excerpt from Wonderful Machine, who earlier this week posted an interview about my project within the Vodou religion. It is an effort to learn more about the Vodou Footprints project, the preparation and experiences had within this magical culture, future direction and goals, as well as help spread the news about the successful publication in GEO Magazin. Share the knowledge and enjoy!

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PHOTOGRAPHER NEWS

Largely misunderstood in Western culture, Vodou has often been depicted as an evil or sinister type of black magic, with the all too familiar dolls and accompanying pins and needles created to punish or torture your enemies. For photographer Cameron Karsten, who views exploring a new culture, place, or people as a continuous source of inspiration, he admittedly felt that he too hugely misunderstood this ancient religion. It wasn’t till extensive research and a one way ticket to West Africa that he began to have a clearer picture and deeper appreciation for this ancient religion. What transpired was a multimedia project spanning across two countries Benin in West Africa and Haiti uncovering the untold stories on the origins and evolution of Vodou. Read more of the Q&A with Cameron below!

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Zanzan the Witchdoctor of Ouidah pours a shot of venomous snake-infused gin. Take the shot, repeat, “Danji, Danji!” and you’ll be protected from your enemies.

How does this project fit into your photographic style? Were there any new approaches you took to capture it?

Having spent a ton of time out of the country around the world—traveling, writing and photographing—this project was a natural progression in the development of my career. The combination of both still and motion, along with audio components and writing, fit my skill set well. What I added to the stylistic approach is the option of lighting the individuals in an editorial style with strobes and modifiers. In the end, it’s a lot of gear, but with the amount of time I spent in-country and the amount of research, it was worthwhile and allowed for a unique form of storytelling.

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A boy vendor sells a dried gorilla foot at the Akodessewa Market in Lome, Togo.

Were there any challenges involved with this project? If so, how did you overcome them? 

The challenges were plentiful, though rewarding. Securing attendance into specific rare ceremonies and the related logistics around the timing of these events or celebrations was understandably tough. Additionally, West African Vodou is entirely different from Haitian Vodou. Although the religion traveled westward to the New World with the slave trade route, the metamorphosis was great, and this is exactly why it survived the brutality of slavery and the successive dictatorships that crippled the people. Keeping track of these differences, as well as making and maintaining key contacts across two opposing continents, required the creation of a new volume of research and planning to fully understand each real and true Vodou ceremony.

The West Africa Project - Origins of Vodou, Visiting the Kingdom of Allada in central Benin during Allada's Vodou FestivalDjagli spirits, known to chase witches from villages, rest after a performance in Allada during the National Vodou Day in Benin, West Africa.

What was involved in planning/preproduction? 

Before leaving home, I read and researched like mad. From books to blogs and personal tourist memoirs to anthropological university studies, I devoured as much as possible. Likewise, I reached out to locals via social media and email, asking for advice and on-the-ground knowledge. Finally, I organized, packed and carefully deliberated over gear—performing that rigorous judicial act of every seasoned traveler: what to bring.

The West Africa Project - Origins of Vodou, Ketou Guelede dancing mask ceremoniesKetou Guelede dancing mask ceremonies last all night, from sunset to sunrise. The costumes are rare these days, made by artisans from the Yoruba tribes of Nigeria.

What has the reaction to the images been so far? 

Reactions to the work from West Africa, specifically Benin and Togo, from the first trip have been phenomenal. The still and motion work, combined with the essays, have offered people exposure to a culture that has never before been documented with such visual impact and cultural appreciation. With the subsequent chapter in Haiti, the response has been likewise, as the images have carried a little more darkness and mystery behind Vodou’s changes from its place of origin across the waters in Africa. GEO Magazin picked up the West African piece, utilizing both stills and motion for their publication. National Geographic continues to show interest, encouraging the project to develop and progress.

The Vodou Trail in Haiti exploring the ceremonies and rituals of Haitian VodouVodouisants pray in congregation at Montagne Noire outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Any future plans for this project? 

The Vodou Footprints project has only just begun. In 2016, I will return to Haiti in July/August and October/November in order to complete that chapter before moving north in 2017 to document Vodou throughout the American south. After this, I intend to trace the historical spread of Vodou across the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as east from West Africa into the surrounding countries as far as Zanzibar. The final goal for this long-term multimedia project is a complete visual encyclopedia of modern day Vodou, from where it originated in the cradle of Vodou to its evolution through the wake of the European slave trade. This will include a volume of books, traveling exhibitions, presentations and a documentary film.

The Vodou Trail in Haiti exploring the ceremonies and rituals of Haitian Vodou

Two pilgrims bathe in the sacred falls of Saut d’Eau

Did you learn anything through the creation of this series?

As with every foreign culture, it’s offered me glimpses into the complexity yet simplicity of our world. Vodou’s sole purpose is to celebrate life and death while providing all participants access to every human right: health, happiness and prosperity. It is a beautiful, mysterious and unique tradition, which has nothing to do with a doll or pins and needles. And of course, the more I develop this project, the more I myself develop—both as a growing presence in this ever-changing technological industry and as a critical practitioner of compelling storytelling.

View the video Cameron created below :

 

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To see more of Cameron’s work visit cameronkarsten.com

Vodou Footprints: GEO Magazin Publication/TearSheets

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Thrilled to share the current issue of GEO Magazin, printed and distributed in Germany and parts of Europe. To secure this story, I traveled to New York to meet with GEO’s editors and presented a printed portfolio of my travels in West Africa exploring Vodou culture. Following up, I expressed the fact that this type of documentation of Vodou has never been done before, shooting both stills and motion within a long-form multimedia project covering the origins and evolution of one of the oldest and most misunderstood religion in the world.

The following are tearsheets from the current article, along with a video produced by GEO for the iPad edition and website of video footage shot while in Benin and Togo, West Africa accompanying a photographer’s interview discuss the project and experience within the culture.

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Vodou Footprints: Resurrecting the Royal Wife

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I’m exhausted. We’ve been traveling, working, shooting, exploring, discovering, eating, drinking throughout Benin, West Africa. It’s been almost three weeks. Now early morning, with already two hours of rough roads underneath our belts, I feel sick. We have come north to Houegbo; a small rural town, more or less community, spattered along a passing highway. We’ve come here to witness what we’ve been told would be an initiation rite of young practitioners emerging from a year of training, which includes dance, ritual, language and study of this ancient belief system, called Vodou. We’ve come to see them emerge into society as true initiates. But soon we learn this is not an initiation ceremony. Nope. Definitely not.

A woman approaches. She’s introduced to us as our guide Stephano’s aunt. He hasn’t seen her for over a year. She’s a Vodou practitioner. Stephano is not. He tells us before we see her that since he was a little boy he has always been scared of her. His Christian mother used to tell him stories of his aunt, demonic ones of strange impossible things she would participate in. Thanks to our recent escapades, he was willing to see her.

“I’m amazed. Just amazed!” he chimes in full of awe. “It’s too hard to explain, but it happens. And it’s beautiful.”

So he called his long lost aunt and she invited us into her home.

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As mentioned, I’m exhausted. At 8:30 in the morning, it’s already balmy. The dry West African heat drenches me. The air I inhale burns my nostrils. My hair is wet, damp for what feels like weeks. Beads pour down my forehead. They sting the eyes as rivulets of dust crease my cheeks. My head slowly starts to pound.

Inside, the room is dark and the couches spring-less. We sit and sink into their frames. The Great Aunt offers us refreshments. Coke? Un Bier?

I take a beer. Within five minutes the 22oz of Les Beninoise is empty. She brings another. I’ll need it because we just found out the truth of our presence, the Why have we come so far?

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We ask The Great Aunt. “No,” she points out. “This is not an initiation ceremony. It’s a ritual for a young woman. She has been taken from us while working in the fields. We will attempt to bring her back.”

“Where’d she go?”

“While she was working she was struck down. Sakpata took her as his royal wife.”

I shook my head, not sure if I was hearing this correctly. “Sakpata?”

In Vodou mythology, Sakpata is the god of well being for mind, body and spirit. He is also the god of disease. To honor Sakpata, one will remain healthy throughout life, and if one were to become ill, sick, contract AIDS or a virus, one’s sole survival tactic would rely on Sakpata, worshiping him in every waking hour until one’s last breath. Apparently this woman we’re here to see failed to honor Sakpata. She birthed a child. The child died. She visited a Vodou priest who told her to perform specific rituals for Sakpata. She ignored the prescription. This angered Sakpata and so he was out for payment, which happened to be her.

This all sounded pretty dismal to our ears, but we soon learnt the great fortune this woman overcame by being struck down by Sakpata. She had been potentially chosen to be Sakpata’s royal wife, a huge honor in Vodou society. This upcoming ceremony was to confirm her royal matrimony. It would be an ancient practice long thought to be dead, but instead extremely rare and secretive when it does becomes necessary.

I finish my beer. It’s 9AM and the infamous Resurrection is about to take place.

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We’re sitting before the priest of Houegbo. The man’s name is Hounnogan Letoby Hounfodje and he begins telling us about this ancient practice:

“The ceremony that takes place is Vodou. It is a very old Vodou ceremony that was performed by our ancestors. They handed this down to us.

But not all used to practice this. Zedego and Malego were the ones who brought Sakpata here. Then Sakpata took the whole region. They started to appoint Sakpata priests in every part of Houegbo. Here are the roots of Sakpata Vodou.”

“What ceremony are you performing today?”

“When Sakpata chooses to take a wife,” the priest continues, “it is something truly extraordinary. It doesn’t happen every day. Today, Sakpata has taken a wife here. Three days ago we showed the corpse of the girl to the whole village. Today, we’re going to bring the corpse out and resurrect her in front of everybody. Sometimes we try to resurrect, but the body doesn’t wake up and we call the family to come and bury it. But if Sakpata truly chose his wife and the priests do the resurrection, the person will come back to life. There is no other way.”

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We listen to this man. He’s seated in a dashiki; colorful fabrics folded one over the other. A hat adorns his head as cowrie shells and metal beads hang from his neck and wrists. Seated around him are his people, his son and fellow practitioners. They listen contemplatively, their eyes cast down nodding in subtle submissive agreement. Their only other movements are hands that rise and grab a fold of fabric to wipe the heat from their faces.

Beyond our interview are the chants of the village. Women wrapped in pagne garments. Beads and cowrie shells embellish. They’re dancing in circles, singing to the sounds of small drums and clanging bells. They’re all here to witness this event, to put the depths of their belief into the resurrection of this young beautiful girl. They want her alive as much as Sakpata does.

“What happens if she’s awoken?” I ask.

“She will dance throughout the night and then become devoted to Sakpata. She will be Vodou.”

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We’re watching the chanting women. Their scarification shines beneath pearly sweat, while hours of suffering and devotion pour into their song, the rhythm of stamping feet. Men throw coins and make offerings to their gods. Some ask for the resurrection. More ask for health to family and friends. Others need it themselves.

Inside the shrine, we are restricted behind an invisible line. Beyond it we see a courtyard where young devotees take shots of sodabi and perform more unique dancing. They twist their bodies as if in trance, throwing back their heads in swirls, before erupting in spurts of spontaneous laughter. Beyond them is a door.  And beyond that is a room where the woman is being prepped for her resurrection. We ask to enter, but are declined. We ask again. No. Only Vodou initiates.

At this point, as the hours pass and we wait, we wonder at the possibilities and suddenly realize the lack of suspicion we harbor. Up to this point I’ve believed everything the priest has told us. Of course we were going to witness a resurrection. Of course these practitioners believe in it. And of course I believe it. I’m in Benin, on the Vodou Trail, in search of the truth behind Vodou. Everything will happen.

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Through this thought process when one is so immersed within the environment, the outside doesn’t exist. Like a climber on the slope of mountain ice, one doesn’t reflect on breakfast with family, that dinner party with friends, those personal or worldly affairs they’re missing. Like the climber summiting the moment before them, there is only one real world, the world they’re in, that mountain and the summit of their existence. It’s a Nano-second to Nano-second burst of life, there and gone to never exist again.

The Buddha proclaimed, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”

Magic, myth, the Vodou Trail, this resurrection. An outside individual can only presume it is all fake, an illusion of the mind tricking one to believe the impossible. The community of Houegbo believes otherwise and has gathered with the full force of their believe system to help resurrect this young woman. They will be concentrating the power of their belief to help her reawaken into the world of the living.

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A cluster of young men appears. They are chanting, bodies covered in a pattern of scarification. Then a larger procession, and a larger, before a crowd carrying what looks to be a 6-foot long slimmed-down chile relleno appears. The priest is there. He’s holding a 12-foot pole topped with palm fronds, cowrie shells and two flailing chickens. Everybody is in a rush of frenzy as they slide out of the temple gate and onto the dirt pathways. They begin marching through the community. I follow.

For the next forty-five minutes the band of devotees sing and dance, speeding through the village in circles carrying this chile relleno. We soon learn this is the woman. She has been prepped and wrapped in a reed blanket. She looks tiny from how tightly wrapped the human relleno is, and as the ceremony’s procession continues, the crowds swell to observe. They all join in song and some create clusters of their own chanting and clapping. The band carrying the woman stops. They swing her side to side, spit sodabi over the reeds and slap chickens over its exterior. Then they bring it to rest on a mat. The crowd settles. Only the priest speaks, as well as another old man, whom we presume to be the village witch doctor. He carries a staff of cow jawbones and seven times repeats a prayer where the crowd calls out in response.

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I find myself crouching close to the woman in the reed blanket. I’m pressed between the crowds who squeeze forward to have a closer look. I can’t see my partner, but I trust he is where he needs to be. We wait but have no idea what we’re waiting for.

Suddenly, on the seventh call and response, the priest yells out, drags the cow jawbones across the human relleno and in a stale moment of silence we hear a muffled shout. The sound emanates as if coming through a wall. It is brief, like a cheer of jubilant emotion. It is soft, like a young woman’s cry for release. It is apparently this very young woman, from beneath the tightly bound folds of the reeds, crying with fresh inhalation. The crowd immediately erupts in chaotic enthrallment, like a crazed New Years party, tearing at a gift from the gods.

What we see happen next is a caravan of people pull out a young woman from within the reeds. She is bare-chested, waist wrapped in a pagne, and with urgency she is hoisted in the air to be paraded through the grounds. They are moving fast, too fast to check if she is breathing. But her eyes are closed as if in sleep. We are shuffled away as the parade with the girl in the air makes their way back into the confines of the temple. She has arisen, or so we are told, thus the animal sacrifices begin.

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We’re back in the Great Aunt’s house. “Tonight, the young woman will come out of the temple and dance Vodou all night. She is awake and will now be devoted to Sakpata. The ceremony was a success.”

I could see her pride. She was a believer and from what we saw, the Vodou ceremony worked and the woman was resurrected. People were excited. They believed, but we were skeptical. We could not stay to see the dance. We could not talk to her and confirm her… humanity. We were caught in a suspension of disbelief.

During our interview with the priest of Houegbo, his son Moladje Adime Hounssode spoke up about their god: “Sakpata, the God of the Earth, only does good for the world. If we are behind him we don’t lose ourselves. Everyone here is a Vodou adept. If we haven’t had goodness, we wouldn’t see them here. So that is why we are still behind him. Longevity, children, money and good fortune; that’s Sakpata. He never did any bad. It’s not only him that does good. All our Vodou divinities do good.”

A suspension of disbelief is the art of storytelling. In some philosophies, it is the world we live in, living a great dream where we all act in character, like a grain of sand in the ocean, ebbing and flowing with the tides of change. We witnessed this magical act as if in a circus, but it wasn’t a circus. It was these individuals’ lives. It was their grand dream. And it was this woman’s. It was enough to make me believe in the inexplicable powers of Vodou. All the more reason to return to find her breathing among the living, and learn more about this much-misunderstood practice and this ceremony believed to be extinct.

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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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Vodou Footprints: Outside the Blood Walls

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Careening east we leave Togo and turn northward, passing into Central Benin. It is flat. I think Africa and I think extremes. Something like Vodou, yes. Extreme. And now when I think Central Benin, heading north just off the coastline, I picture extreme flatness. The roads are straight as an arrow, gray asphalt that moves with the sun’s curvature. Arid dirt lines the peripheral with scrubland leading into an empty horizon. Towns come and go, stopping points for megalithic lorry trucks that bump along the three-day journey into Burkina-Faso and Niger, names in and of themselves that feel extreme. Andretti, or Geoffrey, is a fast driver. He’s our driver, and he’s safe. But going through Central Benin to Abomey feels like forever.

Abomey is the central focal point for power, the power that once was called the great Kingdom of Dahomey. It was a royal city and it was feared by its neighbors (remember the first King of Ganvie? He turned into a stork and fled across waters he was so afraid). It was feared by the colonial powers and nearly defeated the French in the year 1892. It was feared by its own people, traitors who were captured, pushed off its towering walls and sacrificed to the gods. And it is here that Bruce Chatwin’s character Francisco Manoel de Silva in The Viceroy of Ouidah, the beguiled Brazilian slave trader, was sent to as a prisoner, only to escape with the King’s mad half-brother:

The palace of Abomey had tall walls made of mud and blood but very few doors. It lay at a distance of twenty-three thousand, five hundred and two bamboo poles from the beach. In its innermost compound lived the King, his eunuchs and three thousand armed women.

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It is here where the walls are made from the blood of enemies, where the King had the pleasure of sitting on a throne of skulls, as well as choosing from a harem of 40+ women for an evening’s lover. It is here where protection came in the form of those three thousand armed women, the world’s only true knowledge of the existence of the famed Amazonian women warriors; bare-chested females who hacked off heads and bit their foe with razor sharp teeth filed to points. Extreme.

It was dark by the time we reached Abomey, dark just as the night da Silva walked the length of those many bamboo poles into the Kingdom of Dahomey. To foreigners the Kingdom itself could not even be pronounced. The French misspoke it, the culture’s native tongue Danhomé, which in Fon means in the belly of Dan. This is the name of the great Vodou snake god—bringer of life and fertility, the symbolism of eternal recycling. But today it has erased that meaning, succumbing to the French woes, contrived to an erred Dahomey.

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We got our room and sat down for dinner. A man arrived. Menus? Instead he asked if we wanted to see a Vodou ceremony. Right now? Yes. We had to go now. We all looked at each other. He was serious. We were serious. This was our moment with Dan, the master of a fertile project— Danhomé reconciled! Let’s go.

The man flagged three motorbikes once we were out on the dark dusty roads. In Abomey, there are few streetlights and those that worked are as yellow as a melted crayon mixing with its close orange counterpart. The tungsten stain is eerie in the damp heat of inner Africa, with no breeze but passing transportation. Once on the back of our motorbikes, we sped off down foreign roads and eventually arrived at an alleyway. We got off, paid for our fare and our escort’s. There was no music. Hardly any people. we knew we were thinking the same thing: Shit. What have we done.

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Follow me, he said. So we did like puny submissive sheep leaving the tungsten night to follow our shepherd into the shadows of a narrow alley. There was dust beneath our feet, fine red African dirt that would easily soak up the blood spilled from our dying bodies. He was just looking for another human sacrifice: The blood of two foreigners! Abomey’s new theme among the throngs of Vodou tourists.

The man who led us here was in front and he kept waving us onward as my fists clenched tighter with each twisting corner. I felt like the walls were closing in, my backpack of camera gear tightening on my chest with each heavy breath. Then there was music. Tam tams drumming. People singing. An air of excitement reaching our thriving bodies. The yellow-orange glow began to return. Suddenly from the darkness we rounded another corner and stepped into the thrill of a local Vodou ceremony.

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It took minutes that felt like hours to negotiate with the head priest. Meanwhile we were standing by in a thick crowd of black skin. Everyone was pushing together, inching closer to see the performers in trance, taking on the likeness of their gods. They spun in gallant costumes, led by the auditory energy of the drummers who sat under a dim light beneath an expansive green tree. People sat on the dirt, dignitaries in plastic chairs and locals up on the walls and roofs of the surrounding housing. I loosened my fists. Relaxed my shoulders and let out an air of tense breath. I felt my whole body relax into this sacred space of Vodou, a space that we have submersed ourselves in for close to two weeks. We were documenting, exploring and inevitably becoming a part of this culture, a practice that supersedes any other form of religion since the dawning of humanity. 24/7 we were breathing Vodou and spinning its threads within our minds.

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For the next two hours we secured the trust and permission of the people to photograph their local ceremony. Two white photographers with their cameras and lenses and one flash each. We crouched near the Vodou practitioners, studying their movements, watching their feet kick up the red earth and stamp back down to the timing of the many drum beats. We stared and felt that process when an outsider slowly melds into the inner circle. It was impossible not to become a part of the discovery.

As photojournalists and writers, we strive every second to learn more about our subject. Knowledge is the avenue to the complete intimacy of exposure. When the project was first proposed—Hey, how about Vodou?—we knew very little if anything. Pins, needles and a doll? No thanks Hollywood. This goes beyond the misnomer of one of the world’s most unidentified cultures that holds its complex belief system in absolute secrecy. But as the modern age reveals itself and as the lucrative endeavors within the tourism industry help provide for individuals, families and their country, Benin in particular has opened its doors just slightly, allowing those willing enough to go the distance, entrance into a place of origin where signs of evolution are omnipresent.

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The ceremony ends. Our guide, the man who led us to this remote part of Abomey, where the magic history of Vodou and the powers of a royal city in the likes of Timbuktu and Zanzibar dominate, took us away. We were back at our hotel, a sweet little spot called Chez Monique. It was late. The kitchen was asleep as a group of large women lounged next to a blaring television, only paying attention during fits of sleeplessness—a strange scene with the romantic French tongue licking at the shadowed night. A blue cast flickered into these thick crevasses. We sat down. Our food was still warm; a plate of couscous with half a chicken and half a rabbit. The night governed and that feeling permeated deeper: The traveler in a far land with the ebbs and flows of successes, not judged by good or bad, but merely by the feeling of excitement and the fluctuations of extremes, traveling from one end to the next and back again. A life of the unknown. This is Vodou land, beyond pins and needles.

Next essay –>

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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.

Next essay –>

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