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: 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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Vodou Footprints: A King, Kings, and Posers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

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

“I’m Cameron from Seattle, Washington.”

“Oh, Washington D.C.? Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Vodou Footprints: Legends and Lore on Lac Nakoue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We take a few more cautious steps.

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

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

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Vodou Footprints: Egunguns and Other Souls of the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vodou Footprints: Cotonou’s Spark

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I’m four beers deep and still have the need for another. It’s only 90°F, but 85% humidity feels much hotter—as though my blood is simmering from the inside out. I’ve sweat all water from my body and therefore have settled for the coldest beer a man can find. Here it’s Castel, a favorite from Ethiopia. Although I know it’s not scientifically sensible, the heat has decreed my parched lips the ultimate authority. At one point, it looks as though the barman has run out. So when a case of chilled Les Beninoise is proudly unveiled, the relief amongst the patrons is palpable. I might just survive this after all.

Cotonou is an African mega-metropolis. This means it’s not fun. Streets are clogged with dirt, dust, and worst of all, a constant plume of suffocating exhaust. It is full of life, and yet its conditions seem to defy it. Nevertheless, with population estimates exceeding one million, the inhospitality of this land simply cannot match the resilience of its inhabitants.

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Welcome to Benin’s unofficial capital and undeniable commercial force. It is a city of hustle and bustle—a city whose voice is a cacophony of screaming motors and exposed engines. Where bush-taxis appear and dissolve at each shifting gear. Monstrous lorry trucks creak from bent chassis and blare horns willy-nilly. And the omnipresent zemidjan (motorbike) blisters the road with fearless abandon. A mind will not rest in a city with such movement.

Of course, there is no way to avoid this city. One must fly into the airport of Cotonou Cadjehoun to land in Benin. This is how I arrived, after 37 hours of relatively painless travel. Upon arrival, however, my body instantly succumbed to the shock of the heat. A heavy sweat filled the creases of my back and brow. My nose filled with a miasma of burning trash and hot spice. I was disintegrating. At customs, the usual challenge of patience became nearly intolerable in this climate. Time above the desk registered 2AM. I was exhausted, and still there were cases to collect—not only those filled with more or less replaceable clothes, but also thousands of dollars’ worth of photography and video equipment. My mind wandered. I was helpless among the fray of fatigue.

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Incredibly, everything (including my arranged pickup) arrived incident-free, and I quickly secured the necessities of bed, air-con, and mosquito net. The next thirteen hours were nonexistent.

When I awoke, Constantine had arrived and was similarly in need of recovery. He slept. I slept more. Instinctively, we both knew that whatever lay before us demanded the utmost mental and physical preparation—no matter how unforeseeable and incomprehensible.

***

The Dantokpa Market is over twenty hectares in size and grosses over a million dollars a day. We met its alleyways with amazement—the endless stalls contrived of scraps of wood and stacked with every conceivable produce, electronic device, food, and knickknack. Baguettes abutted sunglasses. Plastics flanked pottery. Eerie fluorescent liquids from Passotome glowed in unlabeled water bottles. Fried fish charred under a searing sun-glare while flies swarmed in frenzy. And no matter what the ware, a smell that can be described only as uncomfortable pervaded. But these things only piqued minimal interest. We sought something more bizarre—something more truly sacred to the people of West Africa: the fetish.

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We had met at the Eddie Adams Workshop in upstate New York a mere three months before. As we traded stories and aspirations of travel and photography, we quickly formed a strong connection—a common desire to capture beautiful images of cultures around the world. On the second day of the workshop, he had approached me with a simple enough question: “How ‘bout a project?”

“Well, yeah. I’m interested.” Unbeknownst to me, he was proposing a much larger collaboration than I understood at the time.

“How about Voodoo?” he asked.

My hesitation was barely noticeable. “Hell, yes,” I blurted. Just like that. Although I knew little about Voodoo (or perhaps because of that ignorance), I couldn’t turn down such an enticing opportunity. It hadn’t been a question; it had been a summoning.

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Three months later, we saw our first glimpse of the fetish. At Marché Dantokpa, we came across a table laid with an assortment of dried animals and constituents: monkey heads, gator claws, mandibles, chameleons, snake skins, and numerous bone fragments. To our untrained eyes, most of it was practically unrecognizable; but we knew we’d hit the jackpot.

It was guarded by two young Beninese men who clearly wanted nothing to do with us. At first, they simply ignored our presence. Undeterred, we continued to ogle the various items with wonderment—all the while attempting that woeful balancing act of respectful distance and inquiring curiosity. A few moments later, it was obvious that we weren’t intimidated by their coldness, and so the guards began to shoo us away: “No tourists! C’est mal por vous!”

We had no choice but to leave, and leave we did—but not without first satisfying and redoubling our growing determinations to see and to know what exactly had sent us halfway around the world in the first place.

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Even still, little could we have predicted that within hours of dismissal we’d suddenly find ourselves thrust headfirst into the ceremony of the Thron god, face-to-face with Egungun spirits, and openly accepted into the Vodou community. Ultimately, the fetish market of dried livers and crispy hyena hairs, fascinating as it was, would be but a rousing sip from the bountiful tonic of Benin.

We had caught the spark of Cotonou.

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