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