Vodou Footprints: To Where the People Don’t Go

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Ouidah was absolute shit. The first words I had ever read about the historic slave port west of Cotonou suggested the opposite. It sounded downright enthralling:

In the nineteenth century the Kingdom of Dahomey was a Black Spar squeezed between the Yoruba tribes of present-day Nigeria and the Ewe tribes of Togo. Her Kings had claw marks cut on their temples and were descended from a Princess of Adja-Tado and the leopard who seduced her on the banks of the Mono River. Their people called them Dada which means “father” in Fon. Their fiercest regiments were female, and their only source of income was the sale of their weaker neighbors.

Abomey was the name of their upland capital. The name of their slave port was Ouidah.

Here, in the opening pages of Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah, I was immediately lost—caught in the mystery and myth of a city, lying on the edge of the Bight of Benin, where hundreds of thousands of humans underwent the horrific transformation into slaves. Captured, sold, and shipped to the Americas as commodities, they were stripped of freedom and left with only their skin, the memories of their community, and their Vodou faith.

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Understandably, expectations were high. Mere days from our first Vodou experiences in Cotonou—the electric Thron ritual and riveting Egungun ceremony—and we were already feeling an insatiable urge for more. More history, more stories, more magic. What then could possibly be more exciting than arriving in Ouidah on January 10th, the annual National Vodou Day? We foresaw it vividly: Vodou would reign down upon the crowd from spirits on high, transforming all in its wake into full-fledged initiates. Clear skies would suddenly give way to huge rolling thunderheads whose gray suffocation heralded a torrent of water-filled miracles. There would be lightning. Plenty. It would be a sign of the power of the Vodou. Thousands converted. Peoples overcome by the reality of this cosmological magic.

Okay. Perhaps the imagination deserved reigning in, but we had little reason to doubt the event of the year, tourists and all.

Well, tourists we got—by the acre. Copious heaps of burnt red flesh pecked and pried and gawked like avian inspectors armed with unscratched point-and-shoots, DSLRs (many still proudly adorned with Samy’s Camera price stickers) and the one medium format bull’s eye. It was ridiculous. The hallowed history of the place seemed an afterthought amongst the farmhouse throngs. The site on the beach near the memorial Gate of No Return looked like a pasture of naked sheep corralled under desperate shade. Instead of troughs, the flocks clustered around nourishing drum circles with scary predictability. Souvenir stalls lined the road like fencing. Bottomless piles of goods dotted the grounds like mounds of manure. Everything from native instruments to woven fabrics and cheap coconut-shelled carvings with market-flooded beads filled the space-fearing JanSport sacks and fanny packs. We’d been had. Whatever power once flourished here had longed dried up. So, under the stifling heat of man and sun, I downed three gourds of fresh coconut juice, recalculated our position, tossed the emptied containers, and hurriedly fled the scene.

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It’s fitting, I suppose, that a place of such historical horror should remain so true to its roots, but nevertheless we were ill-prepared for the commodified abomination of Vodou found in Ouidah—and likely spoiled by the day before.

In Allada, an inland town with a storied lineage of powerful leaders, His Majesty King Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla reigns as the King of Kings of Benin; elsewhere, he remains the Jerk of Jerks of Humanity. But despite his ample shortcomings and long litany of offenses, the man in silk can admittedly host a hell-of-a Vodou ceremony. Twenty-four hours earlier, without the whisper of a mention of National Vodou Day, the people of Allada celebrated with a candor that made Ouidah’s festivities look like postcard imitations and a beauty of song, rhythm, and movement that was simply spectacular.

Moreover, for every hastily-shined statuette that Ouidah’s shop stocked, Allada had the real thing: colorful, sinuous, vibrant, and alive—woman.

Women are the dance and song of West African Vodou. Gathered in seated circles, singers clap in time and harmonize through stretching syllables of choral softness. Voices like dreams rise from the village valley. Through song, the women praise their ancestors and the strength behind their past, while keeping a hopeful eye towards the future. As music fills the willing space about them, attending dancers twirl, twist, and undulate center stage. Arms flail. Spines pulse. Bare feet stamp red earth, kicking up dry dust like herds of wild mares. The song feeds and fuels the dancing bodies in a swarm of heated energy. On the outside, dresses swing with strands of shell and metal that clank like wind chimes in storm, while bracelets slide up and down the arms and ankles as though remnants of their ancestor’s shackles. Freely, they surrender themselves to the rhythm, the tam tam drummed up from man’s force.

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Situated at the heart of song, the beat provides the basis and soul. Here, a group of men beat animal skins in a rain of sweat. Muscles taut. Stern. Eyes fixed in concentration. Each of them lost in the trance of uninterrupted reverberation. Ultimately, everyone is involved. Dancing the stage. Singing a history. Drumming the timeless beat. Taking turns in yielding to ancient tradition, they build something special—a collective power greater than its parts.

For hours, we watched the performances in Allada with transfixed fascination. The King, followed by his egg-shell-walking procession, arrived fashionably late and scornful as ever. His servants shuffled with the weariness and fear that results from near-constant royal berating. There were also other dignitaries, along with their own escorts. And then there were the stilt-men.

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To fully understand these towering oddities, it is helpful to begin by imaging how they came to be: Take a young boy. This boy is curious, active, and dedicated. Curiously enough, he has personally constructed and assembled a pair of stilts, and for many years, he has practiced on them. Instead of sports or games or troublemaking, he spends every spare hour honing his skill on the stilts. When he isn’t working the fields or helping his mother with choirs, he’s on his stilts—from the break of dawn until much past his bedtime.

Now, he is grown. He’s a stilt virtuoso. Not only can he walk, jump, hop, skip, and do practically anything that a normal human can on solid ground, but he’s also a Juilliard-level contortionist: A nimble and confident master of the art. Years of practice have paid off. The boy is now a man, and his name is Djagli.

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At this point Djagli is not even human. In Vodou, Djagli is an ancient warrior god protecting villages from witchcraft. Dressed like a giant stiff-legged stork, this god will actually transform into one as soon as the initiate enters the trance state. For less conspicuous sneaking, witches too are believed to turn bird, but fortunately fail to recognize the bird state of Djagli. The two feathered vertebrates are basically immortal tricksters, chasing each other out of town into the countryside. Once captured, the witch relinquishes her powers, and Djagli heroically restores village life to normal.

The Djagli-entranced performers in Allada were amazing. Five in total, they spun, dipped, and ran with incredible perfection. They scattered dirt at screaming children. Their trained movements were masked by a kind of uncontrollability, but I witnessed not a single error or misstep. Surely, if the talent scouts of Vegas ever caught wind of this feat, the tawdry cabaret and lowly magic club would be swiftly trampled into history. But while this spectacle started the Vodou party, it was the Zangbetos who topped it off.

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In ancient Vodou life, there is no need for traditional policemen or guards. If a civil dispute arises, the King’s administration or Vodou priest listens. Details are discussed. Many suns and moons pass. Rituals performed, concoctions prepared. Eventually, issues are resolved. It’s not a knee-jerk society. Instead, it’s actively preventative; disputes are snuffed out well before they can mature. And under the dark West African skies, the all-seeing Night Watchmen keep the peace.

Known as Zangbetos, these enforcers patrol the streets by moonlight. Dressed in bushels of hay, they possess unspoken amounts of magical powers. They’re feared, respected, and little discussed. In performance and in trance, the gods spin—and then spin like hell. If you’ve ever seen an upside down six-foot spinning top composed of a hundred bristling broom heads, then you know exactly what this looks like. With abnormally wide hay-loads and reckless whirling, these gyrators manage to stir up more plumes of dust than even the dust-loving Djagli. Mouth-spit gin and sodabi (local palm liquor) glistens on their shells as fresh chicken blood drips down their crowns. They’re on the move with the drumming. And like all things Vodou, they possess a seemingly-endless supply of energy.

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We watched this otherworldly culture with awe. All around us, villagers danced. They moved around the Zangbetos with anticipation and excitement. The spirits’ guards helped clear the crowd, pushing the souls along, shouting calls for the energies of Vodou to hear. Then everything stopped.

In a flurry, stacks of hay were thrown off and the inner cores of the Zangbetos revealed. I peered inside. Dirt. Nothing but open air and dirt. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a small woven basket. Evidently, not only do the Night Watchmen serve death sentences to the unruly of Benin, but they also present a variety of gifts to the lawful.

A guard quickly snatched and tossed the basket to the ground. People oohed with wonder and gawked with greed. Scurrying around the basket like hungry piglets at a sow, all approached. I too neared, hopeful to grab a few gold coins in reward for a lifetime of somewhat goodness. Dramatically, in one swift motion, the guard flicked off the lid.

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You guessed it: crabs. This Zangbeto had fooled us, sending into the crowd a dozen live crabs. With red snapping pincers, they dispersed and the people were sent in a frenzy. They screamed, hollered, leapt onto chairs. Some collided into one another as they ran in opposite directions. Tucked away in this upland village, most had probably never seen a crab before. They were terrified and justifiably so. But for every trick-playing Zangbeto, there were a few kindly offering presents of rice and corn, sodabi, gin, or cigarettes—the necessities.

Later, west of Allada on Lac Aheme, we would have one more opportunity to witness the Zangbetos. We would stop on our way to the famous fetish markets of Togo, at a village we were advised not to enter. Don’t enter, a stranger had told us. Don’t enter—unless you want your heads cut off. So naturally, we entered.

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Vodou Footprints: A King, Kings, and Posers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

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

“I’m Cameron from Seattle, Washington.”

“Oh, Washington D.C.? Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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