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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