Puget Sound Restoration Fund: The Oyster Harvest

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Oysters are delicious, but they’re also highly important to our marine ecosystem. They’re natural filtration systems, removing toxins and cycling nutrients back into the water that help combat pollution. Oysters within the Puget Sound are also some of the first species to feel the effects of a new threat called Ocean Acidification (OA). As the ocean becomes more acidic due to decreasing pH levels from human industrialization, oyster seed shells begin to dissolve causing holes, disease and early death.

Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) is helping restore these mollusks by planting native oyster beds throughout Puget Sound. They’re creating a community of oyster harvesters through their CSA program, as well as partnering with research institutes to further study and treat the effects of OA. On an early morning on Bainbridge Island, Washington local volunteers gather to take advantage of the low tide and collect the native oysters.

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For more visit the Ocean Acidification Project

Cameron Karsten Photography

All Across Africa: In Uganda

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Meet Margaret, a paper bead jeweler from the Lira District in Northern Uganda. Margaret moved to Jinja in the early 1980s to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army. Today, she is able to pay rent each month all thanks to All Across Africa in Uganda.

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For more visit www.CameronKarsten.com

Cameron Karsten Photography

All Across Africa: Crafting the Burundian Culture

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All Across Africa is venturing into Burundi, seeking opportunities to help empower and employ the citizens of this small East African country. Burundi rates 167 out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index (2008) with approx. 67% of its 10.16 million people living below the poverty line. AAA is looking to create sustainable business cooperatives, which allow the people to build their own businesses utilizing their traditional crafts and making them available to the global marketplace. Here are these people and their land.

Go to www.allacrossafrica.org to support their work in Burundi and East Africa

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For more, please visit http://www.CameronKarsten.com

Cameron Karsten Photography

All Across Africa – Designs by Nightingale Handmade

All Across Africa in Kampala, Uganda

Earlier this year I spent two weeks with All Across Africa helping them rebrand their work throughout Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. With their new website up and running, I’ve fallen in love with Margaret’s (Nightingale Handmade) designs on a few of the images created for AAA. Enjoy these beautiful postcards and go visit www.AllAcrossAfrica.org to make a purchase for the women of East Africa.

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Weavers and a Buy Day in Rwanda for All Across Africa

Cameron Karsten Photography

Africa Transporting

While on assignment in Africa for the first two months of 2014, I was captivated by the way humanity transports itself and its’ cargo. This new project highlights the unique and massive modes of transportation the African continent moves about. From West African countries Benin and Togo to East Africa’s Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, all modes are the same: extreme, beautiful and oddly delicate.

Day4_BurundiNature-136-Edit-EditThe paddle boat is an easy means of transportation for fisherman and the obvious choice for floating villages – Lake Tanganyika, Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day3_Ganvie-356-EditA woman paddles with her child in the early morning to the floating market of Ganvie – Lake Nakoue, Ganvie, Benin.

Day4_BurundiNature-512-EditBikes are cheap and easy to fix, but the roadway and traffic can be horrendous – Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day3_BurundiCrafts-121Oil drums being transported through downtown Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-717Bicycles are ubiquitous, and so are mountainous hills, in northern Burundi. Men hitch rides by grabbing onto the sides and rear of large lorry trucks heading up and heading down – Northern Burundi.

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Day4_BurundiNature-272-Edit-EditA long walk to the border from Bujumbura, Burundi to The Democratic Republic of Congo. Burundi is ripe with agriculture, so many travel to the border to sell their harvests to Congolese – Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day10_RwandaVirunga-17-Edit-EditIn the countryside, the movement of people on foot often looks like a mass exodus. People walk miles to crop land, distant markets, and back home within a day – Virunga Mountains, Rwanda.

Day10_RwandaVirunga-25-EditSlopes are carved out with foot paths that lead to neighboring villages and fields – Virunga Mountains, Rwanda.

Day6_AlladaVodou-578Dotting Africa are a host of infrastructure projects, most sponsored by Chinese firms. Here a Djagli, a mythical bird in Vodou culture, rests between performances – Allada, Benin.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-736-EditAn infrastructure project in Northern Burundi, which was washed out by the previous season’s flash floods – Northern Burundi.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-544-EditA tea picker near Ngozi, Burundi walks home after a day’s work – Burundi.

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Day3_Ganvie-159A young boy fishing on Lake Nakoue – Ganvie, Benin.

Day5_BurundiNgozi1-411Along a construction road, young boys and men haul bananas to roadside stands offering produce, charcoal grilled corn, meats, and assorted snacks – Northern Burundi.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-739-EditTraffic careens and passes the two-lane highways, passing villages, bustling markets and school courtyards. Traffic hazards are many for motors, cyclists and children heading to and from school – Northern Burundi.

For more visit http://www.CameronKarsten.com

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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: 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.

Next essay –>

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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.

Next essay –>

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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.

Next essay –>

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Vodou Footprints: Origins of Vodou (West Africa)

The Mono flows out into the sea on a bleak, wind and sand-blasted beach that is not very likely to entice you in for a swim…If your interest is in Voodoo then with luck (and some bravery) you might be able to persuade someone to paddle you over to one of the villages hidden on the backwaters where the Voodoo spirits are especially active…One village especially, Kpossou Gayou, would be fascinating to explore, but the chances of getting someone to take you are very remote because of the sheer power of the Voodoo here and the bad vibes surrounding it. It’s said that the fetish is so strong that almost anyone can hear it speaking quite openly and most of the boatmen in the area are much too frightened to take a foreigner there.

Butler, Stuart. “West of Cotonou.” In Benin: The Bradt Travel Guide. Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides, 2006.

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These were the words that sealed my fate—that stirred an inexplicably ancient power and compelled my to explore. Something deep within was awoken. Something unfamiliar, incomprehensible, perhaps unknowable. While the boatmen supposedly trembled with fear at the mysterious forces, I tingled with desire. With each new mist-shrouded image or wind-savaged vision, a growing vortex drew me down towards the vague, inscrutable center. Determined not to flee, I embraced it unnervingly.

The more I read, the more I realized the sheer inevitability. Wants became needs, and more than curious, I was famished for answers and driven by pure adventure. There was no turning back.

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But first, some backwater backstory: Vodou, established by short-term president Nicephoro Soglo, became the official religion of Benin on Jan. 10, 1996. Subsequently, this day became the National Day of Vodou, when the world’s largest Vodou festival occurs every year in the old slave port of Ouidah. And yes, I soon realized I was going.

A project plan emerged. Guesthouse. Driver. Guide. An itinerary with just enough structure, but purposefully rough to match the raw mystique of our journey. In total, 37 hours of travel, 37,000 feet above the earth, separated us from departure in Seattle to touchdown in Cotonou, the unofficial capital of this land called Benin. Across ocean, sea and desert, those fateful readings would finally come to life.

Of course, Vodou (or voodoo to our ears) is anything but the doll-and-pins novelty it’s often indifferently ascribed. Rather, it is an active mysticism that has weathered thousands of years on the continent of humanity’s birthplace. As such, in undertaking our own journey, we also endeavored to understand Vodou’s journey: from its cradle in West Africa, its reluctant passage across the unforgiving slave route, and its ultimate assimilation into the cultural and religious stew of the West—thousands of miles and meanings away from its native land. But I digress; it’s time to approach the destination ahead. Pluck up your courage. Open your eyes and ears to the spirits. And follow closely as we enter: Vodou Footprints – Origins of Vodou.

Next essay –>

Global-Educates

The heart of the Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

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Hamar territory – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia 

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An orphaned elephant being fed at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – Nairobi, Kenya 

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 A dry riverbed in the Lower Omo Valley. The government’s proposed dams have dried up the Hamar’s traditional water sources

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In the riverbed – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

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The Wild West of Nigeria – Niger Delta, Nigeria

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Jinka’s town square – Jinka, Ethiopia

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