Vodou Footprints: A Faraway Land in Benin’s Cradle of Vodou


Geography, for many Americans, is that daunting and embarrassing mystery—a dim knowledge largely confined to wartime allies, historical enemies, and the occasional topical hotspot. Beyond this so-called important handful—Western Europe, the Middle East, possibly China or Japan—everything else is clumped together into a world of unknowns.

When I told acquaintances of my impending trip, the average response was somewhere between hesitance and puzzlement. Like a jargoning doctor to the common patient, my words didn’t ring many bells.

Well, perhaps Benin is a faraway land.


Admittedly, I too couldn’t place Benin in its exact location prior. West Africa, I’d say evasively, somehow hopeful that several nations would willingly surrender their unique identities to their greater region. Technically, I wasn’t wrong. But not surprisingly, I soon discovered that Benin deserved far more respect and scrutiny than I had originally expected. Take a closer look and you’ll begin to unravel a majestic tangle of complexity and misconception.

Benin borders Nigeria’s western edge, touches Togo’s eastern boundary, and supports Niger and Burkina Faso above. It is one of those tiny West African countries that stretch north to south. Sneeze and you’ll miss it. In fact, picture Africa’s western shoreline as a nose. Benin sits just beyond where the mouth and the nose would meet—at the nostrils, if you will—a sliver of land anchored by the fabled Bight of Benin.

And then there’s magic. In the West, the word conjures up David Blaine, television’s greatest living magician. A levitating, fire-breathing, death-defying illusionist. A beloved celebrity of record-setting endurance. A talent, no doubt. From the Beninese perspective, however, he is not a man of magic. Call him master of deception. Magic in Benin is a way of life.


Everywhere there is magic. It’s in the red earth of the landscape, the throbbing fury of the sun, and the relentless currents of the great flowing rivers. It’s their religion—a religion in which the interactions between nature and humanity are cherished and respected every day. Magic is Vodou. And with 4,000 years of magic backing it up, Benin is the undisputed cradle of Vodou.

Personally, I believe in magic, both as a form of deception as well as a supernatural expression of the energies beyond ordinary comprehension. For millennia, Homo sapiens—the self-proclaimed wise man—has existed, evolved, and generally erred, all the while attempting to explain: What lies beneath? What forces create the churning seas of the ocean and the gyrating clouds of the sky? What energies course through veins and roots alike? Indeed, what does our cunning and craft amount to aside vast incomprehensibilities? Our attempts to solve breed yet further questions. No matter our advancements or industry, the sun still rises and the moon ever orbits to a language seemingly all their own.


Countless cultures have contrived to explain these fundamental phenomena. Some grow. Most fade beneath the all-consuming flames of war and oppression. And yet, incredibly, amidst the largest powerhouses of the world, there exists a small country—undeterred by the folly of others and sorely ravaged by the horrible histories of slavery—where the primeval practices still prevail and the honor of the mysteries of the world take precedence.

Cast aside the linear mindset and the textual teachings of the West. Simply observe what is before you and what has come to pass. Only then will you understand Benin. Here the supernatural and natural worlds converge; everyday occurrences take on special meanings; and the privileged traveler may join the setting sun into the obscurity of a secret and sacred society to appreciate the mysteries of what Benin declares its official religion: the worship of the Vodou.


It is a world of shadow and dance. Of masks, scars, and tattoos. A country where Kings remain the Kings of Kings, and the leopard and snake reign in the household tale. Feel the pulsing rhythm of Vodou, transcend the merely tangible, and let the beat of the drum lift your mind into the realm of the metaphysical. Once you have crossed this threshold, once you have heeded this singular call, the world around can never be the same.

For us, there is no retreat. There is only the universal language of Vodou, and together we will drink from this bottomless cup.

Together we’ll reach a faraway land.

Next essay –>








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.


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.


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 –>


The heart of the Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia


Hamar territory – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia 


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


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


In the riverbed – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia


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Jinka’s town square – Jinka, Ethiopia