In the tiny West African nation of Benin, Voodoo remains an official practised religion with Ouidah, only 70km from the capital of Porto Novo, said to be its birthplace.
A relaxed and relatively prosperous beach town with French-run resorts lining the expanse of golden sand that runs to either side, Ouidah is best known for its role in the 17th-19th century Atlantic slave trade. It is from here that countless African slaves were loaded onto ships and sent to the Americas, taking their deep-rooted beliefs with them. Today the spot is marked by a memorial arch on the water’s edge – ‘The Door of No Return’.
In the centre of the city is the Python Temple from where more than 50 pythons roam free – and protected. Dedicated to the serpent deity Dangbé, it is always open should you wish to sit on the cool cement floor among them. Opposite it is the 20th-century Roman Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Maison de Brésil, the former residence of the Brazilian Governor, which showcases African art and regional culture. On the outskirts, the Sacred Forest of Kpassé introduces sculptures and wooden carvings of Voodoo deities.
The Portuguese St. John the Baptist of Ouidah Fort constructed in 1721 to administer slave exports, is a landmark from which to trace the 5 mile Slave Route and final walk made by thousands of slaves towards the Atlantic coast, many dispatched by the notorious slave trader Dom Francisco de Souza long after the abolition of slavery.
Today however, it is the practice of Voodoo that draws visitors to Ouidah.
Every January the Festival of Voodoo sees thousands of followers, traditional leaders and feticheur join a procession that culminates with the head priest in attendance and many of the worshippers in a deep trance. Egun masks conceal identities and mock attacks on bystanders bring shrill screams drowned only by the rhythmic drums, as believers twirl and swirl in a disorientating frenzy of colour that equally thrills and intimidates.
A deeply-rooted yet largely misunderstood religion, in this slice of authentic and undiscovered Africa, it is a true travel privilege to explore and witness this ancient religion in motion. In Benin, Voodoo is far more than a belief system – it is a way of life that governs everyday existence.
Benin. Formerly Dahomey. Forever my African Queen.
I wrote this after my visit there. A mysterious beauty, unpredictable by nature, there are secrets that Africa holds close to her heart. Brave yet vulnerable. Once encountered she’s found infinitely desirable and in this her charm and the draw of our beloved continent. Its also exactly how I found Benin when I travelled there a few years back.
With visits to Southern and East African countries to my name, and as a child of Africa myself, I thought I had tasted the magic and resilience. Yet I needed to touch on the bulge of Africa to find her core – and mine. Joining consultants developing farming projects for a local non-profit, I was lucky enough to spend ten days recceing this narrow strip of land that’s tightly tucked between Togo and Nigeria with Burkina Faso and Niger as Northern boundaries.
History weaves tales of the time when Benin was ruled by the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 17th and 18th century. Known as the slave coast, it is from here that large numbers of slaves were shipped to the ‘new world’ during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the time. Slavery was abolished and France took over the country as French Dahomey, leaving their language and strong food culture among their influences. In 1960 Dahomey gained independence from France, but it was only in 1991 that it becomes the Republic of Benin. As we find it today.
Arriving in coastal Cotonou via Libreville, the humidity left dust dripping from my skin as I yearned for a better command of French, the only language I heard in the cities. Noise and effective chaos. The coastline welcomes the few tourists it sees with warmth and sticky air, sweet aromas and friendly smiles. The colourful traditional clothing a vision.
I was committed to seeing all that I could. Assigned a driver and translator guide, with a central hotel as a base, I spent my first full day in Ouidah. Well known as the Voodoo Capital of the World. The Sacred Forest of Kpasse and a real Voodoo Doll I saw here are imprinted on my memory.
The Portuguese, Dutch, English and French all constructed forts in this area to protect their slaving industry. The most popular being the Portuguese St. John the Baptist of Ouidah Fort, which I visited. Very good for a history of the exploitation of the Dahomey people, by the Europeans and their own leaders.
My highlight was the Python Temple in the middle of Ouidah village, where more than 50 pythons roam free and protected. If you find one in your house it is considered a good omen, and they are given free rein until they opt to return. I sat here among them, still and content. Reaching out and touching their silky skin as they neared. Life-size effigies grace the homes nearby; gorgeous, expressive, real. Their role to ward off evil spirits.
This is the coast from which the slaves were taken, today aptly named the Door of No Return. A monument stands here reminding of this cruel time. There is a heaviness in the air, a chill despite the heat of the temperature. The ocean seems to still mourn the loss of its people.
After my initial day’s introduction to the history, good and awful, my time was spent travelling the length of the country on Benin’s only tarred road. My guide forever offering snippets of information on what we were seeing. We ventured into numerous remote areas where farmers were struggling to sustain themselves. The non-profit was introducing vines, hardy and reasonably easy to grow. In time they would produce fruit, juice and raisins.
Furrows were dug to bring water, baby vines planted beside the yams, red dust flying, hope cultivated. The crop took to the dry ground and flourished under the impressive local farmer’s care. 150 vines had been sent from the Cape Winelands three months prior and my visit formed part of a follow-up and training program. How to nurture, prune and trellis.
I was privileged enough to spend time near the Burkina Faso and Niger borders. Here water came from wells and the children I encountered cowered as they had never before seen white people. Dropping what they were carrying they ran crying at the sight of me, screaming ‘ghost, ghost’ in Edo. Was my role here good or evil?
All along the way, there were friendly people, curious young, different cultures to learn about. From tattoed faces and everyday makeup to true poverty and tribal adornments. Most hotels are owner-managed by eccentric French escapists who have encountered the romance of Africa and years later, cannot leave. They served fresh salad, intricate sorbet and gourmet delicacies that seem out of place here. Rooms throughout were simple, a bed with a cotton sheet, private shower/toilet wet room, cold water only, welcome air-conditioning.
In every centre, the trading goes on around the clock. Scooters and pushcarts, cooking, talking, moving. Street food I found impossible to resist, and some that I couldn’t partake of. Such as the chickens, agouti and pythons are seen for sale below. Yet the warmth and hospitality resound in the rejoicing of Africa, and places like these are there to be learnt from.
Among it all, the most fascinating was an impromptu visit to an animists’ home. Sacrifices to the ancestors laid out throughout. A religion I still know little about. Elsewhere Catholic influenced Churches and Muslim mosques. Side by side, there was no animosity to be found here. With my project complete I returned to Cotonou for a regroup with the project leaders and ex-pats. There was bubbly with them in a posh hotel, shopping for Tuareg jewellery, a Benin bronze leopard that needed a new home and much walking of the streets.
It was a different me that boarded my flight home. I had been seduced by the real Africa. Tasted her very essence. Embedded in my soul, I thanked Benin for reminding me that even though my love for international travel lives forever strong, it is Africa that will always hold my wandering heart.
* This is part of my StayHomeTravelLater – KeepDreamingAboutTravel collective, posted as the world tackles the COVID-19 pandemic.