Voodoo Africa: TOGO & BENIN
Feb 12, 2007
David Rich 1200 Words
500 CFA (Benin & Togo)=$1
V O O D O O A F R I C A: T O G O & B E N I N
Have you been in Benin, or thought to go to Togo? This miniscule slice of Africa's Atlantic coast is the source of Voodoo, surely the world's most exotic religion. Voodoo spread to the Americas through the slave trade that mostly exited Africa from present-day Benin. The ancient kingdom of Ouidah in Dahomey, renamed Benin by French colonizers, carries on merrily as Benin's original port and the fountainhead of voodoo strongholds from Haiti to Brazil.
The seeds of the notorious slave coast of Africa began innocently enough. Benin's bloodthirsty tribes, the ferocity of which made the Incas look calm and considerate, enslaved captured warriors with a vengeance. This sealed the reputation of the king's 200 wives who, two millennia late, were considered by Europeans as the Greek-fabled Amazon army. The Fon tribe, dominating Dahomey, captured entire villages to enhance their leisure opportunity. Since the washing machine hadn't yet been invented they'd declare war on the neighbors; the losers washing clothes while the winning Amazons and their swains swayed in hammocks and sipped pina coladas.
Europeans traders sensed an entrepreneurial opportunity. They traded overpriced guns and ammunition to further encourage tribal wars, swapped the antecedent fabrics of cheap Chinese exports, foisted off tinny tools and knives, and then offered the most universal deal-closer: tobacco and liquor, even up for slaves. Sober African kings bargained artfully, getting rid of trouble-making enemy warriors, local criminals, the variously handicapped, incorrigible debtors, and those wives and subjects who'd dared to dis the king.
Both sides reckoned the trade as the height of humanity because exported slaves might otherwise be smeared with red palm oil and placed on anthills, or publicly executed as human sacrifices in yearly festivals. Accordingly, bargains were easily struck for over 200 years. Recalcitrant warriors and miscreants were shipped off to the Americas, eventually allowed to vote for the ancestors of European slave traders while a few gladiatorial warriors signed multi-million dollar basketball contracts. Benevolence in the slave trade continued as a growth industry from the late1600s until outlawed in 1840, slowly winding down until the winter of 1864-5 when a Sherman tank ground Dixie to dust.
Visiting the Dahomey capital of Abomey today may leave vacationists mud-villaged out. When the French invaded, the original dozen grand palaces were almost completely burned to the ground by the last king, and the remains have mostly eroded to hoodoos. Yet the ramshackle throne of the most powerful King Gezo (1818-58), surrounded by a four kilometer (2 ½ mile) mud fence cum World Heritage museum, still balances on the four skulls of unlucky enemies while several palaces sport the colorful coats of arms of successive kinfolk kings.
This history has forged the essential romance of voodoo, hyped by Hollywood into the sinister religion it isn't. Vodun means god, spirit, deified ancestor, and a heady excess of Roman Catholic Saints whirled into a broth bordering on the popular concept of voodoo, but without the sinister aspects. This African magic religion liberally mixed with French Catholicism has horribly evolved into the disaster of Haiti, coagulated by an uncertain number of other ingredients.
The Voodoo Priestess with whom I audienced in Togoville saw her holy role as finding husbands for some and getting rid of husbands for others, mixed with liberal doses of psychiatric counseling. Maman Kponou (name faithfully retained to check the accuracy of her predictions) consented to an audience with seven Western gringos. We were first required to cover our western clothing with a sarong, and remove wristwatches because Maman, or the religion, I couldn't fathom which, was intolerant of western objects. We were, however, allowed eastern cameras and many candid photos, which seemed fair enough after paying $5 a head and being continuously encouraged to contribute further indeterminate sums.
The audience with Mamam Kponou was well-worth the price of admission. The priestesses' teen daughter attended us topless while serving ritual shots of palm alcohol, palm wine distilled into nearly pure alcohol. After a weird clapping ceremony we were allowed to consult her most interesting holiness for the blessed solution to various personal problems. The upshot found Maman promising a New Ager that her boyfriend would definitely propose, and pretty darn soon. Having no personal problems worth mentioning I clicked off a dozen shots of audience surrounds.
Next day in the Togo highlands, a mere 2000 feet (600 M) but a cool relief from equatorial heat and humidity, I suffered a look-a-like voodoo ceremony punctuated by unending drumming, women congaing over each others' pulsating hindquarters, and a fire eater who almost burned his toes off. If we'd been at sultry sea level the place would have exploded.
Like all religions Voodoo offers song , which must be liberally defined when the band consists of kettle-like drums and a bugle. This meant major big time drumming for hours on end as the bugle boy slipped and slid among four notes. The resulting mayhem engendered the kind of dancing where outsiders make complete asses of themselves, but offered like all religions an opportunity for prayer, please strike the drumming ceremony dead.
Fortunately we'd been pre-dance fortified by gigantic bottles of beer, numerous fish, chewy chickens, and chips, true to some weird British overland tradition. No chickens were sacrificed though the fire eater appeared a bit singed. The only sacrifice was a slight tug on the tourist's wallet, and why ever not? Voodoo-created zombies result from a poison on the skin causing physical paralysis for hours, rather like the band affected me. Out of dozens of outsiders I was likely the only one who hated the entire performance as artificially mindless. I'd prefer a money-grubbing counseling session with a contemporary Amazon, Maman Kponou, high priestess of stylish African Voodoo.
When you go:
Benin and Togo glow with French cuisine and style, a welcome relief after the tension of Nigeria. Fly into Cotonou, Benin and chill out on Grand Popo beach where sea turtles migrate, almost on the Togo border, but then Togo is only 75 miles (125 Km) wide. The Auberge Grand Popo offers grand singles for $19 and doubles from $26, seaside view a few bucks more. They usually have water and sometimes electricity.
The combination ice cream parlor and coffee shop in Cotonou, (across from the big supermarket Leader Price, which is stuffed with French delicacies) offers decent wifi internet for $2.
In Agbodrago, across Lake Togo from Togoville where you'll consult Maman Kponou, stay out of town on the lake at Auberge du Lac, the bar and hotel hosted by genial Abraham.
Oudiah is a dusty hot town with no real restaurants but you can buy tasty street morsels. After donning chains walk the four kilometer (two plus mile) slave walk to the Arch of No Return, after circling the Tree of Forgetfulness just before the shore, where slaves were stuffed into ships' holds like sardines, and a high percentage died or committed suicide on the way to the Caribbean or Brazil. Or you can less morbidly trudge to the hokey Python Temple stuffed with a dozen torpid reptiles, one of which is immediately draped over the neck for photos; pay an extra $2, and why not? For the usual vivid Bruce Chatwin read The Viceroy of Oudiah.