© Dan White. No repro without permission.
November 24th, 2001 was a violent day in the city of Cotonou in the small West African country of Benin. Two terrified Nigerian men running for their lives were chased through the streets by a mob of hundreds bent on vengeance. For the people of Cotonou the Nigerians were sorcerers who with a touch of the hand and a murmured spell could make a man’s genitals disappear or cause a woman to be infertile. When the men were finally bought down the anger of the people was gruesome and terrifying. First they were beaten with stones and then, bloodied but still alive and conscious, they were set ablaze with a necklace of burning tires. Their screams met only with curses and laughter. For the mob this was justice against those who abused the powers of voodoo.
I am on my way from Continou to the voodoo centre of Ouidah. I want to find out what it is that would make men wreak such terrible atrocities on their fellow man. Sitting between four large women and a goat in a battered old Peugeot 504 I am disturbed by the fact that the car is going at about 120 miles an hour and my nervousness is not helped by the fact that there are wrecked and crashed cars piled by the side of the road at alarmingly frequent intervals. It’s not only the goat that is bleating. The other passengers seem oblivious. Maybe they feel immune in ways that I don’t understand to the consequences of driving without due care and attention. Here in Benin voodoo is not a suspect cult of curses and zombies. Here voodoo is the national religion and the battle between good and evil is a constant struggle of the spirits. Fetishists and witchdoctors can save you from the curses of evil juju men or alternatively they have the power to do you great harm. Ouidah is at the heart of all voodoo. At the heart of Ouidah is the ‘Grand Daagbaa Hounoun’ – the chief voodoo priest in all Africa. His powers outmatch all others and his protection is sought by those suffering the curses of sorcerers and evil juju.
Entering the dusty streets of Ouidah we make our way up an unpaved track finally pulling up at the gates of a compound with dirty, white walls and flaking paint. This is the Vatican of voodoo and the place where the Grand Dagbaa Hounoun holds court. We are ushered into the courtyard by an unsmiling thug in a dirty vest who turns out to be one of the family. Inside the gate surrounded by some of his wives and a few of his children he sits. My companions from the peugeot throw themselves to the ground at his feet. I hang back. After blessings and prayers for the faithful he calls me forward. I hand him a bottle of gin – the necessary ‘gift’ from inquisitive foreigners who disturb his afternoon.
Ushered into a darkened room decorated with murals of his predecessors I am seated on an uncomfortable wooden stool. The Grand Hounoun sits, rather more comfortably, in a dirty white, plastic garden chair. In the corners of the room on the chipped earthen floor are little piles of, what look like, scrap metal and badly made wooden sculptures. They resemble the first efforts of an infant school art class. The impression is deceptive. These are powerful fetishes in which reside spirits to be feared, pandered to and placated.
One of the old man’s children, a solemn teenager, whispers to me in French to talk only through him and to be quick. “My father is weak. He is made weak by the curses of his rivals,” he says. “Tell me about the real voodoo,” I ask him. The Grand Hounoun whispers his answers into the ear of his son who tells me, “Voodoo is an old practice and it exists for good-doing, for the good of our society. It is a religion of life. Voodoo is not the evil some think it is. There are many bad things said by those who do not understand the spirits and the Gods.” The son adds, “My father makes good voodoo. He makes voodoo of the right hand. He protects people from those who do voodoo of the left hand. There are Juju men who try to hurt him with voodoo of the left hand.”
I ask him about the murders of the Nigerians a month before in Cotonou. The Grand Hounoun is looking at me with an ever more hostile gaze. It is unnerving. Again his son translates his words. “All people are afraid of the evil spirits. Those men were sorcerers of the left hand. You should be afraid too. For 100,000 francs my father says he can protect you with prayer.”
I don’t have the equivalent of a hundred pounds on me. I smile and ask if he can say a prayer any way. Neither the Grand Hounoun, nor his son smiles back. I am beginning to feel unwelcome and ill at ease. He brings the price down to fifty pounds, but I am beginning to think this smells like a protection racket. I think back to the car wrecks I ask him if he can protect me against the traffic. “For ten pounds my father will protect you against the traffic. For ten pounds more he will protect you against smallpox.” Since small pox was eradicated in 1981. I think the pope of all voodoo is pushing the envelope on this one. I give the 10,000 African francs to the son on the off chance that further road journeys may be a little less terrifying. As I leave this bargain basement of blessings and curses the son calls after me,. “you will be at the beach tomorrow? It is our national voodoo day and my Father will make sacrifices for the good of the people.”
I will be there I tell him, but in truth I don’t know if I will feel truly welcome.
Early next morning the sound of drums and the shrieks of the hysterical grow ever louder as I approach the beach. A crowd of thousands has gathered to celebrate voodoo. Ranks of women dressed in white take it in turns to dance ever more frenetically as the drummers push the rhythms to greater heights. As the ceremonies reach their pinnacle the procession of the Grand Hounoun comes into view. It is a strange combination of Lawrence of Arabia and a school day trip. A tatty looking minivan is flanked by wild horsemen from the northern desert wastes of the Sahel. The Grand Hounoun is helped out of the van. He is in his finest ceremonial clothes. The sequined top hat sits on a head swathed in a lurid black and white spotted scarf. He looks as if he has borrowed his outfit from a 1970s suburban housewife. His huge hooped earrings are offset by the virulent lime green of his gown. At his side is the equally psychedelically attired King of Allada. It’s difficult to see the King’s face because his crown is decorated with a curtain of beads obscuring the whole of his head. As the pair make their way through the crowd the bodyguard horsemen ride down those who get too close. The hooves of their horses only narrowly miss skulls and limbs.
The Grand Hounoun takes his throne and the King of Allada starts to speak in praise of the Grand Hounoun and shouts to the crowd, “Voodoo is life! Long live his excellency the Grand Hounoun! Voodoo is life!” The crowd erupts into a frenzy. The man standing next to me shouts in my ear, “Last year his excellency The grand Hounoun cooked a goat in sea water. He took the uncooked flesh into the sea and when he came back the flesh was cooked!” This year the old man looks too weak to boil an egg let alone poach a goat in brine.
The crowd falls to an expectant hush as this year’s ill-fated goat is led to a stone altar in front of the throne. As the goat is lifted onto the dais the people push forward in a crowd that threatens to crush those at the front. The Grand Hounoun is helped to the altar and with an effortless strength that seems strange in someone so sick he lifts the goat to the height of his own face. Looking directly into the eyes of the animal he murmurs messages to be passed on to the spirits in the parallel world of the dead. They are pleas for the protection of the living. The goat is then laid on the stone, its throat pressed against the altar. The knife is stabbed into it’s jugular and the blood starts to pour. The Grand Hounoun looks ready to collapse and he is carried back to his throne while the King of Allada flings out lemons to the crowd from a sack. This puzzles me. I ask the man beside me what is the significance of the lemons. He looks at me as if I am an idiot. “We like them. They are very refreshing.”
I leave the crowds to the dancing and their gin and their lemons. I make my way back up the Route d’Esclaves – the ‘Road of Slaves’. The sound of the drums growing ever more distant mingles with the sound of the surf from the Atlantic breakers. Now this road is just a dusty track but for four hundred years it was the road that lead to a holocaust. I am able to gently walk the one-mile return journey back to Ouidah. For millions of men, women and children this road was a one-way journey. A journey that led to slavery or death in shackles and chains. The men beaten the women often raped, twenty million souls from this part of West Africa were packed into slave ships and transported to the Americas in conditions of inhuman brutality. They were sold by their fellow Africans for profit.
Of the twenty million loaded on to the ships of the European traders who took full advantage of the brutality of the warlords, it is estimated that only half survived the dreaded middle passage. Others died in conditions of overcrowding, disease and brutality that are almost too horrific to contemplate. Those that did survive the horrors of the journey were sold into generations of further misery as slaves in the plantations of the new world. One of the things they took with them from this was voodoo. The road is lined with fetishes to remember those who were taken from their homes forever.
King Gezo – one of the most brutal Kings of the empire of Dahomey said of the trade, “The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth, the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery.”
The Kingdom of Dahomey was not an empire built on sympathy.
Abomey was the seat of the empire of Dahomey and it remains a place where voodoo is pure and unsullied. I reach it in three hours. The roads seem clearer. The driver seems calmer. Perhaps a tenner well spent.
There is not much left of past glories. Some decaying remains of the royal palace, King Gezo’s throne mounted on human skulls. Apart from that it’s just a dusty, small, West African town. As dusk falls I walk through town on my way back to my hotel disappointed that there is so little here of interest.
Then I hear the sound of drums. As darkness falls the number of people drifting in one direction seems to grow. I follow the crowd to a clearing just out of town. People look round. I am greeted with, “Bonsoir Yove!” meaning, “hallo white man!” and led to a place at the front of the crowd. It turns out not to be a good position. Into the clearing rush four figures completely shrouded from head to toe and wielding swords. They are fighting a battle of spirits. It is hard to tell who is good and who is evil. They are all equally terrifying. They swing their swords against each other with all their strength and it seems a miracle that no one is hurt considering the fact that the ‘spirits’ have their eyes covered. I make the mistake of taking a photo and as the flashgun fires one of the spirits tares across the clearing coming straight for me with his sword, like a bullfighter on LSD. He jabs it repeatedly at my face. The point comes within inches of my eyes and nose. Children are screaming and scattering. The spirits earthly minders – thankfully men with big sticks – beat at his ankles and feet in an effort to get him to withdraw. An old woman shouts, “Give him money! Give him money!”
I throw all the money I have in my pocket at the feet of the masked figure, put my camera away and move to the back of the crowd. The spirit retreats. I have been taught a lesson in voodoo etiquette.
After the spirit dancers come the hounas. These are the mediums between worlds. They are the priests and the witchdoctors. Again the drums build to a frenzy. The chief Hououn in virulent green with her face caked in white powder spins and turns sometimes seeming as if she will collide with the crowd. She wields the axe of ‘Shango’, the God of thunder and lightening. Her acolytes, one of whom has a hat that is a giant wooden phallus, dance around her and behind her. The priestess is now in a trance her body stiffening and her eyes rolling back in her head. Possessed and shaking she falls into the arms of others who hold her still while the spirits talk.
Now it seems as if the Hounas are dancing in competition, the men flinging themselves round the circle in half somersaults. A priest with his body painted in white spots and a vast sprouting headdress is leaping high into the air bounding from one side of the arena to the other.
As this intense orchestra of drums and ecstasy is played out before my eyes it occurs to me that Voodoo is a word that strikes fear and suspicion into the hearts of many westerners. But maybe we have been misinformed. The much-maligned voodoo of Hollywood films is about evil. Zombies and voodoo dolls work well in the plot of James Bond films. But voodoo is not about evil. Voodoo is about power. Like all power it can be frightening. As the drums come to a halt and the crowd starts to disperse I think of the western voodoo of water into wine, saints and miracles, internet and telephones. The words of the King of Allada come back to me. Voodoo is life.