Taking part into the Ouidah International Voodoo festival in Benin is certainly a unique experience. From every point of view.
On 10th January every year (but always check in place, never forget we are in Africa so everything yardstick is absolutely unlike ours) in Ouidah, in Benin, the International Voodoo Festival takes place.
This event attracts people from all over the world, both from the whole Benin where voodoo is still alive and a part of the local culture, and from the many overseas countries like Brazil, Jamaica, Haiti and the Caribbean in general: they are tied to this place due to that thin and remote (but never forgotten) thread of the salves’ transportation to America.
Along the Benin main line from north to south you can see lorries loaded of all sorts of things.
In this period cotton is taken southwards, towards the coast, to be shipped and exported. The quantity is incredible. Full roads, full parking, cotton flying everywhere.
You enter the voodoo areas: the International Voodoo Festival takes places in the most active heart. Here Voodoo practically embraces every religion.
You realize it by the signs on people’s faces: they have very complicated rituality and meaning which vary according to the area. It’s impossible to understand them all and explain them here!
Fetishes markets you’ll run into in the Voodoo villages are really many. I mean real markets, not those ones for tourists organized in the great centres or in the capital, which even keep their charm and have the great advantage to be photographed without a pain in the neck!
The locals go to these markets and buy all sorts of things. We learnt the meaning of flags and fetishes, colours and practices, odd ceremonials and signs and symbols you run into in remote places in the middle of the countryside.
The Voodoo symbols you run into in the middle of the fields and on the secondary roads are many.
White people are strictly forbidden to close to and if you want to take some photographs you have to do it very quickly and before they can see you.
Unfortunately they are a bit complicated areas for the white tourists.
Here the relationship with white people, tourism and money is very complicated and difficult, more than in other parts of Africa. But let this considerations for the next time.
We arrive after kilometres and kilometres of dusty and uneven roads surface, without any indications, to a village where there’s a very big market, one among those villages you don’t even find on Google Maps!
We join the frain. Our driver stay to check the jeep.
A nice boy, for nothing invasive, accompanies us trying to speak a bit of English. I don’t know if here they have ever seen tourists and white tourist. They observe us with a bit of mistrust.
It’s one among the most interesting and authentic places. The voodoo fetishes stalls are incredible.
They don’t want photos and sell all sorts of dead animals, dried and putrefied, big and small, turtle’s shells, insects, birds, mice, chameleons, rattles, dolls, pins and gooseflesh gadgets…and a lot of objects we don’t even understand the meaning and the origin.
Yeah! There are also the dolls pierced with pins so common in the collective imaginary and they are really very bad!
Sì! Ci sono anche le bamboline trafitte dagli spilloni così comuni nell'immaginario collettivo e sono davvero bruttissime!
At some point we reach the river bank bordering Togo and Benin.
The scene is very particular and fascinating: really many people, the canoes taking people and goods back and forth, on the stalls everything is sold, bright colours and intense smells. An incredible coming and going of canoes among the waterlilies!
I observe these stalls, I try to take some photographs and I try to understand everything is around me. Fabulous in its extemporaneousness!
But I cannot help to think about the usual “zoo effect”, the feeling of living here, as well I cannot help to think about the huge energies these people lavish with voodoo and with these traditions. How many lives could be saved whether they were use for medicines and hospitals!
But my mental lucubration last less!
The inevitable policeman sees us and points us. I have talked to you before about how the corruption is spread and annoying.
He makes us call by a guy, he doesn’t even move, we have to go near him. Who wants to pretend nothing! Well! It’s better not to look for trouble. Nothing dangerous never happened to us, but we had very often the bad feeling the situation could be degenerate in a minute…like when we found ourselves surrounded by about fifteen boys with a machete.
But what happens after is a parallel reality…or maybe is the normality that I persist not to consider as like that! The policeman sends the child away badly and starts to discuss with us. He doesn’t speak English, of course. The discussion becomes endless and exhausting.
He wants our passports: it’s a common practice, but here you never have to give the passports to whoever isn’t authorized to ask for them, neither if it’s the police or other uniforms. The won’t give them back to you unless you give them very high amounts you will be forced to pay. We tell him they are in the car so there our driver will think about it.
So the policeman once got that he won’t get money, goes on and he forbids us to stay there in the market: we cannot see it, we have to go away immediately, but not alone. One among his appointee taken at the moment will accompany us to our car.
We are definitely angry in front of these abuses of power….but we cannot do nothing. We are guests and they make laws!
We walk slowly to enjoy still a bit this place, even if our mood isn’t one of the best. We reach our jeep making our way through all sorts of charlatans (properly advised in advance by our companion), who improvise ridiculous dances with the only aim to extort money from us.
We are quite annoyed. We get on the car and we leave without paying the bribe, while our companion protests angry: he has to take the money to the policeman! Only the cleverness and the place’s knowledge of our Jolinako Eco Tours driver solve the situation. At the end we left unharmed!
But it’s a shame not be able to camouflaging ourselves a bit better to observe this life in its own normality. To us it’s absolutely impossible to understand it, but approach this cacophony of sounds and colours, smells (often unpleasant) and objects beyond description, even for less, it was really particular ad interesting!
But let’s come back to the Ouidah Voodoo International Festival.
It’s an event attracting apprentices from all over the world and onlookers like us who find themselves hereabouts. It’s an event to watch and…enough!
Comments and considerations cannot be expressed!
First of all, the location of the International Voodoo Festival is creepy. Everything takes place around the door of no return: it’s the door crossed by slaves before transportation to Americas, the place many participants come from.
There are many of them on these beaches in the Gulf of Guinea: our mind cannot help to try to imagine what happened in the old days and the level of suffering and desperation.
The places of the International Voodoo Festival are moving. The slaves chosen went for the last time to the Temple of Python to pray, then a ceremonial of turns around the holy tree which aimed to make forget forever about the place they come from and where they will have never again returned to.
Then 4km under the scorching sun (here it’s really scorching beyond every imagination!) to walk and reach the beach, the “great hole” where the sick and the dead were thrown, and the beach where the door of no return was crossed and people embarked.
We don’t have even the time to think about all this and settle these thoughts. People continue to arrive on foot, by motorcycle, by car and by every possible and imaginable mean.
Adults and children, everyone with their own very colourful clothes. It’s already very hot, really, really very hot.
We are swallowed up by people, by princes, by kings and queens of the international Voodoo Festival. By noise, by sounds, by rhythmic music, by percussions, by colours.
Here Voodoo is considered a good practice and embraces transversally all religions.
It’s curious to see Christians, Muslims and Animists practicing Voodoo. I don’t know well whether consider it a very good example of integration or simply a mixed big melting pot!
It’s incredible how for them this International Voodoo Festival is whole true and real. They believe it, it’s not a recital for tourist like I thought before to arrive here to the International Voodoo Festival, even better….maybe for the first time the white people are finally quite ignored.
To take photographs freely you need to have a pass (about 30$). They leave you in peace if you have got it.
Everything has a price and here usually the price is absolutely out of market!...but you don’t pay the entrance to the festival!
Groups keep arriving always more numerous among shouts and quarrels for chairs and better seats.
People around us go into a trance, dance, sing, cackle, roll in the sand, drink gin, complete rites, slaughter animals and lick their hot blood spouting.
Yeah, you got it right, it’s useless to read again!
In front of this scenes I feel sick. It would be easy to abandon oneself to phrases and commonplaces, I don’t deny I have thought all of them. You add the hot weather, the smells, the stink…
The International Voodoo Festival ends with the sacrifice of the goat. I shot the video without watching.
The same applies to the numerous hens. I don’t know if I will ever have the courage to post these videos.
Once again it’s useless for us to understand or identify oneself. And I say luckily.
I cannot talk with belief of different culture. I could do it in the name of the politically correct and it would solve probably many criticism to this post.
But I cannot think that only in the backwardness and in ignorance, in the lack of culture and education, these practices root strongly keeping the population in the misery for benefit of few.
Many other things occur to me thinking about the several devastating scenes I saw during my long on the road.
Or maybe I am. I cannot be able to enjoy the smile of thousand children around, without think that in a year many of them will be dead when it would be enough an antibiotic to save them.
I cannot be bale to enjoy the colours and the percussions of a Voodoo rite asking for fortune and richness, without think that it would be enough working to get them.
I cannot be able to consider the resolutions of the love suffering, among white flags and several fetishes as coloured externalizations of a population, but only as useless and stupid practices.
What about then the health requests? They are the worst and they give me really intolerance.
What about the mothers taking their ill children to the Voodoo ladies when it would be enough to take them to the near mission where certainly they can get a box of antibiotics?
Or what about the mothers themselves that when the rite doesn’t work pester you to you take away their own child and ask you how much you can pay him?
Here everyone has the mobile phone, the internet connection and they speak French. It’s not impossible to understand a bit what happens outside their borders instead of listening to music only.
I would have really a lot to say about what I saw and what I was told.
It’s better to stop. I cannot express certain thoughts and maybe is right like that. I limit myself to observe.
I do this in silence, thanking, once again, to be born, with no merit, in the right and lucky part of the world!