The truck driver said that it was only half a kilometre down this rough dirt track. Distance was often a vague concept in this part of Africa and I could only hope that he was accurate. It was only nine in the morning and already a searing day. As we walked, debate was strong on whether this one of our more stupid ideas or a trip highlight.
In the main city of Ouidah, this small village came strongly recommended as a good place to see an authentic voodoo ceremony. Most people questioned thought it a strange request and looked at us oddly, but the story seemed to check out fairly consistently.
After an hour of walking (well beyond the estimated half kilometre), shirts drenched in sweat and legs caked in dust, we ventured apprehensively into the village and asked for the village elder. We gave him some eggs and vegetables as gifts bought at the local market in nearby Ouidah and were invited to stay and view the ceremony. Disappointingly, there was to be absolutely no photography (something to do with the spirits) but the welcome was overwhelmingly friendly. Though being the only westerners, it seemed the chief’s blessing made the entire village open and friendly.
The mere mention of voodoo back home conjured up images of the occult, black magic, juju men, pins being stuck into dolls and human and animal sacrifice. I guess there were small elements of some of these aspects, but voodoo appeared far deeper and more spiritual. The Ouidah markets were full of fetishes for sale including animal foetuses and skeletons of local wild animals. The sight of crocodile or monkey skulls glaring back was upsetting but remains an active ingredient into the population’s life.
Locally, they called it vodoun, being an official religion of Benin and Togo. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of the population follow some variant of vodoun. With the slave trade, this religion migrated to Haiti, Cuba, other Caribbean islands and parts of USA and Brazil. Somehow, it was renamed to voodoo during the migration.
Directed to some elegantly woven straw mats, we sat spellbound as offerings of food, chickens and blood to appease the spirits were made. These spirits governed the villager’s life, providing sustenance, good weather, protection and well-being. The vodoun ceremonies appeared to serve multiple purposes from celebrating the birth of a child, a wedding, significant dates, successful crops and to ward off bad omens.
After the offerings, the women started to dance to the rhythmic beating of drums. Slowly first, dust sprayed from the rapid-fire steps and swaying of the bodies, the dance growing ever more energetic and vibrant. The dance culminated with the women shaking uncontrollably, consumed by the spirits. Arms flailing helplessly, they lost control of their bodies before being guided into a spiritual hut.
Several women went through this same experience as the sun sank lower in the sky. Thanking the chief before returning to Ouidah, priests had prepared some potions for us (for a modest fee!), their benefits hidden by a deep-throated French explanation. We paid him and departed, somewhat alarmed at the thoughts of what could be inside these wrapped leaves.
We never rubbed the strange ashen offering into our skins nor kept the tiny objects, but left uplifted and bewildered by this complex spiritual experience.
There was almost no conversation on the road back to Ouidah, both lost in our own worlds having lived a day in a completely different world.