The gathering of Voodoo Tribes, Benin
Voodoo is one of the official religions in Benin, practiced by around 40 percentage of local population. In local ewe language, voodoo (Vodoun) means ‘spirit’.
Each year, in the beginning of January, various west african voodoo sects are gathering at the coastal town of Ouidah, Benin, to demonstrate their practices and celebrate.
The main celebration takes place on the beach called “The doors of no return” (La Porte du Non Retour) . It’s the place where the slaves were originally shipped from and voodoo have spread into Caribbean, parts of Brazil and Luisiana (USA).
It’s a system of animistic beliefs, where the spirits of animals and natural elements (water, earth, fire, wind) play the crucial role acting as a link between the living and the dead. The spirits are considered to be the manifestations of god Mawu and his helpers Orishas.
Different orishas representing different part of our human body and vibrates different energies. In the situations of need, locals call upon specific orisha to posses their bodies and guide them through difficult times.
Throughout the varieties of practices, rituals and spectacles – using palm oil, locally brewed gin, ceremonial dancing, and a number of local ingredients with unpronounceable names, the participants self-hypnotize themselves into trance stage, surrendering their bodies to be possessed by good spirits or vice-versa — performing the rituals of exorcism for those, who are believed to be possessed by the evil ones.
I got to Ouidah the night before the main celebration.
In the morning of the same day Beninian Embassy in Togo refused to give me a visa, so in order not to miss the event I had to make my move quickly and I decided to try my luck crossing the boarder through the jungle.
Google maps are helpless in such areas and no roads appeared on the map even on the closest zoom. The only useful thing I found was the river along the boarder that I imagined I could cross to get to another side. After arriving to the last village shown on the map I have started catching motorcycles through the tropical forest along the boarder asking drivers where I could cross the river to get to Benin without encountering the boarder patrol, drawing the map of the location at the same time to be able to come back easily.
After 5 hours I have found myself on the other side, all covered in red african earth dust from the sandy roads but happy and self-inspired by easy triumph.
The celebration have started the next day with a colorful procession of representatives of different voodoo sects, african dances and ridiculously huge amount of tourists that been promised ‘authentic african experiences’ for cosmic amount of money.
In african realities – tourists are money cows to be milked, but the sad truth is that they are milked by tourist companies, white hotel owners and local tourism bureau, leaving nothing for those, whose culture is being turned into theme park.
Even for taking pictures you have to pay for permission. Otherwise, as it was explained by one of the guides who tried to sell me permission, the evil spirits may posses random attendee to break my camera.
I was lucky enough to make local friends that offered their help to get me where I need on their motorcycle without paying any fees.
All the experiences I had there were close to surreal. The festival’s mis-en-scene have blended into a mix of voodoo rituals, superstitious fear of believers, the empathy of the tourists and loads of free gin, that had put big part of participants for three hours siesta before the celebration continued at night.
The evening celebrations were spread across the city throughout various temples and squares. The one I attended was the masqueraded dance of Egungun.
Egungun are considered to be heavenly beings representing the spirits of Yoruba, a Nigerian ethnic group. They are believed to be a collective force of ancestors who come to earth to restore balance, receive praise, and grant blessings.
The physical contact with the dancers is prohibited. Their outfits represent beings from the other world and touching it it might cause death for uninitiated.
On the other hand, the spirits throughout the dance might point at anyone from the audience and the chosen one have to donate money in order to be blessed instead of cursed.
The whole celebration left me with a very contradicted sense. After more than a decade of independent traveling, I have been a direct witness how tourism industries are reshaping the indigenous cultures.
I believe that travel cannot be confined to be permissible. We can allow ourself to participate, to experience the world as a living relation, stepping back from being passive observers that hide behind organized tours, and the whole question of permission is an illusion. As anyone who’s ever tried it will testify, intentional travel immediately opens one up to magical influences of random events breaking all kinds of borders -physical and metaphysical.