Voodoo Festival in Benin

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Voodoo priests and adepts in their striking outfits during the Allada celebrations

When someone mentions the word “voodoo”, the first thing that usually springs to mind is black magic and all the negative connotations associated with it. Voodoo is also viewed as being something evil and often conjures up thoughts of bad ju-ju and wicked spells.

However, these perceptions are misleading and completely inaccurate. They are, in fact, misconceptions. Voodoo has definitely been portrayed in a bad light by Hollywood with its sensationalized and ill-informed depictions of zombies or sticking pins into dolls!  Unfortunately, these portrayals are not only untrue but also incredibly insulting and demeaning to an ancient religion which actually promotes many of the same values as the monolithic faiths. Many of these misconceptions go back to the times of slavery, when Voodoo first came to the attention of European slave traders, who were busy profiting from the pain and suffering of others, in what was probably the most inhumane atrocity of our time: the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. They not only feared Voodoo itself, but also, (and even more so) the power that Voodoo gave the slaves. Viewing it as something strange, eerie, threatening and linked to the supernatural, they sought to snuff it out. Despite their attempts,  Voodoo crossed the oceans into the New World, where it remained a prominent and meaningful religion to those who continued to practice it. It even aided numerous slave uprisings and fuelled the only successful slave revolution in history, on the island of Haiti, where the slaves of African descent overthrew their European rulers and took control of the country. This instilled a growing sense of fear in slave owners and those who controlled the slave trade, as they came to associate Voodoo with bloodshed and rebellion. This further demonized Voodoo in the eyes of Westerners. It was during this time that Voodoo became linked with devil worship, as slave owners (the majority being Christians), actually believed that some of the slaves made a pact with the devil in exchange for their freedom.

Christian missionaries, and later, the colonialists, would try to put an end to Voodoo – to diminish its following, quell its practice and convert its believers. They believed these ‘non-believers’ needed to be ‘saved’ from the evils of Voodoo, but this was just a cover up to conceal their true agenda, which was to convert the Africans to a religion where they could be controlled and subdued. But it was not meant to be – it would never die, nor fade away….Voodoo would endure through it all.

Of course, over time, it mixed and inter-twined with others faiths along the way, which is why a hybrid of the original Voodoo exists in the Caribbean, Brazil and parts of the United States today.

To visit the tiny West African nation of Benin, is to truly discover the source of the religion and to begin to understand and de-mystify the practice of Voodoo. This involves opening our minds and freeing ourselves from the misconceptions and stereotypes we once believed to be real and setting aside our ignorance and our fear.

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Local women gather to join in the celebrations at the Royal Palace in Allada

Though many Christians denounce Voodoo today, it is important to note that Voodoo is neither devil worship, nor is it a cult. It is a bona-fide religion in many parts of West Africa, not just in Benin, but also in Togo, Nigeria and parts of Ghana. We need to bear in mind that it was the Europeans who introduced Christianity to Africa and the Arabs who brought with them, the religion of Islam. Yet long before these religions ever reached African shores, the indigenous populations were practicing their own form of ancestor worship.

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His Majesty, Dada Daagbo (in blue), the supreme priest of Voodoo in Ouidah

Today, Voodoo is recognized as a legitimate religion in Benin, and in fact, is the official religion of the country. Also known as Vodon or Vodou, it centers around the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth. There is a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities, governing the forces of nature and human society, to the spirits of things found in nature, such as rivers, streams, trees, and rocks. A big part of Voodoo is ancestor worship and followers believe that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living.

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An explosion of colour – the costumes were decorated with sequins, cowrie shells, dyed chicken feathers and many other materials

The Creator embodies a dual cosmogonic principle – Mawu is the moon and Lisa, the sun, and they represent both the male and female aspects respectively. All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine, which is why even trees are recognized as having divine power and herbal remedies are used as medicine. Mother Nature, in all her various forms,  also holds the power of the divine.

So now that you have a better understanding of what Voodoo is, its origins and beliefs, I’d like to share more about our amazing trip to the annual Voodoo festival in Ouidah, Benin. The festival, which takes place annually in January, is a big celebration, drawing crowds of tourists and locals alike. We also attended a more intimate ceremony at the Royal Palace in Allada, which I found more authentic as it was low-key and less touristy, whereas I found the one at Ouidah to be more of a “show”. Both were colourful, frenetic and mesmerizing and I will definitely go back again next year! The costumes were out of this world and watching the local spectators spontaneously burst into trance was quite something! As an animal lover, I found some of the sacrificial aspects difficult to stomach (I chose not to watch the slaughter of a large cow) but I did see countless chickens offered up to the gods and one or two goats lined up to face a similar fate.

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A chicken is sacrificed, surrounded by palm oil, used extensively throughout the ceremonies

My absolute favourite part of the spectacle was when a group of Egunguns – masqueraded figures, said to be manifestations of the spirits of departed ancestors, who periodically re-visit the living, especially during times of celebration – dressed in colourful costumes, appeared out of nowhere. Swishing their capes, they caused an absolute frenzy amongst the locals. Their handlers could not control their wild behaviour, as they kicked up a huge cloud of red dust while they danced and contorted like crazy Sufi whirling dervishes down the dirt path.

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The enigma that is the Egungun!

There is something deeply spiritual about the Voodoo religion that really resonates with me. As someone who is not religious, (I do not follow the religion I was born into -Christianity), I really identify with the concept of natures role in all aspects of life. After all, everything in nature was created by the Creator (whoever he/she/it may be). The Creator may not even necessarily be called God/Allah/HaShem. I feel most at peace when I’m in nature and I believe that spending time in nature is the closest we can get to our Maker.

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Devotees attend the celebration held on the beach near the poignant Door of No Return, constructed to honour the captured Africans who were sold into slavery and shipped to the New World

I was also really intrigued by how this religion managed to out-live all European attempts to suppress and destroy it and how it adapted and evolved to its new surroundings to continue to bring solace to its followers, even in their darkest of days. And how even in modern times, it is revered and celebrated and brings pure ecstasy to all those who believe in it!

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Another devotee at the Ouidah festival
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A young boy performs a special dance wearing this elaborate costume
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Whirling and twirling into a trance
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Women devotees performing a dance, which involved exaggerated forward movements of the shoulders
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Men covered in palm oil, possessed by the spirits, dance in a trance-like state
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