Bowing Before Gods:
A Yovo Encounters Voodoo in Benin
“Yovo, you will be beaten! Don’t you see what’s ahead?” The Beninese locals are terrified. Actually, I do see the otherworldly figure walking towards me, but as a foreigner and yovo (the West African term for white person), I am not sure of the danger. Would spirits from another land, another belief system, really want to hurt me? Secure in this logic, and anxious to get home before it gets dark, I continue to push my bicycle through the astonished crowd.
It is the evening of the annual International Voodoo Festival in Ouidah, Benin, the coastal West African town where I teach music at an American-funded arts center. The major festivities of the day were held on the beach in front of the giant archway marking the Point of No Return, the beach from which Europeans sent shiploads of slaves to the Americas in past centuries. Benin is on what is called the Slave Coast, and on my days off I sometimes ride my bike on the Slave Route from the historic auction square, Place Chacha, where slaves were selected and branded, down to the water, where an enterprising hotel has set up a saltwater pool with views of the ocean.
On this sandy road, I’m frequently taunted and asked for money. Once, when trying to take a picture of a little boy in his boat, the kid threw mud at me. At which point, my friend Lydia, also a white foreigner, turned to me and asked, “What did we ever do to them?” to which I smiled and raised my eyebrows. “Wait, don’t answer that,” she said.
The International Voodoo Festival marks National Voodoo Day, an official Beninese holiday celebrated each January which draws a pilgrimage of voodoo followers and adventure tourists from all over the world. The main event features official speeches, traditional dancing and drumming, and the showing-off of newly-sewn outfits made from brightly colored, boldly patterned cloth called pagne. This year, there are also special guests: the French and American ambassadors, and Beninese musical superstar Angelique Kidjo, who flew in from New York for the occasion. The ceremony ends with the sacrifice of a goat by the Supreme Chief of Voodoo. Accompanied by his delegation, this revered figure proceeds down to the water to offer goat’s blood to the goddess Mami Wata (“Water Mother”) or other possible recipient water-dwelling spirits, the correct one determined ahead of time through a special divination ceremony. Traditionally, I am told, the voodoo chief would actually walk on the water to present his offering, instead of stopping at the water’s edge.
I had always associated voodoo with Haiti, but alas, because of my Peace Corps experiences, my knowledge of French, my interest in rhythmic music and dance, and my reluctance to pursue a traditional career path in the US, I am now living in the voodoo capital of the world. Ouidah (pronounced WEE-dah), Benin, is certainly the only place where a Catholic basilica is located directly in front of a Python Temple—a sure sign, I was assured by the town’s cultural promoter, of voodoo’s tolerance and expansiveness. A large majority of the inhabitants of Ouidah are followers of voodoo; it is still common practice for parents here to send their children to receive initiation into voodoo rites at voodoo convents. Here, voodoo is known as vodun, and its initiated holy people are called vodununs.
The International Voodoo Festival was not my first encounter with vodununs; a friend had previously brought me to visit a holy man, called Tchekessi Atchade, whose compound houses several divinities, including Gu, the god of iron and war, Dan, the serpent, representing wealth and good fortune, and Sakpata, the god of the earth and smallpox, whom Achade had consulted on the morning of my first visit in an annual ceremony to protect children from smallpox. To enter the shrine of the vodunun Atchade, I followed protocol and walked backward through a white curtain before turning around. Light, I was told, must not be shined on the divinities, and fingers should never be pointed at them. In the semi-darkness on the corner of a dirt floor were whitish lumps, disintegrating statues that were referred to as deities. “So,” I asked Atchade, being careful not to point, “You believe that gods live in these objects?” “No,” he said, sounding offended. “Not live. These are the gods.”
A few weeks later, I was asked to serve as translator for an American couple seeking the financial help of the voodoo spirits. The town cultural promoter translated from Fon into French, and I translated from French into English, instructing the couple as to the correct manner to present their requests to the deities. While I had linguistic and cultural advantages over the visiting American couple, having lived in rural West Africa for over two years, I was nearly as lost as they; this was my first voodoo ceremony.
To begin, we knelt down in front of Atchade, who patted our backs. One of the Americans was a twin, which the vodunun sensed immediately. He bowed to her and explained: twins are sacred in his culture. Even though it was early in the morning, we took turns sipping potent sodabi alcohol and offering some to the ancestors by pouring a small amount on the ground before passing the glass on. Meanwhile, Atchade’s assistant lay out the large amount of money the Americans had brought, along with kola nuts and an assortment of other objects, as offerings to the gods. Palm oil was then sloshed around liberally on a twin shrine in the corner as a way to open tight spots and ease the transaction with the gods.
At first, not understanding what ‘tight spots’ the Beninese were talking about, it was difficult for me to translate the purpose of the palm oil. I asked for clarification, and was told that the lubricating quality of this orange oil was expected to make things slide more easily in the ensuing transaction with the gods. I thought this metaphorical easing to be quite clever, not realizing that for vodun followers, this wasn’t a metaphor. As in many non-Western cultures, for the Fon and other West African peoples, there isn’t a large split between the mental and the physical. Their spirits are thought to be very much a part of the tangible world, able, for instance, to eat and drink the same substances as humans, and to be persuaded by money and bloodshed.
As instructed, in addition to their cash offerings, the Americans had paid for chickens to be slaughtered during the ceremony. Before the actual slitting of throats, the squawking live birds were passed over our bodies, foul-smelling feathers flying. Atchade had the Americans present their requests and concerns by following particular ritual gestures: “Bite off one piece of kola nut,” he instructed. “Chew and swallow.” “Repeat.” “Tap the nut on the ground in your fist.” Then, in an impressively forceful spray, Atchade spit water, malt soda, and alcohol on the sacred gods.
For the actual slaughter, Atchade had us turn our backs. The vodunun and his assistant then poured blood and sprinkled feathers from the freshly-slaughtered chickens onto the spit-soaked statues, ensuring that the divinities were well fed and in the proper mood to help. After a couple of songs accompanied by gourd rattles called shekeres, the twin was instructed to make her requests directly to the divinities by entering the shrine alone and whispering them into a kola nut clasped in her hands. “Are you sure you asked them everything?” Atchade inquired when she came back out into the courtyard. Satisfied, he threw cowry shells on the floor. The even number of shells landing face up and down indicated that the gods had accepted her requests. Atchade seemed surprised that this had gone so smoothly. “The gods have accepted your request,” he said. “They see that you are pure of heart and intention.” To my relief, after more bowing, alcohol, and swallowing of peppercorns, we were free to leave.
As we walked out of Atchade’s compound, the town cultural promoter remarked that we had gotten to see the “real deal.” Tchekessi Atchade had apparently not toned down his ceremony for the foreign yovos. As an outsider, though, this is hard to judge: secrecy is an important element of vodun. Accordingly, it can be difficult for the uninitiated to know which happenings in Ouidah are related to voodoo and which are separate cultural practices—even something as visible as the revenants.
Revenant comes from the French “revenir,” meaning to return, and refers to ghosts or spirits. The West African revenants come from a Yoruba (Nigerian) tradition and are believed to be ancestors returning from the land of the dead to deliver a message or otherwise intervene in the lives of their mortal contacts. In their flashy, multicolor patchwork costumes and boxy, mirrored masks, these eye-catching spirits are reminiscent of Chinese New Year dragons. They charge at locals, who flee, pushing and shouting. If the revenant touches you, it is very bad luck, they say, and some people believe that it will even kill you.
Claimed supernatural feats of animism and vodun in West Africa: People can teleport themselves hundreds of miles away in their sleep; they can find a thief and have him return stolen goods within a day or two by consulting a charlatan or vodunun; they can make nearly any wish come true by slaughtering a large animal at a baobab tree. As a white, well-educated, middle-class American, it was hard for me to believe these claims, until I encountered the supernatural in Ouidah myself.
The beach at the Point of No Return is supposedly unsafe to swim in because of riptides, but I think the locals understand this danger as spirits in the water. Perhaps there is no difference. When I first heard about the goddess Mami Wata, the name seemed comical, reminding me of the small plastic bags of supposedly clean water sold on the streets in Togo, to the repeated cry of “Pya wata!” (Pure Water). However, Mami Water soon became very real, and very serious, to me.
On one of our days off, Lydia and I went to the beach with our Flip cameras to make videos near the Point of No Return. Since I am a singer-songwriter, I had in mind to eventually make mine into a music video for one of my songs. I improvised movements for the camera, but whenever I was about to look elegant, I would fall. “Why are you doing that?” Lydia asked. A few times I had actually tripped, but the other times, it was something else; I felt called to collapse, to connect flesh against sand, to fall from my pedestal and unite with the earth. I told Lydia that trying to look good just seemed too pretentious. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed to think of us making a music video in the shadow of the arch marking the point of no return for so many slaves. For us, the spot was simply a beautiful, exotic backdrop for our abstract expressions. We couldn’t see the spirits.
I lay at the water’s edge and traced circles in the sand with my arms, tempting the waves to come and get me. Absorbed in this motion, swoosh!—a wave washed over me and drew me into the sea. I wasn’t afraid; it was merely a nice moment of footage for my music video. I pulled myself out and continued my spontaneous interpretive dance. At one point, in a gesture of defiance, I hurled a fistful of sand at the ocean, then ran to the edge and dove in, not waiting to be sucked in again.
Coming out again was not as easy; I had to struggle with the land and water to make my way back ashore. When I finally emerged, my bathing suit bulged with wet sand and my hair was in tangles. What had tugged at me, claiming my flesh as its own? Was it just a riptide? A patch of rough surf? I recalled a doctor sign we had seen that day along the Slave Route: “Treatment of all illnesses, natural or supernatural.” Though I couldn’t pinpoint why or how, I knew that, like my falling in front of the camera moments before, what I had just encountered was more than an accident or something scientifically explainable. The spirits had been watching, and they disapproved. Place, they were telling me, is not interchangeable; it is inhabited. Returning poolside, filming complete, I was visibly shaken. “Something happened out there,” I said.
Later, in the mirror at home, I saw that the white of one of my eyes was bloody red. Online, I found a condition that could’ve explained it—subconjunctival hemorrhage, otherwise known as a “broken blood vessel,” but I sensed that this wasn’t the real explanation. The truth flooded my body: I had met Mami Wata.
Back at the International Voodoo Festival, the water spirits at the Point of No Return have just been fed with the blood of the sacrificed goat. The revenants are charging and the full-body-straw-skirt-wearing Guardians of the Night are swirling, adding to the commotion. Groups of women in matching outfits and bright beaded necklaces are singing and dancing while a circle of men chant and beat complicated patterns on iron gongs. Street merchants are milling about, selling icy plastic bags of juice, rice and fish with spicy sauce, and bananas, peanuts, and fried cakes made from ground black-eyed peas. The early afternoon sun only makes the array more dizzying.
By five o’clock, I am worn out. I retrieve my bicycle and take the Slave Route back to the center of town, only to find that my path is blocked by a shouting crowd. Undeterred, I push forward, still thinking over the festivities at the beach. Slowly, I realize that some of the shouting is directed at me—the locals are warning me to turn back. A path clears in the crowd and I see him—a revenant, lurching and splendid.
The revenant rushes forward and the crowd surges back until we’re up against a concrete wall. I try to continue on, but I can’t move. I can hardly breathe up against everyone. The crowd is silent as the revenant walks directly up to me and stops. “He is greeting you,” a man near me whispers. I am not sure how to address this stunningly costumed, supposedly dangerous spirit from the land of the dead, but feeling Mami Wata and the vodununs at my side, I take a breath and bow deeply.
There’s a long pause, during which an expression that comes up frequently in my life in Benin flashes through my mind: “WAWA,” short for “West Africa wins again.” You can’t control how things happen here—you just have to yield and accept them as they are. Then—in a rare victory for this yovo—the revenant himself bows. “Go!” another man near me whispers. “Now’s your chance!” I quickly squeeze my bicycle through the gathered onlookers and continue past the cobblestones onto the sandy side street home.
Carla Seidl is a Harvard graduate, singer-songwriter, and independent radio producer. She is the author of the anthropological memoir “The Sophisticated Savage,” and her writing has previously been published in Legacy Magazine and Perceptive Travel. Carla is currently pursuing an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College.