The most difficult commandment to follow
In class of 2nde (equivalent to 11th grade in North America) we are studying the 10 commandments. I asked my students which was the most difficult to follow according to them and they all agreed that #1: “you will adore God as your only God” with no doubt.
Benin is the cradle of Voodoo. It is evident by the gigantic market section usually known as “Marche des Feticheurs” which offers a supply of whatever you can imagine to use in voodoo ceremonies: heads of monkeys, dog skulls, snake skins, human-shaped statues, rope dolls, you name it. According to the locals, most voodoo is white magic to summon the good spirits. “Good spirits are stronger than bad spirits”. Bad spirits are in the lines of witchcraft, which merits a full different post of its own.
Voodoo and Catholicism mix in a very interesting way. Many people are devoted catholics, but there is a very strong traditional part of their culture that forces them to carry fetishes and amulets for the different needs of life. “Yes, God is almighty, but why not help him a bit?”
Fear is a real deal in everyday life Benin. Most of the people live with the belief that if things happen (or don’t happen) is because of others (spirits). If you are late, a spirit didn’t allow you to be on time by causing a traffic jam for example. If your aunt died, it was a bad spirit who possessed her. If you did well at school, it was a good spirit who enlightened your head. (Or the grin-grin that the feticheur fixed you last week). Most of the parishes have help-groups for people who want to stop believing in voodoo, who want to believe that God only is almighty, but their traditional beliefs and culture do not liberate them from the fear of being unprotected. Many of our students have their their “grin-grins” (amulets) and are actually afraid to live without them, and many of them also bring their pens to be blessed before an important exam. I once questioned the practice to the priest. He said: “well, if we don’t do it here, they will go elsewhere to have it done. So better to bless the pens here and then give them a little speech on the fact that it is them with their effort and work who will win the note, not the blessed pen”.
Then we have the snakes. Fetish followers (about 50% of the population) practice animism as part of Voodoo, worshiping the Python. I found it a bit ironic that the phyton deidity temple is exactly across the street from the Catholic Basilica in Ouidah, the first Catholic church in all Benin. Back in the days of the slave wars among the various kingdoms of Benin, one of the local kings took refuge in the forest to escape his enemies. Legend says that many pythons started coming out to protect him. In gratefulness, he built the temple back in Ouidah to adore them. Now the Benin people, who are always short of protection against all kinds of spirits, rely in the phytons and phyton spirits to stay alive just in everyday life. You can recognize the sub-group of Pythons fan club by the particular scars in their face: two little lines, perpendicular to the mouth. Anybody is welcome to the Pythons temple: the entrance is about 2 dlls and that includes a local guide which explains you all of this, and help you pose with one of their snakes. They are well fed and harmless, I would say, even extra used to tourist and locals petting in a regular basis.
The rites vary depending on a thousand of factors (which spirit you are invoking, for what, how, when, etc). The one I witnessed one day in Possotome village, was a man steeping barefoot onto a putrefying mound of candle wax, palm oil and the feathers and blood of sacrificed goats and chickens. The man was willing to have a conversation with a particular spirit. The whole ceremony happened in the “sacred forest”, before the burned fetish tree adorned with a couple of skulls (not sure which animal…) and some colorful ribbons. The drums sounded, the women in white danced and the man looked somehow possessed but not in a scary way, maybe he was just truly concentrated in connecting with the spirit. Since they speak their local language I was not able to understand anything, but I was explained that he was just wanting to recover a lost item. As I said, the belief is that he has to wait for the spirit to return it, why bother in looking for the lost item himself? And then some foreigners wonder why Africans are “passive”. It is not passivity, it is just that contrary to Occidental thought where almost everything is in our hands (and sometimes we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders), Beninoise are in the other extreme where almost nothing is in their hands. More relaxed for sure, almost no gastritis or cardiac affections around here.
No Windsurfing in Possotome.
Possotome is a cute village with a big lake where we learned the fishing techniques and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. The wind was so strong that Ana commented “windsurfing would be amazing here!” and our local friend was like: “no no no!!! never! Imagine that those kites fell on the lake voodoo deidities… catastrophe for the whole village”. Well. Then we came to learn that each of the 45 villages around the lake has their voodoo deidity in a particular area of the lake sourrounded by wooden branches to signalize the position. The deidity provides the villagers with good fish for the whole year. Nobody can fish or swim close by except the day of the year where the whole village sends the sacrifice (a goat, a chicken and some vegetables). Then the priest comes on a pirogue (small canoe), does the rite, throws the offering to the lake next to the deidity, nobody in the village fishes for 7 days and then after they are happy with lots of fish the rest of the year. So as the pirogue goes around the lake you see the different set of wooden branches to protect the deidities… and somehow you also want to thank them for the delicious lunch of fresh fish and crab that you ate at noon that very same day. Sorry windsurfers, no action for you here in Possotome for a while more.