Due to the fascination of cultural beliefs, the spiritual connections, deities – Benin has always been a place I wished to visit. Whilst being in Ghana it was an opportunity to travel by road, through Togo which I had visited a few years ago.
BENIN – Voodou
Mention the word Benin to someone they automatically say – ‘Voodoo’.
“birthplace of voodoo” (or Vodoun, as spelt in the local language meaning “god”).
Vodun religion is a way of remembering Ancestors, respects the laws of nature and life and believe in the 4 basic elements of life: water, fire, air and earth. Also the belief in reality – darkness and light and the connection to power.
The capital of Benin is Porto Novo, with Cotonou as the largest city. Due to history of colonisation French is the official language, but Oruba and Fon are indigenous languages that are also spoken. I spent the first day in the central coast in a town called Ouidah, the spiritual centre of Beninese Vodun religion.
MUSEUM – HISTORY OF OUIDAH
The coastal area of Benin was also a slave route during 17-19th century – in the hands of the Portuguese and French . I visited the Museum of Ouidah which was previous a Portuguese fort where enslaved Africans were held. Now the museum showcases artefacts which were found during an excavation at the Kings palace and bought to the museum for display. 3rd generation families living in Brazil returned to Benin with their customs and traditions. There are black and white photographs showing the cultural similarities between Brazil and Benin which are still practiced. No photographs are allowed to be taken inside the museum.
There are many sites, artefacts, villages along the slave route which leads up to the beach where enslaved Africans were boarded onto boats from the Benin coast line to the Americas. ‘The Point of No Return’ is a monument that has been erected for the remembrance.
Almost 3000 sacred forests exist in Benin which are grouped according to their religious function: Sacred hunting forest reserves, Forests of the Ancestors, Forests of the dead, Forests of the gods and spirits, Forests of secret societies. (Kokou and Sokpon, 2006).
Well, I had to go to one at least. There is a story that King Kpassè Zoun the founder of Ouidah, didn’t die, but disappeared and hid himself inside the Iroko tree, that’s why the forest I visited is considered as a sacred forest. The Iroko tree of energy power and vibration, used for ritual, ceremonies and making a positive wish whilst touching the tree.
My first thought was that I would be walking down a dirt trodden path weaving through bushes. However, this particular forest was manageable and possessed many deities’ statues that were erected in 1992. Strolling through the forest I was guided about the meaning behind each Vodun deity, their role and purpose.
(Hunter: animal turned itself into a snake to represent that not everything you see you have to kill)
(2 faces – messenger and spy working for king)
Shango, God of thunder – lightening, rain, justice)
TEMPLE OF PYTHONS
The serpent deity Dangbé ancestors are housed in the Temple of Pythons which is maintained by Dangbe priests who are marked with scarification upon passing an initiation. A purifying ceremony is held every 7 years (next one will be in 2020).
The sacred huts are were someone spends 7 nights inside to chase away bad spirits.
Whilst I was talking to a priest all of a sudden a python was put round my neck. I didn’t feel anything whilst posing for a picture – until about 15 seconds later when the python decided to move.
Inside the temple I washed my hands with water and prayed for continuous positive blessings.
Abundance of arts and crafts, apparel and accessories – nothing really appealed to me until I entered a very small dark unit where I sat talking to a male elder. I mentioned Mami Wata – out of a dusty bag full of art – he brought out a carving. Aka Mother Water is a water spirit deity with endless meanings, emotions and attitudes, that is celebrated during ceremonies in parts of Africa, Americas and by the Diaspora all over the world.
Looking forward to meeting the family of Sista Merejah and visiting her foundation, to which I was invited for my earthstrong. On arrival was greeted by some of the teachers and school children. It was their last day of school and they sang happy birthday to me in French and some other celebrations songs whilst we also danced.
A very relaxing natural open space that treasured a farm, school, office, outbuildings, interactive and healing space – set up by Sista Merejah family who left the shore of the Caribbean to Benin 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, the school building was burnt down last year April, by a neighbouring fire that spread to their land – but plans are to rebuild the school. We had a lovely prepared organic vegan lunch, natural fruit juice and 2 delicious birthday cakes – banana and coconut –
yes I deserve it.
On the way back to Cotonou took a quick stop at the first Pan-African Centre in Cotonou that opened in May 2019. Consists of a Restaurant, provision market and clothes design shop. I met with one of the owners Etuma who plans to hold her 3rd annual exhibition in December that also includes the promotion of black dolls.
In the evening travelled on motorbike (the main transport used by locals) through the streets of Cotonou and along the beach coastal line to relax with the cool breeze and background music.
Until hunger struck, made way to a recommended vegan restaurant called Living Hut to chop some pizza and burger vegan style. Exhausted from a wonderful day, in the late evening I made my way back to the beautiful hotel but sat in the front porch for a minute chatting. Then I saw a small sparkle and heard some singing – the owner and staff sang happy birthday in French and then in English – what a nice surprise to end the day.
I went to bed really late so decided to chill out in the morning before leaving Benin in the afternoon to head back to Ghana – this time on one bus from Benin – Accra.
Had an interesting, educational, spiritual and restful earthstrong, met some wonderful locals and welcoming sisters. I gratefully give thanks for the guidance of my ancestors.
Will return someday – maybe in January to the annual voodoo festival. Who is coming?
bless Sister E