Voodoo, also known as Vodun is an ancient traditional religion with roots in the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey - present day Benin and Togo. Like many other traditional religions that stem from Western Africa, voodoo is a religion based on honoring nature and the ancestral spirits. There is a strong tradition of oral history and storytelling, and till today, the religion is deeply ingrained in the way of life of the people of Benin. It plays an important role in the identity of the people as well as preservation of their ancestral stories.
Voodoo has undergone heavy stigmatization in western media for decades - often depicted as dark or sinister. Ignorantly, it's been boiled down to zombie magic and voodoo dolls, lacking all the necessary nuance. In order for European colonizers to enslave people of West Africa, they had to break their spirit - forcing them to be baptized under the church while demonizing Voodooism. They called it a heathen religion or black magic, and for decades, damaged its reputation.
You can't, however, break spirit, and I needed to see for myself how the people of modern day Benin keep the ancestral spirits alive. I left all (western induced) ignorance behind and hopped on a boat for the annual Voodoo festival (January 10th, 2023).
It's a 2 hour 45 minute boat ride from the CMS jetty, Lagos Island. Tickets cost ₦5,000 (6,000 if you have a suitcase), and you need little more than an ID card for the trip. It's a long ride so leave early to avoid the biting sun.
There's a series of checkpoints (police, customs, NDLEA) along the route, so make sure not to carry any "recreational items". Before long, you arrive at the jetty in Porto Novo, your bags are checked and you're on your way.
Note: they collect money from you if you have a laptop, for whatever reason.
You can change cash just outside the jetty (today 500 CFA is ₦1,000 ), and some of the BDC guys even have naira accounts so I could make a transfer through GTB as soon as my phone internet had been activated (Sim - 1,000 CFA, Data package - 2,000 CFA for 2GB).
About Benin Republic
The official language here is French (who they were colonized by), but there is an interesting mix of tongues including Fon, Yoruba, Bariba, Dendi and Mina. The people are easy-going and they showed patience despite the language barrier, and I had little trouble finding my way around or purchasing items.
Their architecture is a colorful combination of traditional African and European influences, and there's an emphasis on providing shade with greenery that keeps the air cool and fresh. The streets are really clean as well, interlocking stone everywhere I recall, and I had initially thought plastic packaging was banned here - but no, just a keen emphasis on hygiene from the average Benin person. The easiest and cheapest way to get around within the cities is by motorcycle, known here as 'zems'.
Religion here is quite diverse, split between Christianity, Islam and Traditional faiths but its not a total split. Many christians and muslims still revere voodoo as its a crucial link between the people and their ancestors. So driving down the one road, you could go past a mosque, a church and a voodoo temple, super unique!
Voodoo Festival day
On the day of the festival, my guides and I took a taxi from Cotonou to Ouidah (2,000 CFA each), about an hour eastward, and the first location was the official Voodoo festival event supported by the government of Benin Republic. The event was filled with people from different corners of the globe, and they had come for the same reason as us. On display, different groups consisting of traditional chiefs, shamans, voodoo devotees, performing traditional rites and rituals in their colourful regalia. The celebration goes on for hours, non-stop libation, music, dances and official speeches fill the agenda as we watched the rich and complex rites that give order to the way of life of millions of people.
Ouidah is known to have played one of the most significant roles during the slave trade with countless souls forcefully taken away via its shores. Today, the same sands that were a site for tears and sorrow, served as a venue of joy, laughter and pride - a joyous sight like no other.
Temple des Pythons
We made sure to stop at the famous Temple of Pythons so we could learn about the fascinating connection the Benin people have with nature. The temple of pythons plays a large role in the spirituality of Ouidah, and as the legend goes, the king of Ouidah took refuge in the forest during one of the wars in the 1700's. While he hid from his assailants, pythons emerged from the forest and prevented his capture. To commemorate this, he had monuments built for the snakes.
Pythons are non-venomous snakes, so they aren't dangerous unless you are a mouse or a chicken and here they are treated like special guests. They are housed in the temple but they are free to roam around and often end up in people's homes, but the people just carry them back here. Tickets to the temple cost 1000 CFA, but if you want photos, you pay 1000 CFA more.
Door of no return
We then visited La Porte du Non-Retour (The Door of No Return), a memorial for the enslaved Africans taken from the Ouidah port. They were marched in chains from the town's slave market and they would board ships to unknown destinations. It is estimated that from the 1580's to the 1720's, about 1,000 slaves were shipped away every month, many of them captured during intertribal warfare.
The monument is made from concrete and bronze, and is the collaborative effort of several artists, designers and architects.
Next we wanted to see something a bit more local and after that we took a 30-minute zem ride to the village of Guezin, where a Zangbeto dance had been organized. The Zangbeto are one of the many masquerade types, and are characterized by their tall and colorful straw costumes.
They represent wild, non-human spirits that inhabited the earth before humans and their presence signifies protection from harmful spirits and malicious people. The dance involves the Zamgbeto spinning around in a mesmerizing manner, and this movement symbolizes the spiritual cleansing of the community, which the people loved!
My experience at the voodoo festival was truly special and transformative. The deep connection between the locals with their ancestral spirits and the warmth and hospitality of the community made me realize that as black people, we are all connected through shared history and culture. The voodoo festival is a powerful reminder of the importance of preserving and celebrating our heritage and it was an honor to be welcomed and to share in this sacred celebration of life and tradition.
You can watch clips of the trip HERE, and don’t forget to like, comment and subscribe!