March 2014: On the Voodoo tourism trail for Condé Nast Traveller Magazine.
Landing in Cotonou, I travelled to Abomey, Porto Novo, Ganvié, Ouidah and finally back to Cotonou with my brilliant fixers Ulrich and Serge David, both accomplished Beninese journalists.
The mission was to document as much of Beninese Voodoo – or, more accurately Vodoun – culture as possible. Thanks to the endless connections – and patience – of my guides, I was fortunate enough to take tea (and drink gin) with a humbling lineup of kings, high priests and priestesses, witch doctors and clairvoyants. I also attended numerous Vodoun ceremonies, from intimate family occasions to packed events involving whole communities dancing, chanting and giving thanks.
You can read my article for Condé Nast Traveller at the bottom of the page.
WARNING: Contains images of animal sacrifice.
© James Hopkirk / Condé Nast Traveller 2014 (This article was first published in the October edition.)
The goat was clearly suspicious.
It was fast approaching 4am and the Fa ceremony had already been going for five hours. Three chickens had met their maker at the hands of the Ifa priest and the goat, in theory, was next. But for the ritual to reach its gory conclusion the unfortunate creature had to first willingly eat a mouthful of sacred leaves. And it wasn’t playing ball.
I’d been up since 6am and my last meal had been breakfast. I’d had no access to drinking water for eight hours – and even in the middle of the night the humidity in the forest was relentless. Part of me was rooting for the stubborn underdog, admiring its never-say-die spirit and faultless instincts. But another part – the part that hadn’t slept for 22 hours – just wanted it to eat the damn leaves so I could go to bed.
We’d been waiting for over an hour for the gruesome climax to unfold, staring increasingly resentfully at the goat through the candle-lit gloom. Wisely, it refused to so much as glance at the proffered foliage. Officiant and victim had reached an impasse, and the rules were clear: no leaves, no sacrifice – and absolutely no force-feeding. But without this final gift to the gods, the time, effort and chickens expended so far would have been for nothing.
The goat, the priest, the leaves and I were in a tiny village in southern Benin, a steamy sliver of a country in West Africa, tucked between Nigeria and Togo. For prospective visitors, Benin’s tourist checklist includes a tropical climate, palm-fringed beaches, two impressive national parks and some pretty extraordinary sites of historical interest. But for the intrepid traveller it also offers a glimpse of something darker, something altogether more spooky, the stuff of campfire legends and late night Twilight Zone specials – Voodoo.
No one knows where in Africa Voodoo originated, thousands of years ago, but modern day Benin has emerged as its spiritual home – and with good reason. Gods, ghosts, sorcerers, witch doctors, high priests and ancient kings seem to lurk around every corner. For the devout, animal sacrifice, snake worship and black magic are part of everyday life.
While various forms of Voodoo (or Vodoun) are practiced across Africa, as well as in Haiti, Brazil, New Orleans and even Paris, Benin is probably the best place in the world for the uninitiated to sample it. It was this prospect that had ultimately drawn me to the standoff at the forest shrine.
My Voodoo odyssey had begun a few days earlier in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city – a congested, sprawling, sweaty metropolis squashed between the Atlantic coast and Lake Nakoué to the north.
I had arranged to travel with two Beninese journalists as my guides – the endlessly patient Ulrich and Serge-David. Visitors will experience a lot of Voodoo in Benin without even looking for it, but if you want to witness more private rituals – and not just a show for tourists – you'll need the services of a persuasive and well-connected local.
Even with a guide, tracking down a Voodoo ceremony can sometimes feel like trying to get into an illegal 90s rave. It begins with phone calls and vague directions, followed by a flurry of activity as you speed off to a roadside meeting point. You then find yourself waiting for hours in the middle of nowhere for further instructions. Finally, your mysterious contact appears and you drive in convoy to the secret location. Voodoo requires patience – along with some gin and a little cash.
Our first target was the ancient city of Abomey, 100 dusty kilometres to the north. The centre of a once-powerful empire with a bloodthirsty reputation, it is a mandatory stopover for adventurers on the Voodoo trail.
There were once a dozen royal palaces here – one for every new king – but most were burnt to the ground in 1892 in a final act of defiance by King Gbêhanzin before invading French forces seized the city. Fortunately, the two that still stand have been well-preserved and the staff do an excellent job of bringing the violent history of the Dahomey empire to life.
Dahomey kings ruled here from the early 17th century – and by all accounts they weren’t to be trifled with. The temple walls in the palaces are built from clay mixed with the sacrificial blood of prisoners of war – with gold dust, pearls, gunpowder and alcohol thrown in for good measure. The royal throne rests on the skulls of vanquished enemies, and it’s best not to ask where mud was inserted to punish those foolish enough to harbour treasonous ambitions.
Tales of Dahomian brutality are endless, but I was particularly impressed to learn that the official executioner – a busy man – had to sever the heads of his victims with a single blow, or face immediate execution himself. Not much comfort for the semi-severed, but a refreshingly even-handed approach to justice nonetheless.
Unsurprisingly, many subjects fled. Some went so far as to construct entire subterranean villages, hidden in the forests surrounding the city, where they lived in secret for years. Today you can clamber down into one of these eerie man-made caves and experience for yourself the total darkness these people endured, as the hatch shuts ominously behind you.
Fortunately, the current King of Abomey is a more reasonable character. While his title may only be ceremonial, he is still a hugely respected figure and one of Benin’s most important Voodoo leaders. Foreign visitors – from backpacking tourists to government ministers – are welcome to make an appointment to meet him, resplendent in full traditional regalia, safe in the knowledge that human sacrifice was abolished here in 1858.
My first official engagement, however, was with Abomey’s High Priestess of Voodoo, Nan Houandjré Kpodjito. As the most powerful female priest in the region, I was warned by Ulrich that certain etiquette must be observed in her presence. We arrived at her compound in the baking afternoon heat and, following his lead, I removed my boots and entered her living room on all fours.
Perched on a stool, wielding a large wooden staff and with a young girl kneeling at her side gently fanning her, she exuded authority and warmth. Dripping with sweat, I crawled towards her, avoiding eye contact as instructed, and kissed the ground at her feet. She touched my shoulder, blessed me and invited me to sit. I was rewarded for my devotion with a restorative slug of gin and some homemade nougat.
She explained that she was a direct descendent of a Dahomey king, and that it was her responsibility to pray for peace in the world, making sacrifices every few days to this end. Being a High Priestess has its advantages – respect, a nice house and ministers to attend to your needs. But it also involves relinquishing your former life. She was married with children when she was selected for the priesthood, but had to leave that all behind. It is not an honour you can refuse, and now she lives with her female ministers.
With gin, gifts and stories exchanged, we were off. We’d been told that an important ceremony was taking place in the nearby village of Seho and, after protracted negotiations, an invitation had been secured for me.
We arrived at dusk to find a large, boisterous crowd gathered, around 200 devotees from the surrounding villages. This was a Zokoete ritual – a complex production involving 65 Voodoo initiates dancing for peace and prosperity.
Far from being solemn or macabre, this was a party. Booze was flowing, stallholders were selling hot snacks and the crowd were singing, chanting, laughing and cheering. Some were filming the action on their camera phones.
The festivities continued into the night, as dancers in ever-more fabulous costumes lined up to perform. All in all, it didn’t quite match my terrifying preconceptions of Voodoo.
Shortly before midnight the music stopped, the performers departed and the crowd dispersed into the surrounding forest. I had successfully attended my first Voodoo ritual – and not a drop of blood had been spilt.
At daybreak we were on the road again. Word had reached us of a major religious event back in Cotonou that was not to be missed, and we had some important pit stops to squeeze in on the way.
Our first appointment was at a witch doctor’s surgery. I’d always assumed that witch doctors were nefarious types who put spells on people, but I was told the opposite is true. Their job is to heal the sick with traditional medicines and use magic to protect people from the curses of sorcerers and witches – the real bad guys. The healer I met told me that he could cure everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction. I took his card.
Our next stop was Ganvié, a village on stilts in the middle of Lac Nakoué. In 1717, the Tofinu people fled the Dahomians, who were hell-bent on sending them to the coast as slaves. But the Tofinu king had clearly read the small print when it came to Dahomian Voodoo – he knew their religion forbade them from travelling over water to do battle.
Legend has it that he transformed himself into a crocodile and persuaded his fellow reptiles to help carry his people, along with building materials, to the centre of the lake. There, they constructed Ganvié – and the Tofinu have been living the life aquatic ever since.
Today, residents navigate the village's watery thoroughfares in dugout canoes in much the same way they would have done 300 years ago, floating between the dilapidated, raised wooden shacks that comprise Ganvié's homes, shops and bars. It is one of Benin’s top attractions and one of the few places where you’ll bump into tourists in numbers.
It's a fascinating place, but it can feel uncomfortable. This is a real village where real people live, but the speedboats that ferry visitors here treat the place like a safari park and the residents are understandably unhappy at being constantly photographed. If you have the time, an alternative is to make the longer journey to some of the other stilt villages on the lake, which are much less frequently visited.
Back in Cotonou, for once I had something other than Voodoo on my mind. All this travelling was hungry work and there was one local delicacy in particular that I was determined to track down. Agouti, a type of tree rat common in Benin, is a popular dish here and I wasn't going to pass up the chance to order rat and chips.
You won’t find it on the menu in posh restaurants, and it took a few calls to find somewhere that served it "avec frites", but eventually we found ourselves at Saveurs Du Benin, a chain of restaurants serving traditional cuisine owned by Valérie Vinakpon, author, TV chef and Benin’s answer to Nigella Lawson.
My agouti came stewed with carrot, aubergine and onion, and it was delicious. If it wasn’t for the small bones, I could have believed it was beef.
With rat in our bellies, we got back to work. We had returned to Cotonou for a Houetanou ceremony. This was a big deal in Voodoo circles, something that only happens once a year and involves an entire community presenting sacrifices to their ancestors.
We arrived mid-morning in a poor suburb – a sweltering, dusty maze of clay buildings and corrugated iron roofs – to find representatives of local families already queuing with offerings to be blessed by the priest.
The atmosphere was intense, with people and livestock crammed into alleyways leading towards a small, unassuming temple. The adjacent courtyard was packed with worshippers chanting and clapping to the beat of ceremonial drums. As ever, gin was doing the rounds, and along with the rest of the crowd I found myself doused in talcum powder and scent.
For the next two hours I watched as gifts were laid at the feet of the priest. Dozens of goats. Scores of chickens. Baskets of produce and drinks. The excitement in the air was palpable. And then the sacrifice began.
I lost count of the animals that I saw perish – but death was quickly and expertly delivered. Aside from the crowds, this was no different to how these creatures would normally be dispatched for dinner.
In fact, that’s exactly what was happening. Ulrich explained that the blood would be offered to the gods, but the carcasses would be cooked for a feast concluding the ceremony. Nothing would go to waste. Nonetheless, it was a sobering reminder that Voodoo wasn’t all peace, love and colourful costumes. I left with my appetite somewhat diminished.
We had one stop left on our itinerary, and Ulrich had saved the best for last: Ouidah, the holiest city in Benin. Foreigners arrive here in force during the annual Fête du Vodoun in January, when it's overrun with ceremonies, but at any time of year this is a great place to discover Voodoo. It’s also where you’ll find the country’s most spectacular beaches.
High on any visitor’s to-do list should be the Temple of Pythons, where the snake god Da is worshipped. It scores pretty highly on the Indiana Jones scale – especially when hundreds of fruit bats swarm from the surrounding trees at dusk.
Once inside, fearless souls can pose for a snapshot draped in compliant boa constrictors. Yes, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s an important holy site and a functioning temple – tourist dollars just help to keep the snakes and their guardians fed and watered.
Ouidah played a significant role in the history of the slave trade. Thousands of captives, force-marched across the continent in chains, caught their last sight of Africa here. On the beach, at the end of the Route des Esclaves, the Gate of No Return marks their final steps towards the waiting ships.
Many died from dehydration, exhaustion and disease before reaching this point – many more perished in appalling conditions on their journey across the Atlantic. It has become a site of pilgrimage for the descendants of those that survived, and the trade's horrifying history is well documented at the Ouidah Museum.
Today Ouidah is a relaxed, friendly place, used to tourists and their strange requests. It has emerged as a cultural hub, and an impressive gallery devoted to contemporary African art opened here earlier this year.
Walking through town or along the slave route at dusk, you may encounter a ceremony unexpectedly. If you do, be respectful, don’t take photographs without asking permission and be prepared to part with some cash. If you’re asked to leave, don’t argue.
It was in a forest just outside Ouidah that I encountered my final ceremony of the trip – and met the intractable goat. Ulrich had persuaded a local priest to let us observe a private Fa ritual at his home. It was intended to enhance his powers, but with dawn approaching and no progress made, his powers appeared to be diminishing. By this point, I was practically ready to kill the goat myself – but fortunately for both of us, it was the priest who finally cracked.
“This has never happened to me before,” he said, shaking his head despondently. Were the gods angry with him? Had the presence of an outsider spooked the goat? Or had he simply lost his mojo? Either way, the goat was off the hook – and I was off to bed.
When to go: The Fête du Vodoun falls on 10 January and if you don’t mind a few other tourists, this is probably your best bet. The cool, dry months from October to December are also good, and much quieter.
How to get there: Air France is currently the only international airline flying from Europe, connecting in Paris.
Where to stay: There are international-standard hotels in Cotonou, including the Maison Rouge, Ibis and Novotel. In Ouidah, the beach options include the posh but isolated Casa Del Papa and the simpler but more convenient Djegba Hotel and Diaspora Auberge.
Further afield: In the far north of Benin, a very – very – long drive away, are two reportedly excellent national parks – Penjari and W. Check they’re open before travelling. They are apparently well-stocked with game and you’re likely to have them to yourself.
Costs: Benin is much cheaper than Europe, but expensive by African standards. An upmarket hotel in Cotonou will cost you anywhere from £70-150 a night, although accommodation elsewhere will be considerably cheaper. On average, attending a ceremony cost me around £15 plus a bottle or two of (very) cheap gin, but without a well-connected guide you will pay more. Tourist restaurants in Cotonou are overpriced, but you can eat well in good local restaurants for less than £5. Petrol cost me £25 for 40 litres.
Guides: Ulrich cost me $100 per day, and was worth his weight in gold. English is not widely spoken, so unless your French is respectable a guide of some kind will prove very useful. Your hotel may be able to help you with this.