Voodoo or Vodou, is the state religion of Benin and neighbouring Togo, with over 70% of the population describing Voodoo as their main religion.
The tourist industries of both countries are not well developed, but there are plenty of opportunities for independent travellers to get under the skin of this fascinating region, and witness some genuine Voodoo ceremonies and try and gain an understanding of the religion.
My first stop was the fetish market in Lome, Togo. This place is definitely not for the faint of heart. It has the appearance of a dusty street market, with a square of wooden trestle tables piled high with produce. Only there are none of the usual offerings displayed in an African market.
This vision of hell is devoted solely to the sale of animal body parts of every description – used to create medicines by traditional local healers. The smell is appalling and the visitor is pursued by clouds of angry flies as they try and identify exactly what lies before them, and what unfortunate beast it was removed from.
Grand Popo, Benin
Moving on from Togo, I headed into neighbouring Benin and the village of Grand Popo. Here I began to make enquiries to locate what the locals called ‘voodoo’ people. After a couple of days and some fruitless meetings, I was introduced to Pierre, who was to become my voodoo guide.
Riding pillion on his ancient Chinese motorbike we visited countless shrines and witnessed innumerable ceremonies. They varied from watching old men utter incantations to crude idols in backyard shrines to huge ceremonies involving hundreds of villagers, dancing themselves into a state of delirium to a hyponotic drum beat.
The strangest ceremony took place in a hut in an isolated village with a group of scowling middle aged men, where I witnessed a young man take the ‘power’. This offers protection against all bodily harm, and I sat open mouthed as this was demonstrated by the recipient of the ‘spell’ smashing a bottle over his head, biting the jagged glass and walking on it, with no visible effects.
From Grand Popo I headed to the voodoo ‘Capital’ of Ouidah. Here, I visited the voodoo python temple.The priest (or Hougan) explained that at night, the temple doors are left open, and the 50 resident pythons slither off into the town. The people believe the snakes to be their ancestors, re-incarnated in reptilian form, and therefore welcome the nocturnal visitors into their homes.
The pythons are dutifully returned to the temple each morning by the lucky resident who has been blessed with a visit. I impress the priest as I crouch in the cool, dark chamber with the snakes, allowing them to slide around me, over my legs, up my arms, and around my neck and shoulders.
Sceptics may say all I saw were conjuring tricks and colourful village fetes. Having read much on West African religion though, I’m left wondering whether the people of the region, with their rich oral traditions handed down across generations, have simply managed to retain skills and knowledge that our modern world has long since forgotten?
To them, Voodoo is not some obscure cult or religion, it’s an integral part of their lives.
Travel tip shared by DriverAbroad