All Across Africa: Crafting the Burundian Culture

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All Across Africa is venturing into Burundi, seeking opportunities to help empower and employ the citizens of this small East African country. Burundi rates 167 out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index (2008) with approx. 67% of its 10.16 million people living below the poverty line. AAA is looking to create sustainable business cooperatives, which allow the people to build their own businesses utilizing their traditional crafts and making them available to the global marketplace. Here are these people and their land.

Go to www.allacrossafrica.org to support their work in Burundi and East Africa

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For more, please visit http://www.CameronKarsten.com

Cameron Karsten Photography

All Across Africa – Women’s Cooperatives in Rwanda

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In February of this year, I joined All Across Africa in Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi for an amazing two-week journey through their women’s basket weaving cooperatives, as well as sewing schools designed for young adults. It was a beautiful experience showing the strength of a non-profit empowering locals by providing proper skill set training as well as a growing community of business development. The following are images throughout Rwanda. All products can be purchased by going to www.AllAcrossAfrica.org

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Please visit www.AllAcrossAfrica.org to support the women of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi

Cameron Karsten Photography

All Across Africa – Designs by Nightingale Handmade

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Earlier this year I spent two weeks with All Across Africa helping them rebrand their work throughout Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. With their new website up and running, I’ve fallen in love with Margaret’s (Nightingale Handmade) designs on a few of the images created for AAA. Enjoy these beautiful postcards and go visit www.AllAcrossAfrica.org to make a purchase for the women of East Africa.

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Weavers and a Buy Day in Rwanda for All Across Africa

Cameron Karsten Photography

STORMR Campaign: Olympic Wildness Pt. III

_N9A4726After a night’s rest, the men returned to the waters, this day wading into the flowing waters of the Olympic tributaries. Their STORMR foul-weather gear proved protective and durable as fishermen Simon Pollack and Skyler Vella threw flies before returning steelhead and salmon.

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For a complete portfolio, please visit www.CameronKarsten.com

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STORMR Campaign: Olympic Wildness – Pt. II

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Fishermen Simon Pollack and Skyler Vella reload and reseek the elusive steelhead within the Wild Olympics on a recent campaign for STORMR foul-weather gear.

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For a complete portfolio, please visit www.CameronKarsten.com

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STORMR Campaign: Olympic Wildness – Pt. I

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 Walking into the Olympics of western Washington is a step back into time. Undisturbed and wild America – a land of the tallest trees, isolated mountains, rugged coastline, and an epic run of salmon and steelhead. Here’s a sneak peek at a recent campaign for STORMR foul-weather gear with fishermen Simon Pollack and Skyler Vella.

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For a complete portfolio, visit www.CameronKarsten.com

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Africa Transporting

While on assignment in Africa for the first two months of 2014, I was captivated by the way humanity transports itself and its’ cargo. This new project highlights the unique and massive modes of transportation the African continent moves about. From West African countries Benin and Togo to East Africa’s Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, all modes are the same: extreme, beautiful and oddly delicate.

Day4_BurundiNature-136-Edit-EditThe paddle boat is an easy means of transportation for fisherman and the obvious choice for floating villages – Lake Tanganyika, Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day3_Ganvie-356-EditA woman paddles with her child in the early morning to the floating market of Ganvie – Lake Nakoue, Ganvie, Benin.

Day4_BurundiNature-512-EditBikes are cheap and easy to fix, but the roadway and traffic can be horrendous – Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day3_BurundiCrafts-121Oil drums being transported through downtown Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-717Bicycles are ubiquitous, and so are mountainous hills, in northern Burundi. Men hitch rides by grabbing onto the sides and rear of large lorry trucks heading up and heading down – Northern Burundi.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-684-EditMany young men hop lorry trucks when traveling up and down the northern hills of Burundi – Northern Burundi.

Day4_BurundiNature-272-Edit-EditA long walk to the border from Bujumbura, Burundi to The Democratic Republic of Congo. Burundi is ripe with agriculture, so many travel to the border to sell their harvests to Congolese – Bujumbura, Burundi.

Day10_RwandaVirunga-17-Edit-EditIn the countryside, the movement of people on foot often looks like a mass exodus. People walk miles to crop land, distant markets, and back home within a day – Virunga Mountains, Rwanda.

Day10_RwandaVirunga-25-EditSlopes are carved out with foot paths that lead to neighboring villages and fields – Virunga Mountains, Rwanda.

Day6_AlladaVodou-578Dotting Africa are a host of infrastructure projects, most sponsored by Chinese firms. Here a Djagli, a mythical bird in Vodou culture, rests between performances – Allada, Benin.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-736-EditAn infrastructure project in Northern Burundi, which was washed out by the previous season’s flash floods – Northern Burundi.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-544-EditA tea picker near Ngozi, Burundi walks home after a day’s work – Burundi.

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Day3_Ganvie-159A young boy fishing on Lake Nakoue – Ganvie, Benin.

Day5_BurundiNgozi1-411Along a construction road, young boys and men haul bananas to roadside stands offering produce, charcoal grilled corn, meats, and assorted snacks – Northern Burundi.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-739-EditTraffic careens and passes the two-lane highways, passing villages, bustling markets and school courtyards. Traffic hazards are many for motors, cyclists and children heading to and from school – Northern Burundi.

For more visit http://www.CameronKarsten.com

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The Vodou Trail: Resurrecting the Royal Wife

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I’m exhausted. We’ve been traveling, working, shooting, exploring, discovering, eating, drinking throughout Benin, West Africa. It’s been almost three weeks. Now early morning, with already two hours of rough roads underneath our belts, I feel sick. Constantine and I have come north to Houegbo; a small rural town, more or less community, spattered along a passing highway. We’ve come here to witness what we’ve been told would be an initiation rite of young practitioners emerging from a year of training, which includes dance, ritual, language and study of this ancient belief system, called Vodou. We’ve come to see them emerge into society as true initiates. But soon we learn this is not an initiation ceremony. Nope. Definitely not.

A woman approaches. She’s introduced to us as our guide Stephano’s aunt. He hasn’t seen her for over a year. She’s a Vodou practitioner. Stephano is not. He tells us before we see her that since he was a little boy he has always been scared of her. His Christian mother used to tell him stories of his aunt, demonic ones of strange impossible things she would participate in. Thanks to our recent escapades, he was willing to see her.

“I’m amazed. Just amazed!” he chimes in full of awe. “It’s too hard to explain, but it happens. And it’s beautiful.”

So he called his long lost aunt and she invited us into her home.

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As mentioned, I’m exhausted. Constantine is not. He’s recovered from a cold he had since arriving in Benin, one I’m now contracting. Jerk.

At 8:30 in the morning, it’s already balmy. The dry West African heat drenches me. The air I inhale burns my nostrils. My hair is wet, damp for what feels like weeks. Beads pour down my forehead. They sting the eyes as rivulets of dust crease my cheeks. My head slowly starts to pound.

Inside, the room is dark and the couches spring-less. We sit and sink into their frames. The Great Aunt offers us refreshments. Coke? Un Bier?

I take a beer, Constantine a coke. Within five minutes the 22oz of Les Beninoise is empty. She brings another. I’ll need it because we just found out the truth of our presence, the Why have we come so far?

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We ask The Great Aunt. “No,” she points out. “This is not an initiation ceremony. It’s a ritual for a young woman. She has been taken from us while working in the fields. We will attempt to bring her back.”

“Where’d she go?”

“While she was working she was struck down. Sakpata took her as his royal wife.”

I shook my head, not sure if I was hearing this correctly. “Sakpata?”

In Vodou mythology, Sakpata is the god of well being for mind, body and spirit. He is also the god of disease. To honor Sakpata, one will remain healthy throughout life, and if one were to become ill, sick, contract AIDS or a virus, one’s sole survival tactic would rely on Sakpata, worshiping him in every waking hour until one’s last breath. Apparently this woman we’re here to see failed to honor Sakpata. She birthed a child. The child died. She visited a Vodou priest who told her to perform specific rituals for Sakpata. She ignored the prescription. This angered Sakpata and so he was out for payment, which happened to be her.

This all sounded pretty dismal to our ears, but we soon learnt the great fortune this woman overcame by being struck down by Sakpata. She had been potentially chosen to be Sakpata’s royal wife, a huge honor in Vodou society. This upcoming ceremony was to confirm her royal matrimony. It would be an ancient practice long thought to be dead, but instead extremely rare and secretive when it does becomes necessary.

I finish my beer. It’s 9AM and the infamous Resurrection is about to take place.

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We’re sitting before the priest of Houegbo. The man’s name is Hounnogan Letoby Hounfodje and he begins telling us about this ancient practice:

“The ceremony that takes place is Vodou. It is a very old Vodou ceremony that was performed by our ancestors. They handed this down to us.

But not all used to practice this. Zedego and Malego were the ones who brought Sakpata here. Then Sakpata took the whole region. They started to appoint Sakpata priests in every part of Houegbo. Here are the roots of Sakpata Vodou.”

Constantine raises a hand. “What ceremony are you performing today?”

“When Sakpata chooses to take a wife,” the priest continues, “it is something truly extraordinary. It doesn’t happen every day. Today, Sakpata has taken a wife here. Three days ago we showed the corpse of the girl to the whole village. Today, we’re going to bring the corpse out and resurrect her in front of everybody. Sometimes we try to resurrect, but the body doesn’t wake up and we call the family to come and bury it. But if Sakpata truly chose his wife and the priests do the resurrection, the person will come back to life. There is no other way.”

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We listen to this man. He’s seated in a dashiki; colorful fabrics folded one over the other. A hat adorns his head as cowrie shells and metal beads hang from his neck and wrists. Seated around him are his people, his son and fellow practitioners. They listen contemplatively, their eyes cast down nodding in subtle submissive agreement. Their only other movements are hands that rise and grab a fold of fabric to wipe the heat from their faces.

Beyond our interview are the chants of the village. Women wrapped in pagne garments. Beads and cowrie shells embellish. They’re dancing in circles, singing to the sounds of small drums and clanging bells. They’re all here to witness this event, to put the depths of their belief into the resurrection of this young beautiful girl. They want her alive as much as Sakpata does.

“What happens if she’s awoken?” I ask.

“She will dance throughout the night and then become devoted to Sakpata. She will be Vodou.”

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We’re watching the chanting women. Their scarification shines beneath pearly sweat, while hours of suffering and devotion pour into their song, the rhythm of stamping feet. Men throw coins and make offerings to their gods. Some ask for the resurrection. More ask for health to family and friends. Others need it themselves.

Inside the shrine, Constantine and I are restricted behind an invisible line. Beyond it we see a courtyard where young devotees take shots of sodabi and perform more unique dancing. They twist their bodies as if in trance, throwing back their heads in swirls, before erupting in spurts of spontaneous laughter. Beyond them is a door.  And beyond that is a room where the woman is being prepped for her resurrection. We ask to enter, but are declined. We ask again. No. Only Vodou initiates.

At this point, as the hours pass and we wait, we wonder at the possibilities and suddenly realize the lack of suspicion we harbor. Up to this point I’ve believed everything the priest has told us. Of course we were going to witness a resurrection. Of course these practitioners believe in it. And of course I believe it. I’m in Benin, on the Vodou Trail, in search of the truth behind Vodou. Everything will happen.

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Through this thought process when one is so immersed within the environment, the outside doesn’t exist. Like a climber on the slope of mountain ice, one doesn’t reflect on breakfast with family, that dinner party with friends, those personal or worldly affairs they’re missing. Like the climber summiting the moment before them, there is only one real world, the world they’re in, that mountain and the summit of their existence. It’s a Nano-second to Nano-second burst of life, there and gone to never exist again.

The Buddha proclaimed, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”

Magic, myth, the Vodou Trail, this resurrection. An outside individual can only presume it is all fake, an illusion of the mind tricking one to believe the impossible. The community of Houegbo believes otherwise and has gathered with the full force of their believe system to help resurrect this young woman. They will be concentrating the power of their belief to help her reawaken into the world of the living.

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A cluster of young men appears. They are chanting, bodies covered in a pattern of scarification. Then a larger procession, and a larger, before a crowd carrying what looks to be a 6-foot long slimmed-down chile relleno appears. The priest is there. He’s holding a 12-foot pole topped with palm fronds, cowrie shells and two flailing chickens. Everybody is in a rush of frenzy as they slide out of the temple gate and onto the dirt pathways. They begin marching through the community. Constantine and I follow.

For the next forty-five minutes the band of devotees sing and dance, speeding through the village in circles carrying this chile relleno. We soon learn this is the woman. She has been prepped and wrapped in a reed blanket. She looks tiny from how tightly wrapped the human relleno is, and as the ceremony’s procession continues, the crowds swell to observe. They all join in song and some create clusters of their own chanting and clapping. The band carrying the woman stops. They swing her side to side, spit sodabi over the reeds and slap chickens over its exterior. Then they bring it to rest on a mat. The crowd settles. Only the priest speaks, as well as another old man, whom we presume to be the village witch doctor. He carries a staff of cow jawbones and seven times repeats a prayer where the crowd calls out in response.

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I find myself crouching close to the woman in the reed blanket. I’m pressed between the crowds who squeeze forward to have a closer look. I can’t see Constantine, but I trust he is where he needs to be. We wait but have no idea what we’re waiting for.

Suddenly, on the seventh call and response, the priest yells out, drags the cow jawbones across the human relleno and in a stale moment of silence we hear a muffled shout. The sound emanates as if coming through a wall. It is brief, like a cheer of jubilant emotion. It is soft, like a young woman’s cry for release. It is apparently this very young woman, from beneath the tightly bound folds of the reeds, crying with fresh inhalation. The crowd immediately erupts in chaotic enthrallment, like a crazed New Years party, tearing at a gift from the gods.

What we see happen next is a caravan of people pull out a young woman from within the reeds. She is bare-chested, waist wrapped in a pagne, and with urgency she is hoisted in the air to be paraded through the grounds. They are moving fast, too fast to check if she is breathing. But her eyes are closed as if in sleep. We are shuffled away as the parade with the girl in the air makes their way back into the confines of the temple. She has arisen, or so we are told, thus the animal sacrifices begin.

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We’re back in the Great Aunt’s house. “Tonight, the young woman will come out of the temple and dance Vodou all night. She is awake and will now be devoted to Sakpata. The ceremony was a success.”

I could see her pride. She was a believer and from what we saw, the Vodou ceremony worked and the woman was resurrected. People were excited. They believed, but we were skeptical. Constantine and I could not stay to see the dance. We could not talk to her and confirm her… humanity. We were caught in a suspension of disbelief.

During our interview with the priest of Houegbo, his son Moladje Adime Hounssode spoke up about their god: “Sakpata, the God of the Earth, only does good for the world. If we are behind him we don’t lose ourselves. Everyone here is a Vodou adept. If we haven’t had goodness, we wouldn’t see them here. So that is why we are still behind him. Longevity, children, money and good fortune; that’s Sakpata. He never did any bad. It’s not only him that does good. All our Vodou divinities do good.”

A suspension of disbelief is the art of storytelling. In some philosophies, it is the world we live in, living a great dream where we all act in character, like a grain of sand in the ocean, ebbing and flowing with the tides of change. We witnessed this magical act as if in a circus, but it wasn’t a circus. It was these individuals’ lives. It was their grand dream. And it was this woman’s. It was enough to make me believe in the inexplicable powers of Vodou. All the more reason to return to find her breathing among the living, and learn more about this much-misunderstood practice and this ceremony believed to be extinct.

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The Vodou Trail: One Goat, Two Goats, Three

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A most powerful fetish.

At this we were not phased. It was a must.

So powerful, practitioners didn’t even require a priest to commune with the divine.

So we drove. Andretti, our crazed young Beninese driver, swerved around potholes, weaving through the dry desolate land into Northern Central Benin. There was a dead flatness that prevailed. Dried cracked brambles. Dead trees and scorched earth. Every 50 miles a knoll of granite rose from the aridity that made it feel like we were driving across the moon, on our way to the dark side.

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Dankoli, they called it. Dankoli of Savalou. We were going somewhere, as were the large mega trucks headed for Niger, a three-day’s drive from Benin’s Port of Cotonou. Pineapples spilled from crates. Folds upon folds of mattresses built a Tetris game atop chugging Renault’s revived from a colonial era. They were massive and frightening, death traps for any other motorist on the roadway. I just thought of Dankoli of Savalou.

It sounded so romantic, the words and their syntaxes flowing out of the mouth with linguistic poetry—flicks off the tongue—as if Fon were in align with French or Latin. Fon is ancient. Dankoli is ancient. It is anything but romantic. I would never take my wife here, or a child under fifteen. The boy would probably become a sato-masochist following the traumatization of Dankoli.

The road north seemed to end. We turned east and drove for another ten minutes. My Italian Cinquterra suddenly vanished.

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Stepping outside the car young boys rushed us seeking to fill our Vodou prescriptions. With each customer that arrived, they had first dibs on a commission. The faster and the pushy the better. Plus tip. But we had neither.

Immediately another vehicle arrived, this time a small red motorbike. A man in traditional West African garb drove and strapped to his back seat was a pile of squirming fur. Five live goats hung from one another’s pelts, baying as the driver stopped and propped up his bike with trepidation. The young boys were already at his side, negotiating, untying the animals and preparing them for their fate.

Dankoli is a place where Vodou practitioners come to ask for a blessing to the Vodou gods. They don’t need a priest due to its’ power, which is claimed to be a direct connection to the spirits. No other place in Vodou culture can offer this. Practitioners need nothing special—no powers, initiation rights or meditative skills—just palm oil, sodabi and a stick to club into the fetish. And what is this fetish? It is comprised of two conjoining mounds built up over the years with sticks, oily earth and gallons upon gallons of alcohol. Oh and also unquestionable miles of drained veins of blood given up by innocent chickens, goats and who knows what else. There were feathers everywhere, as well as bile from the butchered goats. It quickly stuck to the inside of my toes. Sandals aren’t recommended here.

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After a practitioner comes to Dankoli, asks for a blessing and promises of an offering in return, they leave. As soon as their blessing is fulfilled, the practitioner is then required to present the offering in the form of a sacrifice. Say your grandmother is ill. You come to Dankoli to ask for her health and long life, pound in a stub, pour palm oil and spit spicy sodabi over the fetish, all the while repeating your desire. Eight months later she’s healthy, vigorous like a 35 year old. So you return to this all-powerful fetish and offer your promised sacrifice. This young man offered five goats—roughly $100US. One by one they were given to the gods.

Assistants held the goats by the legs while another outstretched the neck. They were chanting, speaking to the Dankoli fetish, while the goats panted, overheating with fear. Behind them stood the practitioner, who oversaw his offering, and most likely expressed an internal gratitude. Suddenly, another assistant took up a rusty machete, rubbed it across the neck as if warming up, feeling out the arteries, before forcing the blunt blade into the throat and nearly severing the neck from the body. Blood flew like the millions of flies who shared the space, coloring the black fetish with spurting bright red. One after another. The assistants covered all sides of the fetish’s mounds, draining the lifeless creatures before hurling their bodies off to the side.

Once the offering was complete and new blood was poured over the satisfied fetish, nothing went to waste. The goats were immediately covered in dry grasses before being lit with a match. They charred, hair burnt off and meat preserved. Then rinsed and butchered, all parts of the goats divvied up among the assistants and keepers. Ribs split. Thighs carved. Belly diced. The head savored. And the practitioner, with his offering complete, saddled up his red motorbike and drove away with a plastic bag of meat hanging off the handlebars. Vodou success!

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From goats to chickens, the sacrifices came and went with the Vodou blessings. Often times the ambiance was dead like a long-gone roadside fill station until a roaring lorry truck blazed passed. We waited. We chatted with the locals, discovered their customs and dug further into understanding this ancient belief system. We had seen so much Vodou in such a short amount of time. We had to admit we had come upon good luck, good karma, good Vodou juju that allowed us to meet the right people and come upon the right ceremonies.

Vodou practitioners were friendly. They were open to our questions and cameras. All we wanted to know was the truth and share the power of Vodou with the rest of the world. There were no pins and needles and no dolls to poke, but there were sacrifices and other things we could not describe. So we let them be and swallowed our guts to watch the miles of veins drip with blood onto the various sacred spaces. One goat, two goats, three goats. One chicken, two chickens, three. One human, two humans…

“You want to be initiated into Vodou? If so, you will see many things. There are practices unknown and hidden. Only initiates can see. The Egungun initiation takes only one night. One night to hell and back.”

This was Alexander. We would meet him later down the road back in Ouidah. He wanted us to return to West Africa again in order to show us more secretive societies behind the veil of West African Vodou.

“Yes, Dankoli is strong. Many animal sacrifices. But there is human, too.”

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Constantine and I could not and would not believe it. Maybe this guy was pulling our legs. Two days after becoming desensitized to the mass sacrificial offerings of Dankoli, we headed back south and into one of those moments we were trained not to believe, but first we need to honor the gods of Dankoli.

One by one, Constantine and I took our turn. We bought a wooden peg, carved from a nearby tree, and with a wooden club made from another nearby tree, we pounded the pegs into the black oily fetish, repeating our wishes as we worked. Once it was firmly snug within Dankoli, we poured palm oil over it, again repeating our wishes. Then with a swig of a locally brewed sodabi, our lips puckered before spitting the rancid liquid over the pegs. But I forgot to mention two other nearby shrines, both honoring two distinctive characters within Vodou.

First was Legba. Legba is represented by a huge phallic symbol, similar to the lingam of Shiva within Hinduism’s pantheon. In Vodou mythology, Legba is the gatekeeper between the human world and that of the gods. He is the first to be invoked and the easiest to offer praise. He is also a figure of strength and virility, hence the penis shapes everywhere. So we poured our palm oil and spat on Legba.

Lastly, there are les Jumeaux. These are the twins, interesting stories within the Vodou culture.  Considered a sacred gift, the birth of twins is extremely profound and throughout their lives is treated with honor. Dankoli has its own shrine dedicated to the twins—two holes in the ground. We poured and spat in these, thus completing our Vodou wishes, which are not to be shared with anyone. From here we left and entered into a moment in time that seemed too mystical, too impossible to be possible. We would discover ourselves amidst a rare ceremony long believed to be dead within Vodou society: The Resurrection.

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For more please visit The Vodou Trail – a website devoted to the multi continental exploration of the truth behind Vodou, one of the world’s oldest and most misunderstood belief systems.

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The Vodou Trail: Outside the Blood Walls

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Careening east we leave Togo and turn northward, passing into Central Benin. It is flat. I think Africa and I think extremes. Something like Vodou, yes. Extreme. And now when I think Central Benin, heading north just off the coastline, I picture extreme flatness. The roads are straight as an arrow, gray asphalt that moves with the sun’s curvature. Arid dirt lines the peripheral with scrubland leading into an empty horizon. Towns come and go, stopping points for megalithic lorry trucks that bump along the three-day journey into Burkina-Faso and Niger, names in and of themselves that feel extreme. Andretti, or Geoffrey, is a fast driver. He’s our driver, and he’s safe. But going through Central Benin to Abomey feels like forever.

Abomey is the central focal point for power, the power that once was called the great Kingdom of Dahomey. It was a royal city and it was feared by its neighbors (remember the first King of Ganvie? He turned into a stork and fled across waters he was so afraid). It was feared by the colonial powers and nearly defeated the French in the year 1892. It was feared by its own people, traitors who were captured, pushed off its towering walls and sacrificed to the gods. And it is here that Bruce Chatwin’s character Francisco Manoel de Silva in The Viceroy of Ouidah, the beguiled Brazilian slave trader, was sent to as a prisoner, only to escape with the King’s mad half-brother:

The palace of Abomey had tall walls made of mud and blood but very few doors. It lay at a distance of twenty-three thousand, five hundred and two bamboo poles from the beach. In its innermost compound lived the King, his eunuchs and three thousand armed women.

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It is here where the walls are made from the blood of enemies, where the King had the pleasure of sitting on a throne of skulls, as well as choosing from a harem of 40+ women for an evening’s lover. It is here where protection came in the form of those three thousand armed women, the world’s only true knowledge of the existence of the famed Amazonian women warriors; bare-chested females who hacked off heads and bit their foe with razor sharp teeth filed to points. Extreme.

It was dark by the time we reached Abomey, dark just as the night da Silva walked the length of those many bamboo poles into the Kingdom of Dahomey. To foreigners the Kingdom itself could not even be pronounced. The French misspoke it, the culture’s native tongue Danhomé, which in Fon means in the belly of Dan. This is the name of the great Vodou snake god—bringer of life and fertility, the symbolism of eternal recycling. But today it has erased that meaning, succumbing to the French woes, contrived to an erred Dahomey.

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Constantine Savvides and I got our room and sat down for dinner. A man arrived. Menus? Instead he asked if we wanted to see a Vodou ceremony. Right now? Yes. We had to go now. We all looked at each other. He was serious. We were serious. This was our moment with Dan, the master of a fertile project— Danhomé reconciled! Let’s go.

The man flagged three motorbikes once we were out on the dark dusty roads. In Abomey, there are few streetlights and those that worked are as yellow as a melted crayon mixing with its close orange counterpart. The tungsten stain is eerie in the damp heat of inner Africa, with no breeze but passing transportation. Once on the back of our motorbikes, we sped off down foreign roads and eventually arrived at an alleyway. We got off, paid for our fare and our escort’s. There was no music. Hardly any people. Constantine and I knew we were thinking the same thing: Shit. What have we done.

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Follow me, he said. So we did like puny submissive sheep leaving the tungsten night to follow our shepherd into the shadows of a narrow alley. There was dust beneath our feet, fine red African dirt that would easily soak up the blood spilled from our dying bodies. He was just looking for another human sacrifice: The blood of two foreigners! Abomey’s new theme among the throngs of Vodou tourists.

The man who led us here was in front and he kept waving us onward as my fists clenched tighter with each twisting corner. I felt like the walls were closing in, my backpack of camera gear tightening on my chest with each heavy breath. Then there was music. Tam tams drumming. People singing. An air of excitement reaching our thriving bodies. The yellow-orange glow began to return. Suddenly from the darkness we rounded another corner and stepped into the thrill of a local Vodou ceremony.

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It took minutes that felt like hours to negotiate with the head priest. Meanwhile Constantine and I were standing by in a thick crowd of black skin. Everyone was pushing together, inching closer to see the performers in trance, taking on the likeness of their gods. They spun in gallant costumes, led by the auditory energy of the drummers who sat under a dim light beneath an expansive green tree. People sat on the dirt, dignitaries in plastic chairs and locals up on the walls and roofs of the surrounding housing. I loosened my fists. Relaxed my shoulders and let out an air of tense breath. I felt my whole body relax into this sacred space of Vodou, a space that Constantine and I have submersed ourselves in for close to two weeks. We were documenting, exploring and inevitably becoming a part of this culture, a practice that supersedes any other form of religion since the dawning of humanity. 24/7 we were breathing Vodou and spinning its threads within our minds.

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For the next two hours we secured the trust and permission of the people to photograph their local ceremony. Two white photographers with their cameras and lenses and one flash each. We crouched near the Vodou practitioners, studying their movements, watching their feet kick up the red earth and stamp back down to the timing of the many drum beats. We stared and felt that process when an outsider slowly melds into the inner circle. It was impossible not to become a part of the discovery.

As photojournalists and writers, we strive every second to learn more about our subject. Knowledge is the avenue to the complete intimacy of exposure. When the project was first proposed—Hey, how about Vodou?—we knew very little if anything. Pins, needles and a doll? No thanks Hollywood. This goes beyond the misnomer of one of the world’s most unidentified cultures that holds its complex belief system in absolute secrecy. But as the modern age reveals itself and as the lucrative endeavors within the tourism industry help provide for individuals, families and their country, Benin in particular has opened its doors just slightly, allowing those willing enough to go the distance, entrance into a place of origin where signs of evolution are omnipresent.

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The ceremony ends. Our guide, the man who led us to this remote part of Abomey, where the magic history of Vodou and the powers of a royal city in the likes of Timbuktu and Zanzibar dominate, took us away. We were back at our hotel, a sweet little spot called Chez Monique. It was late. The kitchen was asleep as a group of large women lounged next to a blaring television, only paying attention during fits of sleeplessness—a strange scene with the romantic French tongue licking at the shadowed night. A blue cast flickered into these thick crevasses. We sat down. Our food was still warm; a plate of couscous with half a chicken and half a rabbit. The night governed and that feeling permeated deeper: The traveler in a far land with the ebbs and flows of successes, not judged by good or bad, but merely by the feeling of excitement and the fluctuations of extremes, traveling from one end to the next and back again. A life of the unknown. This is Vodou land, beyond pins and needles.

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