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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The Vodou Trail: I Have a Fetish For You in Togo

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Stepping out of the car, there is a flurry of excitement. Not the over-zealous, exaggerated enthrallment of celebration, but one of sprinted adrenaline, like termites scurrying from an anteater’s invasion.

Constantine and I emerge from our vehicle as another approaches, spitting up dust from a pair of screeching rear tires. We have just pulled into a fenced compound in the middle of a thick market district of Lome, the capital city of Togo. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low, casting a beautiful soft orange light through a low-hanging haze that spills across the bamboo sheds. People suddenly go from lounging on benches in shadows to shouting amidst a frantic escapism. But it’s not because of us.

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Walking into Togo, one has to step out of one’s car and pass through a series of guarded gates. First stamp passports at the Beninese customs stand. They couldn’t care less who you are. Next pass through a doorway where a man checks you have been stamped. Then into another concrete bunker where you’re waved through into Togo. Follow signs, enter another building. Stand in front of two Togolese officials and hand over your passports. They’ll take them and slowly go through the process of filling out a handwritten visa; and if you stand in front of their television, with a flick of the wrist they’ll tell you to move because they’re busy watching a dubbed-over original 1950’s version of Rashomon.

Looking around the scabby office, one will notice a few framed photographs of Togo’s president, Faure Essozimna Gnassignbe. He’s a round young looking man (actually he’s 48), comfortable and content with an education from George Washington University and the Sorbonne in Paris. Next to him is an intriguing sign. Constantine Savvides points it out:

If the sheep’s courtyard is dirty, it’s not for the pig to say it.

I repeat it in my head while Constantine silently laughs under his breath. We look at each other and then back at our guide Stephano.

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When passing through the series of gates from Benin to Togo, we realized Stephano presented no papers, no identification, nothing. Entering Togo he joked with the official and slipped him a quick cash-laddened handshake. When we asked him about this he shrugged and shook his head.

“Fucking Togo. I hate these corrupt bastards.”

Our eyes lit up and we laughed slapping him on the back. “But you have no ID,” Constantine said.

“No. I don’t need one.”

“What do you mean you don’t need one?”

“I didn’t bring one,” Stephano confirmed. “I don’t want these fuckers to know me.”

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Constantine and I couldn’t believe it until now, until we stood affront the two absorbed Togolese officials underneath the sign that spoke the truth.

The officials charge us both ten extra dollars for our visas and without argument we hand it over. The sheep’s courtyard is definitely dirty, but the pig’s is dirtier. We’re the pigs. The government claims to be the sheep. How dare we judge them as mere citizens.

We jump in our car only to be accosted by another Togolese official, this time a soldier wielding a heavy semi-automatic rifle. Stephano puts up a fuss. The soldier is adamant and so is Stephano. They argue back and forth, the soldier’s grip firm on the trigger, Stephano glaring into his eyes. He leaves the car. Surrounding us is Togo and numerous roadside stalls. They are selling fresh meats fired on grease-stained grills. Kabobs of red encrusted chicken legs and thin slices of beef steak sizzle. Towers of glass bottles reading Jack Daniels and Crown Royal. Packets of gum and tissue. Young men walking around selling toilet paper. And the older ones seated on stools with handfuls of currency from neighboring countries. Apparently, we weren’t supposed to get in the car at that particular point along the roadway. Fines are dished out.

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An hour’s drive and we’re in Lome. Nothing special. Just another African city. We find our hotel. Check in. Leave. Pass a restaurant called Mama Tampons. And then enter the market district. Today, we come to Togo for one thing and one thing only: The Akodessewa Fetish Market.

Tables and stalls of dried animal parts. Bones, skins and pelts, organs and jars filled with more anatomical remnants of species once living; Constantine and I begin to take it all in as a man says goodbye. He’s thrown into the car that sped up behind us, the one that sent the market sellers in a frenzy. He’s cuffed and guarded by two soldiers harboring those semi-automatics. Everyone is dressed in civilian clothes and as quickly as they came, they’re gone. Just another day. Just another illegal deal.

A local takes us around. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a nice man, completely welcoming and excited we’re here. This is a new feeling to us because most individuals are suspicious, albeit welcoming, but suspicious. Steve, however, expresses none of that and kindly guides us from stall to stall explaining the uses of the ingredients and their importance to Vodou culture.

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Fetish. Not the toe-sucking fetish. The spanking, pulling hair, hand-cuffed lashings of S&M fetishes in Hollywood, but the West African fetish. You mention fetish to a Ghanaian and they shriek. You say fetish to a Beninese, they smile. You say fetish to a Californian, their eyebrows lift licentiously and they begin to think. That’s what Constantine first thought. That’s what I was imagining. But a fetish in Vodou is a powerful tool, a magic ingredient, and a witchdoctor’s answer to the spiritual, which allows him to communicate with the gods and deliver their healing powers.

Take for example this live hawk. It looks depressed and any bird lover would see it in his eyes. The hawk has been underneath the table, tied at its fleshy leg to the wooden leg by a thick nylon cord. There is plastic debris surrounding it, along with a filthy bowl of water. I watched one of the hawks poop in the little plastic bowl, which is meant to be their drinking source. So much for nature.

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Well this bird is a tool used by Vodou practitioners. If a client comes to a Vodou priest explaining evil spirits possesses them, the witchdoctor will consult the god specific to his/her temple and discover the necessities to treat. Out at the market, the priest will purchase the ingredients, one of them being a live hawk. And the following day with the possessed client present, the doctor will perform the rituals and as a symbol of letting go, the hawk will be released with the client’s evil spirit upon it’s back. Client healed. Exorcism complete.

This is just one version of many different possibilities. Vodou is an open book and anything is available. At the fetish market, young boys run around showing us whale vertebrae bones, live baby crocodiles in yellow plastic jerry cans, stacks of dried herbs, cages of mice, frightened turtles, boxes of dried chameleons, enormous mummified cockroaches, shelves of stacked monkey skulls, decapitated wild dog heads with jaws open as if frozen in time, hippopotamus skulls, antlers four feet tall, snake skins, baboon, hyena and leopard heads, as well as the most poignantly disturbing of all.

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There was one little boy. He was the quietest of the lot. Others yelled out Monsieur! Monsieur! incessantly. But this boy was calm, tapped us on the shoulder and held up a foot.

There is that famous photograph of local rangers in the Virunga National Park within the Democratic Republic of Congo. The photograph by Brent Stirton is taken from above of a silverback lying on its back upon a tourniquet made of branches. Wrists tied back over his head. Feet tied at the ankles. A huge protruding belly facing the heavens. Locals are beneath the animal, carrying it through the war-torn jungles of the DRC, dead because of gun shot wounds by supposed illegal charcoal traders. This was the image I thought of as I saw the little innocent child holding up a dried gorilla’s foot. He wanted his photo taken.

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The next morning we return to Vodou’s largest fetish market. The oddity strikes and we know we want to discover more. For hours we linger, wandering the stalls, photographing, talking to the kids. A Vodou practitioner arrives on his motorbike. The sellers scramble, running toward him to garner the morning’s first sale. Then I realize, this is the first pharmacy ever. Take away the metal fence, the motorbike and the corrugated tin roofs. What you have left are wooden stands, bamboo walls and dirt. Locals come, foreigners from afar—they’ll all seeking a cure. If you have tendinitis. There is a cure. If you have a wart on you finger. There is a cure. If you want to win your next soccer match and score a hat trick. There is a way. Come to Akodessewa Fetish Market in Lome, Togo.

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The Vodou Trail: Beheaded Coconut Stories & More Blood

Day8_Ouidah-266We are stuck at a typical Vodou crossroad. Constantine Savvides and I are sitting with a Kokou Priest in Possotome. Outside Zangbetos are spinning over pathways like street cleaners. Dust flies up choking hot air while children run alongside the spirits. But we’re inside, away from the Vodou action, under the shades of a small corrugated roof surrounded by thick clay walls colored red. The room is small, about thirty-six square feet. There are approximately seven people clustered inside. I’m dripping sweat, operating a monopod—finding angles, details, the close-ups. Constantine is grabbing the formal headshot with tripod, loaded with interview questions. He is also covered in sweat. Roughly, if I had to make a guess, the temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity hovering at about the same.

Each time we’re shooting we find our concentration maxed out; a desire to cover, capture and witness these once-in-a-lifetime shots. This is Vodou, and as we see it, we’ll either be back or we won’t. Life is too quick, too short and temporary. Maybe we’re messing with fire, this Vodou religion. One sorcerer crossed and we could be finished. One wrong room entered. One particular performance stumbled upon with the wrong witches, witchdoctors and spirits. Are we in over our heads?

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Sir Richard Burton was a man of many uncharted territories. The Englishman’s 19th century explorations were far and wide, his philosophy ringing true especially in a place like this, the cradle of Vodou:

Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands.

I’m reminding myself this mantra as we listen to the priest. His name is Anansihounde Kouassi (we’ll just call him the Kokou Priest). He’s telling us things and we’re pushing him to see the act. We want the ceremony. But do we?

“Kokou is not for children,” he begins. “It is only for the mature. Before you go into a trance, you fall first. Then you rise and start to cut yourself.”

This is exactly why we came to Possotome. Not for the unexpected Zangbeto party, but to find a Kokou Priest and Kokou itself. Defining Vodou stereotypes, Kokou involves blood to appease the warrior god and is one of the most violent forms of Vodou celebration. As all Vodou ceremonies are essential acts of mollification, Kokou engrosses the initiate with 12-hour trance, and this is only done through numerous incantations along with heavy incessant beatings on the tam tam, or drum.

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The trance allows the god to enter its’ mortal capsule. In Kokou, one must wear a skirt made of hay. This hay acts as a kind of a medium or form of protection, allowing the initiate to perform the upcoming acts unscathed. The priest continues, “It’s the Vodou Kokou that has this power inside of it. If you are an adept of this Divinity, you have to cut yourself. The day they carry the weight, I’m talking about these fetishes here that we carry, the Divinity himself exists, and when you have him on you, you go into a trance.”

It’s intriguing to a Westerner. Vodou is about respect to a god in exchange for protection or certain powers. It is about ritualized offerings, daily sanctimonies and monthly ceremonies that involve prayer, consultations and trance to confirm devotion. Once the god is appeased, your life, your family, the village and community will be under its protection. You will have the power. This has been known for the ages. This is the Vodou tradition born in West Africa.

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And when the Kokou Priest says weight, he’s referring to the burden of trance. It is not easy to become an initiate. Oftentimes it’ll take one year, where young Vodou adepts vanish into the forest learning song, dance, prayer and language of a certain Divinity. Other times it is as short, and as painful, as one night to feel both heaven and hell. For Kokou, it is unspecified. But the weight is enough to prevent all from initiating.

“You will start to have the power within you,” says the priest. “Sometimes we can take a sharp knife and start to cut our skin. You won’t see anything. That’s how this Divinity manifests. If you have problems, the Divinity will work them out for you. You won’t have any death or pain.”

Once in trance, Kokou seeks that taste of human blood and so, with either knife or broken glass, the initiate will continue dancing and twirling its’ hay skirt, adding slashes to the arms, legs, chest, face and tongue. One will swallow sharp objects and often begin smashing its’ head on hard objects to further beat in one’s devotion. Sounds horrific. Constantine and I continually push for access. But no blood will be shed; for each drop is lapped up by the Kokou god and the initiate’s wounds immediately heal.

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He ends the interview, “You never know the day you’ll have to face Kokou.”

We leave and head west along the coast. We are travelling to Grand-Popo, which as a Francophone country, you would think to name your town better. Grand popo is translated as “big poop”, and it is everything but. The beach is beautiful. Large sweeping sands and a deep churning blue ocean with thick waves pummel its’ steep beach. Currents are so strong they resemble a river, where every now and then an uninformed Beninese is said to take a dip and end up drowning some distance up or down the beach (depending upon the tides).

When Constantine and I arrive there is a community event. Folks are hauling in a huge fishing net, hundreds of yards long, which can take up to five hours to complete. All involved will have the first pickings of the daily catch before being sold to the fish-buyers of nearby markets. As evening falls we hear the distant sound of tam tam and chanting. We walk to the river bank running parallel to the beach and see a performance. More Djaglis or stilted bird-men/spirits chasing away the village witches. With a quick pirogue (or boat ride) across the river we find ourselves amidst another local ceremony, the only two foreigners with cameras among a full celebration of dance, music, Vodou gods and rounds of sodabi. We’re welcomed like old friends and witness the spectacle as even toddlers succumb to the Vodou spell. They’re on the ground, crawling and waddling until suddenly two approach a Djagli only to begin climbing its’ twelve-foot tall wooden stilt legs as if they were little chiefs collecting coconuts.

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The air of celebration and the ambiance of the night, as the sun sunk and lit the sky into a tangerine haze silhouetting thick fronds, helps solidify Burton’s mantra: Exploration. Unfettered. Unexpected. Unadulterated discovery. The Vodou Trail’s path along the beaches, across rivers and further into the heart of the cradle of Vodou becomes limitless. We are scratching a surface into a whole new world. Ours is being overturned, flipped upside-down from the scientific mathematical ruling of our Western culture.

Once back on the opposite side of the river, we come down from the high of Vodou energy and collect ourselves. Constantine and I are back where the community hauled in their catch, sitting at dinner planning the next move. Grand-Popo also holds the grand salami of Vodou, a place I read about that stirred my imaginations long before the 37+ hours of plane flights: Les Bouches Du Roi and the village of Kpossou Gayou. We ask a fellow who sat down across from us about the village. He is a pirogue captain, a man who steers a wooden boat via pole. We want to go. Instead he offers us something else. But we’re not interested.

In front of each of us is a fresh catch. On our plates are fillets of meat, undoubtedly from today’s haul. It is delectably soft and tender fish, stewed in a local spicy tomato sauce and served with the region’s classic cooked cassava paste, which acts as a kind of neutralizer. We are in heaven and this poor chap can not get through to us. “I’ll take you on the Mono River down to Les Bouches Du Roi where the river meets the ocean. Many animals and wildlife. It will be a half day for $80 per person. For lunch I’ll cook you both fresh shrimp with bottles of Les Beninoise.” Romantic.

Constantine perks up. “Kpossou Gayou. We’re only interested in Kpossou Gayou.” A huge piece of fish is in his hands. He scoops it up with a thick dollop of cassava paste.

“No. Not possible.” The man is watching us. “I will not take you there.”

“Then we’re not interested,” I say. I finish chewing and take a swig of beer. The sodabi from tonight’s ceremony is quickly wearing off.

He shakes his head. “The Vodou power is so strong there, that if you go you will meet the same fate,” he warns. “You will have your heads cut off.”

So be it.

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The next morning we have our directions. Thanks to the hotel owner, our driver speeds off with our guide and a young Kpossou Gayou local named Donald sitting between us. We turn off the highway and meet narrow dirt roads overhung with palms thick in green fronds and cloisters of red nuts. Grasses sway on the ground, where pigmy goats and bicycle chicken dart out and across our path. Tucked under the shades sit banana trees, yellowing with age and green with unripe fruit. We turn a corner, round another, pass dirt walls and homemade brick fences. People stare at the intruders. Constantine and I catch glimpses of each other.

The village chief meets us. He’s of small stature. Head shaven. Lean, strong build. Muscles taut. We look into his eyes and greet him. He carries only a machete and leads us away from the village into a maze of coconut tree trunks. The setting is incredible, untouched rural beauty. No one would ever find our bodies.

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Where he’s taking us to is a Vodou temple. It is built over top an older shrine where two decapitated heads are rumored to be buried. And it is here, where many consider sorcery is strongest, where passing boats can hear the cries of the dead and the many other voice’s of the devil. Vodou spirits are most active where land meets water and we arrive on the banks of the Mono River to find a concrete structure latticed with makeshift scaffolding. He points with his machete. The much feared and preordained shrine. We ask the history. And in the local Mina dialect he explains.

At the time of war between the various kingdoms, many fought over the land we now stand on. But the river is strong and people were swept away to drown in its’ waters. There were two military men that were powerful. Their names were Kpossou and Gayou. They had special powers given to them by Vodou priests. They came from Abomey in the north, where many people have these powers. Once they crossed the river and reached the village they waged a violent and bloody war. However, the locals were determined to care for their land and defeated the invading army. Eventually the warriors were captured and for their powers they were turned into divinities. Through a divinity called Legba they were worshipped and buried here beneath this shrine.

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News got to Abomey about the defeat and loss of their warriors. In response, a dispatch was sent to the village by the sea in order to recover at least their heads. As they attempted to dig up the warriors’ bodies, which had turned into fetishes, the locals began to hear voices screaming, alarming them about the grave-robbery. They went to the river’s edge and discovered the strangers, fighting them off to preserve their shrine. The concrete temple is now a permanent enclosure, deeming it virtually impossible to steal the famous warriors’ heads.

As quickly as the tale began it ends. The chief stands by the small Legba shrine, remains sullen for our portraits, and then tells us to leave. He walks behind us, back through the tall grasses and tree trunk mazes. We know we would never be as useful as those two powerful warriors, so our nerves relax.

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What follows was an absolute coconut juice and meat festival. Kpossou Gayou’s chief, the man we’ve been questioning; turns out he is the area’s finest coconut tree climber. Like a squirrel after a nut, he’s up a 30-foot tree by the time we turn around, dropping fruit that sound like distant bombs when they hit the ground. It’s as if the story he told transforms into modern warfare, metamorphosing this tranquil village setting into an arcane combat zone. And quickly the village emerges as if ready for battle, chopping off husks for fresh water and meats. It turns out his name is also Chief Domingo Xavier—a man of great respect. With shots of bark-soaked sodabi, a version of hickory-aged whiskey barrels, we leave, thanking them profusely for their kindness and generosity, promising of a future return.

Cards full, bags pack, our driver dons the nickname Andretti as we speed west out of Benin and into an equally magical land with an even more mystical name of Togo. It is a place where the fetishes remain supreme and corruption blatantly open above the dried animal pelts and solidified bones of numerous endangered mammals.

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The Vodou Trail: To Where the People Don’t Go

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Ouidah was absolute shit. The first thing I ever read about the historic slave port west of Cotonou was the complete opposite. I was enthralled:

In the nineteenth century the Kingdom of Dahomey was a Black Spar squeezed between the Yoruba tribes of present-day Nigeria and the Ewe tribes of Togo. Her Kings had claw marks cut on their temples and were descended from a Princess of Adja-Tado and the leopard who seduced her on the banks of the Mono River. Their people called them Dada which means “father” in Fon. Their fiercest regiments were female, and their only source of income was the sale of their weaker neighbors.

Abomey was the name of their upland capital. The name of their slave port was Ouidah (spelled Whydah by the British, or Ajuda, meaning “help”, by the Portuguese) – today a forgotten town memorable only for the ruins of three European forts and its temple of Dogbe, the Celestial Python who opened the eyes of Man.

Found in the opening pages of Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah, I immediately lost myself within his pages – the mystery and myth of a city lying on the edge of the Bight of Benin where hundreds of thousands of slaves were another’s cargo. Captured, sold and sent to the Americas, they were stripped of freedom, left with only their skin, history and Vodou faith.

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Constantine Savvides and I had just witnessed our first Vodou experiences. In Cotonou, we sought out and discovered a Thron ritual with song, dance and prayer, as well as a reclusive Egungun ceremony in the ghettos of the city. On the annual National Vodou Day, January 10th, we were expecting magic in the city of Ouidah; Vodou reigning down upon the crowd, turning us into initiates. The skies would clear and just as quickly cloud over; huge thunderheads filling the ether, unleashing a torrent of water-filled skies, and then there would be lightning. It would be a sign of the power of spirits. Thousands converted. Peoples overcome by the reality of magic.

Okay, I can’t speak for both of us, but we were picturing a ceremony of the year, tourists and all.

Well, there were tourists – thousands. Heaps of burnt red flesh with cameras from a Samy’s point-and-shoot to shoulders slung with DSLRs and bulky medium formats. It was ridiculous. In fact, the site on the beach near the memorial Gate of No Return was a pasture of sheep being corralled under shades and to every clustered drum circle. Souvenir stalls lined the road like fencing; native instruments to woven fabrics and cheap coconut-shelled carvings with market-flooded beads and shining statuettes. There were piles of goods, including one of the finest coconut stalls. Under the intense heat of over-crowding, Constantine and I downed three gourds of fresh juice, recalculated ourselves, tossed the emptied gourds and then ditched the scene.

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The day before we were in the midst of Allada, a town inland at the throne of a line of powerful Kings. His Majesty King Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla was the King of Kings of Benin, but the Jerk of Jerks of Humanity. However, the man in silk put on a hell of a Vodou ceremony. Not only did the masses never hear of January 9th as the beginning of Vodou celebrations in Benin, located just outside his palace walls, but the openness of the people and the beauty of their song, rhythm and movement were spectacular.

Enter woman.

Women are the dance and song of Vodou. They sit clustered in groups, circling the dancers. Singing in harmony, they clap for timing while syllables stretch from their lungs with the softness of a church choir. Voices high from a village valley, praising their ancestors and the strength behind their past and the dreams of the future. As their song fills the space around them, they dance center stage, flailing arms, kicking up the dry afternoon dust like a mare. Bare feet stamp the red earth with bodies following the heat sent up from song into their spine – twisting, undulating, releasing tension. On the outside, their dress swings with strands of cowrie shells, metals and plastics. They clank like wind chimes while bracelets slide up and down the arms and ankles. They’re following that rhythm, the tam tam drummed up from man’s force.

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Located in the heart of the song are a group of men beating animal skins. They’re all sweating. Muscles taut. Eyes stern in concentration. Each of them appears lost in the trance of constant uninterrupted reverberation. Everyone is involved, taking turns and losing himself or herself to ancient tradition. Dancing the stage. Singing their histories. Playing a timeless beat of humanity.

For hours we witnessed these varying performances as if it was another Sunday picnic. The King arrived with his processions, yelling at his servants for stepping in front of him or sitting in the wrong place, as well as other dignitaries and escorts. Then the stilt-men.

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Picture a boy scout. The boy scout has assembled his own pair of stilts and for years he’s practiced on them. Instead of playing football or learning to skateboard, after working the fields and helping his mother with choirs, he’s on his stilts… way passed his bedtime.

Now he’s grown up. He’s a maestro on stilts. Not only can he walk, jump, hop, skip and do practically anything that a normal human can do on his or her two feet, but he’s also a contortionist from The Julliard School. His name is Djagli.

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At this point Djagli is not even human. In Vodou, Djagli is an ancient warrior god protecting villages from witchcraft. Dressed like a bird on stilts (picture a giant stork with extremely long and stiff legs), this god will transform into one as soon as the initiate goes into trance. Witches do likewise when near humans, so the two feathered vertebrates are basically tricksters in the immortal sense, chasing each other out over the countryside. Once Djagli catches the witch, her powers are obsolete and village life can return to normal.

And these five Djagli-entranced performers were amazing, causing dirt to fly and children to scream. They spun, dipped, balanced and ran on their stilts in unbelievable perfection. They started the Vodou party. The Zangbetos topped it off.

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Ancient Vodou life never needed policemen or guards. If there was a civil dispute, one would approach the King’s administration or a Vodou priest. Things would be discussed. Many suns and moons would pass. Rituals, concoctions. Eventually issues would be resolved. But to prevent any civil disputes from even occurring under the dark West African skies, the Night Watchmen would be omnipresent.

Known as Zangbetos, these enforcers patrol the streets by moonlight, dressed in bushels of hay and possessing unspoken amounts of magical powers. In performance and under trance, these gods spin, dragging their abnormally wide hay-loads, stirring up plumes of dust. Once a chicken is sacrificed, blood dripped over their crowns, and sodabi and gin spit on their outsides, they’re on the move to music—gyrating, dragging their bushels of hay like the sounds of one thousand sweeping brooms. People are dancing. They’re moving around the Zangbetos with anticipation. The spirits’ guards help clear the crowd, pushing the Zangbetos along, making direct calls for the spirits to hear. Then they stop.

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In a flurry, stacks of hay were removed, revealing a godly inner core. I peered inside. Dirt. There was nothing but open air and dirt except one small present.

Not only do the Night Watchmen dish out death sentences to the unruly and unlawful citizens of Benin, but they also present a variety of gifts.

Within the empty innards of this Zangbeto there was one covered basket. The guard quickly snatched it up and tossed it to the ground. People oowed. They awed and gawked with greed, scurrying around the basket like mosquitos after a thunderstorm. Suddenly, the same guard flicked off the lid with one swift hand.

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I was close, expecting gold coins for all my good deeds. No. This Zangbeto was playing games, flinging into the crowd a dozen live crabs. With red pinchers, they ran sideways causing a raucous. People screamed, hollering and standing on the chairs or running in opposite directions. In this upland village, most people probably had never seen a crab. They were terrified. Not only did the Zangbetos have crabs, they also had presents of rice and corn, sodabi, gin and cigarettes. All the necessities.

There would be one other moment we had the opportunity to witness the Zangbetos. It would be on Lac Aheme, west of Allada, on our way to the famous fetish markets of Togo and toward a village where we were advised not to enter, unless we wanted to have our heads cut off.

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The Vodou Trail: A King, Kings, and Posers

Day5_Allada-298The best part of being with a King is most of them will feed you the royal gin before departing. The worst thing about being with a King is they will take your money just because they can.

Constantine Savvides and I were sitting before our first appearance with a Beninese King, the King of Abomey-Calavi, His Majesty King Gbesso Adjiwatonou Allodji II. Damn, was this guy old. Twenty-five minutes into our interview we realized we had accomplished very little, if even pronouncing his name. But we were happy. By this time we were sure there were no fleas and the pleasure of sitting with a Beninese King, shirtless on his floor, out of the afternoon sun with a fan blowing against our backs, about to take multiple shots of royal gin, was nothing to complain about. And his royal throne room was hard to get over.

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The walls were painted a fading turquoise and with only one source of light, which was a doorway leading out into the red dirt courtyard, the light was remarkable on every attendee’s face. Add a large leather loveseat with lions inscribed on the armrests and an ancient King who appeared to have Parkinson’s, things looked pretty interesting.

His royal raiment was made up of loose cotton pants and a matching long cotton top. Instead of a crown, it appeared like the lead servant folded an elegant napkin, some sort of magic origami, and placed it on his head. The corners of his hat were floppy and when he smiled he looked just like a basset hound. The King held two golden scepters, most likely made of bronze. We gathered these were his most important possessions.

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“What are my scepters? My scepters are the King’s power!”

This guy was powerful. Off to his right shoulder, just above a large tube-television on the floor was a shelf lined with an ornate collection of teddy bears. They were all shapes and sizes, some brown, others black, most covered in dust and fading as if left behind by a child in the neighborhood trash pile. I don’t know where he obtained these, but considering how he answered our questions as if they were never asked in the first place, I’m sure our curiosity into his teddy bear vice would go equally ignored.

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He also had a nice ringtone, which went off at multiply times during the interview. Here he would pause mid sentence and begin digging through his chemise’s deep pockets. Meanwhile, the ringtone only grew louder until eventually the King would find his phone, flip open the orange screen and begin muttering like a lonely bird high in its branches.

Despite all this, he was great; a character one could only smile and appreciate. For him, the days were numbered.

Within Beninese politics, Abomey-Calavi is not in the rankings of power. His job as King is to deal with civil disputes and village development. But as any King in Benin, they are the final decision-makers regarding anything Vodou, and to him, Vodou is everything.

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The word Vodou, or Vodun in Fon, means essentially the inexplicable. It is a way of life, communing with the earth, sky, water—everything that has ever come before, the entirety of today, and all that will ever be. It is the realm of the physical, the spiritual and the grander unseen unfelt ways of the world. It is that living connection to the trees, and the monkeys, and the snakes—to the animals and the plants, and their ancestors. It is the source for the people to welcome these forms, an acceptance that there are things meant to be mystical and never reason to define them. In Vodou, once this has occurred, that connection will be lost forever.

Each King we interviewed, each Vodou priest and Vodou adept—every person paying their respects and presenting their offerings—expanded on the vastness that Vodou is. Vodou provided them with everything. It was their path to achieving their hopes and wishes, their health and fertility. It fed their families and provided personal growth.

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In Dana Rush’s Vodun in Coastal Benin: Unfinished, Open-ended, Global, she accepts its inability to define, and recites Suzanne Blier’s conversations with two diviners who more or less offer the philosophical thought of the religion: to rest to draw water. On page 50, Rush continues to summarize Blier’s interpretations:

The essence of Vodun…lies in the need for one to be calm and composed. One must take time to sit quietly rather than rush through life. When women go to the spring or river to draw water, they rest for a moment on the bank before filling their container…Within the concept of Vodun there rests a deep-seated commitment to certain forms of human conduct in life. In this translation [of Vodun] we are made to understand in an ideal sense what it means to be human and how one’s life should be lived…Vodun constitutes a philosophy which places a primacy on patience, calmness, respect, and order both in the context of acquiring life’s basic necessities and in the pursuit of those extra benefits which make life at once full and pleasurable. (39-40)

I would like to take this meaning of Vodou and present it to the King of Allada. What a jerk!

Compared to Abomey-Calavi, the town of Allada is the central power of Benin. It’s King is the Beninese King of Kings, and all political decisions go through him and his Vodou priests. We were in Allada for the Vodou festival, but prior to the start we hoped to have a sitting and spare only five minutes of His Majesty Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla’s time.

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The process was rigorous. The secretary of the guy was a wryly little man, overly dramatic with his gestures and organized as if on a buzz of speed. But we got the okay for the interview. Next we had to wait. Sit. Follow certain people. Wait. Sit. Hand over money. And then remove our shirts once more.

Finally we were kneeling in the King of Beninese Kings’ royal throne room and we were impressed. More stuffed animals, this time two FAO Schwartz-sized leopards at the seat of his throne surrounded by walls of photographs. The colors were ornate; golds, maroons, turquoises, yellows, greens and bronzes. More waiting. Setting up cameras, tripods, audio. Then finally.

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The King Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla marches in. We’re kneeling on the floor shirtless. We bow and touch our heads to the mats as a sign of respect.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Constantine Savvides from Los Angeles, California.”

“I’m Cameron Karsten from Seattle, Washington.”

“Oh, Washington D.C.? Good.”

“No, Washington State, way north near Canada.”

I don’t know if it was the correction I offered him about my native whereabouts, but as soon as our guide Stephan described our intentions to ask a limited amount of questions regarding the history and power of Vodou in the area he became unleashed. The King went off his rocker and for the next five minutes, when we could of been having a civil conversation about something extremely fascinating and important, he went into a diatribe about his international education and how dare two journalists come to him asking questions with such little prior notice. His eyes were furious. He was pointing at us, becoming overtly dramatic (compared to his secretary); arms flailing over the throne, waving to the ceiling, green silk robes disturbing plumes of pale dust, and a voice way too loud for two humble foreigners kneeling shirtless before him. Meanwhile, an elderly woman on his right continues to fan him while another to his left holds his Kingly umbrella over his head. Mind you, we’re still indoors.

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And like that he’s gone, only after demanding we take a photograph of us sitting at his feet next to the stuffed leopards.

Sixty dollars later we walk out of his royal throne room with only one good picture: A picture of a picture of Muammar al-Gaddafi and flowers beside it. Apparently, these two chaps were best buds. Many times Gaddafi came to Allada to share their servants and catch up. His Majesty Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla of Allada is known as the King of Kings in Benin. But Muammar al-Gaddafi is known as the King of Kings of Africa… or was.

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The Vodou Trail: Legends and Lore on Lac Nakoue

Day3_Ganvie-175We speed north on a stretch of highway made just for the zemidjan, the motorbike of Benin that far out-numbers any other form of transportation in Cotonou (I’ve yet to seen a single bicyclist). In the local Fon language, the word means take me quickly. And we are cruising. My driver weaves round other zems with mere inches to spare, honking, leaning, uprighting, honking, weaving, accelerating. It’s early and we’re on our way to Ganvie, twenty minutes out of Cotonou. We leave the choked city behind and enter a land of lizards, chickens, goats, Chinese migrant workers and magical animals.

Ganvie is special, or so they like to recount. It’s a stilt village, built on things of legend. Known as the Venice of Africa, it is everything but: Wood poles with walls and roofs of corrugated steel, the village looks like the rest of the African countryside, except each structure floats above water. And what is more fascinating is the history of its foundation.

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Benin is like no other. It is the cradle of the world’s most magical Vodou religion. It is the epicenter of one of mankind’s darkest hours, the slave trade. And its past is comprised of incredible stories of lore, power and inexplicable possibilities. Welcome to Ganvie! At the height of the slave trade, the Kingdom of Dahomey was decimating any subordinate in its path, shackling people and sending them south to be sold as slaves; its Kingdom’s walls in today’s town of Abomey are said to be constructed of human blood and the King’s throne built on the skulls of his Yoruba enemies. In return for the capture and sale of slaves, Dahomey received weapons of warfare. To the Portuguese, a healthy grown man was worth twenty-one canon balls and a woman or child fifteen. Rifles, jewels and other luxuries were given in exchange for the slaves that passed through the port village of Ouidah—20,000+ per year during its height in the 19th century.

In 1717, the King of the Tofinu people, a magical gent by the name of Abodohoue, felt the Amazonian warriors of Dahomey breathing down his back. In order to save his people he transformed himself into an egret and flew south from modern-day Allada over Lac Nakoue in search of a new home. What he knew was key: the people of Dahomey had taken a religious oath promising all humanly capture was acceptable unless it required passing over water. King Abodohoue put this in his little egret brain and soon discovered an atoll of mud islands in the middle of Lac Nakoue. Perfect.

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Next, the question of transport crossed the bird-king’s mind: How would he get his people to the islands?

As a magical King in the cradle of Vodou, he simply morphed from egret to crocodile, swam over to the local gang of reptilians and requested their assistance. To my surprise, these crocs agreed and King Abodohoue had a plan. With local lumber and the backs of numerous new-found friends, the Tofinu people turned the center of Lac Nakoue into the Venice of Africa, a floating stilt village that today reaches up to 30,000 residents—Benin’s number one tourist attraction. As for the gang of crocs? They received little in return. Today, their population has dwindled next to nothing.

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Constantine Savvides and I, along with our guide Stephan, catch a thick, water-soaked outboard canoe to Ganvie. It’s… pretty. Passageways are filled with pirogues and paddlers, reeds and water lilies. Life is simple, sustained by farm fishing, traded goods, and the slowly rising costs of tourism. We come. We go.

On the shores of Lac Nakoue is Abomey-Calavi, a town much more intriguing along The Vodou Trail. It’s rich with Vodou, the good, the bad, the ugly—sorcery!

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Let’s be honest. Everyone apart from here to Canada and back believes first and foremost that Vodou is a doll probed with pins and needles. Something evil and dark. Meaningless. Fraught with magic written in the mildewed pages of a spellbook. Yet somehow it works.

Hello Hollywood. Way to take something from the backalleys of New Orleans—a practice that originated in Haiti—supplant it into a fictional plot and convince the world round (outside of Vodou itself) that this is the actual religion to be feared by any uninitiated.

Vodou is not to be feared, just like the police are not to be dreaded unless one is committing a crime. Some call it justice. Others karma. Small populations of the world turn to Vodou. Abomey-Calavi is known to cover both sides of the coin. From the shores of Lac Nakoue we disappear into its narrow passages.

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Constantine and I aren’t quite trembling, but we fear the worst. We enter a doorway where we’re instructed to remove our shoes, socks and shirt. We do as told like dumb children and step inside the dark room.

We’ve heard stories; read things we’re hoping are not true. The thought of being contaminated, plague with the unfortunate for the rest of our trip seems miserable. However, we’re willing to take that risk and step into the unknown. No Borax. No chemical could cure us now. We’re about to be under the spell of the Flea King!

Everything we’ve read refers to fleas. The King of Abomey-Calavi is apparently infested with them, carpets in the royal throne room saturated with miniature black beetles, jumping out of the shag, looking to feast on the white flesh of a foreigner. Itching, scratching—we could see our future together, collars tight around our necks, sharing fleas like some disease gone off the CDC radar.

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What an unfortunate rumor to have as a King in Benin!

As my eyes adjust to the dimly lit room I see no carpet. No fabrics of any kind. Only woven mats and to my heat-saturated mind I’m pretty sure fleas don’t exist on the surface of a waxy palm frond.

…To be continued

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The Vodou Trail: Eguns and Other Souls of the Dead

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There is a spirit staring at me. It looms like a beast. Colorful, engaged, blazing into my eyes. Sequins dress its hair from crown down to dirt street. Folds of thick fabrics hide the body of the possessed, creasing its movements, preventing the strands of cowrie shells from swinging freely in the breathless evening. A sheet of chain mail prevents any view of the facial features. All I can see is that eerie soft silhouette of a face as if pressed into a bed sheet, the phantasmagoric picture of death presiding over me. I’m cowering.

A finger suddenly points at me, coming nearer as I squat low to assure my innocence. I make a hand gesture to calm down and hide my camera far below.

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Constantine Savvides is a few feet to the left. His camera is firing, high speed clicks, “Chachachachacha!”

The spirit hears this, immediately turns to him and raises a whip. The black crowd surrounding us is in an uproar as the Egungun bears down on my friend.

This whip is a worn tattered five-foot long branch, split at its end into numerous frail strands, allowing for a stronger, more powerful lashing. There are eight of them around the dirt field, and a spirit full of menace carries each whip. Any person who crosses the spirits receives a brutal flogging until the victim either succumbs to the their demands with gifts of money, escapes the punishment with sly speed, or is rescued by the spirits’ guardians.

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These are the Egunguns, dressed in lavish costumes, garlanded with waves of sequins, strands of cowrie shells and folds of yellow, orange, blue, red and green. Each one wears a hat fit for a Queen, hiding their faces, presenting an ominous elegance. The one bearing down on Constantine also has a shield of horns on its back. And with each strike it twists and turns like a knife into flesh. Mortals cry beneath the might of the Egungun.

We’ve been accepted into this Egungun ceremony by luck, buying our way into the Vodou ceremony via our guide Stephan. In a backroad ghetto of Cotonou, we’re the only white people out of a sea of a thousand Beninese, all celebrating, dressed in their Sunday’s best of West Africa, men carrying large cans of Guinness and Efes. We stick out with our clothes and camera gear. Each time we raise a lens to shoot, attention is drawn to us by shouts from nearby spectators. This only draws the Egunguns closer.

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In Yoruba, Egungun means the soul of the dead who has returned to earth for a short time to pass on specific advice to the living.

There appeared to be very little advice-giving except punishment during this ceremony, but as these ghosts skated the field, they danced in very rhythmic manners, fluctuating spines, jumping and stomping to the drums played in the crowds, flailing arms like birds in trance.

In fact, Egunguns are in trance. Like all of Vodou, the Egungun society is a secret organization where only initiates are allowed entry into understanding, appreciating and opening one’s soul to trance state. Once one is initiated, during ceremonies and under the spell of music and sodabi (local palm fermented alcohol), the Egungun spirit enters the body and becomes a direct translation of God. The Egunguns’ words are final. Community members must obey; otherwise, their house will be shaken. This is the essential tenant of any Divinity in the ancient practice of Vodou.

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As the whip threatens Constantine, I keep my camera low. Our guide throws cash at the Egungun. A guardian takes it. Fortunately, the spirit accepts. Others are not so lucky, but the only two yovos (literally means whiteys) are spared.

This was one of our first direct Vodou experiences. The energy of the place was electric. The celebrations beautiful. The practice a fulfillment of spiritual rawness that transcended ordinary comprehension.

Vodou is the inexplicable and when we return back to our room, we quickly understand.

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During the negotiations to attend the Egungun ceremony, we’re told that if our offerings to the spirits are not accepted and we still stayed to photograph, the mere presence of the Egunguns within our lenses would halt our cameras’ systems and prevent them from working. Memory cards would be wiped clean. Shutters locked. And only once we leave will our equipment work again. However, our offerings were accepted.

Upon ingesting our files that evening, many were blatantly missing. For Constantine, an entire card was corrupted from a second camera body, and video footage from mine had gone missing. There was no explanation. Our gear worked flawlessly the beginning of the day, the whole time since arriving in Benin, as well as at the ceremony.

Further inexplicable actions occurred that evening. Before bed, the door is always locked from the inside to prevent the nighttime intruder, but at an exact moment in time in the early morning hours I woke from a dream to watched the door slowly creak open, revealing the hallway’s dim florescent glare. Rising, I closed it. Set the lock. And fell back to sleep.

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The following evening another strange occurrence: as I slept I woke yet again, this time to two bewitching cries followed by a loud unnerving hiss from an animal larger then any cat that should be roaming the guesthouse grounds. I kept my eyes alert in the pitch black, curious of Constantine’s condition, as well as my own. But it was the feeling that followed that kept me awake, one of otherworldliness, possession, and an inner spirit animal that haunted a fellow resident in some room. I realized we were not alone in our endeavors. The Eguns followed.

For the remainder of the trip along The Vodou Trail, similar actions would reveal themselves that the uninitiated Western mind only spins in circles when questioning. Everything that it ever learned suddenly balances on that precarious ledge of growth.

A witchdoctor we would come to know and respect put it perfectly. “Human-beings own the earth. But above the earth there is only Vodou.” From human resurrection, to piles of animal sacrifices, bottles of venomous snake wine and the stories of the places that few humans dare to go; Vodou is that onion that will only reveal its secretive ways with time, hard-work and complete respect. It will know if you are missing one or the other and that is when the house will shake. Along The Vodou Trail, ours was only beginning to be built.

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Beginning the Vodou Trail: Cotonou’s Spark

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I’m four beers deep and still feel the need for another. It’s hot outside: 90 degrees with 85% humidity. Probably more. I’ve sweat all water from my body and therefore have settled for the coldest beer a man can find. It’s Castel, a favorite from Ethiopian travels, but they’re now out. I request Les Beninoise. Plenty.

Cotonou is an African mega-metropolis. This means it’s not fun. Streets are clogged with dirt, dust, and worse, a constant plume of exhaust. Any pregnant woman would choke, but then I tell myself there obviously plenty in this city, population estimated one million.

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Welcome to Benin’s unofficial capital, the surge of the country’s commerce. It bustles and hustles. It screams with cars of all sizes; bush-taxis dissolving with each shifting gear, blaring horns from monstrous lorry trucks with engines chugging halfway out of the hood and chasises bent from the load above, and the omnipresent zemidjan (motorbike) that blisters the road with fearless motivation.

There is no way around this city. One must fly into the airport of Cotonou Cadjehoun to land in Benin. This is how I arrived, 37+ hours after departing Seattle. It was painless in route, but upon arrival I realized the amount of time I remained indoors. The climate change was almost intolerable. Immediately, heat succumbed to my body; a heavy dank sweat creased my back and filled my brow. My nose filled with the fog of burning trash and hot spice. Customs was no better. Time above the desk registered 2AM. I was exhausted, and still there were cases to collect, not only filled with disposable clothes, but the non-disposable items of thousands of dollars worth of photography and video equipment. My mind wandered. I was helpless among the fray of fatigue.

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But things arrived, including my pickup, and quickly I found a bed with fan, air-con and mosquito net over my head. The next thirteen hours were nonexistent.

I awoke and Constantine Savvides was here. He slept. I slept more. There were things coming to us that we needed to prepare for, events incomprehensible and hard to except as so.

The Dantokpa Market is over twenty hectares in size and grosses over $1,000,000 US a day. We met its alleyways with amazement, the stalls endless, contrived of scraps of wood and stacked with produce, fruit, bins of baguettes, plastics, electronics, sunglasses, pottery, strange fluorescent liquids in reused water bottles from Possotome and then the uncomfortable smells. Fried fish were charred under a searing sun-glare where the flies were having a heyday. But these things only piqued minimal interest. We sought something more bizarre and sacred to the people of West Africa, particularly Benin: the fetish.

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Constantine and I met at Eddie Adams in upstate New York a mere three months ago. We shared interests in travel and found a common goal of taking beautiful images of cultures around the world.

“How ‘bout a project?” He was proposing a larger collaboration, that at the time, I immediately misunderstood.

“Well, yeah. I’m interested.”

“How about Voodoo?”

I didn’t know what to say except, “Hell yes!” I knew little about Voodoo, except the obvious doll with pins and needles sticking out of its body. Voodoo is everything far from this manifestation of Hollywood image and we’d soon be throwing ourselves into the midst of a spirituality of secret magic.

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Two months later we see our first glimpse: the fetish. At Marche Dantokpa a table was laid with an assortment of dried animals. Chameleons, monkey heads, gator claws, snakeskin, jaws of certain mandibles and bits of bone from unknown species. It was guarded by two young Beninese who wanted nothing to do with us. They disregarded our presence while our faces must have appeared like we’d come upon the holy grail of stories.

They shooed us away. “No tourists! C’est mal por vous!”

We left and only hours later were accepted into the ceremonies of both the Thron god and Egungun spirits. The fetish market of dried livers and crispy hyena hairs was just a taste.

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A Far Away Land: The Origins of Vodou

Day6_AlladaVodou-452Benin is a far away land.

“I’m headed to Benin,” one might say to the passing acquaintance.

“What?”

The common response, when presented in a somewhat unexpected manner might be, “You’re doing what?”

“Benin, I’m heading to Benin…” 37 hours of plane flights, viola.

Geography is a mystery to many Americans. There are the places of importance: Europe, the Middle East, China, Japan. Everything else is clumped within a world of the unknown. But to be honest, I couldn’t place Benin in its’ exact location prior to my departure. West Africa, I’d say. But take a glimpse and you’ll sudden unravel a majestic tragedy of complexity.

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Benin borders Nigeria’s northern edge, touches Togo’s eastern border and to the north lies Niger and Burkina Faso. It is one of those tiny West African countries that stretch north to south. Picture Africa’s western shoreline as a nose. Benin is the very top where the mouth and the nostrils of the nose begin. Welcome to the Bight of Benin.

And then there’s magic. In the west we think of David Blaine, television’s greatest magician. He can levitate. He can spit fire and in the same breath extinguish it. He can hold that breath for record time. He is a man of endurance. But this isn’t magic from the Beninese perspective. Call it the art of deception. Magic in Benin is a way of life.

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Everyday there is magic. It is in the red earth of the landscape, the fury hot of sun and the strong currents of their greatest rivers. Magic is their religion; it is a way of life called Vodou where nature interacts with humanity and has been respected in these lands for over 4,000 years. Benin is the cradle of Vodou.

Personally, I believe in magic, both as a form of deception as well as a supernatural expression of energies beyond ordinary comprehension. For thousands of years Homo sapiens have existed, evolving and learning, applying and growing with the changing times. But what is underneath all this? Which forces create the churning seas of the ocean and the gyrating clouds of the sky? The sun rises and the moon sets, changing its shape within 30-days time. How is this not a force of incomprehensibility?

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Across the eras of humanity, lifestyles have developed to explain these phenomena. Some grow. Others die within the violence of war and oppression. But amongst the biggest powerhouses of the world, along with the immense importance of the history of human slavery, there exists a country where the primeval practices still prevail and the honor of the mysteries of the world take precedence.

Take away the linear mindset and the textual teachings of the West, and simply observe what is before you and what has come to pass. Only then will you understand Benin. Here the supernatural and the natural worlds combine. This is the land where everyday occurrences take on special meaning, and as the sun sets, the traveler with such privilege to enter this secret society will fully appreciate the mysteries of what Benin declares it’s official religion: the worship of the Vodou.

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Enter a world of mystery and dance, of masks, scars and tattoos. A country where Kings still remain the King of Kings, and animals like the leopard and snake prevail in the household tale. Within the religion of Vodou, rhythm transcends the physical and the beat of the drum takes your mind into the realm of the metaphysical. Once you have discovered this unique passage, the world around you will never be the same. For us, there is no turning back. There is only the universal language of Vodou and we will drink from this bottomless cup.

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T-Minus 12hrs: The West Africa Project – Origins of Vodou

I read some things. They were not unnerving, disruptive or fear-inducing. Rather, they unleashed a whirlpool of positive feelings, emotions I strive to wake up to and languish in every day. An onrush of unbelievability flowing in a current of enthusiasm to learn more, to envelop myself in the experience without comprehension, solely harnessing the tools of exploration and adventure. The words are varied, simple, yet washed in mystery: sand-blasted, bravery, spirits, remote, power, vibes… fetish. I was tingling, their combination in a single paragraph intriguing. My mind slipped into this vortex without force:

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Les Bouches Du Roi

The most popular day excursion from Grand-Popo is to rent a pirogue and drift along the Mono River to Les Bouches du Roi…This is one destination where the journey is very much the reward as the actual mouth of the Mono flows out into the sea on a bleak, wind and sand-blasted beach that is not very likely to entice you in for a swim…If your interest is in Voodoo then with luck (and some bravery) you might be able to persuade someone to paddle you over to one of the villages hidden on the backwaters where the Voodoo spirits are especially active. (The spirits are fond of places where the water and land meet.) One village especially, Kpossou Gayou, would be fascinating to explore, but the chances of getting someone to take you are very remote because of the sheer power of the Voodoo here and the bad vibes surrounding it. It’s said that the fetish is so strong that almost anyone can hear it speaking quite openly and most of the boatmen in the area are much too frightened to take a foreigner there. 

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The more I read, the further I researched, I was hooked. My excitement stolen by words into a fantasy world that was hard to believe was real. Vodou, established by short-term president Nicephoro Soglo, became the official religion of Benin on January 10th, 1996. Subsequently, this exact day also became the National Day of Vodou, when the world’s largest Vodou festival occurs every year in the old slave port of Ouidah. I soon realized I was going. A project laid before me, designed alongside Constantine Savvides. Bags packed. Guesthouse, rough itinerary, and the necessities of guide and driver discussed. Then 37 hours of plane travel await: east from Seattle to DC to Brussels, then south 37,000 miles above the earth across the Mediterranean and over arid lands of the Sahara into the Ivory Coast and then Cotonou, an unofficial capital of this land called Benin.

Our story would unfold. Vodou, or voodoo to our ears, a doll and pins to our imaginations, was anything but. We would soon discover the form of mysticism that has existed for thousands of years on the continent. East Africa the birthplace of modern Homo sapien, West Africa the cradle of Vodou before its dissemination westward via the dark route of the slave trade, a faith carrying its people into the harsh hands of their masters. West the religion mixed with others, new cultures and evolving lifestyles far from it’s native land. But here I digress too far, wandering astray from the destination ahead: The West Africa Project – Origins of Vodou.

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The heart of the Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

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Hamar territory – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia 

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An orphaned elephant being fed at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – Nairobi, Kenya 

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 A dry riverbed in the Lower Omo Valley. The government’s proposed dams have dried up the Hamar’s traditional water sources

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In the riverbed – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

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The Wild West of Nigeria – Niger Delta, Nigeria

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Jinka’s town square – Jinka, Ethiopia

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