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.

Day6_BurundiNgozi2-552-EditAn empty wheel barrel on the tea plantation – Ngozi, Burundi.

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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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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