Our first stop in Benin was Grand Popo, a small beach town not far from the Togo border. Grand Popo has lots of hotels but seems to lack tourists this time of year. I think we were the only ones staying at the beautiful Auberge de Grand Popo; they were so desperate for our business that they invented a 25% Peace Corps discount.
The Auberge has a beautiful beach with thatch shade huts and a swimming pool. It also has a beautiful outdoor restaurant that we couldn’t afford, but we found some great seafood in town. There are several kinds of fish and lots of lobster available. Each day we could watch see fishermen, 20 or so people working together to slowly tug a giant net up on to the beach.
After a few days of relaxing on the beach, we left Grand Popo and headed east to Ouidah, a town known both as an infamous slave port and as the center of Voodoo in Benin. Voodoo is Benin’s major religion, practiced officially by two thirds of the population.
Ouidah is a medium-sized, very pleasant town. The streets are the cleanest I’ve seen in an African city. There are even billboards that say “Ouidah is a clean city. Use garbage cans.” The town is also remarkably free of the pushy “guides” and souvenir vendors that tend to populate tourist towns. People were friendly and welcoming to us, relatively few kids tried to hit us up for presents.
Our first stop in Ouidah was the Serpent Temple, where the people keep their pythons. The python is the local totem, meaning the people can’t harm pythons and in return the pythons protect the town.
The entrance to the temple is shaded by a huge tree said to be 400+ years old, its huge trunk completely covered in snakelike vines. One small building is reserved for sacrifices, you can only enter if you kill a few animals for the gods. The gods will then hear your request, but at this sacred place it is only acceptable to wish for good things.
Another small hut in the compound was described to us as a kind of convent or confessional. A white flag flew over it to symbolize purity. The guide explained something about people being taken there to get the spirits out of them, which only made sense later.
The Serpent Temple itself was a round hut with a thatched roof. Inside was one Indiana Jones-like room full of pythons. They piled themselves in a pit and slithered out onto the floor and up to ledges on the walls. We were encouraged to walk around, tiptoeing over tangles of serpents. The guide insisted that the pythons couldn’t hurt us because they are the local totem; he demonstrated this by putting meter-long pythons around our necks.
Across the street from the serpent temple, one of the most sacred places in Voodoo, stood a very conspicuous church. The largest and most beautiful church I’ve seen in Africa, more like the kind you visit in Europe. Yet even if such ostentation does gain converts, it does not diminish the value of Voodoo. Most people who consider themselves Christian or Muslim also remain true to their traditional beliefs.
Next we visited the Sacred Forest, a few walled-in city blocks where ancient trees are preserved. According to legend, the king of the Voodoo gods never died but took the form of a tree. If you touch the tree and leave a small gift you can make a wish, good things only. Dozens of surrounding trees are several centuries old and have other stories. One was once uprooted in a storm, blocking a road. When the king’s workers returned to move the obstruction, the tree had righted itself, leaving a crater where it had fallen.
The forest is dotted with statues, some older and some modern, representing the Voodoo deities. One statue represented the classic image of a person stabbed all over with pins and needles. Our guide explained that dolls were once used as a way to catch criminals when there were no police or detectives. The guilty person could not see but could feel the stab wounds and would have to see a healer to learn how to right his wrongs and end his affliction. Another interesting statue was the god of smallpox. Apparently when an affliction arrives that people cannot defeat with all of their efforts, they deify it.
After the Sacred Forest, we visited a nice exhibit about women in Africa at the Casa do Brazil, which also had a small unkempt collection of Voodoo art. On the way back, we followed the sound of drumming and music through a residential area to a Voodoo ceremony.
A crowd was gathered around a group of men and women dancing and singing. We were a little nervous to approach, not sure if tourists were welcome at the event, but people greeted us warmly and invited us to watch. No one asked us for money or tried to sell us anything, and people openly answered my questions about what was going on. I gathered that the ceremony was being held to invoke the god of mothers and that the dancers were half god and half mortal. Suddenly a crowd broke off and ran in one direction and then another; in the front a man carrying an unconscious young woman climbed on to the back of a moto and drove off. Someone explained to me that when a dancer manages to invoke the spirit of the goddess, the person loses consciousness and has to be taken to a “convent” to recover. During their stupor they have visions that offer answers to questions and hints to the fates of loved ones. The dancers would continue to dance until they lost consciousness.
We enjoyed Ouidah and were hoping to find some cool Voodoo souvenirs. Maybe like a potion that could turn you into a mermaid or a ready-made, just-add-lock-of-hair Voodoo doll? We didn’t find any. I suppose it’s good that they don’t sell out and reduce their respected traditions to cheap tourist souvenirs. So no under the sea adventures for me.
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