The slave traders and Voodoo

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Africa » Benin » South » Ouidah
June 16th 2011
Published: July 11th 2011
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Soft sand with crashing waves and coconut trees blowing in the breeze. The more you travel Africa the more mixed your emotions become. Sure you feel sorry for them but than you feel like its time for them to take ownership for their problems. Yes the western world requested slaves but how did they get them? And how did those slaves come to such a tranquil place?

I arrived in Cotonou Benin’s capital not that impressed. Unlike Lome in Togo the capital here is a block or two from the beach. So instead of the pollution of the cheap Chinese motorbikes and other fumes escaping along the coast. There is no escape. No sea breeze from the low rise buildings. In fact my first claustrophobic thought was ‘Oh no this is not how I’m going to end it am I?’

Unsure if this was my last 5 days or so in Africa or whether I had another month or so. I had to schedule my potential final stop in Africa in case my visa processing failed. Benin provides two great options – Voodoo or the final stop for African slaves for the new world.

Distances are not big on the coast so my first stop was overnight in Abomey. Home to the Dahomeyan people. It wasn’t until around independence in 1960 that royalty died off here. The main attraction was the palaces and temples and the best way to see them is to grab a moto taxi to guide you around for less than $6 for half a day.

There are 12 temples and palaces to see so there’s a lot of stops. The driver explains in bad English to a person with a poor attention span (i.e. me) about a history that’s hard to explain with his limited English so it got difficult every now and then.

Unlike palaces and temples in other continents these were not mind blowing very basic concrete structures with tin rooves and symbols on the walls indicating the generational leaders. Most structures had a tinge of red African earth that appears like paint.

He explained things and said “Espiray” which I assumed was spirit and it was like that for most things. It helped me understand a bit but it also contradicted the little information I had on the place. So in the end I was confused as to what was going on here. The museum was only in French I was told so that didn’t help.

The Dahomey people were renowned for being slave traders which meant going to the tribes north capturing the people and taking them down to trade with Europeans. Looking at the sites it’s hard to picture the gruesome past. As well as slavery they conducted human sacrifices and a lot of gruesome wars.

Even though we all say we are against war. Most humans always are interesting in reading or hearing things from 200 years ago. As long as war is not recent, we can handle it.

The most intriguing story was at Palais Akaba where the story goes Akaba told his enemy Dan that one day he would build in his guts. Soon after when Dan was defeated Akaba cut open his belly and buried him outside the palace underneath a tree. Because it’s so long ago you don’t feel attached to it but then you look at some of the civil wars elsewhere in Africa like the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in East Africa and think shit this continent is still doing stuff like this. (Maybe not cutting up guts and planting a tree in them but you know).

Palais Ghezo and Temple Semassou have twin fetishes and a fertility fetish where women would rub up against it to increase their chances of having babies. At these places I noticed a symbol was missing from a time period and it turned out it had a version of Egypt’s Arkenharten. He was not liked so there is a gap between 1797 with king Agonglo and 1818 Ghezo. I asked but couldn’t get any more info.

A couple of other interesting temples were Temple Hwemu where the guy decided to turned himself into a fish. He walked off to Cotonou and was last seen going into the water to turn into a fish.

The other good story was Palace of Ghezo who had 200 wives and made an army of female Amazon warriors. Temple Zewa was built opposite it to appease the spirits. He executed them by throwing red palm oil on them and left them to the ants to eat them. Zewa was the last to die. (This story I read about but was not confirmed by the guide.)

As we drove around some little kids came up to me whilst on the motor-bike. They were fine but 3 Ladies asked for my guide to stop and then got him to translate that its common courtesy to greet them with “hello” but to also provide a gift like money as a sign of respect. I said, “We meet on the street and I have to give them money… No.” One lady had this special make up on but I would say in all likelihood it was bullshit. This is why a lot of these spiritual places in 3rd world countries I take with a grain of salt. It is difficult to witness a true local moment with their local beliefs.

As we got closer to the end of Abomey tour we were near the end of an emptying tank. We’d have to stop the bike stand up than wiggle the bike around until the petrol moves to the right area.

The final stop was at Place de Goho and the statue of Behanzin. The French in the 19th century came to make a settlement agreement with the King for colonialism. It didn’t work out well. The treaty was seen off with resistance from the locals and the large French casualties can be seen at the French Cemetery not far away. It’s one of a few times you feel for the soldiers of westerners in Africa. These guys were ambushed and shown no mercy.

The following day I headed to Ouidah, which is Benin’s best cultural destination for both Voodoo and Benin’s history in slavery. Before 1908 Ouidah was the only port in Benin and from 1800-1900 it was the port of call to ship off West African slaves to the Americas.

Once the powerful African tribes captured their soon to be profits they transported them to European strongholds on the coast like Ouidah where they were kept in Fortaleza Sao Joao Batista a Portuguese fort that was built in 1721. The slaves here were mostly linked to Brazil and the Caribbean. From the fort they were taken along the 4km road to the port for shipping.

And this is the story that doesn’t get told regarding slavery. Here I am a white person who is first generation Australian on my dads side with a Greek background and 3rd generation on my mums side from a very poor background and I am supposed to feel guilty about slavery because American’s feel guilty.

Europe has a silent guilt but this trip has made me feel less guilty and it almost goes away entirely when you realise that throughout Africa it was the African people who encouraged the problem by voluntarily rounding up these guys for their own profit. It’s again Africa’s problem they don’t unite together when it counts. Sure you could say that I should feel a little guilt because indirectly I have benefitted. But I think it’s drawing a long bow. I have never felt as comfortable with my order in the world than I am now.

You can take this road nowadays called Route des Esclaves to the port area now known as Point of no return. There are monuments along the way like the Monument of Repentance and the Tree of Forgetfulness. The red dirt road passes other smaller statues of either voodoo significance or images of the way the slaves were tied up. There are other statues slightly off the road too which eventually leads over the bridge to the beach and towards the big monument which has multiple images of tied up slaves towards the European ship. To the right is the gate to pay homage to the slaves that didn’t return.

It was dark with rain clouds ominous which added to an eerie feeling. I tried to imagine the ships docked, the men and women lined up but all I got was the coconut leaves brushing against each other and the waves hitting the shoreline. It would have been ironic to finish off my trip this way but I headed back to town and got a dose of voodoo.

I was singing that terrible mid 2000’s Australian song Voodoo Child in my head, which was unfortunate, but I did have a brief moment of reprieve when I entered the python temple. Here they have 40 very relaxed spiritual pythons.

I entered the premises where a 600 year old tree stands. At the bottom of the trunk there was maize powder and palm oil. This is where many fetishes lie and sacrifices take place. There is a little temple inside and I entered the concrete cool room and saw the pythons looking pretty much dead.

I misread the guidebook, which said sleepy, I thought sleeping as in dead. So when I saw some move my heart rate quickened slightly. I was afraid my sometimes sarcastic negative thoughts might be sensed by the pythons and they’d come snapping at me.

The man showing me around asked if I wanted to touch one. Before I could say “no I’m okay” the python was around my neck. It had been probably 15 years since I touched a snake so I enjoyed touching the muscles slither around my hands. Take away that experience it isn’t really much. The best time to be here would be January when they have a Voodoo festival.

The other significant sight is at Foree Sacree de Kpasee. A small forest area where a 350 year old tree stands. In 1661 the king at the time decided to not die and turn into a tree. It is now used for fetishes and thank you gifts when their preys are answered.

Also in the area, statues are built to describe the different aspects of Voodoo. Like the voodoo doll not like the western adaptation. How the south of Benin worship the defect babies. How for 3 months new female converts walk around topless to indicate that she is a new convert. Other statues like the fertility man with a giant boner, iron man dedicated to blacksmiths and the two-headed man.

I left not truly convinced about Voodoo and tried to leave before the rains came. And for old times sake I had an argument or disagreement with my moto taxi driver.

Its actually an emotional time when you realise this could be the last argument or disagreement. As normal with these situations I was right and he was trying to rip me off. I couldn’t produce a tear in my eyes or a lump in my throat but I knew it was one of my last salutes to a continent that has been the most mentally draining travel I have done.

As many locals tried to contribute to an agreement made an hour earlier I forced open the door of my taxi (the next form of transport I was sitting in). I told him either he accepts the agreed price or he gets nothing. Realising I was being ganged up on by about 4 people I relieved myself of the situation and walked off without paying. I hear discussion in the background getting more distant and finally a rev of the moto taxi as it putters up to me. “Okay, give me money.” I could have dragged it out more by refusing but it was probably my last days and my point was made.

I arrived in the pollution filled capital not sure if it was meant to be. My last moments on the African continent having my feet in the soft sand with crashing waves and coconut trees blowing in the breeze.

I sat back in my accommodation with Obama beer… That’s right Barrack Obama beer. I finally gave into the Obama franchise of phony products throughout Africa and this 5% alcoholic beer tasted ordinary. I had to concentrate more when I farted after this. A lot of 3rd world countries aren’t able to sterilise their bottles properly, around the bottle top, so the poo does come out quicker than normal.

Language here again was frustrating and I couldn’t help but think that West Africa is missing an opportunity. Latin America have Spanish or Portuguese language schools everywhere and West Africa would have been a perfect location to learn French. Benin is the only place that I found that had an official language school. And how ironic that I enter this country towards the end of my visit to French speaking Africa.

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13th July 2011

Thanks for such an interesting read - definitely perked my interest in voodoo and the african side of the slave trade.
13th July 2011

Is the Africa trip over now?
I find it funny that this is probably one of the only blogs on Benin on this website, it appears on the frontpage, and it is a worthwhile, entertaining read. Yet it gets so few views, probably people are more interested in reading about Ko Pha-Ngang for the 87686234823rd time, especially when it's written by gutless vanilla couples from the US. It could be that most people don't know that Benin exists. Maybe they're too busy leaving sycophantic comments like "Oh, I wish I could do that one day!" or "Good for yoooooouuuuuuu..." on the rich-folks-show-off-blogs aka "Fine wining and dining/Life is beautiful/Happy-family-look-at-us"-blogs. In any sense, blogs like yours deserve more attention. Your guide probably kept saying 'Esperez', which means 'Wait', formal version. Too bad your French wasn't up to scratch enough to communicate with the locals in a more satisfying manner. So what happens now? Back to Australia, or onwards to another trip? Cheers, Jens
13th July 2011

Thanks mate
I do agree but I can understand where they are coming from. I did a story on Guinea-Bissau like the first person in 4 years or something to type up on it. It got less then a hundred views. Yet probably my worst blog entry on Phi Phi island has got 600 or something.
5th March 2012

Travel guide for Ouidah
The history of slavery and the historical background of Benin are very interesting and multi-faceted. The colorful and vibrant culture catches you in an instant. If you need a reliabel, relaxed and Englishspeaking guide in Ouidah I recommend you Keneth Agboton. His Email is: and his Cel.(always more reliabel in Benin): +229 96143919 He knows Ouidah and Benin very well, the known and the hidden places. So enjoy Benin with all of his friendly magic, Stefan

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