It takes about an hour to drive from Cotonou to Ouidah, Benin’s voodoo capital. The tarmac road is dotted with tiny stalls selling petrol in plastic bottles – imported (or smuggled) by entrepreneurial Beninese from nearby Nigeria and sold at a fraction of the prices charged by official petrol stations.
About half way through, the tarmac road ends with a toll collection point after which, rather unexpectedly, it turns into a barely passable dirt track. On the side I see cars and motorbikes that got stuck in the moving sand. Luckily, thanks to the skills and sang froid of my driver Jules we manage to reach Ouidah in one piece.
The town is sitting peacefully on the Atlantic coast of Benin, a tiny West African nation squeezed between Togo and Nigeria. It has around 90 000 inhabitants, but it feels like a small village, with its sandy roads and tin roof huts hidden among palm trees. But most importantly for me, Ouidah is the spiritual capital of the voodoo religion (also referred to as Vodun) and the host of the annual voodoo festival in January. Voodoo stirs my imagination. In my mind it is associated with mysterious and sometimes disturbing rituals, bloody sacrifice, spells and voodoo dolls. In Benin more than 60% of the population practise voodoo and I decide to spend the day getting as close as possible to that religion shrouded in secrets and misconceptions.
I start at the Temple of Pythons, located on the main square in Ouidah and facing a Christian basilica. A guide with ritual scars on his forehead and both cheeks shows me around the inner courtyard, adorned with images of snakes, a holy animal worshipped in Benin as the embodiment of the snake god Dan. He shows me sacred huts where offerings are brought to the gods, and an Iroko tree.
Locals worship and fear Iroko trees, as it is believed spirits live in them. Seeing the spirit of an Iroko tree will drive a man insane, and cutting down a tree brings misfortune.
Unfortunately we can’t go any further into the heart of the temple, as access is only granted to those who have been initiated. Slightly disappointed, I follow the guide into the chamber where royal pythons are kept. About 20 snakes are dozing peacefully on a stone floor among images and statues of gods. The guide explains that the pythons are released from the temple every night and free to roam the town. Residents let them into their homes, as presence of a snake brings good luck, and return them to the temple in the morning. The guide picks up one of the pythons and lifts it up. The sun is making its scales glitter like silver. Before I know it, the guide wraps the snake around my neck. I feel the weight of the animal on my shoulders, its cool skin against my skin. I swallow and stroke the muscular body. It is cool, soft and rather pleasant to the touch. Still, I’m relieved when the guide takes the python back to its chamber.
Jules and I drive to the infamous beach where slaves were shipped from to the Americas and the Caribbean. Along what is called La Route des Esclaves, the Road of the Slaves, stand numerous voodoo shrines and statues.
Jules tells me he is Christian and can’t really explain the significance of the statues. Still, his cheeks are marked with the same deep vertical scars as the cheeks of the guide in the temple. He stops me when I want to come up to one of the temples and look through the windows. He is worried I may offend the spirits.
At the beach I hire a local guide, Nadal (like the tennis player, he says) who shows us around the venue of the annual voodoo festival. There are two ceremonial huts on the otherwise empty beach. One is used by the voodoo priests to prepare for the rituals and is now empty. The other is where the divinity resides. Inside I can see flowers and remnants of food offerings, including Sprite and Coke bottles. In the middle of the beach there is a sacrificial stone. As I’m examining it, a mother goat with a snow-white baby passes by with a soft bleat. Nadal points to the animals and says: Yes, goats and chickens are the animals most commonly used as sacrifice to the gods. Hesitantly, I ask about human sacrifice. It is now forbidden by law, says Nadal. After a minute of silence, he adds: But it still happens in some villages. They set dates when whoever is outside and not at home can be captured and sacrificed. Locals know what the dates are, but outsiders don’t. Everything is shrouded in an aura of silence.
We leave the beach and Nadal takes us to the Sacred Forest, a mystical place where voodoo initiation rites are performed. We enter through a painted gate and we find ourselves in an ancient wood with enormous trees, each hundreds of years old.
In the cooling shade of the majestic trees I see a dozen statues depicting voodoo gods. Nadal tells me about the significance of each, but I can barely concentrate, enchanted by the whispering trees and the sun seeping through the thick foliage, giving the statues a mysterious look. One god cannot be overlooked though: with an enormous phallus in erection, he symbolises fertility and virility.
We walk around looking at various shrines and sacred trees. One of the kings of Ouidah transformed himself into one of the trees, which is now marked with a white canvas and a stone on which people leave offerings. Instructed by Nadal, I stroke the tree with my left hand and make a wish. You now have to offer something to the divinity, says Nadal. I take a 500 franc coin out of my pocket and hope the gods won’t realise how stingy I am. Another tree is said to have fallen during a storm. Builders were called to lift it up and replant it, but before they got to the forest, the tree rose by itself.
As we walk around, a strange sound breaks the silence, something between chirping of birds and squeaks of a mouse. When I ask Nadal about it, he claps his hands and the sky darkens for a few seconds: a cloud of bats takes off from the trees and flies into the sky.
The forest is cool and quiet and we linger on, unwilling to leave that peaceful space. I examine a statue that represents religious syncretism of Benin: it holds an incense in one hand, the symbol of Christianity, and a kind of sickle in the other, the symbol of the Vodun religion. I ask Nadal about a banner we saw earlier on the road, something about a festival of twins. My guide explains that twins are worshipped in Benin.
I have a twin brother, says Jules unexpectedly. He hasn’t uttered a word since we entered the forest and we’ve almost forgotten about his presence. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a 30 cm tall wooden doll. He carries it with him everywhere and puts it on the table when he eats, so that his brother can eat with him. Wherever I go, my brother is with me. He has saved my life many times, he says. A few weeks ago I went out to a club with my friends and at one point I felt like I had to leave immediately. I did, and later I found out that a group of armed thugs forced entry into the club an hour after I’d left and killed five people.
We say goodbye to Nadal on the road outside the Sacred Forest and start driving back towards Cotonou. It is 5 pm and the sand roads of Oudah are full of barefoot children in school uniforms. They wave at me and I wave back. We slow down at an intersection to let the children cross. Suddenly I hear a faint tap on my window, I turn my head fully expecting to see a smiling face of a child, and I scream in horror. A terrifying red face with horns and long yellow teeth is staring right at me. Jules slams on the breaks. It’s just a mask, he laughs. I laugh too, although my heart is still beating like mad. I get out of the car to look for my monster. Actually, there are three of them, the red one on foot, and two on stilts. I try to ask them why they’re dressed like that but I can’t make out the answer from under their masks. They ask me for money and, still unsettled, I give them 2000 francs. That’s four times more than my offering to the gods in the Sacred Forest, but these guys are here, very real and, even to my usually rational disposition, a bit scary.