Voodoo to Cotonou

Trip Start Jul 15, 2007
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Trip End Ongoing


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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When I left Tanguieta for Abomey, I left the skyward three dimensions of the Atakoras for my guidebook's two dimensional pages.  History promised a lot for the town, as the seat of the Danhomey empire, but Africa's history, built from mud, crumbles quicker than its memories.  Guidebooks are helpful, but even with them I never know what to expect.

The door to La Lutta was open.  I peeked in the flaking, white European style house and found a teenage girl sweeping the foyer.  She affirmed that they had a room and directed me to the sign in book and the formalities.  A female tourist sat at a table parallel to mine.  When I finished, I found her companion walking down the dank hallway as I followed the girl to my room.  Bare and shadow-filled by the single light bulb hanging from a wall socket, it was clean and cheap.  After two years in Africa, I get excited about a bed, but the room was only fit for sleep.  I returned to the front room and found the couple reading.

"I see that you weren't lucky," the man commented on my wet clothes as we shook hands.
"No, I guess not, but I wasn't going to wait in Bohicon all day for the rain to stop."

I arrived in town wet on an exposed zemidjen (motorcycle taxi) ride from Bohicon; perhaps, I was unlucky, but I was also at my destination.  In our brief introduction, I learned that the couple had biked from Germany fifteen months ago through Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, all the countries I wouldn't dream of attempt by bike, and were moving on from Benin soon.  They had even taken their bikes on the train from Nouadhibou to Choum, and then biked from there to Atar through 120km of desert and 130 F heat.  The torture lasted three days, and the only reason they didn't die, I'm certain, is that it rained just before their trip so they could siphon and filter water from the remaining puddles.  They claimed to have drank ten liters of water per day each!  I was astonished, and they were perhaps as equally amazed that I spent two years there, so we had a lot in common.

As the rain stopped, I settled in my room and left to explore the city.  Abomey was more touristy than I'd expected and really lacked anything of interest.  I walked as far as I could through the market until I came to a sign, "Temple of Zewa."  A voodoo temple.  Exciting, I thought, but when I looked around all I saw was a white, squat, rectangular building with cartoonish animals painted on it's pillars, which supported a zinc roof.  Behind it was a walled compound.  Perhaps it's inside the compound, I thought, and continued down the market street.

Towards the end, I came upon rows of live chicken vendors, and what I was hoping to find, the fetish market.  Crocodiles, crows, rats, snakes, gazelle, and monkeys had all donated their heads.  Other unidentifiable skins, pellets, skulls, and feathers smothered the tabletops while whole specimens dangled from the stalls' transoms.  The miasma intoxicated the flies.  The hawkers offered their wares with a grin, and children offered me lizards from rice sacks, undoubtedly walking dead.  They sold the animal parts as I'd seen women selling oranges.

I retraced my steps.  A church steeple beckoned me from the skyline.  I passed a few streets, made a left turn and found a European style church built from red brick with a white steeple.  African music blared from across the street.  Children walked by as if it were an everyday structure.  But it didn't fit.  It was an orphan.  Spain was a better location for it.  I took a picture and left.

Further on, passed the post office, I noticed two white minarets, topped in sky blue skull caps calling people to prayer.  Another mildly interesting structure, I searched it out to take its picture.  A small alley led to the entrance.  A few people trickled through the corridor, but again most people didn't take interest.  I snuck a picture while the alley was clear and started back to the motel.

Off the main street, cloistral music met my ears before I came to a tent, and different groups of people in identically patterned clothes sitting under it in chairs.  A church group, I thought, and tried unsuccessfully to get an explanation from a passing boy.  Next door, in a walled compound, lively African music muffled the solemnity I'd just passed.  Neither seemed to care that the other was disrupting its mood.  I was baffled but assumed they'd dissipate by morning.

The next day, I said goodbye to my German friends and set out for the Danhomey palaces and museum.  Before reaching the main street, I passed the gatherings again, both were starting up again.  I tried again unsuccessfully to get explanation, but the walled compound's doors were open.  I glanced quickly and noticed people dressed in costumes.  Animists, I thought, and continued toward the palace.

Not far from the mosque, I found what I was looking for, fifteen foot walls that continued as far as I could see.  After walking for five minutes, I reached as far as I could see, which wasn't very far, the museum.  I paid my five dollar fee and waited at the palace map for my mandatory guide, who would expect a tip.  Two other Beninoise joined me, and when the guide came, we set out.  We entered the first building, which resembled many African structures, red mud walls and a zinc roof.  Inside we saw wood and metal decorated stools (thrones shaped like an alter with a curved seat on top) on which all the kings had been "enstooled" (this word's not my creation) and other ceremonial hardware.

The next building was basically the same, uninteresting.  It did house, however, another stool that's supported by four human skulls.  We continued the tour through more of the same.  All the buildings were bare, most of the artifacts probably in the Louvre.  The tour ended, and I left feeling that my imagination had failed to fill in the empty spaces.  I had no idea what daily life would have been like there.

I wandered the streets for food, and then headed back to the motel.  Again I had to pass the festivities.  This time, however, the Christian section was empty, and out of the animists complex came voodoo clowns, one on stilts, another giant on his own, and another was just annoying.  They immediately came towards me, dressed in their masks, colorful clothes, and grass skirts, demanding money.  I wanted a picture, so we worked out a price.  I don't like paying for pictures, but I got a pose and they left me alone.

Back at the hotel, I found the Germans reading on the benches outside.  They'd decided to stay another day because their clothes were still wet from yesterdays rain.  I was very happy for the company.  They asked about my disappointing morning, and admitted that the town had disappointed them as well.  "It's just another African town," she lamented.  For the rest of the afternoon, we enjoyed coffee and each other's Western company.

Towards dusk, we left our benches and went for dinner.  Again, we passed the parties.  I asked them what they'd thought, but they hadn't any other information.  Below the yellow, Maggi water tower (Maggi is a popular type of bouillon cube), we found some street food.  After ordering, a car drove passed with speakers blaring music.  I'd seen it at the parties, so I asked the street-food woman what was going on.  She didn't understand.  A group of men nearby called me over, "What hotel are you looking for?" they asked.  I smiled at how my question had been twisted,
"No, I'm not looking for a hotel.  What is the party going on over there?" I pointed in a vague direction.  They discussed for a minute and finally one replied,
"It's a funeral."
"A funeral?  Really?"  This actually made sense.  When I was in the North, Kathy told me that funerals are big parties that last for days.  The two different parties also made sense.  Religions in Benin seem to have a heterogeneous relationship.  Voodoo often incorporates parts of Christianity and Islam into its practices, and Christianity and Islam in Benin have also conceded ground by admitting the god of all three religions is the same.  As a result, "fifty-fifties," self-described as people who practice Christianity or Islam during the day and Voodoo at night, populate much of Benin as a result of pressure from Western proselytization.  It just became easier to practice both.  Consequently, the religions are more conciliatory than antagonistic toward each other. 

The one exception is the Celestial Christian community, an African creation whose members walk around on Sunday in white robes and what look like baker's caps, that purports to counter the Voodoo influence.  Ironically, they are little different.  The Celestial Christians have many of the same superstitious beliefs and rely on similar methods to fight the evil Voodoo spells.  Both view life and death as two sides of one world that often intermingle, and rely on spirits as intermediaries between these two sides, specifically between humans and higher gods, similar to saints and angels, who are in turn answerable to the highest god.  In this respect, these higher gods play an immediate role in a person's life and require daily attention.  In Voodoo, this takes the form of fetish worship, the corporal houses for these gods.  Every day people pray to their fetish and feed it with animal, often chicken, blood or palm oil and rum.  Celestial Christians practice a similar ritual, except without the blood or rum. 

That night, I decided to inquire about the "Danhomey Trail," something advertised in another guidebook but absent in mine.  The motel's proprietor asked me, "Did you get that from the Lonely Planet?"  I nodded.  "That's me.  We'll start at eight tomorrow.  It'll take about two hours."  I was excited at the opportunity and surprised by my luck.

At eight o'clock, we met outside.  He grabbed a stick and started drawing on the ground.  "This is Abomey," he asserted in surprisingly good English.  "This is where our tour will take place."  He wore pants, a collared shirt, and skull cap.  His face was squat, hard, and black.  His facial contours match those of his body with his lips protruding with the same authority as his stomach.  I was at a university lecture under a seasoned professor.  Class continued for another ten minutes.

Our first stop on the moto tour was the ancient entrance to Abomey.  Nondescript, I attempted to take a picture, and he told me I was facing the wrong way.  It crossed a moat, purported to have been sixty meters deep and forty-two kilometers in circumference, which we could still see through the undergrowth.  Something I wouldn't have found without a guide.

The next stop was the most fascinating, a blacksmith village.  We pulled up and directly in front was a boy working an accordion pump to stoke the fire.  I felt out of place, like I was invading someone's life.  Two other men sat around.  "Go ahead, take a picture," my guide prodded, "just place a coin on the fetish, any size.  It doesn't matter."  I did as he told me, but I still felt as if I were stealing something.  "Go ahead, look around.  There's some voodoo art over there."  I saw them on the way in but didn't take them in.  They were animal and human figures created out of unidentifiable trash, but each was painted with an eerie life that haunted me while looking at them.  Each figure had a grotesque, barbarous expression that suggested pain or unrest.  They clearly seemed to be manifestations of the undead.  I'd read about such creatures in The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, another Nigerian author.

I quickly took a picture, and we motoed off.  I wished that I had taken more, but the situation had nerved me.  The tour continued.  We visited various nondescript temples and palaces, all accompanied by stories.  One described the nascence of the Dan-homey empire.  King Akaba killed Dan, a voodoo religious leader and planted a tree in his stomach, leading him to called the empire, "from the belly of Dan."  A second recalled one of a king's many wives giving birth to a talking baby in the street that warned of war with Nigeria, locusts, and fires that would destroy Abomey.  A third described the baptism of the Zewa temple.  The two oldest wives of one king were caught in attempted regicide in reaction to the king taking more wives.  As punishment, the king planted them up to their necks and then covered their heads in red palm oil to attract the red ants.  The last one to survive the ants, Zewa, christened the temple.

Our final stop was a French cemetery resulting from the French attempt to pacify the Danhomey empire.  Some of the graves had a plaque.  Others were blank.  Weeds had overgrown half of the cemetery.  A few Beninoise caretakers were trying to take it back, using only their hands to uproot the invaders.  Like the church and the mosque, the cemetery seems out of place.  It bore resemblance to the undead art we'd visited earlier; surely the dead didn't rest here.  It represented a misstep in French history.  Like the church and the mosque, the French had ventured into a place they weren't prepared for and didn't understand.  Through the tour, I'd touched upon the surface of these complexities, perhaps more than the French, but, like everything else in Africa, the surface was all that I could access. 
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