The practice of voodoo as a religion was carried by Africans to places like Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and New Orleans in the US. While it is practiced among the Fon people along the West African coast in Togo, Benin and parts of southwest Nigeria, the undisputed capital of voodoo is Ouidah, about 42km west of Cotonou the commercial capital of Benin.
Fête du Vodoun: Origin
For starters, voodoo or vodun is officially a national religion in the coastal West African state helmed between Nigeria and Togo. During Matthew Kerekou’s Marxist military rule of 18 years which ended in 1991, voodoo was suppressed and outlawed in the country, even though about 60% of Béninois are devotees of the faith.
With the exit of Kerekou from power, the practice began to thrive freely again. Following his return to power as a democratic elected President in 1996, Kerekou capitulated to the people’s wish when taking his oath of office by acknowledging ancestral spirits, and the government declared January 10th as public holiday in celebration of Fête du Vodoun (Voodoo Festival).
Fête du Vodoun is the biggest and most colorful festival in Benin. Since its inception in the late ‘90s, it has attracted thousands of devotees and tourists from different parts of the world, especially those from the Caribbean and Americas to the country and Ouidah in particular to witness the celebrations.
In times past, Ouidah served as a major port where African slaves were shipped from to the Americas and Caribbean. The festival often starts with the slaughter of a goat to the python spirit at the Temple of Python. This is followed by a 3km trek from the old slave auction block down to the harbor as devotees are led by the voodoo pope (voodoonou) who stops to offer prayers at specific points on the way.
The festivities features much revelry and fun activities with music, dancing, horse riding, lots of drinking, magic display and colorful masquerades known as Zangbeto (guardians of the night in voodoo religion) who acts as a form of security check while dancing and entertaining the crowd. Throats of live chickens are ripped out with the teeth by priests who drink the blood gleefully.
In the frenzy, some of the initiates engage in daring acts of self-mutilation by cutting themselves with knives and pouring local gin on the wounds. Led by a voodooshi (female counterpart of the voodoonou), the women worshippers perform sacrifice to the Mami Wata (Sea goddess) at the beach. Some of them would peel of their tops and begin to beat on their bare breasts as they get into a frenzy.
Although the brutal animal sacrifice and blood flow may be unpalatable to many, it never takes the fun out for those who come from near and far to witness the voodoo festival. With music and a free flow of local gin, the party carries on at the beach, while different groups entertain the people with their various displays.
*Cover image by Degan Gabin sourced online.