News: Discovering Voodoo in West Africa

Posted: 19 January 2019

I joined the amazingly diverse Ghana, Togo and Benin Ouidah Festival tour with real excitement. It covers an array of cultures and is similar to the Spirits of West Africa tour, but has the highlight of the Voodoo Festival at Ouidah as its focus.

On arrival in Lome, the capital of Togo, on Monday evening an Immigration official was checking with everyone if they required a visa on arrival, and ensuring they had the correct document for this process. The queue was short and the whole process took 10 minutes- the charge is 20 Euros or CFA 10,000. I have not encountered a happier or friendlier group of border officials- talk about being made to feel welcome.

There was a checkpoint for Yellow Fever Certificates so make sure you pack yours.

The luggage arrived quickly and the transfer to Hotel Onomo took some 20 minutes along the busy road; it was nice to unwind in the gardens in a balmy 24 degrees.

Having spent Tuesday in and around Lome, Wednesday was busy. After checking out of the hotel our city tour began with a visit to the beach and then Independence Square, which has a nice monument in its centre, but the park is closed and only opens for important ceremonies.

We moved onto the central market which is lively and colourful; it is primarily for local people but there is plenty to interest tourists. In the centre sits the Sacred Heart Cathedral with its two red and white towers finished in the manner of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Our tour finished at the Fetish market on the outskirts of town; although tourists are welcome it most definitely exists for local people. The market is very important to the Voodoo culture with priests and healers present for consultations, and to prepare remedies and tonics as prescribed. However it could be upsetting for some people as there are the remains of many birds and animals on display.

From here we headed to the border with Benin, stopping at a traditional village where the priest performed a welcoming ceremony and the lovely local children clamoured to have their photos taken. The border crossing was very straightforward and the whole group were cleared in fifteen minutes. A two hour drive through quite scenic countryside took us to Ouidah, our base for the next two nights. The road to the hotel is sand and runs alongside the beach for 7 kms- it is a lovely stretch but difficult for drivers.

The next day, Thursday, was festival day and as we arrived into town the streets were already busy, with a number of people on the move beating drums, and striking bells with pockets of ladies singing and rehearsing their dances. Our guide had arranged for us to “follow the action” and received updates on his phone throughout the day when anything was happening, and off we would race to join in the events. We fitted in a visit to the Python Temple and had a snake draped around our necks for photos (optional). We left in a hurry as we were advised that the High Priest was leaving his home nearby for the Temple and were swept along in the procession which was moving at jogging pace- there was nothing sedate about this. Most of the people were from Benin and the neighbouring countries with only a small number of tourists. The atmosphere was electric with a mix of people in varied and splendid clothes, the ever present beat of the drums, the enjoyment of the local people and the pace at which it was all happening.

The next hour was filled with drumming and dancing from all around, local people vying for access to the priest for blessings and tourists seeking photos; he and his entourage giving time to everyone. The priest was then transported to the coast and the Monument to the Slaves, which was the official site for the speeches and ceremonies. There were large numbers of people present; musicians, dancers, some selling food and drinks, and some just observing. Music was playing and it was a perfect opportunity for people watching. We left before the politicians began to speak and our cook produced a marvellous lunch nearby. After this we joined a small group in the town dancing and singing with two whirling Egungun masquerades and from there took a sobering tour of the Portuguese fort, with its harrowing role in the trading of slaves. Our final stop was a village just outside town where the priest was in attendance- there was a funeral ceremony taking place and much drumming and dancing, and a small goat was sacrificed. We returned to the hotel with our heads spinning after a wonderful and enthralling day.

Friday began with a stop at the Monument to the Slaves, very quiet after yesterday, where a clean up operation was beginning to remove all the detritus left behind by the crowd from the previous day. There was a sombre mood as the significance of the monument followed on from the earlier visit to the fort. We also visited the tree around which the slaves were made to walk before being shipped away, to supposedly banish their memories of their previous lives.

We drove to the edge of Lake Nokwe where we were to take a boat across the lake to the stilt village of Ganvie. It was a scenic boat ride with many areas of reeds and flowers growing, a variety of birds and local people fishing. The village is very colourful and is almost a floating market as everyone does move around by boat, selling all manner of goods, and schoolchildren making their way back from classes.

We returned to the mainland and drove the 2.5 hours to Abomey where we toured the two palaces of Ghezo and Gelele; both impressive with some old photos and interesting exhibits, and large courtyards with lovely trees. We continued to our hotel and dinner.

Saturday saw an early start and we began with a visit to the Danokil Fetish Shrine which is located primarily in a large tree with several areas for worship. Local people were consulting the priest and a series of sharpened wooden stakes stood ready to be hammered into the shrine by the priest to represent the ills or the wishes of the people being transferred to the shrine. A man had just returned with a goat as thanks for the success he had enjoyed by consulting the oracle.

It was a long day of driving as we headed for north for Natitingou, as the roads are in a poor condition in parts. We stopped and wandered around a fairly isolated Taneka village- it is very photogenic, as the huts are round with conical roofs and topped off with terracotta pots. Our hotel tonight had an open courtyard and it was lovely to take dinner there in the warm evening, as there is not the humidity of the south.

Sunday and we continued north towards Sokode stopping first at the village of Koulomia which is home to Tamberama people. The houses are fabulous and known as “Tatas”- they have separate compartments for sleeping, cooking, livestock and granaries and are built over two levels. There was Cassava drying, areas for cooking, some puppies, a pig snuffling around and chickens; the highlight was the number of delightful children who were friendly and curious, and tailed us as we made our way around the village. All the people have light scarification on their faces, added when they are babies - as we were leaving some of the  young girls began dancing and members of the group were pulled  into the circle to join in.

Having reluctantly left the village we headed for the border and crossed back into Togo. We continued towards Sokode stopping at a couple of villages on the way. We checked into our hotel and dinner before driving to a small village nearby for a Fire Dance. When we arrived people were gathering in a dusty square lit by a street light shrouding the scene in an orange glow.  A fire had been lit and there was a rousing and rhythmic beating of drums.People continued to arrive and the dancers began a performance of passing burning coals and sticks all over their bodies, chewing them, swallowing flames and finally jumping into the embers of the fire. The drumming had become almost frantic and they showed not the least sign of pain.

The following day, Monday, I was due to return to the UK and I left the group with my mind bursting with images and memories of this wonderful part of Africa.

Linda Maguire joined our “Ghana, Togo and Benin Ouidah Voodoo Festival” tour https://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/holidays-guided-tours/benin/BVF/dossier.html .

A similar tour operates during the year as the “Spirits of West Africa” https://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/holidays-guided-tours/benin/ASH/dossier.html

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