Yesterday, as the Oro curfew descended over Pobè, I hit peak Cotonou expat, trying to hammer out logistics for the next phase of this trip over an afternoon beer at Le Livingstone, the expat-iest of all of Cotonou’s expat hideouts. This morning, we juddered through the mud back to Pobè, where I finished unpacking and am now waiting for the logistician to stop by and pick up something I borrowed from him…as good a time as any to keep chipping away at the Great Chronicle of my Wondrous Vacation and the Fantastic Fêtes de l’Oro.
My last day in Grand-Popo, Dixon talked me into doing a Vodoun-specific tour, walking through the dusty, sun-bleached village of Hevè. Unlike Ouidah, which leverages its Vodoun heritage to attract tourists, Hevè doesn’t market itself. Cement altars to Papa Legba, the protector god of Vodoun, are everywhere, decades’ worth of blackening chickens’ blood sacrifices visible on their cement heads. The Python Temple in Ouidah charges admission; the Python Temple in Hevè is under lock and key, open only to initiates. Dixon told me a story, which I haven’t been able to find online and of which my recollection might be imperfect, about two brothers who led a large group of refugees trying to escape slave traders centuries ago. The slave traders chased the refugees into a deep forest, where the two brothers turned into snakes and streaked off into the dense bush, forming paths that only the other fugitives could follow. Ever since then, the story goes, the python has been venerated as the patron of refugees and fugitives. The python is also a symbol of good fortune and perpetual movement. Dixon also showed me the centuries-old sacred tree which everyone gathers around during festivals. It’s not a cute little living maypole that gets decorated four or five times a year — like a lot of what I’ve learned about Vodoun, it’s colourful and “exotic” on the surface, but solemn and earthbound and a bit dark if you give it the slightest further examination.
A few weeks after this whole experience, I was in Kpalimé, Togo, with Anicet and a motorcycle guide, a born-again Christian appropriately named Emmanuel. We had just hiked from a beautiful waterfall to an actual castle, which has a surreal backstory that I’ll write about separately when I can. Anicet explained that his mother had grown up practicing Vodoun and later converted and joined an evangelical church. Anicet himself converted back to Vodoun after going to several different churches, seeing how many times they passed the plate — four or five times in one service in one case, although the parishioners only earned a few hundred francs a day– while not offering the slightest indication of how the money was spent.
“Why do you like Vodoun?” Emmanuel asked, correctly pointing out that in a country as religiously diverse as Benin, someone looking to change churches could have chosen any one of dozens of belief systems.
“You’d make a good secular humanist, changing your views based on data like you just said you did,” I teased. “But yeah…why Vodoun?”
“It’s legalistic,” Anicet said, exposing a facet of Vodoun that I hadn’t even thought about. “The laws are straightforward and justice is quick. I can read the oracles and plan my day and keep bad things from happening. But mostly, it’s ours. It wasn’t brought here by any White colonist or Arab slave trader — it’s ours. ”
Vodoun is quite literally rooted to this place. Nearly every town, including Pobè and Ouidah, has a sacred forest, overseen by Vodoun priests, with a couvent (temple) at its centre. In Porto-Novo, French colonialists had the sacred forest cut down just to spite the local Vodounsi, and converted it into the colonial governor’s back garden. It’s now the overgrown botanical garden, and the demure lines of spice trees are being taken over by baobabs and vines and grasses and lush weeds of all descriptions. You spite the tree spirits at your peril; if anyone attempts to hack branches off the sacred tree in Hevè, it’s believed that they’ll end up with a hideous skin infection. Trees live for centuries and send their roots deep into the soil; it makes sense that they should be repositories of memory. The sacred tree in Hevè was bound with a heavy chain, to memorialize the victims of slavery, which depopulated this part of the world as fully and eerily as the Irish potato famine, which has left swathes of County Clare nearly empty to this day. I’ve mentioned the slavery trail in Ouidah, where captured slaves circled two trees — one, the Tree of Forgetting, to cast off their names, languages and lives, and another, the Tree of Return, to symbolically root their souls to Africa. Another person I know, who is Catholic, thinks Vodoun is slowly ceding ground to Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Islam. “The fétiche never comes out on Sundays anymore,” he says.
But is that a sign of one belief system displacing another, or a concession to the fascinating religious toss salad I keep exclaiming about, that allows people my age to go to church one day, sacrifice a chicken to Papa Legba the next, break the fast with their Muslim in-laws and expound on Rastafarian symbolism with their friends over some sodabi at weekends?
Either way, these trees have survived colonialism, slavery and (up to this point) climate change, so they will be pretty damn hard to uproot, as will Vodoun.
As a secular humanist, I’m inclined to look for a scientific explanation for every odd phenomenon. The tree that is supposed to leave you with a poisonous rash is probably just a tree with poisonous sap. But sometimes the universe just winks at you. As we walked by the temple of the Twins (twins are sacred in Vodoun), two tiny twin baby goats bumbled by on their skinny baby-goat legs. I was the first person to see them. I pointed them out to Dixon and his face lit up with childish delight. “That’s a good sign!”
With at least four months left in this journey, hey, I’ll take it.