November 2017: When I think of West Africa, it is hard for Benin not to come to mind. Benin is the embodiment of all things West Africa. It has a melting pot of animistic voodoo culture, royalty, exotic landscapes and animals and a colonial past of oppression and slavery. I especially am fascinated with voodoo ever since watching the movie the Serpent and the Rainbow and visiting Haiti. As with all of my trips, I research the country I am traveling to extensively to devise my own itinerary of places to visit, and I never follow a cookie cutter tourist itinerary. Benin was no exception.  I really wanted to explore Benin and see the entire country and do it justice, so during a 5-day trip, I started in the far northern corner and made my way all the way down to the south and I was beyond fascinated by what I discovered.

 

About Benin and Voodoo

Benin is a French speaking country with a multitude of indigenous languages and was used by the French during colonial times for slavery.  It was the center of one of the largest kingdoms in West Africa-Dahomey between the 1700s to 1900s and Savanah and one of the last wildlife reserves left in West Africa to the north. Further south, the terrain becomes more tropical and even gives way to some tropical rainforest. The northern peoples are mostly Muslim while in the south they are Voodoo followers. Voodoo is the largest religion in Benin and throughout West Africa, there are 50 million followers. Voodoo is a mix of Catholicism, Christianity and Traditional West African Animistic beliefs. Voodoo places a heavy emphasis on saints, who are believed to intercede on behalf of those that follow them. Voodoo is a world steeped in magic, a belief in shift shaping between man and animals, and in a strong connection between the human and spirit worlds.

 

Route of Travel in Benin

Pendjari National Park

I traveled to Benin with my friend Richard from Togo and Burkina Faso with a 4WD truck driver and local guide that I hired in Burkina Faso. The guide didn’t know the area so I would provide the GPS instructions to him. We crossed into Benin from the Tamberma Valley, a culturally rich area in Togo. From there we traveled to one of the last pristine wildlife reserves with elephants and lions in West Africa-Pendjari national Park. Despite its successes, the park is threatened these days from poachers and terrorists coming across the border from the restive parts of Burkina Faso and Niger.

The north of Benin is remote with few villages and little infrastructure. There are few gas stations and the ones that exist usually are out of fuel, so planning ahead is imperative. This is especially important in Pendjari, which lacks any infrastructure and is completely wild. The roads in much of Benin are rough and the going was slow. We stopped at Tanougou Waterfalls for a break and went for a swim. A few local boys followed us and demonstrated their cliff jumping abilities for tips.

Tanougou Waterfalls

Richard at Tanougou Waterfalls

Tanougou Waterfalls

From Tanougou Waterfalls we drove into Pendjari hoping to arrive at our camp at a decent time to view wildlife but the roads in the park were not well marked and my GPS was worthless. We ended up getting lost in the dark and going an hour in the wrong direction and staying at the wrong camp. But in the end the camp we stayed at was decent and we were the only visitors.

Early the next morning we woke up to go on a self-driving safari in the reserve to look for lions and elephants. We saw a few herds of elephant and other antelope species, but we did not see the lion. I had my hopes up when we passed one excited ranger who declared that he had just seen a lion only moments before we arrived on the road. We drove up and down looking for it, but it was gone. The savannah like woodlands were the perfect place for lions to hide. We only had time for a half day safari before departing the park for a long drive southward. The ranger insisted that twp days in the park usually guarantees a lion sighting.

Wildlife at Pendjari National Park

Wildlife at Pendjari National Park

Wildlife at Pendjari National Park

Elephants at Pendjari National Park

Taneka Beri Village 

On the way to the town of Djougou, I thought stopping at a Taneka Beri Village would be interesting. There were a few Taneka villages north of Djougou and they were all located off of the main road on a hill. The Taneka villages are unique in that they are shamanistic and practice animistic beliefs when most villages around them are Muslim. The Taneka villages are very traditional and believe in isolation to maintain their belief system. This is why they are usually located on a hilltop that can only be accessed on foot. Each village has a head shaman who is believed to be able to see the future and have magical abilities. The shaman is not allowed to wear clothes and is naked with only a goat skin cover over his groin. The shaman is also almost always smoking a pipe.

To find the villages, I had some loose instructions from other travelers but nothing concrete. We ended up getting lost in doing so and had to ask a few villagers. The villagers pointed us in circles but eventually we found a boy who jumped into our truck for a tip and showed us exactly where the village was located up a really bad dirt road where we would need to walk the final length to the hilltop.

The Taneka people are notorious for being against photos so i was very careful to only take photos when permission was given. A villager brought us to meet the shaman and we sat with him for a while. I asked him to explain what it means to be a shaman and he shared his religion with me and on a more ominous note he warned me that the future was not good for his village, and he warned that the people would lose their religion and culture. I shared some kodak photos I printed with the shaman and some village children, and we set off to Djougou to find a hotel for the night.

 

Taneka Village

Taneka Shaman Smoking his Pipe

We couldn’t find a hotel in Djouhou so we decided to drive another few hours to Saveloy, gateway to Voodoo country. Saveloy was a pleasant quiet rural town, and we found a hotel that although was not very nice, it had a working fan and a badly needed bucket shower. I had a good time exploring the town early the next morning and observing the locals go about their daily lives.

friendly man at our hotel who swept the floor with a small straw hand broom for hours

Abomey

The next morning, we drove all day to Abomey, the old capitol of the Adomey Kingdom and a cultural heartland of Benin. The drive was long and exhausting. Along the way we broke up the trip by stopping at one of the most significant voodoo sites-Dankali sacrifice shrine. The roadside shrine is nothing more than a heap of rotting sacrificed animal flesh surrounded by voodoo fetishes. The shrine is believed to be one of the most powerful shrines and hundreds of voodoo pilgrims come from across the country every week to ask the Voodoo saints for help with health, family problems or in some cases to seek vengeance. To help gain favor of the saints, animal sacrifices are made.

 

Boy who sacrificed a chicken at the Dankoli sacrifice shrine

Mounds of rotten sacrificed flesh at Dankoli sacrifice shrine

We arrived in Abome in the afternoon and checked in to an old French chateau hotel from colonial times that overlooked a few of the walled royal compounds of the past. Abomey was the capitol of the Adomey Kingdom, and each king would have his own royal palace compound. There are approx. 12 royal compounds still standing in Abomey. Many come from an era of extreme brutality when slaves of rival tribes were decapitated and sacrificed along the walls and their coagulated blood used as cement to bind the mud brick in the palace walls. When a king died, his wives, which could number in the dozens would commit suicide and be buried with the king in the palace grounds. A new king would then build his own royal compound, so the current layout of Abomey has numerous abandoned royal compounds from kings of the past.  I really wanted to v sit one of these royal palaces, but they all had tall walls that were too difficult to climb. Then I found one of them with a door that was not latched and being that it was dusk, and no one could see me, i decided to sneak in with a flashlight and explore the palace. I entered the pitch-black palace compound with heightened senses knowing that these places have a reputation for being haunted but scarier was the potential to encounter hostile people living inside. I didn’t get far when two guys without any flashlights appeared out of nowhere in the darkness startling the hell out of me. It turns out they were guards hired by the family descendants of the king that once lived in the palace and they are hired to keep vandals out of the palace. They were nice and allowed me to explore the palace on my own and at the end of my exploration I gave them a small tip for their trouble. On the most part, the walled compound, although extremely creepy, consisted of a cluster of empty abandoned buildings with few interesting highlights. I’m sure there was a deeper meaning to everything but Iwas without an explanation.

 

One of the previous king’s palaces I explored in Abomey

The guards of the royal palace that allowed me to explore it at night

The next morning, I started to ask around if it was possible if we could visit one of the various kings that lives in the region. Visiting a king was on my list of Travel objectives for Benin. I first tried to meet the main king of Abomey, who is famous for wearing and I went to his palace but there seemed to be a lot of chaos at the palace, and I was told that the king would be unavailable. Then I heard from others that there were rumors that the king was sick or is already dead. Funeral rites for dead kings are very involved and announcing a king’s death may happen long after the death.

The manager of my hotel when he found out the king was not available, said no problem, there is another king. He made a few calls, and we were granted permission to visit another rival king of Abomey. We had to purchase a bottle of whiskey in the market and pay the king 20USD for his trouble.  We drove to the outskirts of town where the king lived in a walled compound. His compound was nothing fancy, but it was clear he possessed more wealth than the average Benin citizen. One of the kings’ subjects met us at the gate and invited us in and before entering the Kings quarters he instructed us to remove our shoes and to prostrate ourselves before the king by crawling before him to show our respect. We were also told not to speak directly to the king and that we should only speak to his subjects who will relay our message to the king, who was seated right next to them. We crawled on the ground and bowed before the king who was seated in his throne with a staff. Three of the king’s wives sat beneath him on the floor fanning him and wiping the sweat of his brow. We presented our gifts to the king via his subjects, and he received them. The king asked if we were going to visit during the voodoo festival in January and we apologized. he explained that during that time he will shape shift into a lion and perform magic. I asked if he could do it now and he said he could do so anytime but will do it in January for sure. After a short visit with the king, his subject escorted us to meet the king’s pet lion, a very malnourished and irritable lion pacing back and forth inside a steel enclosure.

One of the Abomey King with his 3 wives

Wives of the king tending to his every need in absolute servitude

Kings pet lion

Bopa Village Voodoo Priest

After visiting the king, we drove south to Grand Popo. But first we needed to visit the Voodoo priest I found out about from another traveler. Along the banks of lac Toho, in a small village that we struggled to find and almost didn’t when our car mysteriously died requiring the driver to spend an hour figuring out a temporary jimmy rig fix to keep the car driving at least until getting to Grand Popo. Someone in the village familiar with the voodoo priest brought us to his home. The Voodoo priest was known for practicing both good and bad voodoo and I wasn’t exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into. The Voodoo priest met Richard and I along with another voodoo priest who had a kind of sociopathic silence to him. For a fee the priest agreed to show us around his home and to explain his voodoo to us. Right away there seemed to be something dark about the experience. The man took us into a small room full of fetishes, animal skins, corpses and other charms used to cast spells. He also had a collection of skulls which he claimed are used in spells to condemn a person to death. The man held up a skull he claimed belonged to a murderer. According to him the family of the victim hired him to cast a spell to bring vengeance to the murderer. Once the spell was cast death was certain to the murderer. I didn’t ask how the murderer died pr how the voodoo priest obtained his skull. The voodoo priest held the skull up and poured whiskey over it giving it a sinister glistening effect. The priest showed us clubs with spikes on them that looked to have mangled decayed flesh entangled on the spikes. These were the tools used to perform ritual sacrifices he said. The priest also showed us small dolls he carries with him. he said the dolls embody the spirits of his two twins that died at birth. This is customary in voodoo and the spirits of the twins are believed to protect the father.

 

 

Lac Toho fisherman

Voodoo priest holding the skull of a murdered he claimed died from a voodoo spell cast by him

Voodoo proest holding the dolls he believes to contain the souls of the his twins that died at birth

Tools for Sacrificing Animals in Voodoo rituals

Voodoo ceremonial drums and tools to cast spells

Grand Popo

Our vehicle managed to avoid breaking down until we arrived at Grand Pop and our driver took it to a shop for repairs. We relaxed at the Auberge De Grand Popo Beach Hotel and enjoyed the beach during the afternoon. I also worked with the hotel to line up a visit across the river to a voodoo village, Kpossou Gayou feared and believed by everyone in the area to practice evil. As a result, everyone I reached out to refused to take me to the village. But I was able to find one guide in Grand Pop willing to take me. 

Old French colonial buildings of Grand Popo

Sunset of Grand Popo Beach

Man selling a live lizard for bush meat along the side of the road

The next morning, I woke up before sunrise and met the local guide. My guide from Burkina Faso also joined me because he was very curious about where we were going. We arrived at the Mono River, across from Kpossou Gayou, the evil Voodoo village. The Mono River was shrouded in fog and had an eerie appearance to an already eerie experience. We found a fisherman willing to row us across the river and along the way I could hear the distant rhythm of drums and chanting. The sounds grew louder as did my excitement level. The local guide whispered, “funeral for a voodoo priest.” The sun began to rise as we arrived on the other side of the river and saw a procession of people carrying a coffin and chanting as they walked through the streets. In the front of the procession an Egungun, a man dressed in horns and a bright red shroud twirled while another man stood guard near the Egungun to ensure no one accidentally crossed its path. The Egungun is usually a voodoo priest who becomes possessed by the spirits of the ancestors orin this case the recently deceased. The Egungun dances to cleanse the village of bad energy. Voodoo followers believe if anyone accidentally touches the Egungun they will fall ill and die within one day so a man with a stick is charged with clearing its path.

I followed with the procession clapping in unison with the others. I made sure to be sensitive with my camera and to not be disrespectful. The funeral procession went from one sacred voodoo site to the next and at each site a ritual was performed. I was not aware of what significance each site had.  Each site would be a small shrine with a painting, some kind of fetish, dead animal or human sized doll figure. Somewhere along the way we ended up in a small house with a voodoo priest drinking shots of home brewed whiskey at 7am from the most terrifying African Chucky possessed looking bottle I have ever seen. The bottle appeared to be dripping with blood and excrement.

Egungun leading the funeral procession

Funeral procession

Man with stick in charge of ensuring no one accidentally touches the egungun during the funeral procession

One of the voodoo sites the funeral procession stopped at

One of the voodoo sites the funeral procession stopped at

Inside a Voodoo Priests House/Interior Decor

Voodoo Shrine Inside the Priests House

Drinking Home made Whiskey at 730 in the morning with a voodoo proest from the coolest bottle I have ever seen

Creepy Doll affized to the whiskey bottle

I spent the morning in Kpossou Gayou village returning to Grand Popo in the afternoon and continuing onward into Lomé Togo, where I spent my last night in West Africa before returning home.

 

11 + 14 =

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