On the first night in Ouidah, I met a flustered French man, Francois was his name. This was at the Hotel Djemgba, about fifteen minutes walking distance from the centre of Ouidah in the Benin Republic. The town is by the water and when the sun sets, the waves crashing to the sand on the beach seem and feel louder. Francois was nervous, he did not want to book a hotel so close to the water. The reason he gave was the close proximity of the water to an area termed the “point of no return”. This point, according to locals and quick research, represented the section where slaves once taken from Benin discarded any hope for an escape they might have fostered. From the point of no return, slavery was as permanent as the legacy it left behind. Francois, a Caucasian who believes in magic and juju, did not feel safe to sleep so close to such frightening history especially at the same time a voodoo festival was happening. “What if the spirits come for me?” He asked.
If you can wield patience and make it through the bureaucratic hurdles and road dust to the Benin Republic, the Voodoo festival in Ouidah is a spectacular experience. Spanning one day, the celebrations begin early as a procession from the centre of town to a square for the main events. At the square, groups of voodoo practitioners position themselves at separate points, offering animal sacrifices in between singing and dancing performances, and acrobatic feats.
The festival was a learning ground and represented in no small amount the underrated diversity of many African tribes. There were recognizable cross-cultural influences from Nigeria such as young boys dressed in Benin royal outfits and beads draped over their patterned cloth. Some of the men who looked like Fulanis, had pierced ears, sharp eyeliner in their eyes and wore white, red and blue clothes. The dominant colour at the festival was White. At some point, I followed a procession of Osun worshippers until they took their place under canopies and began singing. On another end of the square were topless men and women who wore raffia skirts and had mud painted on their torsos. They leapt to beats from drums in front of an enraptured audience.
As I expected at a festival of such scale and with the presence of international visitors, souvenirs were lined by the roadsides. There were art and crafts works like mini Benin bronze heads, beads, and sculptural pieces. One of the works got my attention. It was a small effigy of a male and a female bound tight by a rope. In addition to this was the fascinating sight of the large trucks that sold local gin in abundance.
Later on, I encountered an English speaking voodoo practitioner of over seven years. The man, possessing no extraordinary gifts of charm nor promising a magic fix to life took me through an abridged version of Voodoo practice. He spoke softly, smiled occasionally to emphasise a point or make a joke. I discovered he is a tour guide. He has extraordinary eyes, a soft brown with lashes that conveyed peace. His confidence drew remarks from myself and others. “Oh, you see it too? I thought it was just me”, we said to one another. He carried so much peace inside him I wanted to disappear into his eyes. His lessons on life were applicable and in the manner of some of the deepest philosophies. Simple and seemingly pointless until life’s experiences give new meaning to the words.
The festival ended with lots of dancing and sweating bodies. This was after the day’s heat had left most people significantly darker. The gin drinkers increased their consumption with fried fish. The sea noises rose and I spotted Francois dancing not too far way. He must have decided to stay after all.