Tuesday 29 December 2015


Later my hotel proprietor explained it to be Gounko, a Nigerian-Yoruba Voodoo figure that chased away evil spirits. While we spoke, local television showed a wild-eyed man carrying a slaughtered goat's head in his mouth by its severed neck ligaments. As he paraded through a crowd, some people collapsed, shaking like fever-pitched evangelists on American TV. I sensed the Voodoo floodgates were opening. The next day I would witness something extraordinary.


In a local compound where ripening calabash fruits aped basketballs, Remi wangled me into a family ceremony of ancestor worship: Egungun.

This is one of Beninese Voodoo's most explosive events, where departed ancestral spirits take the form of humans in order to impart wisdom and justice to the living.

Frenzied drumming ushered the Egungun into the compound. Possessed by the dead, men wore flamboyant sequin-spangled capes adorned with animal and human motifs. Their faces were veiled by cowry shell screens. "If you see their eyes, you will die!" shouted Remi above the cacophony.

Some Egungun whirled like dervishes, green, silver and yellow capes creating spinning circles. Some simply scared the crowd. Two bulky 'monsters' galloped into the arena sending people scattering into a banana grove. Tempers rose. Stick-bearers tried to stop the Egunguns' robes inauspiciously touching the living. It was Chinese masquerade meets the 'running of the bulls' at Pamplona. Before long, Remi and I were pinned against a wall by a hulking Egungun. Averting my eyes, it brushed its horsehair flywhisk across my face. "White man,' growled a deep baritone voice, before moving on.

On a high, I headed north to Abomey the next day. After two days in a taxi with a driver called Filbert, the coastal plain subsided to a rippling landscape of green bush and ochre roads, studded by granite hills. Hornbills glided across the road with greater ease than the struggling taxis-brousse (bush taxis) bearing chassis-bending loads of people and cargo bound for Cotonou. We passed coachloads of white-robed Christians fresh from celebrating the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Dassa-Zoume. The syncretism of Beninese religious life ensured some would be worshipping animist deities later that day.


In halcyon times, Abomey was capital of the feared Dahomey Kingdom (Benin's former name). Generations of Dahomian Kings fought internecine wars, maintained female Amazon warriors with a penchant for decapitation, and sold slaves to the Europeans to equip themselves militarily. But a crushing defeat to the French in 1892 saw most Dahomian palaces razed and the empire destroyed. These days Abomey is a backwater with little pomp or grandeur.

I'd come to see two surviving Unesco-listed Dahomian palaces: the 19th-century mud-walled palaces of Kings Ghezo and Glele, both packed with wonderfully macabre artefacts.

King Ghezo's intricately carved throne rests upon four skulls of rival chiefs while beyond all taste (amid fine Portuguese silks and British cut-glass decanters) is a royal flywhisk assembled from a human cranium attached to a horsetail. Elsewhere, I learnt that Gele's harem once overflowed with 4,000 brides - remarkably his libido and heart held out for 31 years of rule. In the inner sanctum of the Djeho Temple, built by Gele for his father Ghezo, the mortar is forged from the blood of 41 slaves.

Nowadays it's possible to meet the king of Dahomey and keep your head. Meeting a Beninese king is a real highlight and not difficult to arrange: bring something to toast him and present a gratuity of about US$25-50.

•culled from www.wanderlusttravelmagazine.com

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