Monday 28 December 2015



While Voodoo certainly isn't fiction here, witnessing it in action seems unlikely at first. In Cotonou, Benin's largest city, the tourist office told me to return in January, because I'd only see Voodoo at an annual festival in Ouidah offering choreographed ceremonies for Benin's trickle of largely French tourists. This is far from the truth. Beninese worship a pantheon of Voodoo deities and with a good guide and a few financial inducements, authentic ceremonies can be witnessed all year round.

With this knowledge I headed to Porto Novo, a lagoon-facing former French colonial city of 350,000 people, 40-minutes drive from busy Cotonou, and on the flat coastal plain of south Benin's Voodoo heartland.

An attractive city of spirits worshipped by the animist Goun people, Porto Novo's most visible ghosts are world-weary French houses with honey-coloured facades and peeling shutters, and I spent my first morning exploring its fine museums.

Kings are ten-a-penny in Benin although, as museum guide Mireille explained, Benin's monarchy endured a hiatus during French colonisation in the 1890s and its 30-year flirtation with Communism.

Porto Novo's ceremonial king no longer resides inside Honme's maze of red-earthen compounds. Nor does he take advantage of the royal bathhouse where two new queens were once prepared for the reigning monarch every 21 days, or the mysterious chambre noire where successive rulers consulted the spirits about their destiny. Its door was firmly shut.

Nearby, the hefty wooden doors of a curious-looking building shaped like an enormous haystack – the lodge of the god Zangbeto – were closed too.

Members of this secretive cult patrol Beninese streets after dark like unofficial police, dressing in haystack costumes and sporting sticks to beat unruly citizens. I walked around late every evening hoping to witness them, but I never did.

And then fate eventually smiled upon me. I met an English-speaking teacher called Yvette who took me to see a local Fa reader.


In a cupboard-sized room, crammed with potions, the medium Casmin Fabiyi fingered his Fa beads (threads of eight wooden disks) like a rosary.

"The power of Mawa-Lissa (Voodoo's Supreme Being) sent Fa to earth as a medium to answer questions about the future," Yvette told me, also describing how the medium casts his beads into one of 256 positions that he then interprets as the word of his god.

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