Baobabs and ‘Babalawos’ in Benin
Although it is a presidential republic, the government maintains the former kings, who have honorary and representative functions. Their Majesties receive on their thrones, upon request of audience, to impart justice in minor matters among the neighbors or to represent the region. And they are another attraction for visitors
Among the different ethnic groups (fon, yoruba, adja, houeda, fulani, somba …) that inhabit what was the French colony of Dahomey until 1960, there are Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. But regardless of whether they profess one of these religions, all are also usually brothers of a voodoo temple and their life is governed by the precepts that the witch marks. “If you want something, you have to give something in return,” they say, convinced that their ancestors will intercede with the gods for their benefit if they are filled with offerings. Voodoo, which has little to do here with the idea of black magic that has spread Hollywood, is omnipresent in Benin. Whether in a village, in a nomadic tribe in the middle of the jungle or in the bustling city of Cotonou, many flock to the babalawo(sorcerer or spiritual consultant) before making an important decision. It is a religion that remains alive and also rooted in America (especially in Brazil and Cuba) by the hand of the slaves who, for more than two centuries, captured the traffickers in the Gulf of Guinea and embarked in Ouidah, in a place now called the Door of No Return.
Cotonou, port city and economic capital of Benin, is the usual starting point to enter an unforgettable ethnographic journey. If you have a good local guide, the traveler can join, almost as one more, ceremonies that revolve around the dance, music and colorful fabrics of their outfits. A walk through the huge market of Dantokpa, one of the most important in West Africa, is a fascinating experience in which you can discover everything from ingenious ways of street vendors to the macabre market of fetishes in which the voodoo brothers acquire dead animals prescribed by the sorcerer. Cotonou is also the starting point to arrive by boat to Ganvié, a village that stands on stilts in the middle of Lake Nokoué, where the Tofí ethnic group lives since the 17th century, when their ancestors took refuge in the lake fleeing their enemies, the warlike Fon, a tribe that was forbidden to enter the lake. In Ganvié, which now has some 20,000 inhabitants, everything is done by boa
To move around Benin, European forecasts for transfers do not work and you have to count on the fact that in some places, such as the villages of the Fulani in Mount Agonlín, you can only get there on foot or by motorbike with a driver. Although once nomadic, this islamic village that lives on cattle only changes camp twice a year. The women – tall, thin and very flirtatious – are in charge of building the huts – round and covered with vegetables – and making the famous soft cheese that is one of the delights of the local cuisine.
There are many options to tour the country, but the traveler should not miss the village of Savalou, with its animistic rites and its royal palace full of great figures where it can be received by the king, nor the Atakora mountain range, where the ditamarí live. to which everyone calls Somba, although they do not like it because it means wild. One of the most pleasant surprises of the trip is to arrive at sunset at a village of that ethnic group, when the sun accentuates the reddish color of the earth, and visit their tatas, two-story adobe houses. They are constructions that resemble castles adorned with geometric drawings that indicate belonging to a tribe and that also mark the face and body of its members. He worships his ancestors and the doors of the tatas,As if it were guardians, adobe fetishes are raised. Phallic figures with remains of guinea fowl feathers, blood and cowrie shells that seem to guard these adobe castles, declared a world heritage by Unesco. The tatas, surrounded by enormous baobabs, mangoes and irokos, used to shelter the cattle, while the bedrooms and barns are located above.
The ceremonies go out to meet the traveler: baptisms, weddings, processions, funerals … but none so shocking as the rituals organized by the guardians of the voodoo temples. Near Abomey, in Bopa, a fishing village, lives the guardian of Shango, the god of thunder, and if your visit coincides with any of the celebrations do not hesitate. You will have to pinch yourself to realize you are not watching a National Geographic Documentary.