The birthplace of voodoo and a pivotal platform of the slave trade – Benin is steeped in a rich and complex history. I had the extraordinary opportunity of visiting Benin for Ouidah’s annual Voodoo Festival – one of the most colourful and vibrant festivals of West Africa.
Voodoo remains as one of the most important religious systems in West Africa and is also heavily practiced in Haiti and Cuba. Voodoo was formally recognized as a religion by the Beninese government in February 1996 and it is estimated that more than 7.4 million of Benin’s residents continue to practice it as a religion. It is an animistic religion comprising of hundreds of gods, yet there is belief in one supreme being. Furthermore, Voodooist believe that death is a transition to the invisible world, where their predecessors remains and inspires in a spiritual form. Traditional priests are consulted for their power to communicate with particular spirits and seek intercession with them. This communication is achieved through spirit possession and ritual that often involves a gift or “sacrifice” of palm wine, chickens or goats.Great significance is placed on fetishes, inanimate objects where the spirits are said to reside and can become focal points for worship.
Whilst Voodoo is often depicted with its dark and mysterious side of dolls riddled with nails, the Voodoo Day serves instead as a day of vivacious celebration with endless singing, dancing, beating of drums and drinking.Through the introduction of my actuarial colleague, I had the occasion of meeting one of the most influential man in the capital of Voodoo worship – Mathieu Adjovi. Every year, thousands of believers flocks to Ouidah to receive blessings from the voodoo chief. Because of Mathieu, I was given instead the opportunity to join their family feast in having lunch with the Ouidah chief on the Voodoo day! Though my West African host is often concerned of my safety in Benin, under the great care of Mathieu, I was placed in the VIP seats right next to his uncle for whom was the director of the police force of Benin.
I also had the valuable opportunity to enjoy the magical Ouidah being part of in Mathieu’s family celebrations on the Voodoo day. Different from the Western culture, an African family unit is constructed within the extended family and most aspects of family life is shared by both extended and immediate family members. No doubt, being part of Mathieu’s family party I witnessed the solidarity of an African family. There’s an African proverb which says “a family tie is like a tree, it can bend but it cannot break”. Social Science Professor Paulina Makinwa-Adebusoye further describes the characteristics of African household to be patriarchal and hierarchical, polygamous and open to kinship networks which places great importance to lineage continuation. In the African culture, not only great respect is given to elders and ancestors within the community, it is characterized by the prevalence of collectivism as opposed to individuality. Indeed for West Africans, one cannot conceive a family life without a community of sharing.
The long continuation of Voodoo practice in the midst of modernization continues to amaze me.No doubt for many Beninese, Voodoo is far more than a belief system – it is a complete way of life. For me, the Voodoo Day was much more than a hair-raising fest of pierced voodoo dolls. Rather, it is a festival celebrations representing of Benin’s traditional beliefs, religious heritage and cultural identity steeped in the West African ancestral heritage.