January 10 is National Voodoo Day in Benin. I got the impression that it was a somewhat arbitrary decision to put it on that particular day, rather that the powers that be (the bureaucrats) wanted a national holiday off to celebrate Vodun. Regardless of its origins, Voodoo Day is a celebration of the Vodun religion in its entirety. Some areas don’t celebrate it at all, while some go all out.
This year, my postmate Maeghan told us that “Voodoo Man” invited the PCVs of our region to fête with him. Voodoo Man, whose real name is Donation, was a close friend of a previous Volunteer, and is also the Secretary of the Vodun religion for Akpo-Missrete, similar to a county. On Voodoo Day, I met another Volunteer at a hotel bar and walked towards Voodoo Man’s house, to which we had somewhat patchy directions. We clearly looked lost, or maybe we just looked white, but some men stopped us to ask if we needed help. When we said where we were going, the man with a motorbike said “I know him! Get on!” In America I would never accept a ride from a stranger, but here it’s normal, for better or worse. He brought us to Voodoo Man’s house, which doubles as a buvette.
Eventually several bigwigs in Vodun came to his house too, and we got on motos, the other Volunteer and I having no idea what was about to happen. All I knew at that point was that Voodoo Man told me to hold his folder, then we were off!
It turned out we went to someone’s house to greet people and watch some of the televised ceremony that was happening in Ouidah, an important city in Vodun. Of course Zoe (the other Volunteer) and I were the only yovos, and the only women invited inside, and of course there was a man with a video camera and a still camera. The video camera captured everything, including long shots of Zoe and myself looking confused and sitting on a couch. Because every good piece of Beninese journalism must include shots of important people sitting and watching the proceedings of whatever ceremony is happening.
After a while we all left and went to the Missrete mayor’s office, which has a large park in front of it, featuring a statue of the outline of Benin. For the day’s festivities, they had set up two large tents, one with a stage and chairs. Voodoo Man seated us on the stage toward the back, where we were able to see most of the proceedings.
If you are ever invited to a Vodun ceremony, there are a few tips you should be aware of. First, always ask if you can take pictures. It’s likely that if you were invited you can take pictures, but some sects or ceremonies are forbidden to outsiders. Second, never ever hint that you might not believe what they are showing you. For example, if you see what looks like a man in a costume, and you are told it is actually a spirit and not a person, you should never say you think it’s actually a man in a costume. This is a bit like spitting on a cross in a cathedral, and will also invite hours of words and actions from everyone involved to try to convince you that you are wrong. Third, when people come up to you while dancing in a costume, if others are putting money on their heads, it is customary to give a few CFA as well, but it doesn’t need to be a lot.
The first few hours there were hundreds of people milling around, most of them in tissue. Zoe and I had worried about dressing formally enough, but we realized that most of the women appeared to be dressed only in bras and pagnes (wrap skirts/dresses that are just giant squares of cloth). Next year we’ll be better prepared. During the first few hours, there were several zangbetos.
Zangbetos are what appear to be dancing haystacks. They are inhabited by spirits. Sometimes you will see a zangbeto go down the street, attended by drummers and musicians and singers and people following for the spectacle. Later in the day they presented the Zangbetos. The point of this is to demonstrate, especially to foreigners, that there isn’t a person under the haystack costume. The zangbeto dances, then stops, and his (her?) helpers remove the top layer. Then more dancing. Then they remove the next layer, and so on until there is nothing left. Often they will also place an item or an animal under the zangbeto before starting this part of the ceremony, and when they get to the last layer, there will be another animal or item, demonstrating that the zangbeto spirit has changed itself into the new item or animal, such as from a pot to a pigeon or dove.
I can try to describe the rest of the day, but to be honest I was often very confused. I don’t know nearly as much as I want to about Vodun, and there wasn’t really anyone to explain to Zoe and me what was going on or why. There was the traditional healer in a skirt made of lots of pagnes tied together. The king of the Tori people was watching from the front row. There were men in costumes with feathers on the shoulder. There were singers, dancers, women with pots on their heads. There were speeches. There was a man (or possibly a fetiche) with a “costume” made of ties. There were gendarmes to keep order. I have some great pictures, some of which I’ll share, but for now I don’t have much of an explanation to go with them. The important people put money on the foreheads of some of the performers.
But I know Voodoo Man now, so I hope to learn. Maybe he can even tell me about Oro. Until then, Voodoo Day is a wonderful, confusing pageant. Like much of my life here.