I’ve got good news: I had a “vaccine” against all “bad magic” (aka gris-gris). So I’m safe from anyone who may try to harm me through Vodun magic.
How did this happen? A couple months ago, I went to visit my friend Voodoo Man with a couple other PCVs. After getting there late and in the pouring rain, we sat on his porch, sometimes with him, and sometimes on our own if he left to greet other people or deal with spiritual issues. Like many visits to Voodoo Man, we sat while drinking beers, and when he was with us we occasionally spoke about Vodun.
Before I continue with this story, there are a few things you need to know about me, and about Benin. First, I never wanted to get a tattoo, or even piercings beyond the one in each ear I got when I was thirteen. Second, it is common in Benin for people to have tattoos or scars (typically the tattoos are really scars with ash rubbed in them to give them a darker pigmentation). They are to denote tribe/ethnicity, or to denote that the person is a follower of a certain sect of Vodun. They can also be to protect against a particular event, such as a child with a ritual scar to prevent childhood illness if his or her mother has had several other children die. Third, I know several PCVs in Benin who have gotten scarification done, and I knew that Voodoo Man had done the scars for several former and one current Volunteer in my region.
Ok, back to the action. I had heard that Voodoo Man did scarification, but he didn’t do it himself, so you had to set up a time to come back and see whoever it was that did the scars. I had thought someday I might like to get it done, especially in a place that you can’t see if I’m not wearing a bathing suit (because both my mother and business school drummed into me that it’s harder to get a job if people can see your tattoos).
“Oh, you want to do scars? We could do that today,” he replied.
We all looked at each other. None of us had planned for this.
Let me just say that the willingness to get cut open by a Voodoo priest without previous planning is a good illustration of the “go with the flow” attitude that helps us PCVs get by.
A bit later we watched Voodoo Man’s daughter, a law student at the university in Lome, unwrap new razors and soak them in a bottle of alcohol labeled “Braveheart.” Then she ushered us into the house, where we sat on zebra-print sofas and waited for her to mix plates of four types of ritual ash. Then they gestured for the male PCV to take his shirt off.
At first, they kind of giggled, I think because this particular PCV has a lot of chest hair. Then Voodoo Man explained that he was getting four cuts and us ladies were getting three, because “men are more powerful than women.” While I took offence to this, I realized both that there was no point arguing, and that it probably isn’t a good idea to argue with someone who is about to cut you with a razor.
Then the two ladies cut the male PCV, one holding a cell phone flashlight for the one with the razor. There wasn’t much ceremony to it – she simply scored his skin lightly. Three rows of four vertical cuts about a third of an inch high, on the chest, both sides, and back. For him it was 48 cuts total. As she cut, she counted out loud: “un, deux, trois, quatre.” Then she went back and rubbed ash in all of them. And just like that, he was done.
Next came one of the other female PCVs, who had no modesty about walking around in her bra. The process was the same as for the first PCV, but with three rows of three vertical cuts, for 36 total.
Then came me! Without so much as an “are you ready?” there was a woman coming at me with a razor. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt at all to get the cuts. It stung a bit when she rubbed the ash in. Then I waited while the last female PCV got her scars.
Afterward, we took photos (which are NOT going on facebook, sorry fellas). Voodoo Man told us not to wash the ash off until 24 hours had passed, which was a bit uncomfortable since it was hot and we were sweating. He explained that they do three cuts, and/or three rows because three is the strongest number, like a tripod – three legs of a stool, three rocks to make a stove.
He told us that we were now protected against gris-gris, magic, sorcery, and illnesses. He equated it to getting a vaccination against bad magic.
I was not intending to get scars that day. Nor was I intending to get them done in a place you can see them if I’m wearing normal clothing. But because I was wearing a bra while getting cut, the ones on my chest are visible if I wear a low-cut top.
I’m ok with that though. First, because they will fade after a few years, and in fact two of the four PCVs who got scars that day say they’ve already faded. Second, because if anyone mentions it, it means they’ve been staring where it’s not appropriate to stare. But mostly, because when I look down it’s a reminder of this incredible place. A place that seems so strange, yet I feel I’m slowly coming to know and understand. A place that will always be with me.