The Sun and The Moon Fighting

Last week there was a solar eclipse! According to the BBC, it could be seen around dawn in southern Florida, and the best viewing was about 100k southeast of Sierra Leone, the best viewing on land was in Gabon.

In Benin, it showed up around 1pm.

 

The Beninese way to describe an eclipse is beautiful and descriptive:

“the sun and the moon are fighting.”

 

According to the person I pay to help with laundry (yeah, yeah, I’m a rich American, but I paid her school fees and she’s way better at it than me), an eclipse was the reason she couldn’t come at the agreed-upon time.

 

According to many people, an eclipse is a sign of – something. I was asked my opinion on the eclipse several times, and I began talking about how cool astronomy is and how an eclipse works. “No, no,” they would interrupt. “What do you think it means?”

 

I actually viewed the eclipse, sans glasses, sans pinhole. My neighbors and I simply filled a metal basin with water and looked at the reflection. It was amazing! The sun was just a crescent. Which was then disturbed when a little boy wanted a drink of water and stuck his head in the basin. But for that brief moment it was magical – a moment of wonder shared by American and Beninese alike.

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36 Hours with Oro

In September, I stayed in Daagbe for a “closed day” for Oro, one of the fetiches in my village. From 7pm Monday to 7am Wednesday I stayed in my house. As a woman, and someone not inducted in the Oro cult, I am not allowed to see Oro.

 

The first night was somewhat annoying because both the electricity and water were out, and my solar lamp was running out of charge. While cooking dinner by candlelight, I heard the members of the Oro cult approaching.

 

How could I tell? There are several sounds that alert you to the presence of Oro. First are singing, chanting, and/or drumming. While these aren’t unique to the Oro cult, on a closed day it’s a pretty sure bet that anyone doing singing or drumming is with Oro. The songs can be call and response, or a more typical traditional song with many verses, sometimes a capella, or with drums, or with a calabash with a beaded net around it. One time the singers sounded like they were yelling through kazoos.

 

The second noise that announces Oro is the sirens. In my village, I heard two distinct siren type things. I wish I could be more precise in describing them but if they had caught me looking at them they would have killed me with a machete so I have to guess what makes the noise. The first siren is high-pitched and sounds kind of like the whistles you sometimes get at carnivals or as party favors. The other is lower-pitched and sounds closer to an actual siren. I believe both are made by swinging some sort of tubing or pipe around, similar to the flexible plastic tubes we sometimes use as noisemakers in the US.

 

When I first heard the sirens while cooking, I immediately turned off the light. When Oro comes by your house you are supposed to pretend you aren’t at home. So I stood there in the dark, listening to the chanting, and the drums, and the sirens, feeling a little like I’d stepped into “Heart of Darkness.”

 

That first night, it was more exciting than frightening or stressful.

After all, this was the grand adventure I’d signed up for when I applied for the Peace Corps all those years ago. I was living in a village in Africa that has its own voodoo fetiche cult! It was everything I had hoped for: exciting! adventure! alien culture! authentic non-Westernized culture! A hint of danger but not enough to make my mom tell me to come home!

 

Actually that first night was more exciting for what it stood for than for what happened. I read by candlelight, ate by candlelight, tried and failed to guess what might be going on outside. I slept.

 

The next day was fairly normal, except that I couldn’t leave my house.

Actually, that isn’t all that different from days when amoebas strike.

I had planned in advance for this and had bought “special” food from Cotonou – lettuce, canned corn and tortilla chips, and soup mix. I made soup for lunch, and refried beans for dinner, with “taco salad.”

So besides being a little bored and stir crazy, I was happy because I was well fed. There were occasional sounds of Oro celebrations but none too close to the house.

 

That night, Oro came by several times. The first time I heard them it took almost all of my self control not to go outside to look. By this time I was ready to get out of my house and I was insanely curious as to what was making the noises. Plus I wanted to check if the rumor that the men in the Oro cult get blind drunk and run around naked was true. But then, I heard them celebrating right outside my kitchen window and I could have sworn I heard the sound of a machete cutting the tall grass behind my house.

 

The thought of very, very drunk men with lethal weapons outside my house reintroduced my sense of self-preservation, and I resisted the urge to peek outside. Unfortunately, seems like my career as an investigative journalist is over before it started.

 

I had a hard time sleeping that night, though my electricity was back and thus my fan was working again. I couldn’t help desperately wondering what was going on outside, and what the fetiche represented.

How did it get started? How many people in my village actually participate? And what does it say about me that this seems rather normal?

 

The next morning we were reprieved – Oro season was over for the year.

As I breathed the free air, I wondered if I will ever understand what was going on during Oro. And I wondered if I will ever get to experience something that strange and secret and wonderful again.