I previously wrote about how pet owners in Benin protect their animals from being taken and used in Vodoun (aka Voodoo aka the local animist religion) ceremonies: they cut off a tip of the ear or tail, so that the animal is no longer “perfect” and therefore of no ceremonial value. Below are some photos of my host family’s newest cat, Minou.
Once again, it’s Oro season. That time of year when I have to leave my village or stay inside while a cult of machete-wielding men run around with impunity. It’s both cooler and way, way less cool than it sounds.
Unfortunately, this year it comes right in the middle of my very last week in village, which means one less day for me to say my goodbyes.
But such is life in West Africa: nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, goes according to plan.
In honor of the time when Vodun (Voodoo) is most visible in my community, I thought I’d share how we in Daagbé protect our furry friends from voodoo. First of all, most people don’t have dogs. Pets aren’t friends – they are food, or they eat pests. There’s no sense in sentimentalizing animals that you’re going to eat, or for whom there is a high percentage that they’ll die or disappear. That being said, cats are a relatively common household animal, since they eat mice and rats.
But cats (among many other animals) are used sometimes in gris-gris.
This is the form of voodoo that Americans might call “black magic” – it’s sorcery, used to hurt someone. Most voodoo priests will tell you that this goes against their religion, which is mostly true. But people use it against those suspected of theft or other bad behaviors.
I’m not sure how common it is to gris-gris someone, since most Beninese do not like to talk about it with anyone, let alone a nosy foreigner who wouldn’t understand anyway. I have been able to confirm that some people use cats in some sort of sacrifice. I also know that people eat cats sometimes, though I’ve never been able to confirm if the two are related. My guess is not.
In any case, there is a way for a conscientious cat owner to protect their feline from being stolen for use in ceremonies: cut off part of its ear, or the tip of its tail. Apparently, a cat with a large visible scar like that cannot be used in voodoo ceremonies.
So if you own a cat and you live in my little corner of West Africa, be kind. Cut off part of your cat’s ear.
Every day is a “normal” day here, because very little surprises me here. In order to live, you have to let go of your need to control what goes on around you and just surrender to the chaos and the strangely beautiful weirdness that is life in West Africa. The ability to deal with whatever is thrown at you is the single most important trait in a Peace Corps Volunteer (assuming that includes a lack of squeamishness about toilet facilities and flexibility on personal space requirements).
My first official day at school, however, did throw me for a loop, at least temporarily. This year the beginning of the year was a bit of a mess at my school – our surveillant (vice principal in charge of discipline and all non-academic things) was promoted to director of a new local school, and it took the ministry of education a few days to announce the new surveillant. Since the surveillant is also in charge of getting the school grounds ready for school (by using student labor – students must bring hoes and machetes the first few days), it was a bit chaotic at first. Add to that the fact that our director was in France for the first few days, and the fact that our secretary was on maternity leave. Add also the fact that I had major scheduling problems (see “Beers for Peace” post), and it’s pretty clear that the re-entry to school was a typically Beninese barely-controlled chaos.
After a few days of wandering around while nobody knew what was going on, Monday rolled around. I dealt with a major breakthrough with my censeur in terms of my schedule. He and I went into the secretary’s office where there is a giant blackboard with the master schedule. We were in the process of rearranging schedules to fit my requirements, when we heard a commotion outside. Since the director hadn’t arrived yet, the censeur was the ranking administrator. We emerged to see what the deal was.
What I saw surprised me – this in itself a surprise because I thought I had inoculated myself by now against being surprised by weird things here. There was a man in sneakers, no socks, cargo shorts, and a trench coat (no shirt), holding a shotgun. Everyone – parents, students, teachers, other random people passing by who heard what was going on – was yelling at someone.
After about ten seconds of thinking “oh my God, there’s a gun,” I remembered this is Benin, and nothing is too weird to be out of the ordinary. So I sat back to watch what was going on, and ask another teacher what they were yelling about.
It turns out there was an owl in a big tree in the school yard.
“Aww, cute,” you might be thinking if you’re an American. Or “ok, cool, what’s the big deal?” If you are Beninese, however, you’re almost certainly thinking “Sorcerer! It will kill someone! Evil wizard!” Owls are bad omens – it is believed that sorcerers can turn themselves into owls, and that owls/sorcerers (in Benin they are essentially the same thing) can kill people.
So some people were yelling because they were afraid of the owl. The school’s groundskeeper/guardian, a lovely though entirely illiterate man, had seen the owl and called a hunter to come kill it. But he hadn’t gotten permission from the school administration, so some people were yelling about this breach of etiquette/chain of command.
The censeur calmed everyone down, and eventually it was decided that the hunter should go ahead and kill the owl, for everyone’s protection. So they cleared the area under the tree, the hunter took aim, and BAM! A second owl flew away, and the first owl fell out of the tree, dead.
Another man came forward to pick up the dead sorcerer (owl), and held it over his head in the manner of Rafiki presenting baby Simba in “The Lion King.” Cheers, chants and songs of celebration erupted from the crowd, including from some university-educated teachers.
“Well, that seems about right, I guess,” I thought. “And it’s only nine fifteen. Bring on the weirdness, Benin!”
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.
It’s difficult to write about religion, especially when it’s not your religion. Even more so when it’s a religion that most of your readers know nothing about. How do you explain, how do you illustrate, how do you convey a belief system that is not your own, and that your readers may belittle. I want to discuss Vodun (Voodoo) as it is practiced and as I experience it here in Benin. But I’m worried that doing in doing so, people who read this will see the Beninese as superstitious, backwards, or unintelligent. So in writing this, I’m wary of describing too much or too little, but I’ll try anyway.
I don’t think I’ve done an adequate job of explaining that people believe in Voodoo here. I know I’ve mentioned it, but in talking to a Volunteer’s boyfriend who was visiting, I realize that just saying it doesn’t accurately convey the depth of that statement.
Take, for example, the zangbeto, that dancing haystack spirit. At certain fetes, there are zangbetos that perform. (See my “Voodoo Day” post for more). They dance and perform, and eventually the zangbeto’s helpers/handlers come and layer by layer, uncover the zangbeto costume to demonstrate that there is not a person beneath. Sometimes, they flip the zangbeto over to reveal an object that shows what form the spirit has taken, and a few minutes later, flip it over again to show another object or animal, to show that the spirit has changed forms.
Now, most Westerners watching would spend time trying to figure out where the person is beneath it. Most Westerners don’t believe that there is a spirit animating the haystack costume. Most Westerners would refer to it as a costume.
It would be a mistake to say so in front of a Beninese person.
You probably have in your head an image of the type of Beninese person who believes that there is not a person beneath the costume. You’re probably imagining a villager, a person who is illiterate, who has little exposure to the Western world. In some cases, you might be right. But college educated Beninese also fit into the category of people who deep down to the core of their being believe that it is a spirit. Men and women who have advanced degrees, sometimes from American or European universities, truly believe there is no person underneath.
This is not the way many Christians I know (including myself) “believe” in Creation – it’s what the holy book of the religion says and they say they believe in the Bible, but logically they know that evolution is actually what happened. Beninese believe in Voodoo the way that they believe that the sky is blue.
Another example is Oro, the fetiche in my area. I’m not allowed to see it, but if I was, what I would likely see is a group of (drunk) men with a tool they swing around their heads to make the Oro noise, and machetes. When I say I’m not allowed to see it, I mean Oro kills people. Every year, somewhere in the Plateau region, at least one person dies because they interfered with Oro.
Logically, what actually physically kills people is a man with a machete. But that’s not what kills people. Oro kills people, because the Oro spirit inhabits the person wielding the machete. The person holding the machete is not in charge of his own actions, because it’s Oro. The person holding the machete did not kill anyone. Oro did.
I’m still not sure I’ve conveyed the depth of this belief. But rather than continue, I would like to offer the disclaimer that I have just made rather broad statements about Beninese people. Not every single person believes in Voodoo, and in fact most people only believe in parts of Voodoo traditions. But when people believe in something here, they really truly believe it. They believe in a way that many Americans in my experience don’t believe in anything.
As a last example, the Volunteer who stayed with my host family the year before me told me he had a conversation one night with Papa about superstition. Papa said that Americans believe in lots of superstitions (black cats crossing paths, throwing salt over the shoulders, etc.). The Volunteer replies that Beninese, even educated Beninese, believe in superstitions too. Papa says “oh no, us Catholics don’t believe in things like that.” So the Volunteer started whistling. Papa became uncomfortable and told the Volunteer to stop before something bad happened.
In Benin, whistling at night is said to call out spirits and snakes.
In some cases, it can be frustrating for a Volunteer who wants to enact change in a community, to face beliefs that run so deep. But it’s also hard not to admire people who believe in things so deeply, so completely. Their worldview is not just an academic term; it’s truly a part of every action and every thought. I may not understand it, but I can admire how much their culture is a part of their everyday life. Maybe by the end of my second year, I can not only admire it, but understand it too.