Voodoo celebrated at Benin festival

Ouidah, Benin - Thousands gathered Tuesday on a beach to celebrate Benin's once-banned Voodoo, slaughtering animals and welcoming revelers from Brazil and the United States whose slave ancestors took the religion to the Americas centuries ago.

At a ceremony in Ouidah, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the commercial capital, Cotonou, Voodoo high priestess Nagbo Hounon Gbeffa sacrificed a goat, a rooster and a chicken as divine offerings.

"I'm very moved," said Faith McDouglas, a 37-year-old nurse from Omaha, Nebraska. "I've understood many things regarding my origins, because I'm a descendant of slaves."

Voodoo originated in West Africa and holds that all life is driven by spiritual forces of natural phenomena like water, fire, earth and air that should be honored through rituals that include animal sacrifices. There are no zombies or pin-skewered dolls here, but followers believe they can communicate with divinities and spirits by putting themselves into a trance.

Countless Africans were shipped into slavery from the West African coast, taking with them Voodoo, whose cults still survive in the Caribbean, Latin American and the American South.

The annual celebration "is an occasion for us in Ouidah to remember the hundreds of thousands of blacks deported to the Americas as slaves," said Albert Dossou, a member of the Daagbo Hounon family, which traces its lineage to a 15th-century Voodoo chief.

"It is always a pleasure for us to see them make the pilgrimage to the land of their ancestors," Dossou said.

Pamella Jonqueira, a Brazilian living in Portugal, said she'd come to Ouidah to make a documentary about Voodoo. "I've been able to glean some really beautiful images, but most importantly, I feel the need to initiate myself in Voodoo."

In Benin, the religion was repressed and then banned during incumbent President Mathieu Kerekou's first 18-year stint in power, which ended in 1991. Kerekou's Marxist regime believed the rites went against the socialist work ethnic.

But the religion, practiced by an estimated 60 percent of Benin's 7 million people, was impossible to suppress and the government inaugurated National Voodoo Day in 1996, giving the religion an official place here alongside Christianity and Islam.

Benin is considered the West African capital of Voodoo, and every year, hundreds revelers, believers and curious tourists from as far away as Haiti and the United States attend the festival along with thousands from Benin itself.

After Tuesday's animal sacrifice, Gbeffa, the Voodoo priestess, prayed for presidential elections due March 5 to be peaceful, saying they should be held "in an atmosphere of tolerance and brotherhood."

Kerekou lost the country's first democratic elections in 1991 but won office again in 1996 and 2001. The constitution bars him from seeking another term in office.