Benin Voodoo Festival drumbeats echo lost history for overseas visitors

Ouidah, Benin - The drumming was like a heart beating as West African women wearing cowrie shells and beads writhed before a carved fetish. A knife-wielding dancer with a chalk-whitened face performed intricate steps to honor the python spirit.

The 10-day Benin Voodoo Festival wrapped up Wednesday with a final celebration of ancestor and spirit worship. American visitors of African descent were on hand at a former slave port in Benin to discover their ancestors' practices. Amid the singing, drumming and praying, many also contemplated roots ripped asunder.

"Did my great-grandmother stand on this beach? Am I from here?" wondered 23-year-old Alise Williams, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"There are some things that are similar to back home, like the rhythms of dancing and the catching of the holy ghost in the Pentecostal churches," said Williams.

"There is so much of our history that is lost," Williams added softly as a crowd of women wearing red feathers passed by, singing in a language Williams didn't understand to a god she didn't know.

Festival organizers hope more tourists will visit the annual festival, and find links between the contemporary cultures of West Africa and the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe, now peopled with many of African descent.

Practiced in the Caribbean, Brazil, and some Creole communities in the United States as well as on the white sands of west Africa, Voodoo's spread is inextricably linked to Benin's status as a slaving hub.

Memorials of slavery are everywhere, from the beach side Point of No Return arch that shows manacled Africans walking toward the horizon, to the Tree of Forgetfulness that captured slaves were marched around three times in the belief it would break their spirits.

But they brought their spirits with them to sugar and cotton plantations overseas. While indigenous religions are practiced in many parts of West Africa, often interspersed with Christian and Muslim practices, Benin and parts of neighboring Nigeria have particularly strong Voodoo communities.

Many of Benin's 8 million citizens practice Voodoo, which even a strict Marxist-Leninist dictatorship was unable to stamp out.

Former military ruler Mathieu Kerekou banned Voodoo during the 1970s. His successor repealed the ban. When Kerekou was re-elected to office in a democratic transfer of power, Beninese refused to recognize his authority until he relented and took an oath of office that specifically referred to ancestral spirits.

While still deeply impoverished, Benin is now a thriving democracy, and Voodoo is recognized as an official religion.

No records are kept of foreign Voodoo Festival visitors, and it still looks to be mostly a local affair. But guides such as Martine de Souza, a priestess and former curator of the local museum, say that more foreigners have been attending in recent years.

"We want to make our religion known abroad," de Souza said. "Many people do not appreciate our tradition, which is of tolerance and making peace, not harming anyone."

Roberto Strongman, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that the festival may benefit from a recent upsurge of interest in Voodoo. He flipped through a book on Santeria, the Caribbean version of Voodoo.

"Look at this bibliography — book after book, all published after 1996."

He says Voodoo's oral tradition gives it a flexibility to adapt to modern needs and an inclusiveness.

"This religion admits the possibility of multiple selves within one person," he said.

On Wednesday, devotees broke bottles on their heads and sliced themselves with knives, offering their own blood to the gods amid thousands of dancers and worshippers. Bottles of spirits and the blood of a slaughtered goat were offered to metal fetishes that included an image of a giant snake.

In the town's sacred forest, the statues of Shango, the thunder god with the double-headed ax, and triple-headed Tohoxou, the god of deformed children, stared across the clearing under the shade of trees hundreds of years old.

At the palace of the Voodoo leader Daagbo Hanoun — literally, "the one with the sea" — male dancers wore women's clothes and gaudy earrings while a crowd of women performed a fertility dance, with one leader brandishing a carved phallus.

To the uninitiated, the dances can seem amusing or frightening, such as when a man stamps a series of steps around the drummers, the lifeless body of a kid goat in his arms. The animal's blood is daubed on doorways for protection, or offered as a sacrifice to spirits.

But although animal sacrifices are an intrinsic element of ceremonies, devotees stress that the aim is to celebrate the life, not death, and point out that the animals are used for feasts in the community when the rituals are finished.

Toni Pressley-Scott, a 38-year old from New York city who has resided in Benin for nearly a year with her teenage son, sees not sacrifice, but existence: "It's not about cruelty, it's about the sacredness of life."