one of the spirits participating in the Voodoo dance Guelede, near the town of Cove

If we ever were curious about the landscape inland Benin, we have now satisfied our curiosity. It is pretty boring. Lots of green, lots of palm trees – for palm oil industry, presumably, no coconuts. And dusty villages, square brick or adobe houses with the inevitable corrugated iron on the roof. And thatch, suggesting greater poverty, again. Interestingly, we also see the occasional mosque, the small, charming type, several larger churches, and Voodoo temples and little Voodoo shrines, apparently happily living next to each other.

the poorer part of the Benin coutryside, bamboo and thatch

one of the food storage huts in a village

the type of sloop that would take us to Agonve

fishing nets drying in Agonve

and more nets, ready to use again

We visit one of the villages, to attend Sunday mass. Agonve is on an island, so we all pile in a large sloop punted by an old woman, to cross the water. The mass preparations haven’t finished yet, so we wander through the village a bit – my favourite pastime. See how these people live, how they cook, how they work the nets. I suppose because it is Sunday, most fisherman are at home; the nearby lake only has a few pirogues – canoes – operating, but the amount of nets being dried and cleaned onshore is impressive. The village also has the benefits of NGO support, an organisations that helps them with their development. The visible effects of this are several latrine buildings around the place, although from what I find around the village, I am not sure that they are fervently used. They haven’t qualified for the non-defecation certificate (!) yet, something I did see along the road at other villages.

inside the village nets compete with goats for space

a simple window

the cooking fire, and several baskets

large clay pots for storage

a small girl finishing her lunch

another village beauty, setting curls (sic)

fishing canoos

with the catch of this morning

the certificate that declares a village free from defeccation in the open

the outside of the church where we have mass, today, looks much like a Voodoo temple

and so does the inside, with priest in front of a Voodoo banner

the drum band accompanying the service

When it is time for mass, we all flow into a small adobe-like house, with a table in the front and a drum band in the corner. Behind the table the priest, well-dressed, chanting. And in front several woman, singing, dancing like any Voodoo ceremony we have seen so far, and occasionally going on their knees to pray. All the time accompanied by the rhythmic drumming of the band. Quite nice, actually, except that it is steaming hot inside. And we don’t have to dance! After a while we leave again, the service not yet ended. On the way back to the sloop we pass a much larger church, one that also looks more like a church, much fuller than our little ceremonial church, and from what I can see in passing, with a rather more conventional Catholic service. But much less fun, obviously. Or did we just pay for a service that is not normally being held, only for tourists?


the boys of the village waving goodbye to the visitors

a shy little boy, looking out what all these white people are about

an old lady has seen it all before

the one lady with the body tattoos, long before it became fashionable

and tattoos on her face, too

On our way back to Cove, where we are going to attend another Voodoo dance, we get off in another little village, famous for its tattooed women. Actually, it turns out that the practice was discontinued in the 1980s, and we only find one old woman with tattoos. Embarrassingly, she is then encouraged to lower her cloth to show her entire upper body. In front of all of us, multiple cameras clicking. Mine too, I have to admit, but only to be able to share this with you! No, really, this is no good, this erodes any level of dignity from poor people – I hope that she got paid well, at least.

this reminds us of our garden in Haiti, where upturned bottles represented a Voodoo message

another natural beauty

this lttle boy is just curious where all that sound comes from

they are being played with great enthusiasm

back to the Voodoo dance, chairs ready for the visitors – how spontanuous can you get it?

some serious drums are being played to create an atmosphere

and a group of men and women are equally ethusiastically dancing, in anticipation of the spirits

who has finally appeared

with a costume, including mask and pan! – a dance to celebrate the importance of the women!

At the end of the afternoon we get back to Cove, same place as yesterday’s dance. This time the community has a different dance prepared, the Guelede. This is a dance, originating from the Yoruba culture, to show the importance of women in society, or so we are told. Which, of course, boils down to promoting women’s fertility, invoking a spirit who helps her getting pregnant, spiritually I presume. At least that is what it used to be, nowadays this dance is performed as a celebration dance, at weddings or at the birth of a baby. As with all the spirits, they have adepts, meaning people that are ‘in the know’, introduced in the secrets; not everybody qualifies for this. I remember this is also something Profet told us in Porto Novo: adepts of the spirit have so obtained a right to have their own rituals, altars and shrines for that specific spirit. People also try to become adept to more than one spirit, but obviously it is impossible to do so to all the spirits. In this particular case the adepts are – or were – women, chosen to perform the rites of fertility on other women.

ankle bangles

another spirit appears from behind the blue door

also an interesting mask, being worn as a hat, the head and eyes of the ‘spirit’ inside is lower

clearly visible with this one, mask as a hat

this is the spirit promoting child making

with the right moves of his head manages to have the couple copulating

the crippled spirit, who later manages to dance again

they keep on coming, from behind the blue door

the bag with a child, handed to one of the haphazard tourists – coincidence?

one of the giants, representing the initiated women

equally enthusiastically dancing

and another giant, also an initiated woman

although this particular one looks more like a man

The dance is a bit like yesterday. A drum band generates atmosphere – and atmosphere they create! – and then the costumed dancers, the spirits, appear, one by one. In this case many wear a mask on top of their, invisible, head, with some message – not always very clear, but sometimes overly clear, like the plateau on top of one of the masks, which, with the right moves of the head, mimics a copulating couple. The dancers inside the suits, the costumes, are all men, yet are supposed to represent women spirits. Like the two giants that appear, representing the initiated women. At one stage a crippled is brought in, well, a representation of a crippled, who miraculously then managed to dance again, on stilts. The most lugubrious was the bag, which was to contain a baby; it actually contained a small child, and both my travel companion and I can testify to this, because we were the only two ‘blans’ out of the entire groups who were made to hold the bag. Coincidence? Or is there some magic at work here?

Next: Abomey and the third Voodoo dance

bending over, and then trying to get upright again!

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2 Responses to 26 March 2023

  1. Thea Oudmaijer says:

    This was a very special experience I guess.
    All the spirits with those messages and a special message for both of you as the only white people of your group?

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