Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.
Who: Kevin Alexander of Alexandria, Va.
Where, when, why: In December, I traveled to Benin for two weeks to study Vodun, the ancient animistic religion of West Africa that is the source of voodoo practiced in Haiti and Louisiana. I traveled to the historic city of Ouidah, Vodun’s contemporary spiritual home, to explore the culture firsthand and to meet the Vodun priests and practitioners whose spiritual rhythms pulsate throughout the country today.
Highlights and high points: The Temple of Pythons, a sacred shrine inspired by the legends of King Kpasse, is home to dozens of royal pythons that slither freely within the temple’s venerable walls. Images of snakes are plastered throughout Ouidah as tributes to the serpent deity Dan, a powerful Vodun god thought to be a divine mediator between the spirits and the living. These exotic creatures are revered in Benin, much like cattle is celebrated in India, and it’s considered a sign of good fortune should a snake cross one’s path. As symbols of peace, prosperity, and wisdom, illustrations of these hallowed serpents are ubiquitous in Benin.
Cultural connection or disconnect: Vodun imagery and art tends to be aesthetically stunning — and, at times, unsettling — so I traveled to the gallery Farafina Boutique in Grand Popo, a tiny, unspoiled beach village near the Togo border, to learn more about Vodun history and symbology. The curator of the shop, Tessi David, took an interest in my curiosity and offered to take me to his childhood village to witness the authentic rituals involved with Vodun ancestor worship.
The community was brimming with Vodun fetishes, such as consecrated memorials dedicated to the living spirits of Vodun gods and ancestral family members. The local priestess welcomed us with customary shots of sodabi, a special type of Vodun moonshine produced in the homespun distilleries constructed in the back yards of Benin’s rural villages.
The fetishes were dedicated to Ogou, the warrior god of iron; Hevioso, the god of thunder and purveyor of justice; and Sakpata, the god of the Earth and well-being. We showered the fetishes with gin to awaken the spirits, followed by offerings of alcohol, palm oil and red beans. We knelt before each fetish, silently said a prayer and were asked to reflect on how we can essentially “pay it forward” when our prayers are answered. Mindfulness, and the perpetuation of positive energy, immediately revealed themselves to be key components that underlie the Vodun faith.
The priestess then consulted with the spirits by using cowrie shells and kola nuts, rolling them like dice and interpreting their landing positions like modern-day oracle bones. She smiled as she pointed to the cowrie shells; according to her, the Vodun gods had welcomed our visit, cleansed our spirits of negative energy and promised to protect me for the duration of my journey through Benin.
Biggest laugh or cry: Drum rhythms and dances unique to each Vodun deity are part of local festivals, and I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to learn the rhythmic expressions of the Vodun sky god, Sogbo. As part of the experience, I had to perform at that evening’s celebration. Dressed in traditional Beninese attire, I performed a solo routine in front of a crowd of delighted locals who laughed at my attempts to emulate the sacred rhythms of Sogbo. I imagine that I probably looked more like Elaine Benes awkwardly flailing her limbs about at the office Christmas party in an iconic episode of “Seinfeld,” and I couldn’t help but laugh right along with the crowd.
How unexpected: The people of Benin are acutely aware of the misconceptions and negative connotations unfairly associated with the traditional religions of their ancestors. As such, they welcome the opportunity to share Vodun with curious travelers and were thrilled to bring me into their world to show me a lifestyle teeming with positivity, humility, and a strong sense of spirit. In fact, the word Vodun means spirit in the native Fon language, and it can be understood as the divine essence that connects the energies of life on Earth and beyond.
Vodun makes Benin a unique travel destination in an increasingly homogeneous world, and its people are proud to share it. It might just be a matter of time until Benin becomes the next big thing on the travel scene.
Fondest memento or memory: David would wax poetically about the spiritual rhythms of the universe, and one of his quotes stuck with me: “We are all connected. . . . the individual notes in a symphony of life. . . . We are all one.”
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