National Vodun (Voodoo) Day
The small West African country of Benin is the heartland of Vodun, the ancient animist religion of coastal West Africa. Vodun is thought to be at least 6,000 years old and is still practised by most of the inhabitants of the region, albeit often combined with a surface veneer of Islam or Christianity. In Benin, Vodun Day is a national holiday and it’s just as important as Christmas or the Bid celebrations of Islam.
People travel from as far away as the USA, the Caribbean and Brazil to the seaside town of Ouidah on the ‘Slave Coast’, the spiritual home of Vodun, to participate in the dramatic festivities here. Priests and priestesses enveloped in voluminous, brilliantly coloured costumes process through exuberant crowds to the mesmerizing rhythm of rattles and drums; incantations are uttered as sacrifices of chickens and goats are offered up to the elemental spirits of fire, earth, air and water; everywhere people are singing, chanting and dancing. The vibrant atmosphere is infectious: every so often someone will dance themselves to a frenzied pitch, fall into a trance and fling themselves to the ground where maize meal is ritually scattered about them as they writhe around exorcizing their demons in a spiritual catharsis.
Hundreds of people gather at ‘La Porte de non Retour’ (Gate of No Return), a memorial arch that stands on the beach as a poignant reminder of man’s inhumanity to man – more than a million prisoners were transported from this stretch of coast to be sold as slaves across the Atlantic. In the New World, the colonialists sought to break the spirit of their victims by weakening ancestral and family ties and the practice of Vodun was proscribed. So Vodun Day is as much a celebration of cultural continuity as it is a day of worship.
vodun religious rituals and beliefs
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
The word voodoo is a Western
corruption of the West African vodun
or Vodou. Ouidah was colonized by
the Portuguese in 1580 and grew to
be one of Africa’s largest slave-
trading ports. Travel writer Bruce
Chatwin wrote The Viceroy of
Ouidah, a fictionalized account of the
life of the infamous Francisco Felix
de Sousa, who made a fortune out of
the slave trade.