, COTONOU, Jan 18 – In the Western African country of Benin, Christianity and voodoo are not mutually exclusive. A large portion of the Beninese population follows both religions.
Elise Houngbedji is 33 years old and a follower of voodoo, a traditional religion that relies on the forces of nature for solving people’s problems.
A week ago she went to Dah Gbedo, a voodoo priest, for a cleansing ritual. “I don’t want to discuss my problems with strangers. I trust Dah Gbedo and he recommended that I start by cleansing myself”, she explains.
Elise’s cleansing ritual had two stages: a physical one with a series of baths, and a spiritual one. Dah Gbedo began by slaughtering a pigeon. He then instructed Elise to smear herself with the bird’s blood.
The blood is to ward off death, Gbedo explains: “The spilling of blood is to divert the negative energies away from the person performing the ritual to the animal whose blood was being spilled”, he says.
The priest then instructed Elise to wash herself with water that had been mixed with leaves and tree bark. Raw eggs were then poured all over her body and she washed again.
To conclude the first stage of the cleansing ritual, Dah Gbedo poured milk on the young woman and instructed her to wash herself once more. According to him, the objective of this first stage is to eliminate all impurities from the body. It is followed and reinforced by the second part of the ritual.
Dah Gbedo poured a sweet beverage on Elise’s body and instructed her to anoint herself with it. As soon as the liquid dried out on the young woman’s body, the priest added some perfume, then a white powder. This marked the end of the physical part of the ritual; the priest would later invoke the gods to complete the spiritual part.
Despite performing the voodoo ritual, Elise still goes to church the following Sunday. “I am a devoted catholic Christian; I was baptised and confirmed in this faith”, she says. Like Elise, many Beninese people follow both voodoo and another so-called “imported” religion.
“Christianity and Islam were imposed upon us by the colonial powers. This does not mean we should give up the beliefs of our ancestors”, reasons Eugène De Souza, who is also a Catholic Christian and a voodoo follower.
In Benin, voodoo temples are often attached to churches and mosques. In the city of Ouidah, for instance, the first basilica ever built in the country and in West Africa is just opposite the voodoo Temple of Pythons.
“Here, people go to the mass in the morning and to the Temple of Pythons in the evening”, explains Marc Adjovi, one of the Chief’s sons.
To believe or not to believe?
However, the dual faith of some followers is often frowned upon by the catholic priests, who sometimes compare the voodoo cult to Charlatanism and Satanism.
These remarks have angered many voodoo followers and priests. “To associate voodoo with the devil shows a lack of understanding. We allow our children to go to Catholic churches but the Church rejects our traditional beliefs. Many families have been divided and destroyed because of this intolerance,” shouts Dah Aligbonon, one of the highest dignitaries of the voodoo cult in Benin.
Since 1994, the celebration of voodoo has been institutionalised in Benin. The Beninese people celebrate “Traditional Religions Day” (or national voodoo day) on January 10 every year. The holiday has been placed under the patronage of the President and the date is a public holiday across the Beninese territory.
The climax in every edition is the consultation of the Fah, a divination ritual, to determine the great trends of the year. According to the Fah, 2012 will be a year of prosperity for Benin, but with potential dangers in the water, for those involved in maritime transport for instance.