COTONOU, Benin, Jul 9 – The sound of drum beats, hand claps and women singing fills the air at a shrine in Cotonou in the West African nation of Benin, homeland of voodoo.
But these days the ceremonies are a little bit different, as people pray for the country’s football team to make further historic progress at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Benin shocked Morocco on penalties in the round of 16 to record its first ever victory in the competition and progress to a quarter-final showdown with Senegal on Wednesday.
And for believers in the country where voodoo is widely practised alongside Christianity and Islam, help from the spirit world has spurred on the players.
On Sunday, Dah Gbediga, president of the indigenous religions of Benin, was joined by several other vodunsi practitioners for a “special ceremony to support the Squirrels”, as the national squad are nicknamed.
After sacrificing a goat and three sheep behind closed doors he emerged with his chest bared accompanied by a toothless priestess in her sixties who led the prayers in front of around a hundred followers.
“This is something new for our players in this competition, people think we will make a poor showing, but they are wrong, we are committed to doing our best,” intoned the priestess, Tangninnon, gripping a gourd of water and her walking stick.
Dah Gbediga said he has been praying for the team since well before the tournament began.
“There is a march towards progress in football with the support of the ancestors and nothing else should stop us,” he told AFP, wearing a beaded skullcap and necklace.
“We achieved what we had never done before this year, we have impressed the whole world and we ask the ancestors to make it last for as long as possible.”
– ‘Pushed us this far’ –
It is not just at this shrine that prayers are being offered for the team.
Victor Adoko, a fan of the Squirrels and priest of the thunder deity Hevioso, believes that they can go all the way to the final.
As the players notched up three draws to squeak through the group stages he turned to his fetishes.
“It is to increase the chances of the team,” he explained.
Voodoo, a religion more often called “vodun” in west Africa, has a hierarchy of deities and tribal nature spirits, embracing magical practises and healing remedies considered divine.
The use of fetishes and rituals has often been poorly served by Hollywood, which tends to turn a world where revered ancestors exist alongside the living into a source of black magic.
Football fans — like others in the country — are split between believers and non-believers.
Supporter Adeline Tonouewa, a follower of divinity Thron, says she has offered up cola nuts and libations to the spirit’s fetish in the hope of victory.
“It has played its role,” she said.
Paulin Kintonou, an actor and voodoo believer, agreed that spiritual forces have made the difference.
“I have the firm conviction that it is these prayers that have pushed us this far,” he said.
“Our religious elders are on our side.”
But telecoms worker Enock Agasounon was not so convinced and insisted most of the credit had to go to the players.
“Nothing comes for free, even if you ask for it in your prayers in church and end up getting it,” he said.
“The Squirrels have the talent and have performed well. Above all it is down to their efforts — the prayers come second.”