Monday, March 17, 2008

The Power Of The Voodoo

Voodoo Lounge
After my experience churning in the machine of Cotonou, Benin, I escaped for a day trip out to Ouidah, a town that was a huge player in the Portuguese slave trade. Ouidah charmed me immediately, colored in pastel yellows, oranges and pinks, countless colonial buildings seemed to quietly decay while life moved slowly along in the surrounding streets.
After repeatedly running into two local men who were seemingly wandering like I was, they suggested that we should wander together. One, named Fredi, spoke a bit of English and the other spoke none at all, so I struggled with French and a bit of English as we continued to walk thought the neighborhood. We were interrupted when the men saw a man wearing the typical African pajamas and a cloth hat. They spoke in a tribal language and the men indicated that we should follow this other man. We approached a white stone wall painted with a few pictures of a man with his legs crossed, a snake, and a few other animals. Fredi, sensing my hesitation, assured me that there was nothing to be concerned about, but didn't tell me where we were going.
We entered a dirt courtyard where some chickens scurried out of the way and a woman stood in the corner fanning a fire with a large cauldron resting on it. Some naked children stopped playing in the dirt as we were led to the doorway of a small white building in the courtyard decorated with more painted snakes and people. I watched as the men took their shoes and then shirts off, and indicated that I should do the same. We were handed a plastic mug full of water that smelled strongly of eucalyptus and I followed as the men rinsed themselves with it. We ducked our heads under the low door and entered a hot, tiled room where the man in the pajamas sat perched on a stone. There was a half-wall that reached from the wall to the man, obscuring a portion of the room that he seemed to speak to and gesture at.
The man spent a lot of time speaking in a language I didn't understand and it seemed inappropriate to ask for translation, so I sat patiently on the white tile bench, drenched in sweat, next to the other two men.
The pajama man took a stone in his hand and repeatedly smacked it against a larger stone on the floor next to him while saying things in the direction of the area obscured by the half-wall. He took a liquid from a bucket and periodically threw it at the area behind the wall. I wondered what was back there. A person? An idol? I began to suspect that I was witnessing my first voodoo ceremony.
I knew that voodoo was a key belief of most Beninese, regardless of whether they had also chosen a more Western religion, but I had not yet seen anything clearly related to voodoo, so I was just guessing.
After a while, the pajama man handed three green kola nuts to the first man. The man grasped them tightly in his left hand and muttered things to them before handing them back to the pajama man. The pajama man pounded on the stone, splashed water, tossed the nuts on the floor and sprinkled powders over them while chanting.
He then picked up the nuts and a couple small shells and tossed them on the floor a few times as if they were dice. Eventually, he turned to Fredi's friend and spoke to him in the tribal language. I watched the man's face as he listened with grave seriousness. The man asked questions, seemed to protest, and eventually, his chin began to quiver and tears began to stream down his cheeks.
The man protested again and the pajama man shouted for an aide who brought in a book full of symbols and showed it to the crying man, confirming whatever it was that he had told him. As the book was passed to Fredi I leaned in and took a look. Some French words were written in there, indicating something about fortunes and astrology. I was definitely witnessing my first voodoo ceremony.
Fredi went through the same process without tears and then three kola nuts were handed to me. Fredi told me to mutter my dreams and wishes to the nuts and then hand them to the man, who I later learned was a Fa, a voodoo practitioner who channels messages from voodoo spirits. The same process was repeated and Fredi translated what the man told me.
My fortune seemed to me to be a bit of a gimme; obviously I was a visitor, so it didn't take a ton of voodoo to know that I was in the middle of a journey. In any case, I the Fa divined that gem of information and then told me that if I did a small task of giving, I would be assured of safety and good fortune for the rest of my trip. The Fa listed off some very specific food items I would need to buy and then hand out to strangers on the street. If I did that, I was in the clear. If I didn't, horrible things were certain to happen. Easy enough.
As we wrapped up the ceremony and were led out of the room, I finally got my glimpse at the area behind the half wall. There was a large wooden object covered in years of melted candle wax, surrounded by once-green plants that were now covered in white powders. Lots of stones, coins, and two dead chickens.
As I walked through the town and handed out candy and bread to strangers, I asked what had been told to Fredi's friend. Apparently his future doesn't look so bright, involving his business partners stealing from him, and necessitating lengthy voodoo ceremonies involving animals, money, oils and herbs or it was destined to occur. That the man was so clearly petrified of his fortune underscored just how real the Beninese consider voodoo to be.

Slime and Snails or Puppy Dogs' Tails?
I never had to seek out voodoo. Voodoo is such a key element in the daily life of the Beninese and Togolese that spending enough time there wandering neighborhoods or markets, I seemed to stumble into it regularly.

In every market in every town, there was at least one person selling the devices or ingredients known as fetishes, which are used in voodoo ceremonies. Strolling through the aisles of smoked fish, yams, spices, and Chinese sandals, a distinct odor would rise above the smoked fish and chili peppers. I knew I was close to fetishes.
Voodoo fetishes seemed to fall into three categories: tools, such as bells, rattles, or iron instruments to hold while dancing; ingredients, such as herbs, tree barks and shells; and finally, animals.
The stench that directed me toward the voodoo stalls were the rotting flesh of birds, mammals and reptiles.
In Abomey, Benin, I met a French-Canadian girl named Marie-Michelle who was working as a Physical Therapist in Togo for a few months. Fluent in French and insistent on total immersion in Africa, we would grab lunches at the roadside stalls and I would watch with wonder as she would drink from the communal water mugs.I was comfortable eating with my fingers, but this was one step I was not keen on taking.
"Oh, I suppose you're still sticking to bottled water?" she'd ask with a smile. Marie didn't hold back. She had come to terms with the sweat, the filth, the daily challenges of power or water shortages. With French as her first language, she was a quick retort to the incessant catcalls her gender and race would attract as we walked down the street.
Having been in Abomey for work for several months, she hadn't done much exploring for it's own sake, so for a few days I would meet her when she finished work and we'd explore the market or neighboring Bohicon.
In Bohicon, I identified that distinct stench of rotting animals and took Marie to see her first voodoo fetishes. As ever, the inventory was highlighted by a brutal array of animals. The main table was a selection of decapitated animal heads, eyes missing, mouths open and teeth exposed, their faces frozen into fearsome grimaces or screams, their missing eyes staring blankly at passing shoppers. Monkeys, leopards, pythons, birds, dogs and cats. Next to the heads were the skulls of cows, donkeys, warthogs, and crocodiles. The rest of the stall displayed woven platters piled high with dead weasels, porcupines, chameleons, and crocodiles. On the ground, woven mats covered in dead birds, ranging from rather ordinary looking birds to vultures, owls, and large horn-bills.
We started haggling with the vendors, as a ploy to get some photos, and also to see if there was anything non-animal that might be interesting to purchase. We each bought a couple fetishes used for protecting the home, as well as two that are used for protection on a journey. One of them required a small ceremony which we were instructed to perform on the spot.
The fetish was a short clay rod with two little clay cups, facing opposite directions on either end. Feathers, goops, and strings adorned the device and we were told to put a dollop of water in one of the cups, suck it into our mouths and then immediately spit it out.
So, in the oven-like heat of the African afternoon, under the shelter of a row of stalls where animals rotted all day long since time immemorial, we poured a little local water into the device and sipped it into our mouths, fleas, disease, stinks and all. But it was all in the effort of making sure I return home safely, mom!

Voodoo Chile
It's a strange phenomenon that has happened to me quite a few times when I have wandered into the fringes of smaller towns: being the first white person that a small child sees. Sometimes there is a clear sense of wonder, and sometimes there is nothing short of abject, unbridled fear. About ten times or so, my whiteness has sent small children screaming and crying, gasping and grasping for their mothers.
At the fetish stall in Bohicon, I noticed that the daughter of one of the sellers was sitting in the dirt, wearing only a t-shirt and a small fetish to protect her. She was pulling the feathers and guts from a dead and flayed bird, and stuffing them into a piece of paper like filling in a burrito. I snapped a photo of the scene and when the parents gestured that I should say hi to the girl, she looked up and noticed me for the first time. Surrounded by frightening dead animals, and holding portions of one in her hand, the little girl took one look at my face and began screaming, scrambling backwards and away from me, tears streaming down her face, with a dead bird in her hand.
Just one of life's little ironies, I guess. Some of the things that horror movies might be made of back home were nothing compared to the face of a stranger in the market in Bohicon.

Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
When I returned to my hotel that night, after having dropped off my fetishes in the early evening, it was apparent that there is an inherent curse that comes with voodoo. One of the items Marie and I each bought was a leather belt-like device that we were to wear as protection on our trips. As I wound it through the loops of my shorts, I realized that the leather too had picked up that stench of rotting flesh. I washed it thoroughly and still could smell that smell. Oh my god, that smell.
Thankfully I brought a few Ziplocks with me, as these artifacts are going to require a good long and strenuous decontamination process before being put on display anywhere back home. Unfortunately, that means that one of my voodoo trip-protection insurance devices is not in its prescribed place around my waist.

Goat's Head Soup
Marie, her colleague and I located another Fa as Marie had never had her fortune read. With her bilingual fluency, I was finally able to get better translations of what was going on.
This Fa was initially very reluctant to perform anything for us yovo. He let us see his shrine where he had recently helped a family that had received a child after conducting a fertility ceremony. The shrine involved another large wooden object covered in wax, feathers, coins, and shells. The walls were spattered with blood and a large pool of blood covered the floor along with a few dead chickens. Apparently upon receipt of the baby, the couple had to return to perform a thank-you ceremony or terrible things would happen to the child.
"He killed a goat, used the blood in the ceremony, and then created a stew out of the goat. He's now put a pot of the stew on the floor here as an offering to the voodoo gods. If it is accepted, everything will be OK," Marie explained.
"OK, can you ask him how he will know whether the voodoo gods accept it?" I asked.
The Fa didn't like that question and I was sternly told not to ask such things. Maybe I wouldn't be getting all the answers I had hoped for after all.
When she thought the Fa wasn't looking, Marie's colleague took a photo of the scene. Unfortunately, the Fa saw and was upset. When a local arrived and asked for a reading, we offered a few extra Francs, and were allowed to watch the man's reading before having ours performed.
This room was vastly different than the one I saw in Ouidah. Dead and dying chickens were strewn everywhere, attracting a formidable army of flies who incessantly expressed their interest in us. Three "shrunken heads", which I am guessing were made out of wood, sat in dried gourd bowls. Again, that stench of rotting animals. The Fa divined the local man's fortune through pieces of metal hanging from chains. He performed similar chants as the Ouidah Fa, and paused to yawn, readjust his genitals, or answer his mobile phone while he told the man of how the future will affect his business, wife, and children. For something so serious and real to the recipient, this Fa certainly didn't seem to give the process a lot of reverence.
My fortune this time involved the Fa explaining that a deceased relative of mine watches over me while I travel, and he conjured my mother's spirit to have her join us in the reading. My fortune involved my previous success in the working world and sibling competition from my sister. He told me that I needed to perform two ceremonies or my sister would take all of my success and luck in the working world. I wanted to know what the ceremonies would involve. The Fa listed and Marie translated.
"Buy 7 eggs, 7 needles, some red palm oil, and some palm nuts. Put these in a dried calabash and mix them together." Easy enough; I could find all of these items at any market out here. "Place red flower petals on your body. Do this twice." Sure thing, I could do that in my hotel that night.
"That's the first ceremony. Here is the second: take 2 red roosters and 2 carrion birds and place them in a calabash. Buy one goat. Kill the goat and pour its blood over the other items. Place the calabash at a cross-roads to open up your future."
Uh, no.
So, if I get laid off when I come home and Maya really starts taking off in her new position, I just might need to return to Benin to kill a few goats.
The Fa remembered the surreptitious photo again as we prepared to leave. He became upset again and said we would need to give him a few things to make the situation better. Somehow I remembered that I had one of Mike Barkelew's passport photos in my wallet, which he had given me on the motorcycle trip. I gave the photo to the Fa, implying it was a photo of me (us yovo all look the same to them), and told the Fa to go ahead and perform a ritual on it. I snapped an amazing picture of the Fa holding the photo and one of his dead chickens. Mike, if things really start to go wrong in your life, I apologize; we'll need to make a trip out to Benin. If things start going really well, you owe me one!

The Power of The Voodoo
Working as a physical therapist in Benin, Marie was witness to many of the affects of voodoo. Since voodoo is trusted and much more affordable than medical care, the Beninese will generally turn to voodoo first.
Marie had a lengthy list of such stories, but one was the man who had smashed his arm and shoulder in a motorcycle accident and was unable to use the arm. The voodoo doctor performed a ceremony involving further agitating and pummeling the injury over the course of a month. When the man arrived at the hospital after having seen no improvement after the voodoo treatment, Marie had the man x-rayed. Due most likely to the pummeling, the bone fragments were now pointing every-which-way and would never heal in anything approximating the natural state of the bones without major surgery.
There was the story of the man who survived a stroke yet whose arms were involuntarily tensed afterwards. The voodoo procedure to treat this painful condition involved
making countless cuts in the arms, and briskly rubbing a variety of voodoo powders into the cuts. Worse than lemon juice on a paper cut, in my mind.
Time after time, patients would be sent to Marie and she just wished she could have intercepted them before they went to voodoo treatment. Countless patients would have faced better prognoses without the voodoo procedures, yet who is she to challenge their deeply-held beliefs? Without an education involving the sciences, medical strategies and devices must seem just as dubious as feathers, bones and goat blood must to us.
And then there was the story of the melted girl. She was brought into the clinic with her legs clenched so her feet touched her rear. The skin near her knees appeared as if it had melted, fusing her legs in this position. Her parents explained that she had been normal all her life until one night she was walking home and saw a ghost-like apparition on a darkened trail. She called her brother to see it and he couldn't see anything. The next day, the skin was melted like this.
I could understand, from a psychological perspective, how a traumatic event could lead to the girl fixating in that position and something eventually happening to the skin, but the parents insisted that it happened overnight.
There, at the Swiss-sponsored and quite modern hospital, the general manager declared that this was in fact the work of voodoo. Rather than cut the flesh and begin physical therapy, she was directed back to a voodoo doctor who declared that the only way to fix her was to
find the person who had originally had the hex placed on her, and then to perform some voodoo rituals. Marie has yet to work on fixing this girl's problem.
Voodoo doesn't just reared its head in medical situations. From the neighborhood shrines, to the larger fortune telling houses, I saw it daily.
In Kara, Togo, I crossed paths with two German students who were running the same circuit I was. We happened upon the local district football championships and joined a few hundred screaming and drumming Togolese in their local stadium.
In the midst of the game, a nasty fight erupted, involving someone on the underdog team being tripped, and then erupting in countless shouting and shoving matches and a lengthy delay of game.
We chatted up a few of the guys on the field through the fence and eventually were filled in on the true cause of the disruption: the winning underdogs had been accused of dropping a voodoo charm on the field prior to their goal. Who is to say that rubbing powders in one's arms might not help relax flexed muscles? Who is to say that a fetish might not allow the underdogs to win a football game? There is a lot to be said for the placebo effect. In medicine, sports, and in most aspects of life, one's mentality may have just as much affect on an outcome as exercise or medical treatment. If a voodoo charm or procedure causes the person to believe they can overcome, it has worked in a way.
My trip has been going well and I have largely had good fortune, possibly as a result of the giving I did at the Fa's instruction in Ouidah, or perhaps as a result of the spit procedure Marie and I did in Bohicon. Yet when the most devastating thing yet to happen to me on one of my trips occurred, I had to wonder.
In Accra, Ghana, I plugged in my portable hard drive to write this blog entry and post some photos of the stories I have just told. When I opened the drive's main folder, alongside the internet cafe's attendant, I noticed that all but the previous day's pictures were gone.
"Something's wrong, I only see one folder."
"There is only one folder."
"Uh, no, there are 5 other folders that should be in here."
"Oh, we have a very robust anti-virus program. It probably identified them as a virus and deleted them. Sorry."
No quarantine, no questions, no photos. 5 weeks of a once-in-a-lifetime trip, gone.
So while I post pictureless blog entries and research data recovery software, I do have to wonder... would this have still happened if I was wearing the fetish belt that was supposed to protect me on this trip? Was my inability to cope with the voodoo stench somehow related to my computer misfortune? There's just no way to know for sure.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Amanda said...

oh Adam! I'm so sorry about your pictures, I hope that somehow they magically appear when you plug into your next USB port.

March 18, 2008 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger Rex said...

One of the most interesting blog posts I've ever read...It's a shame that your photographs are not recovered, but I got a fascinating experience just reading this.
Thanks for posting.

August 2, 2011 at 7:04 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Rex. I am happy to report that I found some software that enabled me to recover every single one of my photos once I returned home. You can see the photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamcohn/collections/72157610572680797/

August 2, 2011 at 11:19 PM  

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