Benin: the pop idol and the voodoo forest

John Matshikiza
14 May 2003

African diva Angelique Kidjo, Benin’s highest-profile export, has built herself a gaudy mansion right on the side of the main road that runs between the capital, Cotonou, and the western town of Ouidah.

Angelique Kidjo
Angelique Kidjo

Most of the time Kidjo lives in Paris, where she makes a good living as a performing and recording artist. But every African, however far flung they might be in the wide diaspora, dreams of being able to return home at least some of the time. And Kidjo’s success has enabled her not just to pop in for the occasional visit to the family homestead, but to build a homestead of her own, one that is guaranteed to be in full view of the public eye. “I went, but I came back, and I came back as a success,” the dazzlingly black-and-white tiled villa calls out to the passing traffic – even though the lady of the house is more often out than in.

The physical and psychological space you carve out for yourself is of critical importance in this twenty-first century African environment. One might well ask oneself why Kidjo did not rather build herself a discrete retreat on a plantation deep in the lush forest, where she could take a break from the relentless public gaze that is her life as a pop star.

One answer is possibly that the public gaze becomes an end in itself after a while, a drug which the user can no longer live without. Another, the more convincing to me, is that you have to define who you are and where you stand in the competitive space that is post-traumatic Africa. Kidjo’s villa stands mid-way between two contrasting versions of the modern African profile.

Africa, land of consumers

Cotonou, the capital city, is intense chaos. It is a flat city, an endless string of bungalows stretching out along the sandy coast and some distance inland, roaring day and night with the insistent sound of traffic – particularly the moped cycles that are the main mode of transport for the majority of the population. Africa is on the move. There is business to be done – any kind of business. Money is in short supply.

The moped is a relatively cheap way to get around under these circumstances – although “cheap” is always relative. These machines are imported from Japan, and they all run on cheap fuel that has not been refined in Benin, but is also an import. Together the machines and the cheap fuel pump a blue haze of pollution into the air – another heavy cost in the quest for an affordable way of living.

The African conundrum stares you endlessly in the face. Everything of any value is imported, and at a price that is defined in some far off country that has no sympathy for Africa’s particular circumstances. Not even the bicycles are manufactured here – bicycles that are the only resort for the poorest in the community, those who cannot even afford to hitch a lift on one of those weaving mopeds that serve as taxis to the majority of the people. Africa, the poorest continent on the planet, is a land of consumers, not producers. How could it be otherwise, considering its history?

The road to Ouidah

On the other end of the highway that flies past Angelique Kidjo’s new house lies the town of Ouidah. Ouidah is where you would want to retire to live the quiet, reflective life. Nothing much happens here. And yet it is charged with layers of history and rival forms of spirituality that can keep you busy exploring and wondering for years.

Ouidah is one of the centres of the voodoo religion. But what is voodoo? (Back in South Africa a white colleague had shaken his head in disapproval when I had spoken of the moving experience of visiting a voodoo shrine. “Aren’t they into cannibalism and all that sort of thing?” he asked. Which just goes to show.) Voodoo is simply one of many indigenous religions European missionaries found active in Africa when they began to penetrate it. Like all religions it has its mysteries, which can only be interpreted by its most skilled priests. And like other religions, it has millions of adherents worldwide.

In the sacred voodoo forest

I was taken into the sacred voodoo forest on the outskirts of Ouidah, not knowing what to expect. Who says Africans have no sense of ecological preservation? Stepping into this carefully walled-off space of several acres is like walking into the Garden of Eden – a more intensely verdant space within the already deep vibrancy of the tropical forest. After the noise of the street, you are surrounded by the silence of a voodoo cathedral, whose roof is made up of the interlocking branches of tall trees reaching up to the sky, and whose lush, green floor is covered in fruits that have dropped from the trees above.

Every few yards a tall sculpture looms up above you, each one representing a deity whose role has to be explained to you by an initiate. The sculptures are the height of modern/primitive art, some constructed out of wood, others out of discarded bits of metal welded together with considerable avant garde artistry, most of them brightly painted. They represent fertility, war, stability, wealth, disease – all the concerns of modern life.

A short man with a clean-shaven head, bare foot, wearing only a tightly buttoned woman’s raincoat several sizes too small for him over his worn black trousers, appears silently out of nowhere. There is a brief negotiation about how much money should change hands before he will give us a guided tour of the place, and explain some of its mysteries – not dissimilar to popping a contribution into the collection box at the Notre Dame in Paris or the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, for example. This man is the guardian of the voodoo forest.

After explaining the main points of interest in the forest, he takes us to what could be considered the equivalent of the “altar”. This is the tallest tree in the forest, an ancient iroko covered in white bark, reaching up through the surrounding foliage almost out of sight. This is the spirit of Behanzin, a nineteenth-century king who turned himself into a tree rather than be captured and killed or exiled by the Portuguese, who were relentlessly encroaching on his territory with their own version of the ultimate religion, hand-in-glove with commercial intentions that would result in the export of millions of African slaves from the surrounding region, and the ultimate domination of the African space.

If your intentions are sincere, you can touch the iroko tree and talk to Behanzin. And if he feels sympathetic to you and your demands, your prayers will be answered. All Behanzin asks in return is that if he does respond to your request, you should return and make a sacrifice at the foot of the tree. If not, his wrath will be insatiable. I agree to this pact with the tree god and leave the voodoo forest. The request I have made is a secret that only he and I share.

Da Silva’s children

front cover to 'The Viceroy of Ouidah'

The streets of Ouidah almost creak with slave history. The most famous slave trader in the area was a Brazilian called da Silva. His house is still standing, a fine, two-storey villa in the centre of town, with surrounding streets named after him or his heirs. The remnants of his family still live there – immortalised in Bruce Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah.

Da Silva’s tale throws you off balance. How can we continue to regard the slave trade as a purely racial and racist affair if some of its most robust perpetrators had no problem about marrying into the race they were enslaving, and producing a strong race of offspring who would blend seamlessly into the surrounding population within a matter of two or three generations, upper class Africans who would never conceive of returning to Brazil or Portugal? And da Silva was not the only one.

Round the corner from da Silva’s house stands the temple of the serpents, another sacred space of the voodoo religion. It is as it always was – an open air enclosure in which stand two or three thatched huts. One of these is for private consultations with a high priest. The furthest hut, at the back of the enclosure, has a curved entrance, but no door. It is filled with hundreds of pythons – not huge ones, to be sure, but pythons nonetheless. They are completely tame. Or so the guide assured me. He urged me to put a couple of them round my neck, just to see, but I declined. Nevertheless, here I was standing in a hut surrounded by hundreds of writhing serpents – the nightmare that you never expect to wake up from. But in the end I was simply able to walk out of the door, unmolested.

The guardian of the voodoo forest had assured me that voodoo was a tolerant religion. He had gone so far as to confide in the fact that he would even attend the Catholic mass from time to time, just to show that there were no hard feelings, and that everyone had the right to worship in the way that suited them best. As I came out of the temple of the serpents, I saw what he was talking about. Directly across the road stood the solid, stolid, red brick Catholic cathedral — the great houses of the two religions staring courteously at each other.

the Cathedral faces the snake temple, in Ouidah

It is easy to make quick assumptions about the seeming contradictions of modern Africa. In the daily lives of its citizens, the contradictions are most often not visible at all. There is simply life.

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