I was standing on acid hot white sand, so blinding that every few seconds you had to look into the shade to avoid feeling like you eyes would cave in on themselves. A small country found sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria, Benin sits some 115,000 square kilometers in length along the West Africa coastline. It’s the 10th of January, the day of the National Voodoo Festival, and the towns of Ouidah and Grand Popo are about to explode with the energy of an ancient religion deeply entwined with the History of Benin.
Some twenty million people were transported in slave ships from Benin, under inhuman and brutal conditions. For those who survived the voyage they were stripped of their language, culture, heritage and sense of community. However they managed to keep one part of their past, adapting it to survive in their new lives; their religion, Voodoo. The enslaved Africans transplanted the practices of Voodoo in the Caribbean, Brazil and certain Creole communities in the United States. Practiced in secret, it was punishable by imprisonment or death. Despite this, Voodoo thrived long into the 21 century and today many people of African descent make pilgrimages to Benin in an attempt to reconcile their past and their present.
Once a year Benin celebrates the Festival of Vodun, centered on the town of Ouidah. For a 4km stretch of road visitors, locals and an array of different clans gather to celebrate the religion of Vodun, and to follow the route where millions of individuals during the centuries were branded and sold into slavery, boarded onto ships from the beach and transported across the Atlantic. In Benin, Voodoo is practiced by some 60% of Benin’s 7.4 million residents. In the 1970’s Mathieu Kerekou, the ruling leader, banned the practice of Voodoo. During his re-election the Beninese refused to recognize his authority until he lifted the ban and in 1997 Voodoo become a recognized religion. Today the word Voodoo conjures up images of dolls riddle with needles, skulls, zombies and sacrifices, the stuff of nightmares. However this ghoulish reputation, thanks mostly to Hollywood movies, is a far cry from modern day Voodoo practices.
It is here, facing out to sea, where The Slave Arch was built after Benin’s independence in 1960. This is a site that reaches into a dark place in you, like an instantaneous time machine whipping you involuntarily to a people and a place that not everyone would find easy to face head on.
The crowds of the festival just form a mental and verbal barrier between a visitor and history. But when they die down, when the noise and the fanfare dissipates all you are left with is mortar, sand and shore and this feeling that creeps up your spine that something happened here, on this soil, and it reaches back from thousands of years, demanding to be heard. Slavery of this kind waned around the 1800’s but when you put your feet into the soil, looking out to sea and imagining the slaves moving forward, chained onto ships where a few would live on into a world and a life that would alter the future history of continents.
It’s not a remarkably ostentatious monument; there are no barriers, fences or annoying little ticket booths with fussy people with plastic wristbands. It’s not a comfortable space to be in, but I think that’s the point. If it had all the bells and whistles that other historical sites have then I think some of this power would slowly die off, one ugly pamphlet at a time. So many travellers want to go to the big and the beautiful, the great wonders. They want to bathe in art lore in the Sistine chapel or trek though the Amazon swinging in hammocks and the worlds most power water system flows beneath them.
So why when we are faced with the dark parts of our human history do we sometimes just feel a brief flitter, and than start snapping away like it never shifted us at all, proof that we ticked another travel box? Do I want to go to a place filled with so much tumultuous and desperate pain?
I think we should not be afraid of what people call the dark historical sites of this world. They have a sobering lightness about them, and if you actually choose to not just scoot through the site, if you decided to take time to examine it, to let it show you what it needs to, you will be the better off for it. On the 10th of January the Beninese make peace with a turbulent past; celebrating the survival of their people and religion into a future they are very hopeful about. It is as unique and engaging event, a rare chance to be part of a way of life that is found nowhere else on earth, even if it just for a day.
Words: Linda Markovina