I’ve recently returned from a truncated adventure in West Africa, initially spurred by my curiosity about the world voodoo festival held each year in Ouidah, Benin. The strange festivities consist of dazed adherents in crude costumes drumming and chanting and sacrificing and scaring. And every January 10th it takes place in a very poignant spot: It’s the very beach where nearly a million slaves ritually circled a sacred tree, ensuring that their spirits would remain behind in Africa, and then left the continent, ultimately headed for Brazil or Haiti or Louisiana. They took their voodoo beliefs with them, which now thrive wherever they ended up.
I’ve often traveled in roug h, uncomfortable circumstances. But of the 107 other countries I’ve visited so far, Benin was the most challenging. More difficult than:
• Trekking treacherous trails in Sikkim’s Himalayas, between Nepal and Bhutan.
• Hitchhiking from Nairobi through Zimbabwe and Zambia to Cape Town (four times).
• Medevac’ing myself out of the Papua-New Guinean Highlands following a mass attack of infectious fleas.
• Baking beneath baboons while waiting for any ride to anywhere on an empty rutted dirt road north of Malindi, Kenya, bound for Lamu Island.
• Unknowingly overnighting in a dangerous prostitute motel in El Salvador (alone), and semi-securing myself by stacking furniture against my door as a blockade (just like in the movies).
• Participating in a Coptic bachelor party in Egypt, where the celebrants seized me and urged me to slather the nearly naked groom with henna sauce.
• And others I’d love to tell you about some other time.
Webster’s synonyms for “benign” include “favorable,” “wholesome,” “harmless,” and “inoffensive.” Not one of them describes my week in Benin; it was anything but benign. It was especially hard on me.
It wasn’t difficult, physically; there wasn’t much exertion. No grueling high-altitude hikes or cross-desert bicycle rides. And, I’ve endured plenty of stifling tropical hellholes (Belize City and Port Moresby come to mind) in past adventures.
But, emotionally, Benin drained me. I came home a few days early because I just couldn’t take it any longer, and I was depressed for a week afterward.
I’m certainly not a voodoo guy. I didn’t go to Benin for the voodoo itself. What fascinates me is the variety of belief systems people subscribe to, and the fervency with which they believe that theirs is the best (and usually the sole “right”) way to think.
I’m passionately curious and want to know how people whose cultures are waaaay different from a typical Westerner’s live their lives. (Would your mom slash your babyface, leaving a lifelong gash, because she was certain that inflicting the pain on you would help all her future children live disease-free? If she were a voodoo believer, she would.)
I didn’t go to Benin to see “tourist attractions” or natural wonders. There aren’t any museums or monuments or mountains or wild animals that are really travel-guide worthy.
Yes, I experienced the voodoo (or “Vodun,” or “vodou,” as it’s written locally) festival and had my eyes opened about the omnipotence of belief systems.
Yes, I saw the memorial to the many thousands of Brazil-bound slaves who died from mistreatment even before boarding their temporary owners’ ships.
And yes, I saw the festering, murky, polluted waters of Lac Ahémé with the carved-canoe fishermen scooping meager minnows in their nets to sell them at the market for fifteen cents.
I didn’t go there for the natural beauty of the place. It’s your basic coastal flat, dusty, seriously trashed, smog-bound tropical shanty and subsistence sprawl with a patchwork of sparsely scattered mini-farms.
Despite all this, I did find beauty in Benin ... but a different kind of beauty.
I found inspiringly resilient people who deal with a desolate dearth of comfort and security, yet still enjoy life. A family of dirt poor Africans took me in to live with them for a week in their dirt-floor compound, surrounded by chickens and babies and orphan children and more dirt. And despite having so very little to give, they gave me so very much.
The experience starkly and uncomfortably reminded me that more than half of the people on our planet endure life on less than $1.00 a day. And there was nothing beautiful about that reality.
As I type now, I’m looking at a pink plastic used-and-re-used disposable spoon of the type that might come packaged with yoghurt at your supermarket. But mine’s not shiny or new. My spoon is highly symbolic. At my departure ceremony when leaving the family, one of the children (and I don’t know if he was one of the other strays they’d taken in, or a blood-relative grandchild) wanted to show his love to the strange big playful visiting foreign alien white man. The only thing he had to give me was this flimsy, dirty, should-have-been-disposed-of-long-ago utensil. Reaching out with both hands, as if he were presenting me with a jewel on a satin pillow, he bestowed the spoon upon me and smiled. It was his spoonful of love.
I’m surprised at how much I wanted to write about my short dunk in the pool of half the human population’s real life. It was especially impactful because I returned from that hopeless week of African poverty to my beautiful, smart, loving wife and our spacious art nouveau Belle Epoque apartment looking out at the Bentleys and Ferraris passing by Monte Carlo’s Casino with billionaires’ yachts docked beyond. I feel guilty about being so fortunate as to not have been born an orphan in a Beninese dirt-floor compound where my most valuable possession was a used plastic spoon.
I’ve written a lot about my one week in Benin, and offer it to you, split into chapter-like chunks that are not continuous or contiguous. There is some chronology, and mostly I like to capture whatever momentarily catches my attention. (For example, the masterful sales guy selling mysterious medicine aboard my swaying and sweltering bus from an unworthy UNESCO World Heritage site to Cotonou, Benin’s capital. Or, the teamwork and dynamics of the yam mashers pounding in unison just before my celebratory feast. Or “Bicycle Mama,” (below) my African host family’s matron, who was always pedaling in motion and who felt fortunate that her deceased husband’s other wife hadn’t cursed her to death with a voodoo spell.)
This entry that you’re reading here is just a taste of the full report. Please click the “Download Complete Benin Report” to read the detailed narrative formatted with photos. I’ll treat each chapter/chunk as a standalone story in a smorgasbord, so take another helping whenever you wish, or skip it after just a little taste. You may already have had enough. Read further only if you want to know what reality’s like for a typical West African family. Or, if you just enjoy experiencing my bizarre adventures virtually, while remaining in First World comfort, my aim is to entertain.
The complete PDF document includes these sections:
Before Beginning Benin: Leaving One World For Another
The Vanishing Benefactress Seatmate
Good Morning, Cotonou, Benin!
The Anglophone French Lesbian Voodoo Phase
En Route To The Voodoo Festival: Why No Beninese Say, “Fill ‘Er Up”
My Most Fortunate Meeting
That First Voodoo Lesson
A Typical Morning In A Beninese Family Compound
The Formal Family Feast
Simmering Sacrificial Goats And Silly Sproingy Santa Hats
The Mad, Rare, And Valued Native Speaker
Benin Bus Ride: In a Puddle of Pandemonium
It’s Hard To Believe What People … Including Us … Believe
Each of these sections is included in the complete PDF for you to download. I invite you to join me in this bizarre adventure and hope you’ll agree with my conclusion: “You don’t have to love a place to love having been there.”