Most forests in our area have been cut down to make room for agriculture but small pockets have been preserved because of their religious importance. One such ‘sacred forest’ is just a fifteen minute walk from our house though we didn’t know this until recently when a local friend brought us and told us the history of the area. This is the largest tree in this patch of forest and, according to people in our town, the largest and oldest tree in southeastern Benin.
|Lives with:||Father, age 59; mother, age 42; sister, age 33; brother, age 17; father’s second wife, age 40; half sister, age 22; half brothers, age 25, 19, 12|
|When I think of America, I think:||The US is a world power that uses its diplomatic force to help Benin and the rest of the world.|
|Americans should know about Benin:||Our lifestyle in Benin is traditional. Families have solidarity. If someone in the family has a problem, that is the concern of the whole family.|
|Languages spoken:||French, Goun, Torri|
|Education:||Graduated from university.|
Every once in a while Adam and I bump into a costumed character like this who is out and about. Usually we don’t take photos because it seems intrusive, but this time we were told—without asking—that we could pay for some photos, so we did. This type of costume is called an egoun. When we encountered this guy he was sitting at the bar giving out blessings (for a fee). A crowd of people holding twigs surrounded him and followed him around, and anyone who came too close was pushed away by a bodyguard who carried a fake rifle made of cement (and took pictures with his cell phone).
When these characters are out and about, they are not believed to be people in costumes, but channeled spirits. Egouns are fairly common around here, as are zangbetos, which look like haystacks.
January 10th is Vodun Festival here in Benin, and Adam and I were lucky to catch an exhibition of photos by Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou in Porto Novo in honor of the holiday. Check out his work if you’re interested in seeing more about the Vodun religion. Here is a link to an article about the artist.
Statues are another common sight where we live. They are sometimes sheltered by a roof and sometimes surrounded with trees. This statue sits at the entrance to a farm I work at, and I am always interested to see if there’s fresh evidence of a ceremony: melted wax, traces of pigment, bottles of liquor or palm oil, clay jars and ashes.
The statues often incorporate real animal horns and teeth.
Some of the statues emphasize certain anatomical features.
Christianity and Vodun are the two predominant religions in our region (L’Ouémé). The most common denomination is probably Celestial Christianity, which combines aspects of both. Vodun is highly individualized and localized and people are pretty private about the details, so it’s hard to get much firsthand information. In short, practioners believe in several gods which are linked with the natural elements, and priests or priestesses associated with each of the gods can perform ceremonies to request help or give thanks. Shrines, offerings and charms are everywhere around here. Simple altars like this are the most common, usually located along the roadside near the entryway to a concession. (This picture also shows how dusty all the roadside vegetation got during the rainy season. Our area gets morning dew, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as some parts of the country where there is literally no moisture for months. But it’s still pretty striking!)
This shrine is made of cement, painted, and roofed with corrugated metal, making it the most permanent and substantial structure I’ve seen so far. The fabric-covered mound smelled strongly of palm oil, which has a pretty pungent odor. The building visible in the background is a church.