Tag Archives: Work

A Visit To The Sacred Forest

When Adam and I learned where we would be living in Benin (near Porto Novo), we were handed a packet of information with a map of our commune (kind of like a county), job descriptions and a consultant’s report about the population, environment and economy. It’s rare to come by such comprehensive, professionally prepared information about your Peace Corps hometown, so I devoured this report as quickly as my French comprehension allowed. Being who I am, I started by studying the map and then I dove into the section on geology.

The area we live in is wrinkled into a series of broad, shallow valleys and wide, low ridges. The river valleys are laced with slow-flowing rivers with interwoven channels and stretches of wetland. I read through the details about ferruginous and hydromorphic soils, clay and peat deposits, and then came to a little bulleted text saying that our river valleys are home to 49 sacred forest islands, protected because they harbor the notorious Vodoun spirit named Oro.

I already heard a lot about Oro because he’s quite threatening and mysterious: he and his followers come out at night and perform secret ceremonies meant to chase away evil spirits. Before Benin was colonized, Oro functioned as society’s police force. Thieves, murderers and other bad people had to pay for their actions even though there wasn’t a judicial system like there is now. Only initiated men are allowed to see Oro. Women must stay out of sight, on pain of death. Fortunately, Oro is only active for a few weeks in August or September (depending on where you live), and word of his schedule is spread in advance (if only a few hours). Also, his entourage makes quite a racket, so he’s avoidable.

There are a couple other types of Vodoun spirits who are often out and about around here, viewable to all: Zangbeto and Egun (or Egungun). Zangbeto looks like a haystack and Egun looks like a person. In both cases, the spirits seem a lot like a person wearing a costume, but any identifiable features are covered up. However, followers claim that they have called forth spirits to inhabit the costumes, and that there are no people underneath. It’s not abnormal to come across small buildings that house these spirits. In the case of Zangbeto, the haystack often sits clearly visible through barred windows or doors. I can only speculate about Oro, but I’m guessing his outfits are stored on the sacred islands and that he’s a person dressed up for ceremonies.

A spirit’s house that we passed on our walk.

A spirit’s house that we passed on our walk.

Despite the intrigue surrounding Oro, I was most interested in the ecological value of his forest islands. In my Peace Corps training manuals, I had read that sacred lands like this serve the secondary purposes of protecting ecosystems and their functions. For instance, the forests and wetlands along a river valley might be reserved for ceremonial uses, with the result that they are left intact to filter water and provide feeding and nesting habitat for wildlife. In this way, the community maintains a reliable source of clean drinking water, wood (logging is permitted in some forests) and plant materials, although these aren’t the primary objectives of preserving the forest. Sacred lands can also conserve biodiversity because they are places where many types of plants are cultivated for medicinal and religious uses.

I knew that I wouldn’t be setting foot in Oro’s forests, but I tried to learn a bit more by asking around. Unfortunately, I didn’t get too far. Most people either don’t know, or don’t really find the topic of religious forests very interesting, because they’re so common and embedded into life here. Although Vodoun is a strong presence in our area, traditional practices have eroded as more people have adopted Christianity and modern medicine and have gained access to better education. However, a few weeks ago, Adam and I went with a local non-profit organization on a neighborhood walk to see an area that the organization is hoping to develop for eco-tourism. I had asked the non-profit’s leader about sacred forests before, and he mentioned to me that we would pass by one during this walk.

That day, we headed out from the mayor’s office, past the youth center and through the grounds of an elementary school. There, not even half an hour into our walk, and no more than fifty feet past the school, my guide turns to me, points, and says, “There it is. The sacred forest.”

There it was, right behind the elementary school, on a patch of land not much bigger than the city lot containing my childhood home. Not quite the vast expanse of dense woods I had imagined. I noticed a wall of vegetation enclosing a line of large, evenly spaced trees of different species. My guide laughed and wagged his finger at me. “Don’t ever go in there,” he said. “Oro is in there. Do you know what happens if a woman sees Oro?!” He laughed and walked on. Hilarious.

The sacred forest.

The sacred forest.

I stared skeptically at the forest. It seemed so average. There it was, right on the edge of town, where anybody could find it. Here in our town in Benin, a patch of forest to house an idol is on par with the storefront churches I passed by all the time in Harlem, or the local synagogue down the street from my childhood home. The believers revere it, and the nonbelievers pass by without thinking about it. I wondered how often little kids dared to sneak in and peek at Oro.

A few hundred yards further down the road, we came to an enormous tree whose buttressed roots sheltered this guy. This particular tree species is very uncommon in southern Benin, but this one is protected by its religious association.

3_Statue by tree4_Statue by treeAnd pretty soon after, we looped down to the waterfront where we photographed this ominous display.

5_Doll head by riverNobody batted an eyelash as we crowded around to take photographs, nor did anyone really explain the items. (“It’s religious. This is an important spot on the water.”) We rested a bit, did some shots of palm liquor (it was 10 in the morning, but that’s hospitality), and continued on. Soon we arrived at a collection of ceremonial statuary.

The statue building.

The statue building.

7_Statue close-up 19_Statue close-up 3 8_Statue close-up 2During our walk—from the unremarkable sacred land, to the unremarked-upon sacred strangeness—I had been struggling to sort it all out in my mind. Truth be told, Vodoun is just as ho-hum as any other religion. Shrines, fetishes and statues are everywhere. I can buy ceremonial goods at my local market for less than a few dollars. The other week, Adam and I bought an altar for communicating with our ancestors. We knew it was a ritual object, but we weren’t sure what sort, and we thought it would make a good souvenir to put in our garden. We haggled over its price just as we would for a pile of tomatoes (end result: $2.25). Then we carried it around the market for an hour and the only reaction we got was a vendor who demanded to know why we hadn’t bought one from her stall.

A sacred forest obviously has a rightful place in the middle of town, and it can still have ecological significance if it’s located there. The danger is that if the religious uses lose status, then the land can be appropriated for some other use. If that happens, the secondary functions are easily lost because no one is thinking about them. And on top of that, a walk through town becomes far less interesting.


The Big Rainy Season

Neighbors in Rain

We are in the thick of southern Benin’s Big Rainy Season: approximately mid April through mid July. (There is also a Little Rainy Season in the south: about mid September to mid November.) It rains several times a week, not everyday. Most days, however, are overcast and gray which equates to gloriously cooler temperatures. The rain comes in bursts – at times light and gentle, other times heavy and violent. Significant rains cause plans to change. Open-air businesses close. Meetings are canceled. In this picture our neighbors wait for the end of a heavy rain and for the flooding in our yard to subside. In addition to the cooler weather there is one other major upside to the rain: fewer trips to the well. The buckets in front of their house sit under the eaves to catch the rain.

Peace Corps Benin: Community Economic Development

PC Benin CED

With only about four months left in our Peace Corps service, our cohort gathered to discuss wrapping up and next steps. Peace Corps Benin is divided into four project areas: Rural Health, Environmental Action, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and Community Economic Development. Here is our group of CED volunteers at the recent meeting.

Making Gari

A sack and a bowl of pressed manioc, being sifted through screen to make gari.

A sack and a bowl of pressed manioc, being sifted through screen to make gari.

I had another manioc adventure a few weeks ago, when I had the opportunity to participate as a cooperative I work with made gari, which is dried, powdered manioc. It’s one of my favorite Beninese foods.

The first step is to have the manioc mashed, which the group paid to have done elsewhere, so I didn’t see that step. We started with large sacks packed full of the smashed manioc, which we broke up into chunks and then sifted through screens.

The woody cores and other remainders on a spare screen. These were fed to the chickens and goats. The sifted manioc is flaky and light.

After sifting the fine powder went over the fire into a big metal pan, where it was toasted until thoroughly dry.

After sifting the fine powder went over the fire into a big metal pan, where it was toasted until thoroughly dry.

The last step was to put the toasted powder on plastic in the sun. I couldn’t quite figure out what this step accomplished… maybe it was just cooling off?

This is the area where we worked, which is a large courtyard within the cooperative president’s family compound. Most of the day, nobody was willing to be photographed (hence the headless photos), but I was allowed to take this non-close-up shot.

For eating, gari is sprinkled on beans or rice and mixed in with the sauce. Sometimes it is moistened with a little palm oil first, which makes it extra tasty. Yum!

Profile: Adonisse Couton

Adonisse Couton

Name Adonisse Couton
Age 27
Occupation Unemployed Social Worker
Lives With: Mother, age 57; father, age 62
When I think of America, I think: I don’t know much about the US. I’ve never worked with an American or had an American friend so I don’t know much about the country.
Americans should know about Benin: I can’t explain all of Benin. There is a lot here and I invite all Americans to come and visit. I hope that the relationship between Benin and the US continues to strengthen.
Languages spoken: French, Goun, Fon
Education: Graduated from university.


Profile: Yves Mindin

Yves Mindin

Name Yves Mindin
Age 59
Occupation Jewelry artist and decorator; Factory worker
Lives With: Lives by himself.
When I think of America, I think: America is the country of intelligence. It is a country with financial security. A country of inventions.
Americans should know about Benin: Benin is a country of intelligence, too. We are strivers. We don’t have oil, gold or other natural resources. But we work hard to have a good life. You have to be very intelligent to make that happen with so few natural resources.
Languages spoken: French, English, Goun, Fon, Yoruba
Education: Through 12th grade; no diploma.


Profile: Ida Gbovi

Ida Gbovi

Name Ida Gbovi
Age 27
Occupation Factory worker
Lives With: Husband and three daughters: age 6, age 4, age 6 months.
When I think of America, I think: America is a good country. Americans are very intelligent.
Americans should know about Benin: We work hard here. We work a lot. To make a life here, to find something to eat, we work hard.
Languages spoken: French, Goun, Fon, Yoruba
Education: Through 11th grade.