Wildlife and vodoo in Benin (March 2014)

 

The Togolese side of the border was a little bit confusing with 10 different instructions where to park and where not to but in the end we were done with the formalities quite quickly. The officials of Benin were extremely efficient and friendly and we were on our way in no time.

Having had plenty of beaches since we arrived in Africa we skipped the visit to Grand Popo and instead headed straight on to Ouidah. After spending a night at a guesthouse on the beach and our rooftop tent being flooded due to a huge thunderstorm and us not closing its zippers properly we went into town for some exploration. Unfortunately the place did not really grab us even though there was quite a large presence of arts and some reminders of the times of slave trading. So we decided to head north towards Abomey which was once seat of the mightiest power in Benin – the Dan-Homey kingdom.

After arrival at the guesthouse Chez Monique which allows camping in their large forested inner yard full of wood carvings we were already approached by Marc, a local guide desperate for some work due to low season. We bargained hard and ended up agreeing on being taken to a voodoo village as well as a fetish market to get some insights into the voodoo religion which is still an essential part of everyday life in Benin. We were being picked up in the morning by motorbike and headed off to the village. Driving on two wheels instead of four was a great change but being three people on one bike was certainly far from comfortable. Marc tried his best to explain the surroundings even though he had some trouble expressing himself to his full potential in English. First stop was at the compound of the local voodoo priest. We learned about different kind of fetishes who contain spiritual power and have to be satisfied by sacrifices – once upon a time of human kind but nowadays the blood of a chicken suffices. Most fetishes had very visible penises, the protective fetish which name we cannot recall even two – one small and one large one. We were welcomed by the priest into a small room full of pottery and wooden fetishes where he performed his daily ritual of appeasing the spirits. Essential to this ceremony was a calabash bowl filled with a rotting goat head, different herbs and palm oil. The look of it was certainly not fuelling our appetite but the priest took some of this mixed substance to smear into his belly button and put in his mouth. Afterwards some other ceremony took place outside where he spilled and spat water over himself and several wooden fetishes, the fetish of thunder was one we recalled with parallelism to the god Thor. Obviously at the end of the visit there was some stuff for sale which we refused but the explanations of Marc turned out to be quite detailed and interesting.

Our second stop was the fetish market of Abomey. Fetish markets can be found throughout the country and contain hundreds of herbs, feathers, skins and parts or whole dead animals for sale. If you for example have some issues with your little Willy’s potency you head first to the voodoo priest and tell him about the problem. He then provides you with a shopping list of ingredients to buy on the fetish market. For potency problems you will need 41 different herbs as well as (much more difficult to obtain) the penises of 41 different kinds of animals. These have to be boiled together with palm oil into a creamy substance which you than have to massage thoroughly into your Willy. Et Voila! For the next 41 days you will not need Viagra anymore!

The market in Abomey was boasting a wide variety on offer from monkey skulls, dog heads and cat skins over baby pythons, all different kinds of birds and horns to living owls and chameleons. Fabian could not resist buying a wooden voodoo penis which he was carrying around sticking halfway out of his pocket until Marc became a bit too nervous.

Last stop with Marc was the town centre and a long wanted shoemaker. Since we put foot on African soil we were searching for indestructible flip flops made out of tires but could never actually find any. In Abomey our Odyssey came to an end and the funny shoemaker fabricated perfectly fitting examples for both of us in less than an hour. Fabian even got some hearts carved in the heels of his pair!

To make the day complete we visited one of the remaining Dan-Homey palaces including a well maintained museum. The kingdom was very influential, controlled large parts of modern time Benin and was known for its cruelty. Slave raids were the daily business, human sacrifices also common and the female “amazon” warriors widely feared for their skill in battle. Especially the beautifully carved and plated thrones of the Dan-Homey kings caught our eyes, one of them sitting on four human skulls of defeated enemies.

As we wanted to avoid crossing into Nigeria at Lagos due to insane traffic and generally more hassle we headed north again. The roads were mostly good bitumen but never before had we seen so many so extremely overloaded vehicles. Mini vans with triple their normal height where only the tires and a small part of the windscreen was still visible were a common sight as well as trucks that almost touched the ground with their frame due to the extra weight. So far our wildlife viewing experiences were very limited so we were strongly looking forward to the Pendjari National Park in the far north of the country.

A very interesting detour en route was the drive on a track back towards the Togolese border where the Tatas-Somba live. This tribe is still building their mud houses in the shape of a fortress roughly 500m apart from the next housing. This architectural extravagance helped the Tatas-Somba to hold out in their homes when slave raiders roamed the countryside. Of course we wanted to get a closer look at one of these fortresses and decided to walk to one tucked away a couple of hundred meters off the road. At arrival we were stunned by the pristine setting with a large and well maintained fortress, a protective voodoo fetish in front of it and a bare breasted woman with three naked children sweeping the dirt. Unfortunately the children immediately started crying heavily when spotting us which left the impression that white visitors there were more than rare. None of the people around spoke a word of French either and after a long discussion under a mango tree it was decided that we were not allowed to have a look around the place.

So we tried our luck one more time a bit down the road and after donating a small gift could explore this fortress and its surroundings extensively. Especially the layout of the interior and the roof where the tiny sleeping huts and grain storages are located impressed us. The Tatas-Somba themselves seem to stick much to their traditions, one of them the fine facial scaring even very young tribe members were showing.

Three days were spent by us in the Pendjari National Park where we saw a wide variety of wildlife. Going on many game drives in the beginning we soon found out that because of the peak of the dry season the animals always stayed close to the waterholes as well as the Pendjari River. Unfortunately we had no luck seeing any lions which are supposedly quite numerous in the park especially for West African standards. During the duration of our stay we could observe hippos, buffalos, elephants, kobs, waterbucks, sitatungas, roan antelopes, hartebeests, warthogs, crocodiles, baboons, patas monkeys, marabou storks and snakes as well as a many different bird species. The latter we failed to determine after Jasmine forgot our beloved bird book at one of the water holes which never turned up again. There was one designated camping area in the park but as the facilities there were identical to the ones at any waterhole we preferred to camp there instead to the sound of grunting hippos. All in all the days in the Pendjari National Park were an absolute highlight of our trip so far.

And then it was time to head towards Nigeria, the nightmare of many overlanders. As we heard that fuel would be cheap but not readily available we fuelled up before Nikki and put up camp in the bush close to the border. After sunset we spotted two rows of torches coming our way from different directions. Once closer to our camp we saw that we were approached by about 20 men armed with hunting rifles and one of them was even carrying self-made bow and arrows. As it turned out they were living in nearby villages and wanted to find out if we posed a threat. After reassuring them of our peaceful mission and handing out some water we were left in peace and enjoyed our last night in Benin.

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