Benin voodooists ready to welcome pope
Ouidah - The old man in a worn tunic stands in the voodoo temple across from the Roman Catholic basilica that will welcome the pope this week and caresses the python draped over his shoulder.
"We are ready to receive the pope," he had said a few minutes earlier before haltingly walking with the help of a cane into the Temple of Pythons, a centre of voodoo in a city considered its heartland.
Pope Benedict XVI makes his second visit to Africa as pontiff when he arrives in Benin on Friday, and he will meet a situation where Catholic and traditional beliefs exist side-by-side and often mix.
It is particularly the case in Ouidah, a city heavy with symbolism which had been a major West African slave port and where missionaries arrived 150 years ago.
Benedict will visit the basilica on Saturday and formally sign an apostolic exhortation entitled "The Pledge for Africa".
He will also meet traditional religious leaders, including voodoo chiefs, in Benin's commercial capital Cotonou during the three-day trip.
For many Benin residents, there is nothing unusual about mixing Catholic and traditional beliefs, though tensions can occasionally arise. It is believed that most of Benin's nine million citizens are animists of some kind.
The Temple of Pythons is situated outdoors, though it is hidden behind walls, with a sacred jar used to "purify" the city, plants and trees throughout and a stack of iron representing the god Ogou.
And, of course, pythons. It houses some 30 snakes between 1m and a 1.5m in length, and they hold particular significance, with the python god Dangbe worshipped in the region.
The deities recognised in voodoo - also spelled vodun - would seem to conflict with Christian beliefs, but many in Benin see it differently.
"There are not two Gods," said Agbotabatoh Dah Deh, the old man with the python who helps take care of the voodoo temple.
"The God who is here is also over there," he said, referring to the basilica.
Examples of those who mix their beliefs are not difficult to find.
Magloire Fadjikpe, a former army chief warrant officer, throws water or oil on his fetish representing Ogou - the god of iron - each time he has to drive somewhere. He says Ogou protects him from danger.
But Fadjikpe also says his Catholic prayers each morning and night, while attending mass on Sundays.
"We have mixed up" voodoo and Catholicism, he said.
"We worship the same God. The priests always tell us that we cannot do both at the same time. They forget that we had worshipped voodoo before the missionaries arrived."
Not everyone is convinced, however. Severin Adantonon, an official with a Catholic group in Ouidah, says those who dabble in both Catholicism and voodoo must definitively choose Jesus.
"But leaving that environment behind is difficult," he said, adding that most people were raised according to traditional beliefs. "It means saying no to their parents."
Adantonon's group, which falls under the so-called charismatic movement, organises "deliverance prayers" to rid sinners of their voodoo beliefs. He admits that voodoo practitioners sometimes object to his group's efforts.
"There is no lack of hostility," said Adantonon. "We are told that the Catholic faith is an imported religion."
Roger Gbegnonvi, a prominent member of a civil society group in Benin, says that the religions manage to co-exist peacefully in the city.
He has no link to voodoo - and that makes him unusual in Ouidah, he said.
"Me who was already Catholic in my mother's womb," said Gbegnonvi. "For 99% of the residents, I seem a bit bizarre."