Flirting with gods in Benin’s sacred forest

2009-12-12 13:25

ONCE upon a time there

lived King Kpasse in the Dahomey kingdom, in Africa, who founded modern day

Benin’s coastal city Quidah in the 16th century.

King Kpasse loved Quidah so much that he did not die. The

­venerable king “just disappeared”, said Remi, the bilingual guide, in an even

tone.

The country is probably the world’s epicentre of voodoo and its

mysticism, so not believing in the legends would have created an ­unnecessary

divide between myself and my Beninois companions.

So I gasped at Remi’s words, wagging my invisible tail in

excitement and wondered at making it to the sacred forest. I was there to see

King Kpasse as the giant iroko tree his people say he turned into since

vanishing into the air.

The Sacred Forest of Kpasse is in a residential area. It is more

like a park than a forest and lives up to being sacred – complete with statues

of voodoo gods and sacrifices mixed with wild and enchanting tales. The official

entrance is flanked by leopard statues, the emblem of the royal house of Kpasse,

symbolising power.

“And you know kings and power!” said Remi with resignation.

The first statue is of Legba, the guardian of towns, homes,

villages and such. Legba sits on a traditional stool with his hand on his knees.

He stands out for having a penis nearly as long as the horns on his head. “The

penis is a symbol of fertility,” said Remi as I snapped the god and his very big

symbol.

Next to Legba is the god of thunder, Heviosso in Fon or Shango in

Yoruba. There are nine statues of gods and a few other representations like the

ghost Zangbeto, the night watchman, who looks like a vase turned upside down,

with a small cowrie shell-encrusted head.

After viewing a few gods, Remi led us along a small path flanked by

gods among trees that ends with the “entrance for the king”. People are not

­allowed past it. “It’s the sacred part of the forest,” said Remi.

Along the same small path is the symbol of the tree that fell down

in the storm of 1988. The tree declared its sacredness by blinding the two men

who came to chop it down.

We got to the iroko of irokos – King Kpasse. Tall, grey and

handsome, with a thick trunk, the king stands between the broken chambers his

brother built for him after he moved into the forest. “The best part about the

tree is that you can make a wish on it,” Remi declared.

I kissed the trunk, hoping a mild flirtation would move the king to

help me stick to my diet, get a wonderful lover, a well-paying job and obedient

children.

We continued to the last section of the shrine, boasting three more

gods, an impression of a hunter and a voodoo doll. The doll is a thin

panel-beaten tin man with pins all over him.

The doll was originally used to punish disobedience. “Of course

people soon took to using it for revenge. Hence the fear and association with

wickedness,” said Remi.

Tour done, I got a motor scooter back to the hotel. The main route

has a forest vibe with lush landscapes and statues of more gods and royal

totems, including a ­statue of a weapon-wielding female warrior representing

Dahomey’s female soldiers, famously declaring: “Let the men stay at home with

the children. We will be on the battlefield.”

PS I am now 15kg lighter than I was when I kissed the king.

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