Spirits, juju, whips and what-not

2009-10-23 12:14

TELLING a taxi driver to put fire on his speed is not how you deal with a seething voodoo spirit and the angry mob accompanying it.

This I realise when the mob comes at me with whips cracking the air in anticipation of my body. Judging from their roars, I think it’s a good thing the driver ignored me.

A whip cracks too close for comfort. I raise my hands and look at the man closest to me.

Begging to be heard, I fix my eyes on him, adding that they please wait until after I have explained myself then whip if that’s what my transgression calls for.

I am surrounded. Someone says let’s hear some cracking and wailing.

My saviour raises his hands to say let her talk. He gets that I am a stranger and a victim of misguided zeal. He asks if I took the picture.

It’s a good thing that I can lie to save my life while moving my thumb to delete a picture without looking at the camera so that nobody, let alone the provoked spirit, notices my handiwork!

The masked spirit yanks the camera out of my hand. An inspection declares me innocent. My hero says get out, now.

Another classic moment in my life, when people accept some of my mischief and mishaps as a one-woman show and laugh along with me. But try telling that to the gods! Mind you, I know better than to take pictures without asking. I know much better than messing with the spirits. But my goodness!

I heard bells and drums and shrieking kids and knew luck was about to bless me. Then along came three masked spirits, chasing after the kids, stomping and dancing. Their entourage was completed by the would-be mob and musicians.

It was a moment out of the West African literature that I got hooked on when I was 14. I still have some sense of exotic wonder about the region so I could not resist a moment like the morning when I messed with the spirits. It was just so exotic: me at a tailor’s haggling over the price of a dress I was getting made.

The next thing I knew I was whizzing to my hotel, where I ran up five floors at lightning speed, got back on the bike and chased a postcard moment straight out of my first wild imaginations of West Africa juju, ­sacred forests, tribal dances, markets and what have you.

Experience is about wondrous moments, such as a light rain forcing a group of women to hold their weekly gathering at hotel La Lutta. They were waiting for the last person to arrive and passed time singing and dancing. And of course it was in a circle where each would have a turn to carry on where the last gyrating hips left off.

Their chant? Until your legs break baby! And isn’t that the call of music here from south and central to west, east and north?

I think it’s funny. Along with other shared habits that make me think well, I guess that would make us African then. Consider the deep fondness for fat cakes. Or that there is no tearing people away from mayonnaise. Not to mention a down-town shop playing music loud enough to move the heavens.

Taxi drivers flirt with death at every turn and construction men never stop hitting on a passing woman. And that there is always the giant-sized beer of the masses.

There is also always a fetish market. Though the ones here are larger and better stocked than the one I visited in Joburg.

Benin is turning out to be among the most traditional of the very traditional countries I have been to.

There are as many mosques as there are fetishes and effigies in places like Quidah and Abomey. You can tell locals are proud of ­Benin being the cradle of voodoo.


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