Adding a bit of magic to the mix

2009-10-09 14:15

COTONOU, Benin. I arrived here knowing two fast facts: the city has a permanent smoggy haze and the roads are ruled by thousands of hooting, screeching, mopeds called Zemi Johns. This must be a local nickname for death traps ­because that’s exactly what they are. Benin was never on my radar the way Mali was. Yet, the decision to be here made Benin a pressing ­issue.

If there’s one thing that says heart of darkness about Africa, then it is voodoo. I am dangerously attracted to this darkness. I daydream about attending ceremonies and the yearly voodoo festival. I want to learn traditional dances starting with the voodoo dance – maybe even get the layered garb, a colourful towering hat and cowrie- shells bling.

I want to dance my chubby body to voodoo’s primal beats; feel every beat on that drum reverberate throughout my body, touching my heart and soul ­into dancing for the gods – coming face to face with myself.

I ­believe this act will bring me closer to my primal self. I like to think of our ­attitude to voodoo as the mirror of what we feel and think about our continent.

But I am only speaking for myself when I ask questions like what is so dark and sinister about the way we are when we are being exactly who we are, as voodoo does with its claim to fame as the most complex of all animist beliefs? What is so fearful about an identity that ties one to their people’s ­beliefs instead of religions that were forced on us?

And so what if there’s magic in the mix? I mean, faith in all religions is an abracadabra act anyway.

So I waited my turn while trying to dig into voodoo culture. Olga, a brilliant Bazin artist, tells me about how voodoo sees absolutely no separation between the physical and the spiritual world.

One Friday night in a Bamako courtyard, she sat quite pensive, her tools of trade in front of her: a large table, a huge rectangular white cloth, cans, paints and brushes. She had spent the day fasting and meditating.

Tonight was the start of a voodoo celebration for those who follow it in Togo, Benin and some parts of Ghana and she wanted to put the festival on her ­canvas. A voice said: dig deeper and you will be ­rewarded.

I’ve been on a mission to turn Africa into my neighbourhood; perceptions are not to be dismissed but never mind them because the reality is wonderful and magical.

That wonder is calling me to ­Quidah, a town at the centre of the voodoo culture in Benin. An exit town for slaves heading to the Americas, Quidah is where a rare event in African history took place – our religion also left to live on in Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti.

It’s a gem as rare as the glorious fact of the supreme God, Mawu, ­being considered female

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