Magic is central to West African society. Every phenomenon, event or process is explained and enhanced by magic. This is a deeply animistic society where the traditional monotheistic religions play second fiddle to ancient animist beliefs.
The Kabye blacksmiths, outstanding craftsmen famous throughout the region for forging metal with a 15 pound stone rather than a hammer are also traditional healers, able to treat wounds caused by fire or metal with a mixture of herbs and incantations.
The Bassar, who mine iron ore and transform it in their earth smelters, use magic charms and spells to do their work.
We hear of the Night Plane at Kara airport in Togo’s second largest city, which takes off at night, unseen, though its engines can be heard. It travels the world invisibly, carrying witches to their congresses.
We visit a colony of reformed witches. Banished from their villages for having caused harm or death to some people, they live in a “safe house” under the supervision of powerful fetish priests.
It is difficult for a rationalist to fully accept the role attributed to magic in Africa. The Fire Ceremony we attend, late one night, in a remote village in Benin seriously shakes our skepticism though. We see men from the Tem tribe rub burning torches against their bodies and their faces, munch on red hot embers like crisps – feeling no apparent pain and bearing no wounds on their bodies. The old man leading the ceremony moves with almost demonic energy, shrieking in a blood curdling voice and staring at us with mad eyes. He covers himself in flames two feet away from us, then cuts himself with sharp pieces of glass – to no apparent effect.
Magic, apart from its role in bringing order and understanding to their lives is also a filter through which people here are able to see the world in a more interesting, colourful manner. It is a script written over an otherwise harsh, mundane life.
Travelling through the Somba country feels like a journey through a fairy tale book. The Tata Sombas which dot the countryside are tiny fortresses built by the Somba tribe, complete with high walls, little turrets and entrances which look like faces. Inside, small rooms with round openings and a network of tunnels make the tatas look like Hobbit holes.
The tatas’ original purpose was defensive at a time of war and slave raids. They are built on two levels. The ground level is where the Sombas keep their animals as well as old folk on the threshold of death (that dark area has a cosmological association with the afterlife). The second level is a terrace used for gatherings and to dry grains, surrounded by small turrets, some of which are used as rooms and others as granaries.
Every tata is protected by gris gris and a fetish. When a new tata needs to be built to accommodate a growing family, the future owner shoots an arrow towards the sky and builds the tata on the spot where the arrow has fallen.
Taneka could have been Michael Moorcock’s Tanelorn. A village founded hundreds of years ago by people fleeing inter-tribal wars in northern Benin and meant to be a safe haven for all peoples. Founded by the Kabye people who were able to defeat a large enemy force with the help of a spirit army, Taneka soon became known throughout the region as a place to find safe harbour in troubled times. The Kabye were soon joined by three other tribes who all lived in harmony in Taneka.
Today the village is divided into four districts, one for each tribe, each governed by a secular king. Priests are the spiritual leaders of Taneka and hold the real power. The people of Taneka believe that the spirits of the Dead influence every aspect of their lives and are more powerful even than the spirits of nature. In the words of one priest we speak to, “the Dead are with us all the time, they eat with us, they walk with us, they sleep with us”.
Built on a hill, Taneka seems devoid of life when we visit. A bit like the village where Sen’s parents get turned into pigs in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. There are houses, shrines everywhere, the smell of food cooking – but no living soul to be seen.
We eventually notice a couple of young children flickering in and out of view like will-o-wisps. And then a few old folk. There is not an able bodied person in sight.
Today, hundreds of years after its founding, Taneka has become a sort of living shrine where its people, now scattered all around the country, come back to attend special rituals and to consult the priests and healers. It is more spirit village than living village.
The last stop of the Ebony Train is in Dassa, an ancient city built on 41 hills, each owned by a princely family. The kingship of Dassa rotates among the 41 princely families.
We meet with Hippolyte Zomahoun, the great grandson of King Adjiki of Dassa. Adjiki, in 1900, sheltered the last king of Dahomey, Behanzin, from the French who were pursuing him after his defeat.
The French tried to torture Adjiki into surrendering Behanzin by tying him to a fire, but the flames would not harm him. As he walked off the burning pyre, unscathed, Adjiki reportedly said “the flames do not burn for the wrong reasons”, translated into “zomahoun” in the local dialect. This gave the family the surname Zomahoun which they have borne since then.
An interesting anecdote about Adjiki is the story of his wooden horse. He owned four horses who died in short succession. Tired of mortal horses, he told his friend, a Portuguese trader that he needed an immortal horse. The crafty trader had a beautiful wooden horse on wheels made for him in Portugal. Zomahoun was then able to be wheeled around on his wooden horse, dragged by servants.
Abomey was the capital of the ancient Dahomey empire which constantly waged war – both to grow its territory and to capture war prisoners to sell as slaves to the European powers. Dahomey was one of Africa’s most powerful and sophisticated empires covering most of modern Benin and France’s main obstacle to consolidating their control over West Africa.
Abomey is also the centre of the Egun cult, in which the Dead are summoned back to this world through ritual dances performed by “masks”. The Egun initiates, whose identity is kept secret, wear elaborate costumes and masks, through which they become possessed by dead spirits who communicate with the living through them.
For onlookers, contact with a mask during an Egun dance means certain death, unless elaborate rituals are immediately performed to save the affected person. During a dance ceremony which we attend, two people are touched by masks and immediately collapse in a coma. I myself narrowly escape contact with a mask when my minder pulls me back in extremis. The whole experience becomes slightly unsettling with the masks working themselves into a frenzy and actively chasing onlookers.
The Ebony Train is a restored 1922 colonial-era train. A small diesel engine pulling two teak wood carriages chugging along a rusty old track. Over a two day journey we travel inland, getting deeper and deeper into voodoo country. As we pass small villages, children come out waving and giggling and run after the train. Matrons carrying their heavy loads alongside the track stop and stare in fascination.
Away from the coast, life unfolds at an unhurried pace, in small villages, under the auspices of hundreds of voodoo fetishes, much as it did a hundred years ago.
We have picked an awkward time of the year to experience the Harmattan. A moisture sucking wind from the Sahara desert which blows in December across West Africa and brings with it fine particles of sand which form a yellowish veil in the sky, removing all the colour from the world and leaving it looking pale and sickly.
Ganvie, a fishing village of 25,000 is built entirely on stilts on Lake Nokwe. It is a self-contained place with its own shops, schools, hospital and places of worship. Ganvie has an interesting founding myth. In the early 19th century, King Gezo of Dahomey, an expansionist kingdom, waged war on many of the surrounding communities on his quest to build an empire. The vanquished would be sold as slaves to the European powers on the coast. Realizing that Gezo had his sights on them, the inhabitants of a small kingdom decided to flee to avoid defeat and captivity at the hands of Gezo’s army.
They reached the shores of Lake Nokwe and there, their powerful fetishist (voodoo priest) turned into a crocodile and carried the villagers on his back to an island in the middle of the lake. Gezo’s army, protected by charms and gris gris which could not come into contact with water had to abandon their pursuit of the villagers. The descendants of those villagers still live around the island today, in houses built on stilts.
Benin feels a bit like Togo on steroids. More developed, more expensive, more French (the hypermarket in Cotonou stocks all the French brands we miss: Carte d’Or, Lu, Yoplait!). And also, more animist. The roads feel like a time warp, reminiscent of French roads in the 1970’s – full of Peugeot 404’s and 504’s.
Ouidah, an ancient coastal town, was a major centre for the slave trade in the 18th century . It is currently the self-proclaimed voodoo capital of the world.
The Portuguese Fort, built in 1710, held the slaves captured in the interior of the continent before they were sold and sent to the Americas. Francisco “Chacha” da Souza, the most prominent Portuguese slave trader at the time held a quasi monopoly on the trade. Intriguingly, his descendents still live in Ouidah, in a large compound which overlooks the old slave market.
Ouidah is also the centre of worship for the Python Voodoo. Many of its inhabitants scarify their faces with ten incisions to mimic the face of a python. Every 10th of January is a global celebration of the Python Voodoo, with adepts coming from all over the world to worship. Interestingly, the Python Temple is just across from the Catholic Church, with many people worshipping in both venues.