Benin: spirited away

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.

on the way to Taneka, we stop at a Fulani village – Muslim pastoralists with reputed magical powers
Taneka, where the spirits are

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.

greeting the king of Sachikawa, one of Taneka’s four districts
Where the real power is. Fetish priest with pipe used to communicate with the spirits