OUIDAH’S VODUN FESTIVAL, MORE THAN A NATIONAL DAY
Voodoo as a religion is practiced by a majority of the 10 million Beninese, it became an official religion in addition to Christianity and Islam since a government decree in 1992. So once a year, devotees from the country and beyond come to be blessed by the Vodun chief, presently Daagbo Hounon Mètogbokandji II, the 11th on the throne. Through the whole month of January, different sacrifices and rituals to honour the divinities and the ancestors are carried out in the small town of Ouidah, since 1992, January the 10th, has been set aside as the Beninese Vodun National Day when all the worshipers head to the beach for the voodoo festival and the official ceremonies.
During the celebrations, tourists also come from all over the world to participate in the festival usually by sharing a glass of gin with the locals and taking pictures in exchange for a variable financial contribution. Unleashing the spirits has never been a free enterprise… It’s becoming a kind of St. James’s Path for a few of them, not just something to just Instagram, Tweet or post about. I’ve seen several Vodun disciples from abroad who come to Ouidah at the same period every year to celebrate and worship the Vodun spirits. There was the Italian woman who told me better than any local, the whole story of the Vodun celebrations in Ouidah, from 1992 and before, as she’s been attending over the past 30 years.
For most Beninese, Vodun is more than a festival; it’s a way of life. If you have the chance to travel to Ouidah, the spiritual capital of voodoo, the first thing that would hit you is the duality of two most practiced religions, Christianity and Vodun. In fact, the pre-eminent church in Ouidah faces the voodoo temple. Voodoo, I am informed, is a religion that encourages dialogue between people about other religions, as well as life and death. This may also be the reason why Benin is one of the few countries, perhaps the only one in Africa where the transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1990 was successful without a civil war or social violence or suspicious death of the dictator.
From an artistic view, the Vodun festival is a conversation between the past and the present, and how tradition meets with modernity/globalization. It’s through this way that the traditional garments go together with the made in China accessories (hair, jewelry, clothing) and the British gin used during many sacrifices. There is also a strong sense of a return to antediluvian traditions of performance art in Africa with the rituals clearly designed to engage the public and tailored to suit the spaces that host the festival. Furthermore, my conversation with a photographer who has been documenting the festival for the past four years by capturing how voodoo has crossed Benin’s borders with the worshipers from Brazil, for instance, led to the observation that the festival in essence, is emblematic of the impact of a condensation of cultures – a global village where performance sits and is received with a clash of cultures and identities.
As Hounon Rodrigue, the Vodun chief’s son explained to me: “If the Vodun had their own Vatican, it would be here in Ouidah at the royal palace Houhwé, and my father, Daagboo Hounon Mètogbokandji II, would be the pope.”
Janine Gaëlle is a graduate of Culture and International Relations from Lyon 3 University in France. She also holds a Master Degree in Political Science from Paris 2 Panthéon Assas University. She’s one of the founders of Florence Magazine (Italy) and collaborates regularly with other online magazines in Italy.
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