Rare | Benin

The most powerful of experiences

Following my latest blog on the adventures we had in West Africa, I thought I best dive a little deeper into the powerful history and cultures I experienced on this mind-blowing trip. The first for Journeys by Design, and certainly for me, it opened my eyes to another world, and I am ever so grateful I was a part of it. 

The two most compelling aspects of the trip for me, were the immersion into Voodoo and the history of the slave trade. Learning about both has had a lasting impact on me: I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone, if they get the chance, to visit Ghana, Togo, and Benin for these reasons alone.

the birthplace of voodoo

Our time was mostly spent in Benin, which is regarded as the birthplace of the religion of Vodun (also known as Voodoo), and it was during the 17th century, at the height of the slave trade, that the syncretic religion of Vodun developed in Benin as a way for the enslaved and those under threat of slavery to preserve their cultural identity and spiritual traditions in the face of the oppressive conditions of slavery. Practised in secret, the religion of Vodun was a form of resistance against slavery, with practitioners using spells and charms to protect themselves and their loved ones.

After the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Vodun continued to be practised. However, it faced persecution and marginalisation from European colonial powers and Christian missionaries, who saw it as a threat to their own religious and cultural dominance. In the 20th century, Voodoo underwent a revival as part of a wider movement to reclaim traditional African culture and spirituality. Today, Voodoo is recognised as an official religion in Benin and is practised by millions of people across the country and around the world.

when in togoville

Our introduction to Voodoo, however, took place in Togo. It was in Togo, that I witnessed my first Voodoo market, and it was Togo that I met an extraordinary priestess. The market was filled with fetishes, charms, and anything that local practitioners use for treating all kinds of ailments. It’s a mecca for people who travel from all over the African continent. In fact, Akodessawa Fetish Market is the world’s largest fetish market, and it was here we briefly met a local Voodoo Beninese priest, who blessed us and set us in good stead for the rest of our travels.

Later, we took a boat over to Togoville, a spiritual place rich with Voodoo and Christian practices. I found it fascinating that this outpost was visited by Pope Jean Paul II in 1985. We met a Voodoo priestess, who – after ensuring that we were suitably attired – walked us barefoot through the village, passing several shrines surrounding homes and entrances to places of worship. The experience in the temple – a simple room with a cement floor and pictures of past priestesses on the wall – was truly magical. It was here I began to realise how hospitable and accepting this religion is. Although the heat was intense, it added to the overall impact of the spiritual cleansing that occurred for us all, speaking to the priestess through our local interpreter of any woes or questions we had in life – she made me feel at ease and I left feeling a sense of comfort and calm.

400 years

The trip was largely spent following the coastline, a landscape characterised by enormous palm groves, lagoons, and marshes. For over 400 years, this coast was a major centre for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, where millions of enslaved Africans were sold to Portuguese, Dutch, French and British merchants; and forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean into slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean.

The impact and tensions of the slave trade are still very much seen and felt today, both in the physical remnants of the historical slave ports and coastal forts — the city of Ouidah, in Benin, was one of the most active slave trading ports in all of Africa — and in the cultural and social structures that were shaped by centuries of exploitation and oppression.

However, Benin is taking steps to recognise and confront this painful history, including the creation of museums devoted to telling the story of the victims of the slave trade.

The slave forts have all but been destroyed in Benin and Togo. In Ghana, however, there are still several forts that are still standing. We visited Elmina Castle on the Cape Coast. First built in 1482 as a Portuguese trading settlement, it was one of the principal slave depots in the transatlantic slave trade for more than three centuries. Originally, it was not built for the purpose of holding and trading slaves, but instead as a trading post for gold and other African goods. The name ‘Elmina’ comes from the Portuguese’s name for the local coast: Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro, The Coast of Gold Mines.

Accompanied by a very knowledgeable local guide, we walked around the castle, starting in the dungeons where thousands of unknowing slaves were kept in the worst conditions imaginable awaiting their fate to be sent to the ‘new world’. We were told of stories where many African Americans would visit, paying homage to their ancestors, many utterly overwhelmed by the experience. When Michelle Obama – who has traced her ancestry to Ghana – visited, she is said to have collapsed in the tiny room where the fateful ‘Door of no Return’ still stands.

Experience of a lifetime

None of the above even begins to capture what it’s like to be here. My eyes were opened up to worlds – past and present – I knew only through what I’d learnt at school. Learning about slavery in the places where it took place, and stood in the forts that enabled it, and hearing stories about how it was – physically, culturally, and spiritually – deflected or escaped, and seeing how it continues to shape the world we live in, was an extraordinarily sobering experience, and one that will stay with me.

For more on arranging travel to West Africa, please do get in touch with Hannah. 

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