In the Time of Voodoo and Soy Cheese
Moise, the loan officer at Alide- Dedokpo, and I drove into the neighborhood of Aglas Hlazountas. In the mid-afternoon, the local market was pretty quiet, but we needed to scarf up some Kiva clients to interview, so Moise alerted the leader of the group, the woman selling charcoal. Evidently the word spread fast, because soon the Kiva women were upon us, joined by their entire group. Moise explained that the entire group consisted of 50 women who all shared the collatéral of the loan. Only a few of the 50 women were Kiva. They came ready to see us with baskets of wares on their heads. I asked for the honor of their photo.
Moise explained to the leader of the group that only some of the women were to be interviewed. This caused some panic amongst the clients ; they assumed that the rest would not receive loans. Even though Moise assured them that they would all be receiving loans, some milled around, still upset.
The first woman interviewed appeared a little suspicious of me during the interview, but after her photo, Mouhïnatou Kadiri was ecstatic.
She left to go sell her articles, trumpeting to the market that now she was sure to receive a loan because of the interview. Beninese ladies generally do not smile when photos were taken, but when I asked Chantal Akoutey if we could take a picture together, she got a kick out of it.
As I relaxed during the interviews, I found the women more open with me. One of the other women sold soy cheese. I explained my family at one point had grown soybeans. We finished up the market interviews and went to make house calls for the women who sold out of their houses or stores. Moise and I paid for cooked soy cheese from Madeleine Agbedevi; it was delicious, and very Californian.
By the time we concluded our last interview, late evening was falling in Aglas, and Maurice and I sipped our bissap, hibiscus flavored tea which tastes like cranberry juice, out of icy cold bottles and jumped on his Chinese motorcycle to head back to town.
At the Alide head office the electricity was cut again, and I asked Landry to explain the key concepts of Voodoo to me. I was having trouble making sense of what I had seen at the biggest Voodoo festival in Benin on January 10. Why did the dancing practitioners cut themselves with long knives?
Landry explained that the Voodoo priests, or féticheurs, chose January 10 as a day of prayer, communion with Gods, jubilation, and initiation. Like Catholics, Protestants, and evangelists, Voodooists have different groups such as the Sakpata, Dan, Lissa, Hebiosso, Djaguidi, Zangbeto, Oro, and Egoun. The Zangbeto police catch bad members of the community; The Djaguidi are those that communicate with their god through or cutting themselves. The Oro do not allow women to witness their ceremonies, and the Egoun represent the African dead, brought back to life. According to Landry, originally Voodooists used fetishes to protect themselves against evil. Certain groups also injure their fetishes to cause pain to others. Many Beninese practice voodoo, but it is hard to pin down exact definitions of the religion.
When a group of ex-pats and I headed to the city of Ouidah, the old capital of the Beninois slave trade on the Atlantic Ocean, for the January 10 Voodoo Festival, we were certainly not initiated into the practices of voodoo. We had no idea what to expect. What we saw seemed chaotic and difficult to understand. The dancers were half-naked men and women wearing straw skirts and coated in palm oil and sand, which looked like wet yellow paint. They carried long knives, with which they cut themselves repeatedly, mainly on the legs and arms. Although many of the dancers were young, they had deep scars on their bodies. Blood ran freely as they danced, and sometimes Beninese who were not dancers would become possessed by the spirit and throw themselves into the group of dancers, who would encourage the possessed as they hurled themselves into the sand. As the dancers cut so swiftly their knives became blurs, I grabbed my friend’s wrist, unable to watch, but willing myself to remember that this was a sacred ceremony. Because there was no discernible boundaries, the watchers, a mixture of Beninese and a smattering of tourists, stood around the dancers, but had to run quite frequently as the dancers changed direction and ran towards us. Periodically men who were not clearly affiliated with the dancers would demand money from people taking photos. The dancers never used knives against each other or against the watchers, but as they were possessed it was best to give them some room.
Caroline cut into Landry and my discussion. “The majority of Beninese are Catholic and don’t like voodoo,” she said, “Voodoo has been commoditized to sell Beninese culture to tourists.”
Landry protested that it was still an important part of the culture. There were some tourists at the event, but the vast majority of the people at the ceremony were Beninese.
“Do you want to be initiated into Voodoo?” Landry asked me a little jokingly, who was not initiated. “Voodoo will bring you peace.”
“Don’t listen to him!” called Rosalyne the secretary firmly from the other office.
As my group departed the ceremony, deciding not to stick around to wait for other groups, the Voodoo cortege arrived, men and women dressed in white, the religious leaders of Voodoo in the country.
Next Friday night was Alidé’s annual party. All of Alidé staff was invited. Our emcee joked that he would auction off tickets to Barack Obama’s Inauguration. For the loan officers, head office, and I, it was a night of bonding. Potato salad, spicy fish, fruit salad, and Castel beer mixed with pineapple juice competed for our attention until midnight. Afterwards, there was West African tunes, salsa, and zouk, combined with a few Beatles songs. Alidé staff hardly ever go out and work long hours, but on Friday we danced until six in the morning.
Sarah Lawson is a KF6 Fellow working at ALIDé, a microfinance NGO in Cotonou, Benin./>