The West African country of Benin is seen as the country in which the Vodun religion originated. This religion is more widely known as voodoo, but not the type of ‘voodoo’ which involves witchcraft or black magic that is often negatively portrayed in the media. Today, the religion is practised by a large percentage of the Beninese population and some of its practices have even been adopted by the country’s Muslim and Christian populations. The religion is also practised outside of Africa as it spread to North America and Caribbean countries with the movement of slaves between these two areas.
Every year on 10th January, Benin has a public holiday to celebrate the history and customs of the Vodun religion. The biggest and most noteworthy celebrations take place in the city of Ouidah. Its location on the Atlantic coast means that the city also has historical significance. The city was the largest exporter of slaves during the slave trade and its beaches were often the last place slaves saw in Africa before being taken to America. These slaves are also remembered amongst the festivities.
The celebrations take the form of huge, colourful processions throughout the city. They begin at the Temple of Pythons and are started by the feticheur (chief priest). As animal sacrifice is common in the Vodun religion, there is normally a sacrifice of a goat. After this, the processions start and they are filled with lively singing and dancing. Another popular custom is drinking alcohol, especially gin. The processions take the route that slaves would have taken down to the beaches which look out onto the Atlantic Ocean.
Many groups of people who are believers of Vodun travel to take part in the celebrations. The festival also attracts many tourists each year, who are met with a feast for the senses. They can expect to see traditional drums and masks as well as people dressed as clan spirits. One of the most unique sights are the zangbetos. These are men whose outfits look like large, colourful haystacks.
Another important part of the festival is fetishes. These are small statues or dried animal or human parts that are sold in markets and are said to have spiritual powers. Each spirit has different abilities – some are able to control nature whilst others belong to certain clans and tribes.
The festival also tours several other countries including Togo, Ghana and Nigeria, where the religion is also practised. In this way, the Ouidah Vodun Festival is a vibrant event that unites many different people through the celebration of the past.