Mexican pigs

I have just received the third Alert Notice of the day from various parts of my NGO, giving me advice about swine flu. I so want to reply to our head office in the UK, to point out to them that the vast majority of our employees live, work and travel in a different world from them.

Apparently if I develop flu-like symptoms I am supposed to go to my doctor. Well I have news for them. Living where I do I would always visit the doctor if I developed such symptoms, because of the likelihood that it would be malaria - a disease that kills thousands on a daily basis, unlike swine flu which has so far killed less than 100 people.

There. Got that out of my system.

Southern Benin

Whilst the north has its national parks and the Betammaribe and Peul cultures, the south has the remnants of colonialism, old kingdoms and slavery, villages built on stilts around a lagoon, and the voodoo culture.

The old capital of the former Dan-Homey kingdom, Abomey is a great place to start. Early in the seventeenth century, Gangnihessou established this kingdom. A succession of kings followed, each one building a new palace, until they were finally defeated by the French at the end of nineteenth century. Two of these palaces still remain intact, and vestiges of the others (decaying bits of old mud walls) can be found around town. Those that remain now have UNESCO World Heritage site status and have been turned into a museum, with several quite interesting exhibits such as one of the old king’s thrones (an elaborate wooden stool resting on four human skulls) and the outfit that used to be worn by the Amazones (an elite troop of female warriors).

Also in the region are a large number of subterranean dwellings (excavated by the local people as a way of hiding from intruders and then re-emerging behind enemy lines), the private palaces of the former kings (mostly in the course of being restored, with the help of various NGOs), and lots of evidence of the voodoo religion.

One village near Abomey is populated by the descendants of those who used to carry out all the voodoo ceremonies for the kings, including those before important events such as going into battle. I visited a priest at his home.

By the front gate were two fetishes, both connected with the spirit Legba – the most powerful of the spirits, and always depicted with a big erect penis as apparently virility is the most important power in the protection of homes and communities. Legba can somehow tell if a visitor is coming with bad intentions, and will signal this to the inhabitants.

Inside were many more fetishes, each representing some different spirit. All have to be nourished on a daily basis (with a small offering of maize meal, for example), but if special favours are asked then rather greater offerings are required in return. In the past this could even extend to human sacrifices, but a decision was made some sixty years ago to substitute humans with bulls. Apparently the human victims were obtained from the ranks of prisoners of war, but as there is now peace within Benin there are no longer any prisoners of war available. More common is the sacrifice of chickens. Usually only the blood and certain innards go to the fetish though, the rest of the animal being eaten by those involved in the ceremony. I forgot to ask what used to happen to the bodies of the human sacrifices.

I watched as the priest did his rounds of the fetishes, sprinkling water on each first to ‘wake them up’ (in keeping with the traditional offering of water to a newly arrived guest) and then mumbling incantations at them as he swung a calabash instrument around (partly filled with something so as to make a sound – rather like maracas). He did various other strange things too, at one point holding a horn on his head whilst chanting. I was not only allowed to watch but even to take photos – provided (i) that I showed respect (eg taking off my shoes before visiting the shrine of the earth spirit, where your feet should be in contact with the earth), and (ii) that I promised to send prints of the photos back to the priest.

Voodoo seems to have a pretty poor reputation in the West, I suppose in part because of the human sacrifices, but at least in the Benin context it seems pretty harmless, and to me makes no more or less sense than any other religion. The guide who facilitated my visit told me he was a Catholic, but that of course he still took part in the voodoo ceremonies as it was local culture. I asked how he reconciled the two, and his answer was that it was all the same god, whether the all-powerful Catholic god or one of his manifestations as one of the voodoo spirits. It reminded me of a holiday in Mexico many years ago when I visited a Catholic church in Chiapas where chicken sacrifices are actually done inside the church, somehow having been incorporated into Catholicism by the local people.

I guess this chicken standing next to Legba has not yet had the local culture explained to it.

I suppose in this ‘tour guide’ to southern Benin I should also mention the official capital of Porto Novo, a crumbling little town with some nice museums. Have I managed to persuade you to visit Benin yet? It is an amazing country, one of my favourites in the region.

Northern Benin

When I think of wildlife it isn’t usually West Africa that comes to mind. However as these pictures show, there are interesting pockets of wildlife remaining in this region.

They were taken in the Parc de Pendjari, a large reserve in the far north of Benin. In just one night’s stay (a late evening visit to a waterhole and a rather more leisurely drive the next morning) I saw hippos, crocodiles, buffaloes, elephants, a lion, baboons, two species of monkey and lots of different species of antelope and gazelle. Not to mention a fair few birds including the beautiful scarlet and turquoise coloured carmine bee-eater.

The journey there took me through the Atacora mountains, a region inhabited by the Betammaribe people. They are known for their unique style of house – a kind of mud fortress, inside which they can keep their animals, their grains and themselves, hiding themselves in there away from the world in times of danger. This style was apparently developed during the time of slave raids from the neighbouring Dahomey people. I visited one (paying a small fee for the privilege) – very cosy although how they stand doing their cooking on a wood fire inside the house I don’t know, the smoke made my eyes smart and I had to escape that room quickly. It partly explains the high number of children in the region who suffer respiratory illnesses.

Until the 1970s these people lived a very traditional lifestyle, with little contact with the outside world. Then they got a blast of publicity in France, by someone who thought they had discovered the ‘real unspoilt Africa’, one result of which was that the authorities pressured them to at least put some clothes on … it seems that they felt some shame at the fact that there were near naked tribesmen living in the country. I can’t see why, personally, as many of these people are living a lifestyle which is far more in tune with their environment than the western lifestyles they are now expected to emulate.

I wonder if they will in time also pressure the people to stop applying the tribal markings that are so prevalent in this country. Outside of the capital, nearly everyone you meet has some kind of scarification on their face, which identifies their tribal origins. I also saw some interesting tattoos. In the north the women from the Peul tribe have lots of little tattoos all over their faces (as well as some fairly distinctive jewellery), and later in the central region I saw an old lady with various lines and dots tattooed over her chest, stomach and back – apparently something to do with her status within the voodoo religion.