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.