Transferring to Panama

The trouble with working on a fixed term contract is that there comes a time when you have to move on.  My five-year contract in Senegal was extended to a sixth year, and then to a seventh, but seven is the maximum allowed and I am already several months into my seventh year, so when a suitable post was advertised in Panama (the same job that I do here but covering our Latin America region) I really had little choice but to apply.

I was successful, and within the next couple of months (I don't yet have a transfer date), I will be leaving my beloved West Africa.

Of course my new region will be full of delights.  New landscapes, new birds, new cultures, new music...  Many things that I should be so excited about.  & I guess that, in time, I will be excited about them.  But now all I can think about is how much I will miss Africa.  How much I love Africa.  How challenging and frustrating it can be, and how long it took me to find my place here but how happy I am now that I have found it.

Don't post comments about any of the delights of my new region or of the advantages of living in Panama, because I know all that, and at the moment it makes no difference.  That isn't to say you should be sad for me...  I am busy trying to see the last few corners of this region that remain unexplored (the Benin voodoo festival, and next month the Bissau carnival), to make the most of the little time that remains and to celebrate and be thankful for the wonderful years I have spent here.  I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to explore a region of the world that so few people know.

Ouidah voodoo festival

Every year on 10 January, Benin celebrates its national religion with a festival in the coastal town of Ouidah (a place also known for its slave-trading history).  I've never managed to schedule a work-related trip to Benin in January, so I bit the bullet this year and bought my own flights so as to visit this festival.

I've long wanted to experience a real voodoo ceremony, having read about the way people can supposedly become 'possessed' by spirits, but this is really a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time.  A colleague has an aunt who carries out similar ceremonies here in Senegal, and I've pushed for an invitation, but the aunt says it would be too dangerous for me - that evil spirits might come up through the ground and enter my body, which would be a terrifying experience for me and could leave me permanently damaged - and so she will not allow me to attend one of her ceremonies.  Needless to say, I don't believe in evil spirits, so have no fear of any such ceremony going wrong in that way, but this isn't really an argument you can use here.

So the voodoo festival in Ouidah would have to do as second best.  & I feel I should be careful here in any case not to give the wrong impression of voodoo - the Hollywood impression of a set of dark and perhaps evil practices - as the religion is not based around trances and animal sacrifices, those play only a small part related to major problems or events in people's lives.  The day-to-day practice of voodoo is far more mundane.

I found no information about this festival on the internet other than the date, and even on a trip to Benin in December no-one could give me any information, so I turned up not really knowing what to expect - even whether I would find the festival!  I arrived in Ouidah late the evening before, found myself a hotel room, and asked the hotel manager what was going to happen.  There will be a big procession to the beach, he told me, and after the official ceremony, there would be "voodoo here, voodoo there, voodoo everywhere!", waving his hands about excitedly.  Voodoo is indeed everywhere in Ouidah (and in much of Benin and parts of neighbouring Togo), as it is the national religion.  You see little shrines next to houses, often sticky with the residue of earlier sacrifices (usually of beer or grain porridges, rather than animals), and various buildings with voodoo symbols painted on them (a rainbow, or a snake, for example).  But I didn't fly all this way, for a two-day visit, to see a fetish or a painted building.

On the day of the festival I followed my hunch - a sound of singing and clapping which I traced to its origin in the local chief's house.  In return for a $10 payment for a 'photo permit' I was allowed in, and watched the chief and his entourage prepare, then we left in a big chaotic procession towards the python temple, with all the chief's family and guests dressed in their ceremonial finery. 
Ouidah apparently means, in the local language, 'town of pythons' and the python is the most important local deity, so sacrifices had to be made there before the festival could start.  Two goats and two chickens were the victims, presumably fed to the pythons later.

Then we made our way the 4km to the beach (the chiefs in their 4x4s, me on the back of a motorbike taxi) for the festival.  This was a strange event, formal in some ways (the US Ambassador was there, and Benin TV were broadcasting it live), but as well as the speeches and displays of drumming and dancing from the main stage of the big square, there were more animal sacrifices performed away from the stage, and various private dances with frenetic drumming in corners (including those in the first photo above) - mostly far more interesting, and with a far more authentic feel, than that put on for the Ambassador and the TV.

Walking back into town after the formalities were over I passed another troupe of dancers heading towards the beach area - looking at the photos afterwards I had to ask myself why I hadn't followed them.  Bare breasts, grass skirts, ointment smeared over their bodies and the prospect of some wild dancing - I have to admit that as much as I want Africa to develop (clean water and education for all, but also further into the 21st century), it is this traditional, even 'primitive' side of the continent that really draws me in.

Revisiting this post to add a further comment, as my lack of articulacy in the last paragraph was bothering me.  What I was trying to reflect was the conflict I so often face between the sensational and the mundane, in terms of representing Africa in my blog.  Of course I am more attracted by exploring (and writing about) the sensational side, but at the same time I don't want to give the wrong impression of the continent.  Bare-breasted women in grass skirts dancing around blood-smeared fetishes to the beat of frenetic drumming is something I want to see and write about, and is a valid image of a part of Africa, but it no more represents the wider African continent (nor even the voodoo religion) than a burnt-out car on a Belfast street represents the wider UK.  & I thought it was important to come back and make this clear, because so much of what one reads about Africa relies on stereotypical images of the place as primitive, poor, corrupt, disease-ridden, etc - and whilst those images do represent a part of the truth, it is only a small part, and I don't want to contribute to an overall negative view of this continent that I love so much.

Christmas in Extremadura

It was hard to know where to go for Christmas.  I had to take some leave or lose it, and I knew that if I stayed in Dakar I would end up "popping into the office to see if there are any urgent emails" (= spending my leave at work) so I had to go somewhere.  Flights from/within Africa are generally expensive, and I had already taken holidays in all of Senegal's neighbouring countries - then I saw a trip advertised to Extremadura, in the west of Spain.  Birdwatching, but with a company who don't take it too seriously - that is, they (and their typical clientele) are happy to stop to look at views/ruins/butterflies and not keen to spend three hours trying to coax a little brown bird out of a bush, unless it is an extremely rare little brown bird.

So I flew to Madrid with a case full of jumpers and thermals, and joined a group of Brits on a birdwatching trip.  I won't list the 100-odd bird species we saw, but they included cranes, storks, bustards, owls
and a wonderful view of the extremely rare Spanish imperial eagle.  Only a few hundred of these birds are left, and one sat on a rock in full view for a good half-hour, before flying off slowly (for those not into birds, the photo is a little owl, not a Spanish imperial eagle...).

When the others returned to Madrid for their flights home I stayed on for a few days.  Extremadura has a number of old hill towns full of well-preserved old monuments, so after a quick visit to Trujillo I made my way to Cรกceres.  Here the extensive 'monument district' on the top of the hill, within an old city wall (including one remaining Roman gate), is full of grand, powerful-looking palaces, next to narrow, winding streets and alleyways.  There is also an old Arab underground cistern, and an interesting museum.  I ws particularly impressed by some ornate bronze bedsteads dating from the 7th-8th centuries BC.

Of course it was cold, with a damp, cold mist most mornings.  Stopping off in the bars for the odd glass of red wine and free plate of tapas kept me going but I was relieved to get home to the warmth and light of Africa.  Nothing beats stepping onto the balcony in a Tshirt to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks!