During our time in Benin, we visited Ouidah. Ouidah is also spelled Whydah, Ajuda, and several other ways.
Ouidah was a key port on the Slave Coast, shipping a thousand Africans a month into slavery year after year for at least two and a half centuries. Ouidah is also the spiritual center of Voudon, West African voodoo.
Spiritually, Ouidah may be the darkest place that I have ever been. The things that we saw during our trip affected Cate and I deeply. I have struggled with how to convey this situation in a way that is accurate and spiritually faithful. In the end, I decided to simply describe what we experienced.
Ouidah is only about forty kilometers from where we were staying, in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. Open Street Maps and Google Maps both show it as an easy drive down the coastal highway, an important road linking Benin with its neighbor, Togo. We quickly discovered that this is an aspirational mapping. The coastal highway is currently under construction to change it from a two-lane dirt road to a real four-lane concrete highway.
Fortunately, it turns out that they created a thirty-kilometer detour at the start of the construction project. Line two or three bulldozers abreast, and it’s not hard to push a dirt road through raw rain forest. OTOH, that road rapidly degenerates over the course of a year or two of jungle rain.
Let’s just say it was an “interesting” drive that took far longer than anticipated. (Incredibly, E actually fell asleep in his car-seat on the way back, as his dad bounced off of the ceiling and doors with every lurch into a new pothole.)
Ouidah is this really weird mix of horrible history, horrible religion, and horrible tourist trap. We knew that we had arrived when we reached a roundabout featuring columns with entwined pythons. The first place we saw was the Sacred Forest of Kpasse. We got the rated G (well, visually rated R or X) tour, following a group of school children. The central feature is a truly gigantic old tree which is the center of Voudon worship. (More on trees of power below…) Surrounding it are statues/idols of major Ouidah deities/ancestors/kings (the difference isn’t always clear). Some are quite sexually explicit.
The most noteworthy for us was the statue/deity devoted to syncretism, the blending of different religions. It swung a traditional Catholic incense burner but the other end was the Voudon symbol. The guide said it represented that it was ok to worship in the church in the morning, and the forest in the evening. Voudon seems to have a lackadaisical view of syncretism, and has no issue with mingling elements of Christianity and animism together. We perceived this syncretism over and over again throughout Ouidah.
We were offered the option of making a donation and then laying our hands on a smaller sacred tree and making a prayer/wish. We declined, but it was clear that many come here on a regular basis to entreat the spirits.
One of the biggest cultural/religious disconnects for us were the idols/statues scattered all over Ouidah. Round a corner and suddenly you are casually confronted by one. Some of them are essentially historical markers for the slave trade, while others are explicitly idols of Voudon religion. Most are a blend of both, and all have stories to tell. A paid guide was required, and he only told the stories of the ones on the slave route, but there were dozens that we saw and didn’t hear about.
The next stop was an ancient Portuguese fort which is now a museum. Columns of slaves from the interior arriving in Ouidah were first stored in its courtyards before moving into the formal “factory” (yes, that’s the word that was used, long before it assumed its modern English meaning) system. The fort is the start of the slave trail leading three kilometers to the coast.
The slave trade lasted a long time. Ouidah was a major port for about two and a half centuries, and the relative power positions of colonial overlords changed several times. Just out of musket range of the Portuguese fort were French, English, and Dutch forts for the same purposes when they were ascendant. Notably, all European forts were within easy reach of the local king’s palace, making him easy to replace if he didn’t follow their wishes.
Next, we went to the town square. Directly facing each other are a Christian basilica (church) and the main Python temple. This symbolic location isn’t accidental and isn’t hostile, at least on the part of the python priests. Syncretistically, they’re fine with their worshipers attending mass on Sunday, and Voudon ceremonies at night.
From there, we went to another large plaza. Under its central tree was the main slave market. This is where African masters actually sold slaves to European exporters. Everything that we saw makes it clear that this was an economic model where everyone involved – except for the slaves themselves – was there voluntarily and for financial gain. Europeans were only half the equation; they conducted few slave raids and relied upon dominant tribes’ war captives for “raw materials”.
There was one incongruous statue/idol at the slave market. It doesn’t fit with the rest of this tale, but it’s weird enough to deserve mention. It was a female warrior. We got a long explanation from the guide about how the Amazons were from here. He repeated the standard Greek descriptions of them without recognizing the origin of the myth. I was skeptical: Greek Amazons – c1500 BC; Ouidah Amazons – c1700 AD. Turns out, there’s basis in fact: one-third of the Dahomey (Ouidah) army was female right up until around 1900; they had a good reputation for combat effectiveness. Believe it or not… Wikipedia has an article and photo .
The next stop was the Tree of Forgetfulness. After being sold, slaves were marched around this spirit tree in a ceremony that was supposed to erase their memory of their former lives.
After the Tree of Forgetfulness, the slaves stayed for several weeks in the Factor [y], a dark enclosed building where they were packed in to weed out the sick in an early form of quarantine. All that is left of it now is the foundations.
Nearby, though, is a mass grave where the bodies of those who died were discarded. Today, the site is covered with flagstone and there is a monument to those who died.
Spirit trees are huge in west Africa. Over and over that day, the central action involved special trees. When the time comes to create a new spirit tree, they dig a big hole and place a victim in it upright. Everyone gathers around, lays hands on the victim, and whispers into their ear a message or request to the spirits. Then they place a seed on top of their head and cover them alive with dirt. Over time, the spirit tree grows from this sacrifice. They are full of evil spiritual power.
Close to the coast is the Tree of Returning. Passing the slaves around this tree ensured that their souls would return to Africa. Ancestor worship is a core tenet of Voudon, so this was important even for lowly slaves. The Tree of Returning is so powerful because it had two victims at its planting.
When the long chain of slaves actually got to the beach, they were rowed out to the slave ships, never to return to Africa. A “Door of No Return” monument marks the spot where they left. This was sad. How many lives were destroyed for the sake of wealth?
During colonial times, Voudon worship involved human sacrifice during their annual festival. Right at the edge of the Door of No Return monument is a spot where modern Voudon worshipers sacrifice animals. Nearby are several huts where they conduct their rites.
A leader of a local NGO told us how as leader of his branch of the clan, he was expected to purchase a cow for the sacrifice when his uncle died. He refused, leading to significant conflict in the extended family, which he used as a teachable moment. Ultimately, though, other family members provided cows and the sacrifice continued.
Nearby in Nigeria where I work, occasionally the police break up a baby factory where enslaved pregnant women are chained to their beds. This happens repeatedly and the babies are never seen again, so clearly there is a market for them. These are not directly linked to organized Voudon, but some of their iconography is basically identical.
Cate and I left saddened by the record of evil that we saw. Overall, the thing that struck me the most was not the blatant idolatry but rather the banality of the evil. A thousand slaves a month for a couple of centuries means that this wasn’t a fly-by-night operation or run by some cartoonish bad guy. It took leadership, project management, and real infrastructure.
The people who did this, European and African, were intelligent, educated, and experienced. They enjoyed political support at the highest levels of government and religion for centuries. Unconscionable evil was conscioned in pursuit of wealth.