Friday, January 16, 2009

Do you Voodoo?

So January 10th was National Voodoo Day in Benin...a final culmination in the triumverate of Beninese fetes (Christmas, New Years, Voodoo Day). I am glad that Voodoo Day is over and done simply because for the week leading up to it, Dogbo was going crazy. We have a pretty large Vodoun population here, and every evening for the week before they were gathering for ceremonies of considerable volume conveniently located right near chez moi. Sleeping was nearly impossible, and it reminded me a little of all through the night fete-ing that goes on for Beninese funerals.
But Voodoo Day itself was actually pretty cool to see and I am glad I got to fete. I was bouncing around and not too sure of what exactly I wanted to do (local thing, or go to Ouidah for the big national fetes there). Ouidah got too complicated in the end to throw together at the last minute because we would probably not have been able to get back to post the same night and didn't have a place to crash close by. SO instead I went to Lokossa--conveniently only a half hour away--for the regional fete there with 2 other volunteers and the Beninese friends of one of the volunteers. The fete was huge and I have to like that are pretty much the only time it is fun to be white in Benin. We were the only white people in attendence so everyone was really excited to have us there (most tourists go to Ouidah) and our Carte Blanche got us pulled up to sit next to the King and Mayor of Lokossa, and the President of all the Vodoun for the Mono-Couffo regions in Benin to see the unveiling of the zembetto.
Picture: One of the zembettos
The zembetto is this dancing hay-stack like object. There are some sects of Vodoun that don't have it at all but generally it represents the specific vodoun deity that that sect worships. Ok--so there are definitely people walking around under this little zembetto costume, I am sure...but the official word is "there is no one under the is moving all on its own because it is the deity moving it." Goodness, where's your faith? In some sects of vodoun the zembetto is dangerous for women, and not so much for others. THere is so much variety in Voodoo, and it also depends how out in village you are. If you are really out in the bush, a lot of the time women just have to stay in the house, lock the doors, and sometimes shut the lights so that the zembetto does not know you are there or it is baaaaaad news. It's not really a problem by me in Dogbo at all, but my friend has to stay indoors at her post whenever the zembetto is out. SO anyways, we're all pretty convinced that there are people under this haystack so I was pretty excited to hear that they were going to be lifting up the zembettos so we could see at Lokossa. We were standing in the back of the crowd trying to get a look--3 zembettos were lined up to be lifted--and that is when some people noticed that these strange yovos wearing Beninese tissue (clothing) couldn't see what was happening, and they immediately grabbed us and brought us up front to sit with the king, etc.

Pictures: PCVs with the King, Mayor, and President for the VOdoun; Voodoo Day Security--Because you know that when the supernaturaly forces go all willy-nilly, guns are the way to go.
I don't know HOW they did it...Never ask a magician to reveal his tricks, right? but when they lifted up the zembettos...the first one had 2 guinea pig like things that crawled out and the second one, had this massive pink blob underneath, and the third had this thumping phallus (I don't get it...but I'm sure it had to have some kind of significance...talking about Voodoo can be a delicate subject. Taking pics is also interesting--sometimes okay and sometimes not, so we gave our camera to the beninese some times to take pictures for us). No people. I don't entirely buy it (i hope that doesn't bring bad gris gris upon me). I got some great videos of the zembettos but haven't been able to post them for some reason...maybe that's just Beninese Internet cafés for you.
Picture: Unveiling of the pink blob zembetto
So after the unveiling--or the lifting of the skirts, if you will--of the zembettos, every group of Vodoun came before the King and gave a little performance of either dancing, singing, la deux ensemble, or zembetto antics etc. There had to have been about 10 different sects that came out, each with their own sign, traditional outfits, and dances, etc. It was completely awesome to see. The place publique of of Lokossa was filled to bursting with people.

Pictures: 2 of the performances for Voodoo Day. You might notice the woman front and center in the second picture is wrapped in an old "Rugrats" bedsheet...yup...that is Tommy, there. I thought it was pretty awesome.
Afterward, the grand public fete ended and everyone went home for their own fetes, etc. Thomas, one of the friends of the Volunteers with us from Lokossa, brought us to the house of a friend so we could fete with them for awhile. By the time we slowly sauntered over like the bunch of yovos who can't take equatorial Beninese midday sun that we were, the hoopla was already well underway, with dancing, music, etc. We were brought into the house of the Vodoun man there, and offered Sodabe (local alcohol that tastes remarkably like rubbing alcohol and im sure can not be safe for consumption) and beans with oil. I went out into the bush to use the bathroom (no latrines there) and ran into my first snake since coming to Benin, which freaked me out. But in general the time there was really interesting, and I was grateful to get a small scale view of a local celebration for Voodoo day. THis group was VERY excited to have us take pictures and the one man wanted us to take them with him in it all the was kind of cute. We got in on some dancing with them, had oil and baby-powder thrown on us (i have no diea why) was all very bien integré.

Pictures: Celebrating in village. FIrst is a woman being possessed by a vodoun and the others are dancing and music. YOu can see Mami Watta paited on the wall in the background. It is a Voodoo myth (looks like a mermaid).
I went out yesterday with the Peace Corps facilitator who lives nearby to meet up with a new women's group in Amahoue, nearby. The meeting went great and there were only 10 women so I'll most likely remember all of their names, and we set up a time next thursday to go back and do some moringa work. Unfortunately I am currently at the cyber because my homologue stood me up on the one day he reserved to work with me this week. I went to the NGO at the time we agreed to meet and he wasn't there and I tried calling him but he never picked up. SO i sat--and since i never leave my house in Benin without a book--it was fine and I just read but after an hour I was annoyed so I sent him a txt (txting is main communication tool here since phone calls are so expensive) telling him that I had waited for him for over an hour and he can call me when he really wants to work. I'm just sick of his antics and have firmly decided that I will have none of it anymore. So I guess we'll see what happens.
But anyway, yesterday, like i said, was really great. After meeting up with the women's group I came back to Dogbo même with the facilitator and worked on French for 2 hours. It wasn't so much an outright tutoring session as it was just a conversation from which he would analyze my many weaknesses in speaking (ie--the past conditional and the ever damning subjunctive...ugh). So he asked me my major and when it came out I had done poli sci we got into a really great discussion about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Israel/PAlestine, Hamas, Hezbollah, our previous support of the muhajideen during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, etc. It felt great to talk to someone about those things in general (and learn how to say bomb, suicide bomber, world power, etc. in French). It was especially nice to have this conversation with a Beninese since prior to that, the only political savvy I could glean from the Beninese population around election time was that Barak Obama was black, young, and democrat (all admirable qualities) and that John McCain was white, old, and republican (all apparently damning qualities, which always interested me since the culture here has great respect for elders and since President BUsh, who is also Republican, was the only president in U.S. history to ever take the time to come and visit Benin, as well as his pumping considerably large sums of money into Africa compared to any other president in recent memory for AIDS/HIV relief through PEPFAR--albeit with a perhaps unrealistic over-emphasis on abstince education instead of condoms, etc-- and the high number of mosquito nets provided to Benin through the President's MAlaria Initiative).
But anyway, so it was really amazing to just talk about something meaningful and beyond the basic line-up of formal greetings in Benin with a Beninese person. This man, who I'm not going to name for his own privacy, was actually a Beninese political activist during Benin's communist era . In 1986 he was imprisoned for his activities and remained in prison for 2 years--pretty good, considering that all of his friends were in for about 5 or longer. He had already been working with Peace Corps at the time and 2 volunteers, a couple in Klikamé (nearby village) were so disgusted with his imprisonment that they ETed (early terminated--ended their service) and petitioned Amnesty International when they were back home on his behalf. Benin kept popping him around to different prisons--ie, if they said he was in Cotonou in prison they would move him to Parakou so when Amnesty came to look for him there there was no one by that name...but eventually it worked and he got out. So he is really interested in politics too and liked learning about some of the things he only had vague ideas about as much as I liked hearing his own story. My high following the conversation was deflated minorly by the assigning of exercises for the subjunctive, but all in all, it was a great afternoon.
Afterwards I headed out to the hardware boutique where everyone kind of loves me because I spend a lot of money there but also thinks i'm kind of crazy because I'm this weird yovo woman buying all this stuff to do work on a house when any self respecting person would hire a professional. SO yesterday I was out for metal screening since scout, my cat with apparent chimpanzee lineage, has ripped to shreds my non-metal screening when she climbs up to the top of my back door every day (she can also climb my cement wall out back about half way). TO be entirely honest, it might just be worth it for me to pay someone to come and do the things that I end up doing myself around my house because it takes me awhile to get it done. Last night putting up the screen took me well over an hour on account of me having to stop and put bandaids on my fingers every few minutes as I cut them up, one after another, on the rough edges. Plus my neighbors always run over to look in my front door whenever I whip out the hammer and start making a lot of noise in the house. Between that, my one-sided conversations with Scout and BBCnewscasters, I'd really love to know what they think about me. Of course I hear them next door singing the yovo song quietly to themselves sometimes so we've all got our issues. BUt I think, at the end of the day, I like doing those kinds of things myself because when it is done, it is a pretty good feeling of accomplishment to know that i did that work myself and I feel like i'm being given the opportunity to learn a lot about myself. I never thought I would use a leatherman as much as I have in the past 6 months in my entire life.
Picture: Scout playing with her mouse in her diva coller.
Speaking of Scout, she is looking pretty jazzy in the little diva collar A. Loretta and U. Mike have sent over her way. It has been quite the point of cross cultural exchange with Basil and Filomene when they come over. While they both think it is pretty amazing with all of its fake little diamonds, they don't really get it, since even dogs here don't wear the most basic of collars and cats are more often dinner than pets (Basil was also pretty enamored by my mechanical pencil that Cathy sent me and I can't wait to go home and load up on some stuff that he would just love for when I get back as a souvenir/thank you for watching Scout). But I had the vet come over the other day to give her her rabies shot and i felt sooooo terrible. The vet here comes to the house since he doesn't really have an office (It's not like you're going to take your cow to the Dr. though you can actually strap a goat onto the back of a moto--they scream like children being is terrible to hear). We chatted for a few and I told him I had worked in a vets office for a few years and he was really excited because I could help hold the cat. I had told him that back home, we generally prefer working with dogs because they are usually a lot less finicky with shots and medication and I was surprised to learn that it was the exact opposite here. Beninese people most of the time strongly dislike dogs and do NOT trust them. They aren't bred for temperment and they get hit a lot, or kicked, or rocks thrown at them so they generally aren't too nice (i've had a few follow me around out in village and nip my heel). My post mate's neighbor HATES her puppy (who is actually really nice since we have a different approach to raising them) and thinks even if he seems nice that sorcerers can use the dog to attack her by sending evil spirits into it soooo....yeah. But I was surprised to learn that even the vet felt such a distrust for dogs, and Scout was still pretty squirmy. Turns out they poke the needle in the side by the ribcage here instead of by the extra skin you can bunch up at the neck or haunches, which seemed unsavvy to me, and i will DEFINITELY be bringing back a small syringe for her for next year, because I felt so terrible. What he used HAD to have been for farm animals the tip was so big and she was howling. It took forever, and a lot of forceful jabbing for that needle to pierce her skin. ugh...not fun to hold her, anyways, but at least it is done for this year. So, yeah..that is all the news that's fit to print for now. I'll be back soon. Hope you enjoyed the pictures!!

1 comment:

Maman et Papa said...

Glad you are okay, having survived the Voodoo celebrations.

Hopefully we will be able to talk to you soon - we tried several times but no luck.

LOVE and MISS you.....