The Voodoo Coast: A Spiritual Tour of West Africa 26

Dark, evil, malevolent. These are some of the words which have historically been used to describe the West African spiritual belief system known as Voodoo. The official term for what many around the globe call Voodoo is 'Vodun' and has followers in Togo, Ghana and Nigeria as well as being the official state religion of the tiny West African country of Benin. Misconceptions and stereotypes of Voodoo are rife the world over and far from the pin-pricked magical rag dolls, harmful black magic and the raising of the dead as zombies seen in movies and horror stories, and save for the occasional animal sacrifice, none of the dark and sensationalised Hollywood skullduggery occurs in any aspect of authentic West African Voodoo. Instead, the religion encompasses dozens of individual branches and traditions and centres on the divination of Loa and Orisha, a group of supernatural spirits beings who control the world from a realm ruled by a supreme deity known as Segbo Lissa. Ancestor worship is also a staple of West African Voodoo and the hundreds of different spirits hold sway over every element of life on earth from water, thunder, the sky and the ocean to individual rocks, trees plants and rivers. The Voodoo spirits also decide an individual's fate and fortune and worshipers attract their attention by offering palm oil, gooey candle wax, fresh animal blood and even fruit juice and alcohol to fetishes, wood and clay figures, coconut shells and ritual pots in exchange for their spiritual, earthly and otherworldly wisdom on anything from illness and business deals to what their next meal should be. Heading along the southern coast of West Africa, we explore the richly exotic, mysterious and fascinating modern story of Voodoo in Ghana, Togo and Benin.

Volta River, Ghana

Oct 1 2016

The one thousand mile-long Volta River flows from the wide open plateaus of Burkina Faso, southward through Ghana's Dagbon and Volta regions before emptying into the Gulf of Guinea near the town of Ada Foah on the Atlantic coast of southern West Africa. The Black Volta, the Red Volta and the White Volta, are the main branches of the river and its main tributaries are the Afram and the Pandjari. Along the way it also flows into Lake Volta, a 8500 kilometres squared, man made reservoir 150 kilometres west of Ghana's border with Togo. The name 'Volta' was given to the river by Portuguese gold merchants during the colonial era and it literally means 'River of Return'. From the arid savanna of northern Ghana, the Black and White Voltas meet in the country's central region and the river then twists and turns its way towards the ocean through the country's equatorial south, flowing through one of the regions of West Africa which first gave rise to the concept of Voodoo in its original and rawest incarnation. Image Date: 07/15/2012

Koku Chief Priest with Calabash Fetishes, Aflao, Ghana

Oct 2 2016

Just under 90 kilometres east along the coast from Lake Volta, the town of Aflao is home to an ethnic population of the Ewe people, Ghana's third largest minority group, many of whom are devout followers of Voodoo and members of a sect, or cult, known as Koku. Along with the Fon people in Benin and Togo and the Fwa in south central Ghana and central Togo, the Ewe are the originators of Voodoo in West Africa and in Aflao the Koku cult is lead by a specially selected chief priest. Believers and cult members honour Flimanu Koku, a Voodoo war god whose story was first brought to Ghana by Ewe elders from Benin hundreds of years ago. The elders brought with them a Voodoo fetish in the form of the hollowed-out shell of a pumpkin and squash-like tropical fruit known as a calabash which was covered in sacrificial blood and contained fourteen sacred swords, each with miniature magic bottles tied to the hilt which would grant warriors the war god's invincibility in battle. The modern Koku regard Flimanu Koku as more of a healing god who, when evoked, protects against disease. Filled with snake bones, magic potions and the fragments eight sacred stones of different colours symbolising eight of the Voodoo ancestor gods, the calabash fetishes used by the Koku today are covered with cloth and act as a kind of Voodoo-inspired Pandora's box, only to opened by the chief Koku priest. Image Date: 08/30/2005

Young Koku Cult Member, Aflao, Ghana

Oct 3 2016

For seven days in May of every third year, hundreds of Voodoo believers in Ghana descend on Aflao to attend a Koku cult ritual ceremony known as Kokuzhan, in which believers are said to be possessed by the Voodoo god Flimanu Koku. Early in life, Koku members are given a mixture of nuts, seeds and water which is intended to protect against disease and affliction by evil spirits and during the Kokuzhan ceremony itself, cult members smear themselves with a white powder concocted from palm oil, herbs and ground-up corn flour and seashells. The Koku cult also requires prospective members to undergo a specific and strenuous initiation rite before they are able to take part in the Kokuzhan ceremony. With the sacred calabashes filled with Voodoo magic charms and snake bones and decorated and covered in cloth, the fruit becomes deceptively heavy, weighing three times as much as a large pumpkin, and believers are tasked by the chief priest with carrying the calabash to a place of public display in Aflao. Only then are they considered to be a 'Kokushi', a devotee of the war and healing god and a fully fledged member of the Koku cult with permission from Flimanu Koku to participate in the Kokuzhan ceremony. Image Date: 11/28/2015

The Kokuzhan Cermony, Aflao, Ghana

Oct 4 2016

During the Kokuzhan ceremony the cult members clad themselves in skirts made from the fibres of altasi trees and whip themselves into a frenzied state of trance induced by whirling barefoot dancing, the sound of pounding Voodoo drums and the chief priest opening the sacred calabash. During the trance, the nut and seed mixture they ate earlier in life as well as the white powder smeared on cult members' skin serve as protection from Flimanu Koku himself against any harm they may do to themselves as they engage in a host of dangerous rituals to show their devotion to the Voodoo gods. Devotees swallow the burning branches of altasi trees, lick the searing hot edges of knives held over a sacred flame, throw sand into their own eyes without blinking as well as even ingesting gunpowder and cutting their own skin with razor-sharp shards of broken glass, miraculously without shedding blood. At the end of the ceremony, Koku cult members are snapped out of their frenzied trance by being doused with a magic Voodoo potion by the chief priest. They return to the mortal realm having felt no pain, with no memory of what they inflicted upon themselves during the trance and with a sense of spiritual gratitude at having been possessed by the war and healing god, Flimanu Koku. Image Date: 08/17/2005

Lomé, Togo

Oct 6 2016

Further along West Africa's southern coast, Lomé is both the capital of and largest city in Togo. The city was officially founded during the nineteenth century by European and African traders and merchants and in 1897 Lomé became the capital of what was then known as Togoland, a German colonial protectorate in West Africa which covered what are now Togo as well as Ghana's southeastern Volta region. In its heyday as a German colonial capital, Lomé earned the nickname 'The Pearl of West Africa' due to its palm-fringed boulevards which stretch along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea and in 1997, the city saw the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the warring parties of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war. As the capital of one of the nation which emerged from an area of West Africa in which Voodoo first emerged, it comes as no surprise that Lomé oozes spiritual stories and history and one district of the Togolese capital in particular is famous as one of the most fascinating, unique and graphic Voodoo sites on the planet. Image Date: 08/24/2009

Akodésséwa Fetish Market, Lomé, Togo

Oct 7 2016

Lomé is renowned for its cocoa, coconut and coffee industries and in the southwest of the city, between the districts of Wété and Ablogomé just off the Boulevard de Mono which runs along the coast, Akodésséwa Fetish Market has seen Voodoo become a serious moneymaker for the priests of the Togolese capital and their families. The market is known as 'Marche aux Feticheurs' in French, the official language of the locals, and having become the biggest and most famous one-stop shop for anything Voodoo-related in the whole of West Africa as well as arguably Lomé's premier tourist attraction, Akodésséwa is also touted as 'Togo's Voodoo Supermarket'. Despite becoming a Togolese icon, Akodésséwa is run and owned by migrants from Benin and with anything from fetishes and magic powders, pastes and potions to Voodoo talismans and juju dolls ominously studded with blackened nails and bolts as well as a virtual ossuary of the skulls and bones of humans, monkeys, lions, leopards, gazelles and alligators and countless others, the dusty outfoor market fully merits its tag of being a Voodoo superstore. With the modern incarnation of Voodoo in West Africa associating itself much more with spiritual healing than the black magic, bloodlust and dark arts of its past from centuries ago, many in Lomé also regard Akodésséwa Fetish Market as a kind of spiritual pharmacy and Voodoo priests also set up their stalls in the market to help people overcome illnesses. Image Date: 07/26/2015

Akodésséwa Fetish Market, Lome, Togo

Oct 9 2016

Akodésséwa's Fetish Market has been open for business for over 150 years and around 1908, after the last ruler of the centuries old Voodoo kingdom of Dahomey in Benin fell to French colonial troops, the market was shifted to its current location in the Togolese capital. The more graphically spectacular items on sale, such as the heads and skulls of lions, elephants and hippos, have been known to fetch in excess of 1000 US dollars and, due to the animal's reverence in Voodoo mythology and culture, snake skins and bones sell out quickly. For the smaller objects purchased from the market, tortoise and coconut shells act as shopping baskets and the items are placed in the shells before being set down in front of a 'legba', solid rock Voodoo statue which has often been blessed by being caked in orange or yellow powder. Doubling up as a cashier and customer assistant, the Voodoo priest then blesses each item with a spiritual incantation and the amount of money to be paid is determined in the same way as a set of dice is thrown during a board game as a handful of egg-shaped sea snail shells, known as cowries, are tossed into the air. The price is decided upon depending on which way around the shells land when they hit the ground. Image Credit: Angelica Calabrese Image Date: 07/30/2015

Lake Togo, Maritime, Togo

Oct 11 2016

Nestled on a coastal strip just inland form the Atlantic coast, Lake Togo is part of a lagoon in the south of the country located around sixty kilometres east of Lomé. The lake spans roughly fifteen kilometres long by four kilometres wide and is fed by the Haho River from the north and the Sio River from the south. Lake Togo is home to both freshwater and saltwater fish and shellfish species which provide food as well as means of subsistence fishing for the communes, settlements and small villages which cluster around its banks. Hundreds of bird species can be seen on Lake Togo and palm oil tapped from the trees on the edge of the lake as well as the shells of coconuts are used extensively in the Voodoo rituals which are conducted in the towns of Togoville and Agbodrafo, located on the northeastern and southeastern shores of Lake Togo respectively. Image Credit: Tammy Image Date: 01/14/2013

Voodoo Festival in Glidji, Togo

Oct 12 2016

To the east of Lake Togo and lying just north of the town of Aného, the village of Glidji plays host to an annual celebration known as the Ekpessosso festival in which Togolese Voodoo devotees of the Guin tribe clad themselves in white and come together to mark the start of the new year. The festival is held in Glidji every September and dates back over 350 years to when West Africans fleeing the Gold Coast slavers in what is now Ghana migrated to the region and in recent years attendance levels at the Ekpessosso celebrations have skyrocketed as believers from elsewhere in Togo, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast converge on Glidji as well as foreign visitors and tourists. As with other Voodoo festivals, Ekpessosso sees frenzied dancing to the sound of ritual drums and music as believers dance themselves in a frenzied trance. Women who attend the festival traditionally wear robes made from white cloth and drape multicoloured beads around their necks. Those women who manage to whip themselves fully into a trance are then relieved of their clothes and their beads by a priest who then permits them to continue their ritual dancing naked. Image Date: 09/10/2015

Voodoo Festival in Glidji, Togo

Oct 14 2016

The main event of the Ekpessosso festival is directly inspired by the Gold Coast settlers who arrived in the region from Ghana in the fifteenth century. Legend has it that the settlers brought with them a sacred stone which was imbued with the energy and power of the Voodoo spirits and which also gave its owner the power to control and manipulate the sky and the elements as well as the fate and fortunes of individual people. During the Ekpessosso festival, Glidji's village elders wrap cocoa and banana leaves around their necks and venture into a sacred forest located one hundred metres from the centre of the village. The sacred forest is the home of a Voodoo priest who watches over an artifact which is said to be the exact stone which was brought from Ghana over 350 years ago. The stone is brought back to Glidji from the jungle and its changing colour is believed to signify events for the year ahead. If the stone is blue, the year will bring good harvests and abundant rainfall and if the stone is white, the villagers of Glidji can expect a year full of peace and good fortune. Bad news comes if the stone has turned red, which forecasts conflict, war and famine, and worst of all if the stone is black then it ominously predicts a year of disease, famine and cataclysmic storms and hurricanes. Image Date: 09/10/2015

Ouidah, Benin

Oct 16 2016

The town of Ouidah on the south coast of Benin is widely touted as the spiritual home of Voodoo, and with their powdery sands and coconut palms swaying tranquilly in the Atlantic breeze, the beaches and waterfront around the town gloss over the area's dark and depressing past. In one of the most barbaric and distasteful chapters ever recorded in human history, Ouidah was one of the main locations from which chain-bound African slaves were transported to the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations of the Americas from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The Atlantic slave trade is interconnected with the story of West African Voodoo as it was from here that the faith gained a foothold in the New World as it spread to Brazil, the very south of the United States, Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean. Ouidah was officially declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996 and the remnants of the Route des Esclaves, the path from which the slaves were lead to the ships waiting at the waterfront, exhibits dozens of monuments, including 'La Porte Du Non Retour', or 'Gate of No Return', which ensure that this horrific and disturbing period of history is gone but correctly never forgotten. Image Date: 12/29/2006

Ouidah Voodoo Festival, Benin

Oct 17 2016

As the self-styled 'Home of Voodoo', Ouidah hosts its own annual 'International Voodoo Festival'. The event takes places on January 10th every year and in recent times the festival has attracted global attention, with attendees coming from as far and wide as France, Brazil and the Caribbean to witness it. Voodoo was officially made a state religion in Benin in 1996 and the festival has been held every year in Ouidah since 1997 with priests, believers and spiritual dignitaries coming from all over West Africa as the town remembers and honours the slaves transported from the area to the New World in centuries past in its own, Voodoo-inspired way. A procession of thousands of people moves from the centre of Ouidah towards the ocean and the 'Gate of No Return', with devotees and believers donning traditional white Voodoo garb and draped in multicolored ceremonial beads as members of dozens of tribes and sects, including the Koku cult from Ghana and the elaborately dressed Yoruba 'Zangbetos' from Togo and Benin, who dress themselves from head to toe in a costume resembling a human haystack and who whip themselves up into a frenzied state of trance in tribute to the sacred Voodoo 'Nightwatchmen'. Ritual bloodletting and animal sacrifice are commonplace during the festival and when the procession reaches Ouidah's waterfront the event becomes a kind of Voodoo Woodstock as entranced dancing and chanting is induced by the banging of ceremonial drums and copious amounts of gin and rum. The festival reaches its peak when Ouidah's chief Voodoo 'feticheur' arrives and the dozens of tribes and sects erect fetishes made of bronze, wood, rope, hair and feathers and decorate them with snake bones, pearls, gold and diamonds before positioning them facing out to sea to honour Mami-Wata, the spirit of the ocean. Image Date: 01/10/2016

Sacred Forest, Ouidah, Benin

Oct 18 2016

Ouidah's Voodoo Festival celebration also passes through a particularly auspicious and revered Voodoo site in the western part of town. Kpasse Zoun is a large outdoor Voodoo temple complex studded with trees which also doubles up as a sacred forest. The area is clustered with statues of the former Kings of Ouidah, who are depicted as their mortal selves as well as sacred animals such as jaguars and serpents. The Voodoo loa spirits are also immortalised in statue form in the Sacred Forest, including Mawu, loa of the sun and moon, Yemoja, a guardian of the ocean, Shango, the thunder spirit and Zangbeto, guardian of the night and ghosts. The sacred forest takes its name from a local legend which has it that Kpasse, a sixteenth century king of Ouidah, angered the king of Abomey, a much more powerful monarch from a nearby kingdom. When he learned that the king of Abomey had dispatched assassins to kill him, Kpasse made a pact with the Voodoo spirits to keep himself from harm. Answering his request, the spirits turned Kpasse into a cola nut tree, known locally as an iroko tree. Today, several of these large trees are found around the sacred forest area and one of them, found between two temple buildings, is said to house the spirit of King Kpasse himself. Image Date: 01/10/2015

Temple des Pythons, Ouidah, Benin

Oct 19 2016

Snakes are a revered omnipresent symbol in West African Voodoo and in the centre of Ouidah, opposite the town's Catholic basilica, the reptiles are given their own sacred space. The Temple des Pythons, otherwise known as the Temple of the Pythons or the Temple of the Serpents, is a Voodoo shrine which was built after a war between the Kingdoms of Ouidah and Dahomey which took place in 1717. Ouidah was defeated and its ruler, King Kpassè, fled into the surrounding forests to avoid capture by Dahomey's notoriously ferocious Ghézo warriors, who had been dispatched by their king to capture Kpassè dead or alive. Legend has it that hundreds of pythons emerged from the forests to protect King Kpassè from capture and the snakes succeeded in staving off the Ghézo warriors. Accordingly, the king ordered the building of a three-hut temple to honour the pythons and the complex is one of modern Ouidah's most famous attractions. The 'Royal Pythons' dominate the temple and they are considered to be 'living totems' which are worshiped by believers who visit their official abode. Every seven years, the snakes even have their own ceremony as they are worshiped by the temple's priests and as 41 is considered a magic number in Voodoo, precisely 41 pythons are present inside the temple at any given time. Image Date: 07/24/2006

Lake Ahémé, Benin

Oct 21 2016

At twenty four kilometres long from north to south, Lake Ahémé is Benin's second largest body of freshwater. The lake is located seventeen kilometres northwest of Ouidah in Benin's Mono Department and when West Africa's monsoon season arrives, usually around the end of June every year, Lake Ahémé rapidly expands to roughly thirty nine square miles due to the excess rainwater. Benin's Couffo River spills into the northern end of the lake and a ten kilometre-long freshwater stream known as the Aho Channel links it to the Atlantic Ocean, near the coastal town of Grand-Popo. Fishing and crop harvesting are the main source of income to the people living around Lake Ahémé and a handful of Voodoo-practicing ethnic populations and tribes inhabit the communes around its edges, most notably the Pedah and Ayizo people. Image Date: 07/18/2011

Voodoo Priest, Bopa, Benin

Oct 22 2016

Bopa sits on the northwestern edge of Lake Aheme and as with almost every other town, village of commune of West Africa, the symbol of the skull is hugely significant and spiritual to priests and practitioners of Voodoo. Rituals and ceremonies which make use of skulls are also where the historic darker side of Voodoo still resonates and the charred and blackened skulls used by priests in Bopa and elsewhere are said to be the remains of unfortunate criminals struck down by Hevioso, the Voodoo god of thunder, as punishment for their wrongdoings and offences. Image Date: 08/19/2015

Shells as Voodoo Offerings, Bopa, Benin

Oct 23 2016

The Fon people are well known for the remarkable rate at which sets of twins are born in their community. Twins have long been revered as highly spiritual and auspicious in West Africa's Voodoo culture, but infant mortality rates in the region are tragically high due to financial hardship and poverty as well as deadly diseases such as malaria. When tragedy strikes in Bopa with the death of one or both of a set of twins, the town's Fon people create miniature effigies in the form of Voodoo fetish dolls crafted by the community's artisans and which are said to be imbued with the spirit of the deceased child. The child dolls are dressed and thoroughly cleaned on a daily basis as well as being put to bed at a specific time exactly as a normal child would be. Fon parents who unfortunately lose a child in Bopa also believe that if the child Voodoo dolls are not taken care of properly, the spirit inhabiting the fetish will become vengefully unhappy and start afflicting the family with harmful black magic. Often, if one of the twins is still alive, the remaining sibling will take the doll to school for the spirit to be educated as any other child would be and if the parents are out of town, the fetishes are cared for in a kind of specially set up Voodoo creche. Image Date: 09/20/2015

Voodoo Offerings, Bopa, Benin

Oct 24 2016

When the dolls are cleaned, often in a nearby lake or river due to the freshness of the natural water, perfume is often sprayed on them and any cloths and sponges are then thrown far out into the water because they are then believed to be contaminated by evil spiritual magic. The dolls also receive three daily meals from their constantly grieving parents and soft drinks, such as cola and fruit juice, are always a part of the fare offered to the child spirits as sugar, itself considered a symbol of peace and tranquility in West African Voodoo, acts as a kind of spiritual treat. Any part of the meal left unfinished by the fetish doll is taken to one of Bopa's Voodoo temples and presented as an offering to Damballa, the Voodoo creator, sky father and snake spirit god who used his coils to forge the earth, the stars and the planets as well as shedding his skin to create the world's oceans. After the remains of the meal are offered to the snake god, one of the parents often sinks their teeth into a spice-dusted cola nut before using it as a final offering to the tragically deceased children. Image Date: 09/20/2015

The Battle of Abomey, 1892

Oct 26 2016

European influence had been present in Benin since the rulers of the ancient West African Kingdom of Dahomey signed a trade agreement which allowed Portuguese merchants to transport West African slaves to their newly settled colony in Brazil in 1472. Before long, the Portuguese had established a trading post named Porto Novo on Benin's southern coast but when the French arrived in the town in 1863 Glele, then King of Dahomey, objected to the European colonial presence and the first of two Franco-Dahomey wars broke out. The city of Abomey, in modern day Benin's Zou Department and the former capital and jewel in the crown of the African kingdom, finally fell to the French invaders in 1892 and the region became a protectorate before officially being incorporated into France's West African empire in 1904. Image Date: 10/04/1890

King Guezo's Palace, Abomey, Benin

Oct 27 2016

Despite the five century-long Portuguese and French colonial presence in what would become Benin, Abomey had been the royal seat of twelve of Dahomey's Fon Voodoo kings since the city was established in 1625 and legend has it that the first kings of the Dahomey Dynasty were the offspring of Tado, an ancient Togolese princess, and a panther spirit. The royal cloister was located in the centre of the city, surrounded by a ten kilometre-long perimeter wall made of mud which featured six entrance gates, and instead of using the imperial quarters of his predecessor, each of Dahomey's twelve Voodoo kings built his own palace. Today, the palaces of King Ghézo and King Glélé still stand and they house a museum which showcases relics and artifacts demonstrating how Dahomey become one of the most powerful kingdoms in the entire of Africa. Similar to each of the twelve palaces being built specifically for each of Dahomey's rulers, each king also had his own throne made from iroko branches, bamboo and the skulls of other West African tribal leaders whom he had personally defeated in battle, the latter drawing inspiration from Voodoo and acting as a reminder of the king's absolute authority. The royal cloister also featured a two-storey building known as the 'Akuehue' which functioned as a kind of bank or treasury to house the gold, jewels and other riches of the Voodoo kings as well as overflowing with their vast amounts of cowrie shell money. Image Date: 12/27/2013

Fresco at Guezo's Palace, Abomey, Benin

Oct 28 2016

Each of the individually designed palaces within Abomey's royal cloister featured four courtyard areas known as the Kpododji, Honnouwa, Jalalahènnou and the Logodo and one particularly graphic story tells of certain buildings within the royal compound being made of mud as well as the bones and fresh blood of prisoners of war who became the victims of Voodoo sacrifice. The pillars and walls of the complex also feature bas reliefs and frescoes depicting scenes from Abomey's Fon mythology, the creation of the city and evolution of the empire which developed around it. Made from copper, brass, palm oil and earth taken from ant hills, the reliefs act as a kind of storyboard and they also pay tribute to each of Dahomey's twelve Voodoo kings. King Guezo's fresco, for example, depicts the dates of his reign, a bull and a scimitar-style West African sword known as an Agedengbe. Miraculously, most of the reliefs and frescoes survived a fire which was ordered in 1892 by Béhanzin, Dahomey's penultimate king, in defiance of European colonial rule to keep the kingdom's artifacts and relics from falling into the hands of the occupying French. Image Date: 12/27/2013

Voodoo Priest, Bohicon, Benin

Oct 30 2016

Nine kilometres east of Abomey, and twenty minutes along southern Benin's RNIE4 state highway, the town of Bohicon is home to roughly 114,000 people and is another of country's settlements which possesses a rich Voodoo tradition. In addition to fetish dolls, human and animal skulls and bottles containing magic elixirs, Voodoo priests and practitioners also honour the spirits with totemistic ritual staves and scepters. As the Voodoo spirit most associated with thunder, lightning, storms and hurricanes, Shango is one of the most common deities depicted in the carved ritual sticks which are often adorned with a carved figure of Shango himself, is adorned with inlaid cowry shells and also features a trident-shaped top and are also believed to act as a conduit for natural and spiritual energy. Image Date: 09/13/2015

Voodoo Divination Board, Bohicon, Benin

Oct 31 2016

A key element of West African Voodoo is the concept of geomancy, any kind of ritual which involves interpreting markings or patterns in rocks, sand or soil as a sign or message from a deity or a divine or spiritual being. In Voodoo, one of the best examples of a geomantic ritual is the 'Dzisa' ceremony, otherwise known as 'Nago', a kind of divination which enables communication with the spirits, orisha and gods. During the Dsiza, a wooden divination board is covered with sand by a specialist Voodoo priest known as a 'Bokono', or 'Diviner'. For a nominal fee, Voodoo believers consult the Bokono to ask for solutions to problems ranging from illness and disease to money worries and bad luck in their love life and the specialist priest acts as an intermediary between the individual and the Voodoo spirits. West African Voodoo's Dsiza geomancy consists of 256 'kpoliwo', or signs which are interpreted as different messages from the loa and orisha and their spiritual response depends on which way up palm nuts, cowrie seashells or avini seeds land after they are tossed into the air by the specialist priest. The Bokono then begins tracing lines in the sand on the divination board with his or her third and fourth fingers and these lines are then interpreted back to the troubled person as solutions and advice direct from the Voodoo spirits. Image Credit: Eric Lafforgue Image Date: 09/08/2015

Atakora Mountains, Benin

Nov 3 2016

The Atakora Mountains stretch from the Akwapim Hills in southeastern Ghana, through central Togo and continue northeast across the border to Benin. The range roughly follows the course of the Niger River as it flows through Togo and Benin and the hundreds of Atakora peaks average around 600 metres in height, with the highest point in the range being southwestern Togo's Mount Agou, otherwise known as Baumann Peak and which stands at 3235 feet near the country's border with Ghana. The Atakora Mountains dominate Benin's far northwest as well as lending their name to its northernmost region, or department,and throughout the centuries, the Atakoras have acted as home to the Somba tribe, also known as the Tammari or Bétamarribé people, who have practiced Animism and Voodoo in the area for more than eight hundred years. Image Credit: Leila Abdoulaye (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 04/01/2014

Tata House, Boukoumbé, Benin

Nov 4 2016

Southwest from the city of Natitingou, a dusty and rocky dirt track snakes it way through the foothills of the Atokora Mountains to the town of Boukoumbé. Along with the Yaruba and Fon people, the Somba, whose name roughly translates to 'good masons' and who arrived in the Atokora Mountains region around eight hundred years ago, are one of Benin's most well known tribes and the traditional Sukala villages dotted around Boukoumbé showcase one of the country's largest and most famous concentrations of Tata houses. Countless numbers of these Sukala villages can be found across Benin and Togo and the Tata houses are essentially fortified miniature mud castles, with the alcoves of the lower floor used as a cooking area and the central area used for keeping livestock. Families' sleeping quarters are usually found on the upper floor of the Tata houses as well as a granary and and an area for the storing harvested grain and crops. While a sense of the wider community does exist between Somba families, the Tata houses are built far away from each other in the middle of each family's respective crop fields and a Somba legend has it that the distance between each Tata house represents the maximum range from which the head of each household could fire an arrow. Image Date: 09/17/2015

Voodoo Mounds and Fetishes outside a Tata House, Boukoumbé, Benin

Nov 5 2016

The design of each Tata house is deeply symbolic and stories told in the Somba community range from the clusters of castle-like mud houses being laid out to correspond with the positions of the stars in the night sky to the ancestors hatching from the eggs of Damballa, a Voodoo serpent spirit, thousands of years ago. A single wooden ladder provides the only access to the upper floor of each Tata house, a tradition which goes hand-in-hand with the 'fortified castle design' of the structures and dates back to the dark days when families would barricade themselves into their houses as slavers patrolled the region intent on taking captives for both West African kings and the later-arriving Europeans. The main entrance to each family residence points towards the west which the Somba believe is the direction which all life on earth comes from and outside the Tata houses, each family member gets their own voodoo altar in the form of a conical mud mound. Sticks and tree branches are also often found stacked against the side of the houses as Voodoo fetishes, with animal skulls tied to them and cowrie shells and brightly coloured feathers also hanging from braided animal hair and metal chains for use in healing magic and protection rituals. Image Credit: Eric Lafforgue Image Date: 09/08/2015

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