Abomey – City of Death

Ah, Abomey. A well-known and much-feared name in historical West Africa, so much so that both the railway and main road through the centre of Benin pass some 10km to the East, into the ‘new town’ of Bohicon, seemingly to prevent people in the Colonial world from using it as a morale-boosting resistance base. This does make it slightly awkward to get to; my share-taxi terminated in Bohicon and I was left to catch a ubiquitous moto-taxi the rest of the way. Fascinating mode of transport, would love it to catch on in the UK but, like share-taxis, it never would, albeit for safety reasons rather than the British obsession with punctuality. Helmets seem to be in ‘short supply’; as an aside, on a previous adventure (Cambodia) I specifically asked my travel insurance provider about this, and they said “where a helmet is offered, I must wear one to be covered. However, if I ask and there isn’t one, I’m covered. But I do need to ask.”. So of course I asked … honestly … 🙂

Abomey is the ancient capital of the Dahomey kingdom, one of the larger kingdoms in the area, and which gave its name to the subsequent French colony until 1975, when the Marxist government under Mathieu Kérékou deemed the name too ‘colonial’ and decided to rename itself ‘Benin’, after the large gentle ‘bay’ of the ocean known as the ‘Bight of Benin’. This itself was named after another recent African Kingdom, that of the Kingdom of Benin which was located in what is now Nigeria, and whose capital was Benin City. Confused, yet? Interestingly, Kérékou chose the name as it was deemed ‘neutral’ in a country with many cultures and historical kingdoms – and I guess pinching a name from somewhere else is quite neutral. It’d be a bit like Æthelstan, having unified England (and assumed at least nominal control over the whole of Great Britain), deciding to call the new country ‘Gaul’, or ‘Italia’ …

In total, 12 successive kings ruled over Dahomey, before the French finally conquered it. They’re quite proud to say, however, that none of these kings died in battle – demonstrating the apparent success and longevity of the Dahomeyan kings, although this is at odds with other historical empires, such as the Vikings of Scandinavia who actively tried to die in battle as it gave them a more prestigious afterlife. They were also one of the empires who seemed to profit greatly from the Slave Trade; a history of bloodthirsty wars against local empires and taking captives as slaves put them in a good position to profit from the incoming colonial powers.

Symbols of Kings
Symbols of some of the Kings of Dahomey, on the wall of the museum – each King is represented by some aspect of their rule. The lion shows fearlessness, the cannon shows war. The leg … well …

Each of these 12 kings built their own palace somewhere in the town; these and the many voodoo temples the kings built to satisfy the local spirits are still quite ‘interestingly’ decorated on the outside, with a wide variety of caricatures, symbols, and fetishes, most of them seem to be being used for other things – storage units, makeshift houses, etc.

A couple of the palaces now make up the Musée Historique D’Abomey, a large walled enclosure in the centre of the older part of town, and home to all manner of weird and wonderful exhibits on details on the history of the Dahomeyan kings, including the thrones, some period weaponry, and a number of works of art detailing the slightly bloodthirsty nature of the kings – one in particular is noted for having used someone (else’s) leg to kill an enemy – hence his symbol on the wall. Although a museum, in typical West African fashion they don’t let you go gallivanting around it on your own; you’re required to take a guide. Who only speaks French. Nonetheless I found him quite easy to understand and pretty jovial – the accent here isn’t as ‘heavy’ nor do the locals speak as ‘quick’ as in France. Or maybe they could just tell I was British. Who knows.

Another of the old palaces (that of the king called Kpengla) is now an art gallery.

This is not, however, your normal European art gallery; endless 17th century paintings of religious figures that shimmer in the light. Nor is it even typical for Africa – no displays of tribal masks, no shields, no farm implements. Rather, it’s a collection of contemporary art from a local artist and designer called Arolando. His main work is ‘sculptures’, present along the roads outside his house and stretching to the old palace where he works; these sculptures are made not from clay or stone, but from tree branches, tin cans, unwanted rags … pretty much anything and everything he has to hand or can find on the streets. A form of recycling, one could say.

Arolando's art
Example of Arolando’s work, in the streets outside his house. There’s quite a few of these; on first thought I saw them as scarecrows!

While the art in and around his house is varied – with animals, people, masks, and even a motorbike – what he’s tried to do in the palace is recreate typical regal scenes; of a king sitting on his throne, his attendants standing by etc, but putting several modern twists on it. So, for instance, he has one member of the ‘royal family’ sitting with a radio, another in a school uniform, and the ‘palace’ itself has several (empty!) bottles of wine in convenient places.

Arolando's art
Inside the old palace, depicting a scene of regal deference. Note the little touches, including the sandals; all made out of recycled/found materials.

The area around Abomey is also a heartland for Voodoo. It’s the main religion in the South of Benin, and practised by around 17% of the population of the country. The bulk of Voodoo involves venerating spirits and respecting ancestors; this usually, it appears, involves spirits of a completely different kind … Each of the Voodoo spirits is invoked by means of a ‘fetish’, or specific object, and often a special ‘mix’ of liquid, powder, and detritus is applied (this is where the tales of bones and animal eyes comes from; the make-up of this ‘poultice’ varies depending on spirit and the purpose of the ritual, but is often created from all manner of gory items).

Fetish Stall
One of the many stalls at the fetish market – this one is mainly selling animal skulls.

‘Ingredients’ (for want of a better word) for the poultice are bought from a ‘fetish market’; I had the ‘pleasure’ of wandering through one in a small village close to Abomey. While there’s always a wide variety of ‘products’ for sale, and yes animal bones/skulls are pretty common, live animals (often chickens or reptiles), furs, feathers, and herbs are also on offer.

Voodoo Fetish
An example of a ‘fetish’. Needless to say it’s not hard to imagine what ritual this is symbolically used for.

The exact recipes are secret, known only to the Voodoo Priest, and even the rituals behind making the poultices are shrouded in mystery – I was told a tale by one priest that the potion he used on my visit was made up of some crushed bones, a few powdered minerals (it was a bright red, stronger than the colour of the road, so assume that something with iron had been included), and a spot of water, all mixed together under the moonlight in the nearby forest. Mmmh.
In addition, each ‘recipe’ is specific to the job in hand, so for example a ‘love potion’ (not something they believe in, as a rule) would involve a whole different set of ingredients to a poultice designed to give luck in forthcoming exams. While there are ‘generic’ poultices, pretty much any request can be catered for, and each ‘ceremony’ will take a slightly different course depending on need.

Fetishes in a Voodoo Ceremony
Several ‘fetishes’ in a Voodoo Temple. Some represent aspects of life, like luck or virility, others are representing traditional spirits. All the relevant ones must be appeased for any specific ceremony.

A Voodoo ceremony itself is focussed much more on acknowledging the spirits (through the use of offerings, often simply water poured onto a representative fetish’s head) and repeated short chants, rather than anything mysterious and malign. They’re often conducted by the priest alone, but if someone has a specific request, they will be usually invited in to take a small part.

Abomey is full of Voodoo temples, both still used and long-abandoned. They are decorated with representations of whichever spirit the temple is dedicated to; there’s a stereotype that Voodoo involves invoking spirits of ancestors, and while there is a lot of veneration of the dead, there are some notable unique spirits on their own.

Voodoo Temple
A Voodoo temple in Abomey. “Legba” is the Voodoo spirit who acts as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’, and through whom priests speak to the spirit world. He’s represented as a young man with a big cock. Obviously. …

It’s a small town, but definitely lots to explore!

Visited 7-9 December 2014

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One thought on “Abomey – City of Death

  1. nice inspiring blog, thank you so much,
    by the way those trees are young papaya trees, not cacao l think,
    l will keep follow your track..
    keep up please

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