Da wears dresses. Okay, well, he wears skirts. In the same fashion as almost every woman we have encountered in the past 5 days of traveling, he has simply hemmed the edges and wrapped about 3 yards of bold African print around his waist. Da has a big happy belly and gives me a child’s smile when I tease him about his fancy dress. When men festivalize, one is bound to experience the ‘kente toga’ in abundance. They take 6 yards of heavy, hand woven cloth and drape it across their shoulders in a very particular, regal manner that makes them look like a king and a pile of curtains at the same time. On his feet are chunky sandals covered in gold that make a crinkle noise when he walks.
“Oi, ‘zalle?” Da asks, and we start our walk to the main road. Everyone we pass greets Da in Fan and bid us bonsoir. So, we tail along after our respected host and emerge on the main street. He calls to men on motorbikes and in an instant our moto-chariots await. Off to the ceremony as we zip-zip along a few dirt roads and we get down at what looks any random house, walk a maze and emerge in the heat of the ceremony. The drums are beating and all eyes are on a group of dancers whom we cannot yet see. Da taps a young man standing on the outside of the ring of people and a path through the crowd is created for him. When we get to the opening, I hesitate. I hate hate hate hate any situation that encourages even more attention than my pale skin normally affords me whilst I traipse around Africa, but I press on. Suddenly, people are raising their voices and I freeze where I stand, forgetting every French word I ever learned that might have helped me understand their commands. I don’t know what is going on, but Ian and I are surrounded by the gathered crowd and we have done something very, very wrong. A man comes beside me and pushes on my back while he squats down, indicating I should do the same. He is pointing at my sandals, so I remove them. A very large man dressed in orange, whom dancers are circling in the middle, looks at us with a confused glare. The people sitting near me point me towards the side of the crowd and I walk as low as possible, next to Da. I look back at Ian, his face is blank. We are lost lambs in a big scary voodoo world.
When finally we are settled and doing all the things we are supposed to be doing (what Da should have told us to do before hand, that is), we are front row to the ceremony. Da has left us, saying “When you finish, go home, okay? Bye-bye!” Great, now we just have to sit for fear of committing any more mortal voodoo-sins.
It is a yearly ceremony commemorating the deaths of past Dahomey kings and seems to be well attended. Voodoo is the national religion of Benin and those in the community practice it just like any other religion. I can honestly say that I have respect for those that have retained it against the formidable influence of western evangelism besides that it is just so damned complicated and interesting to me. About 1,000 people are gathered, creating a circle around open dirt, with another smaller crowd inside and to the left. The dancers alternate from performing en mass in the front, and circling around the inner group. Half of the crowd is sitting on the dirt and we all look a little like children as we gaze up at the dancers passing by throbbing to the drums. African drumming generally consists of several drums, bells, and shakers all creating an incredible polyrhythm (instruments play different beats; that is, one playing a 4 count, another plays a 5-7 count, etc.). The women bob their shoulders forward and back to the rhythm while shuffling their feet as they move in a circle, the layers of cloth around their waist creating a dramatic figure. They each wore no less than 20 long strings of beads around their necks and 6 inch wide aluminum wrist-cuffs with small bells that sing with the movements of their bodies. Compared to the men, the women move subtly, as if they have nothing to prove. The men, however, throw their bodies to the music and spray dirt as they kick their fast moving feet past the crowd. They are draped in fabric and bells and all wear large anklets that bounce with their feet. They get very close to the crowd and cause a roar of shouting. I hear the same 2 or 3 phrases shouted over and over again to the dancers as they pass. It is yelled in low tones, like a jeer aimed at an opponent, and comes out like a song in the tonal language of Fan (the meaning of a word can change based on the tone in which it is spoken; high, low, nasal, etc.).
There something about the female dancers that seems different and I can’t quite name it; after they make several passes by us I realize the variation: they are all at least 50. To see these women throb their bodies like all of the youth I’ve seen responding intense African drum language is exhilarating. It reminds me that there is a dancer to greater or lesser extent in every African, and these mamas were good enough to move side by side with young 20-something men. During the ceremony, as dancers broke into group performances, the women went about acknowledging the crowd. Some came around repeatedly to the women that were somehow important enough to have chairs for the ceremony and would lean in close and clap their hands while the seated woman sat up, speaking to the dancer earnestly and rubbing her hands together. Many women walked around with bottled to perfume and would spray it on the chair wielding amongst us, afterwards presenting an open hanky for a few coins.
In the middle of a large collection of people seated on the ground was someone of high importance. He sat much higher than anyone in his immediate area, with a group of young women who would regularly break out into songs that were then followed by songs from a group of older men to their left. At one point in the ceremony I looked over at this honored man and noticed his face lit from below in a strange way with a look of concern across his brow. I continued watching, hoping for any interesting. Instead, his face broke its expression and he looked back up to the ceremony with a smile as he slipped his cell phone back in his shirt pocket; text messaging.
The ceremony ended and we got as far away from what was once the ‘stage’ before we replaced our shoes. Fool me once, right? As we walk back towards the road, we are greeted by everyone with pass with a sincere smile. As the only yevoos (white people) there, I sensed a bit of appreciation for having attended their gathering rather than sticking to tour guides and museums like so many others. As Ian and I make our way back to the guest house, stopping to buy baguettes and oranges along the way, we wonder the significance of all the subtle elements of the ceremony we had just witnessed. In fact, we began many sentences with “I wonder why…” during our trip and very few were able to be answered with my survival level French.
When we approach the guest house on the dark sandy ‘street,’ Da is waiting for us outside. “I had to go inside the… the… house because I am, umm…vestiged. You could not go because you…”
“Are not vestiged?” Ian completes his sentence with a laugh and we bid our host good night and head for the dark hall that leads to our simple room. We spent that night staring at water marks on the ceiling and describing what we saw them as in our imaginations. In no time at all we are asleep, safe within a mosquito net cocoon. You can never tell what the next day will bring and a good night rest certainly takes the edge off troublesome occurrences.