In the coastal areas of Benin, Togo, and Nigeria, some people would rather take their cases to the Zangbeto than to the police or the courts.
Highly revered, the Zangbetos, known as the traditional voodoo guardians of the night, are a symbol of authority of the ethnic Ogu people who inhabit the coastal areas of the West African region.
Presented as a protector of the weak, Zangbeto policed the streets to maintain law and order and cleanse communities of evil.
In Pla, an ethnic group of fishermen in a small village on the banks of the Mono River in southern Benin, Zangbetos are still highly worshipped.
“The Zangbeto mask is very tall and covered with colored straw. It represents wild non-human spirits (the forces of nature and of the night that inhabited the earth before human beings). Zangbeto comes out in the darkness of the night making an eerie humming noise to announce his arrival. He has a deep and guttural voice. He dances by spinning around fast, he jumps high and then crawls like a snake.
“This performance guarantees protection against thieves and malicious people. He wanders around the streets dispensing justice,” SouthWorld writes.
Even though the work of Zangbetos is usually at night, they now make appearances in the day as well, where they perform in front of huge crowds, mostly during the Zangbeto Voodoo festival in Lagos, Nigeria.
The festival, attended by over a thousand people, is held every three years in the coastal Ajido Kingdom in Lagos State, with many colorful palm-frond figures representing the traditional guardian of the night, reports the AP.
The recent one held in September 2018 helped to create “fear and reverence,” the chairman of the festival’s organizing committee, Sehude Adeyinka Amosu, told the AP.
“The people needed to see that the Zangbeto is not just a toy.”
“As the traditional police and court of the people, the Zangbeto handles such cases as theft,” Seton Idowu, who also believes in the spiritual powers of the Zangbetos, told the AP.
“Everyone fears the Zangbeto and you can get into trouble if you go against the rules.”
With punishment ranging from fines to the banishment of an individual, many people who trooped to the festival in Ajido Kingdom believe that traditional institutions like the Zangbeto should be revived in the face of crime and corruption.
The people of Pla have similar ceremonies where the Zangbetos make an appearance. The Zangbetos, about four in all, dance, cleanse the village of evil, and prove their presence through magic tricks performed by their initiates. The climax is when they are asked to show their identity.
With costumes that look like a haystack, Zangbetos can fall into a trance and this enables their bodies to be taken over by spirits who possess special knowledge of the actions of people.
However, legend says that there are no humans under their costumes but only spirits of the night.
In communities like Pla, Zangbetos make their appearances in the guise of a frog, snake or bird and this increases the faith people have in their abilities to cleanse them of evil while dispensing justice.
In recent years, the Zangbetos, especially those in southwest Benin, work to protect the rich mangrove ecosystem in the area from threats from mankind.