Africa is home to a number of religions. Even before Islam and Christianity arrived on the continent, the traditional religions reigned supreme. One of the most popular religions still practiced even today is Voodoo. Countries like Benin, Togo, Ghana and Nigeria and the African diaspora including Haiti, The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil and America consider Voodoo part of their spiritual existence.
Voodoo, also known as Vodoun, originated in the Dahomey kingdom (currently Benin and Togo). The indigenous religion worships natural spirits and worshippers believe that the living and the dead exist side by side.
In Benin every year, people celebrate the Voodoo festival. This year’s festival attracted thousands of people, including people of African descent from the U.S. and the Caribbean hoping to discover the roots of their ancestors. Locals, tourists, and Afro-descendants gathered in the small Atlantic coast town of Ouidah on Tuesday for the famed festival. Ouidah was once an important port in the slave trade.
“We come here first to search for our origins and reconnect with Mother Earth,” Louis Pierre Ramassamy, from Guadaloupe, who was in Benin for the first time for the festival, was quoted by Aljazeera.
During the festival, worshippers dressed in white face the ocean in Ouidah to pay homage to Mami Wata, the mermaid-like deity from Africa. Locals later dress in colorful clothing to watch the Zangbetos perform. Highly revered, the Zangbetos are known as the traditional voodoo guardians of the night. 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, when they perform in front of huge crowds, mostly during the Voodoo festival. At this year’s performance with drumming and dancing, thousands including foreign visitors watched and shot videos on their phones, according to Reuters.
“They come in increasing numbers because voodoo is no longer considered sorcery, it is no longer considered barbarism,” voodoo spiritual leader Daagbo Hounon Houna II told the platform.
Voodoo is practiced by around 12% of Benin’s population of 13 million and officials hope to draw more tourists in the coming years with the Voodoo festival. Around 350,000 tourists visited Benin in 2020, as compared to 292,000 that visited in 2016, figures from the World Tourism Organization show.