The densely populated kingdom of Ouidah is located on the coast of West Africa, now known as Benin. The Voodoo festival is known to have its roots in Benin, where the dismal history of the slave trade took place for almost three centuries. The festival warrants a public holiday across the nation, although it is particularly celebrated by the Ouidah people, where the magical customs and dark history of the nation have the biggest influence.

It is believed that the Voodoo Festival in Benin was inaugurated by the President of Benin, Nicephore Dieudonne Soglo, in 1993 in a bid to revive the customs and traditions of voodoo. He wanted to regain black African´s identity and dignity while also recognising the humanitarian worth of the traditional African religions that serve as their foundation. The Ouidah voodoo festival is significantly linked to the slave trade that occurred hundreds of years ago in the kingdom. It is held in honour of the thousands of people who lost their freedom and homes as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. The practice serves to recognise the existence of over 300 deities. It combines both medicine and philosophy while holding to the belief that everything, humans included, is spirit.

The rite begins with the killing of a goat, accompanied by singing, dancing, processions, and alcohol consumption. Dagbo Houno, the festival’s head priest, or feticheur, presides over Ouidah. The procession starts at the Temple of Pythons, which, as the name implies, houses dozens of pythons. It is believed that they are harmless, but if anyone mistakenly or intentionally kills one, the individual will find himself or herself on the way to the world beyond unless proper rituals are conducted. After paying tribute to fetishes at the Temple of Pythons, the head priest begins the main procession. The procession travels along the path used to bring slaves from Benin to the west and concludes at Ouidah Beach, which has a view of the Atlantic. Numerous Vodun delegations come to this location to honour Dagbo and other esteemed priests.

During the festival period, most of the worshippers are seen entering a trance-like state amidst the frenzy of beating drums and other musical instruments. Their powdered bodies, coupled with their manic dances and magic displays, make the festival more fun for both locals and tourists. While possessed, worshippers can mutilate or whip themselves with knives or wooden clubs. Participants adorned in traditional attire of dazzling colours follow the voodooshi (the female version of the voodoo pope) in a grand procession to the Sacred Forest, which is home to a gigantic tree believed to be the first king of Ouidah. History has it that he turned himself into a tree. Nowadays, the tree is of religious and spiritual importance to the people of Ouidah, as several statues of gods have been erected around it.

To date, the annual festival, which takes place every 10th of January in Ouidah, sees both the rich and poor, locals and tourists, home and away, gathering together to celebrate amidst colourful egungun and bloody animal sacrifices. With the Ouidah voodoo festival fast becoming an international tourist draw, it seems destined that it will continue to be an annual event in Benin’s religious and cultural calendar.

Written by: Oke Oluwadamilola 

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