Did you miss us?
We missed you and we missed us, too. The traveling us. This pandemic threw a wrench in our travels, didn’t it? Well, all things considered, we didn’t do so badly after all. After a year of being locked up at home with a new baby granddaughter, we got vaccinated and ventured out into 2021 Summer. We traveled by car around Europe with emphasis on Southern Italy and Sicily in particular and then had a fantastic safari in Kenya with my dad.
Mirek sailed with his guy friends in Canary Islands just when the volcano erupted there.
The end of the year found us full of travel plans for 2022. Bolstered and tested we boarded our overseas flights. Mirek went to Prague to see his grandkids and I joined a small group of intrepid travelers on a photographic tour of Benin. Afterward, we were to rendezvous in Prague and fly to Patagonia together.
While I only wielded my trusty iPhone, I learned so much about photography from professional photographer master Inger Vandyke and other participants. As she is particularly known for her tribal portraits this was a big focus on our shoots. After two spectacular weeks of voodoo ceremonies and dance extravaganza, we were ready to fly out, but tested positive for Covid. So we had to spend another 10 days in quarantine, luckily at a beach hotel. Silver lining: time to edit all the thousands of wonderful photos we took.
Our photographic adventure started (literally) with a bang on the very first day. We attended our first voodoo ceremony (Judicial Shango) and winced at chickens and a goat being sacrificed, culminating with human skulls doused with gun powder and set aflame. All the while women and children joyfully sang and danced.
While I steadfastly refused power potions of alcohol and chicken blood I didn’t hesitate to make a fool of myself dancing. And continued to do so at any appropriate occasion. What fun!
In the afternoon at the next ceremony, we quickly moved from Death to Love.
The Sahoué people in the village of Medjrohoue (literally The Village of Strangers) performed a ceremony of love (Gambada) for us with tremendous feats of trance dancing supported by copious amounts of offering (and consumption) of cigarettes and alcohol.
Who knew we will be meeting a king and his royal court?
We were warmly welcomed in the compound of King Agassa, the highest figure of voodoo in Africa revered by over 30 million followers. We met some of his wives and were personally blessed.
One of the quieter and sweeter ceremonies was the Blessing of the Twins. Benin and Nigeria have the highest incidence of twin births in the world and twins are seen as very special. So if one or both twins die at birth special dolls are fashioned for the family to care for and keep, literally, close to their heart.
Our twin guides Assou and Damien happily participated in traditional blessing ceremony for twins presided over by Adoua, the high priestess of twins.
We were very much looking forward to the spectacular twirling zangbetos, famous ‘guardians of the night’ in voodoo. We were pleasantly surprised when encountered them out in the streets getting ready and even more surprised that they were happy to take photos with us.
It is a mystery what makes them twirl and for proof zangbetos were flipped over for us only to find nothing but different tiny moving objects inside, including a box with a live baby python.
One of the most spectacular and bizarre ceremonies of our tour was the voodoo trance dance of power, ‘Koku’. The trance dancers covered themselves with kaolin and yellow palm oil and donned straw skirts. Blood flowed when they cut themselves with daggers and machetes oblivious to pain.
The warm and beautiful people everywhere were the highlight of the whole trip. Young and old, children and grannies, ladies and gents, we enjoyed meeting them and taking their photos. The patterns and colors were ever-changing and always exciting.
The most grandiose and elaborate creatures we met were Egungun, meaning “powers concealed” or “dry bones (of ancestors)” . Their dancing, whirling, and chasing performance is a Yoruba masquerade that provides an important connection between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is essential that one avoids being touched by the egungung or even just by its lappets, that are sent flying, creating a “breeze of blessings.”
We had a special privilege to be able to see and photograph the whole ensemble of egungun up close and still.
Leaving the exuberant and colorful South we headed North. In the North of Benin we found a different, rural landscape with giant baobabs and mango trees thronging a variety of traditional dwellings in small villages.
Taneka villages set in a dramatic landscape were the poorest of all. The Taneka are known for their spiritual healers, old men who smoke large pipes and either grant wishes or cure ailments.
On the contrary the Somba homes could look like pretty little castles.
Through the dark, cramped, smoked filled interior
one would climb up to the top where the flat open roof was a whole microcosm of bedrooms, grain storage or drying platforms.
Tata’s were my favorite architecture, and the people inhabiting these unique structures were wonderfully friendly and welcoming. And their children were an absolute treasure and delight.
But when it comes to remarkable, unforgettable faces it is the Fulani, that come in first. They are the hardest to find and often the shyest to photograph. We were absolutely gobsmacked when after a long drive and a long wait at the end of the world our amazing guide returned from a hidden village leading a procession of motorcycles ferrying beautiful, tattooed, bejeweled apparitions wrapped in blue.
The faces were stunning and even more so were the tattoos.
And then there was the jewellery!
In the East of Benin we experienced something quite different and surprising – the Batonu Horsemen of Parakou, formerly descendants from aristocracy in the Kingdom of Nikki in Nigeria. As colorful as they were this was for me the only disappointment of the trip, for the horses didn’t look very well kept or treated kindly.
Much more pleasant and happy was our short detour to a tiny island of Agonvé, situated on a freshwater Lake Azili close to the border with Nigeria. The ancestors of the people of Agonvé originally escaped the slavers, finding safety and fish on the small island.
It was a photographer’s paradise with wonderful “models” at every turn.
Our last ceremony of the trip was a dancing masked ceremony of Gelede. Young and old enjoyed a celebration of the feminine divinity of the Yoruba people.
Performed by a lovely group of local Mahé people in the area of Cové it became more and more riotous as the afternoon progressed.
Back in the South last special tribe, we stopped by were the Holi. They are a sub-culture of the larger Yoruba group of Nigeria. Some girls still have facial scarification, but only old women still have the most impressive tattoos on their bodies. They were very happy to see our interest and proud to show off their tattoos and pose for photographs.
We emerged from the “bush” into the city of Porto Novo, a former Portuguese colony. The spectacularly colored and decayed cathedral-turned mosque entertained us for a few hours of street photography while we lasted only a few minutes in the ghastly fetish market.
Ganvié or the ‘Venice of Africa’ as it is often known, was our last major destination. Established when the king of the Tofinu took his people out on the waters of Lake Nokué to escape slavers, the stilted village is now home to around 80,000 people.
We spend the night on the island which allowed us to observe and photograph, cold beer in hand, the steady evening boat traffic, and the only ladies in the whole of Benin who did not like having their picture taken.
Back on solid ground in Ouidah we tried to see some of the places and monuments of the horrific slave trade, but much of it was under construction.
We did find the well known voodoo python temple with its resident collection of Ball’s (or Royal) Pythons open and met some of their lovely handlers. Pythons are revered in voodoo culture and it is forbidden to hurt or kill one. As most Africans are terrified of the snakes, we had lots of opportunities to get acquainted with them up close and personal.
At the very end of the trip we stopped at one of the schools that received part of 110 sturdy new desks that we fundraised for last year. The enthusiastic and warm welcome was inspiring and hopefully, we inspired them a little, too!