I thought I was being respectful but it turned out I was being just the opposite. Ultimately, I was left deeply humbled after a visit to the voodoo fetish market in Cotonou, Benin.
Humbled At The Voodoo Market In Cotonou
Voodoo, or Vodon, is the state religion of Benin. Nearly 20% of citizens in Benin explicitly adhere to voodoo-based faith system. Many more that identify as “Christian” take part in indigenous rituals linked to Vodon. Per Wikipedia:
Vodun cosmology centers around the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that range in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, as well as dozens of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, tribe, or nation.
As the BBC notes, “Voodoo is more than a belief system, it is a complete way of life, including culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music and medicine.”
In the heart of Cotonou at the Grand Marché du Dantokpa is a fetish market section, which sells animal parts (like monkey skulls or snake skins or goat brains) as well as dolls with pins as a pseudo-pharmacy for its alternative approach to medicine.
Before finding the L-1011 on the beach, there was nothing I wanted to see in Cotonou more than this. According to all the guides I had read, visitors are welcome but must pay to take pictures.
We found the voodoo fetish section in the heart of market; a football-field sized area lined with every sort of animal part you can imagine.
I thought I was being polite. I told my guide to negotiate a price with the market owner so I could freely take pictures. And he did. Or at least he tried.
But the owner, himself an oungan (priest), became outraged. He yelled at my driver for about a minute and then my driver turned to me and said we must go. I was totally confused at that point, but the driver explained the owner was offended.
“He says this is not a spectacle. This is not a tourist attraction. This is real. And you disrespect it by taking pictures. No pictures.”
I immediately felt bad. As outlandish as I find the voodoo faith, it reminded me of my annoyance of people who come into churches, take a few pictures, admire the artwork, and leave. Yes, there is a place for that, but it also shows a certain lack of respect for a place revered by the faithful as holy.
We left the building but I turned around and proceeded back upstairs to apologize. But the oungan refused to speak to me, instead shooing me away.
We returned to the car. I was sad. I was humbled. The guides were wrong. But I had learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes, all people want is a little respect.
If you want to see some pictures of what a voodoo fetish market actually looks like, Jason Around The World captured some nice ones in Lomé…