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…
This story is part of my An African Adventure As The World Shut Down trip report. The picture above is a stock photo from Dominik Schwarz because I was not permitted to take one…
“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.”
I don’t get this sentiment. If they’re respectful, then who cares? I mean, I know enough about, say, the Jewish faith, but it’s not like I’m expecting to enter a synagogue and be filled with awe or to have some other otherworldly experience if I show up and take some few photos and admire the architecture.
Interesting. Are you sure he was mad that you wanted to take pictures or that you tried to negotiate the price? How come are all the guides wrong? Why the other market in Lomé allows picture at a fee? It feels like you pissed the guy off and then he didn’t want your money at all. Lots of pictures at the market in this travel blog as well https://www.unusualtraveler.com/voodoo-market-of-benin/
I mean, voodoo is obviously false so if anything the locals should feel bad for believing in something that is a spectacle. We don’t need to indulge every beleif
We don’t need to indulge ANY belief. They’re all a matter of faith, not proof.
@Santastico: I can’t answer your questions, only share what I experienced. The guy was offended that I didn’t respect his faith. Fair enough. Everyone was different and perhaps he was the Pope Benedict and the writer you linked arrived on the day Pope Francis was around.
Nothing worse than so-called “Christians” who muck up their belief with this voodoo stuff, which is truly evil in my opinion. Look at Haiti, and many other places.
Fixed it for you.
Nothing worse than so-called “Christians”
Actually applies to all religions. The most stupid people end up being the most religious.
If you would spend more than a day in the 130 + countries you’ve traveled, you would learn about the country and the people. And you would not have to learn that “Sometimes (?), all people want is a little respect”.
Sounds about white!
You ready to bankroll it Michael dearest?
You bet, Do I have to travel with you? You seem to piss off locals where ever you go. You may not survive more than one day.
You’re welcome to. Still hoping to get to Damascus soon rather than later and I’d stay there a few days.
Maybe a body cam might be the way to go if pictures are desired? I, too, would have left immediately because sometimes these confrontations can turn into bodily injury. If you have a brain hemorrhage from a fight, there might not be a suitable neurosurgeon in all of Benin to do the brain surgery.
I agree that the L-1011 Tristar would be higher on my list of things to see than the Voodoo market.
This is why when I go to a place like Notre Dame in Paris, even though I am not Catholic, I sit down and pray longer than I gawk at the architecture. Still, I am probably thought of as an ugly tourist.
I tend to agree with Santastico. I think you p*ssed the guy off for some reason and the photo taking was the convenient cover story.
P.S. What is it about trouble finding you when it comes to taking photos???? You’re seriously cursed in that department.
For what possible other reason would I tick him off? Granted, this was all done in French, but why would my driver lie to me?
The honest answer is – could be just about anything. Our culture doesn’t practice “voodoo” per se but in South India there are some beliefs that are somewhat similar, and those that are more traditional still very much believe in the spirits, both good and evil. Just to give you an example, my mom and one of my aunts still really don’t speak to each other because my aunt accused mom of giving her kid the evil eye 50 years ago. (Mom still insists she has no idea what she did.) You could have easily done something unknowingly (a gesture, a glance, etc.), or the guy just decided he didn’t like you.
Maybe. What a world we live in…
You write that you were “deeply humbled” after your visit, but your word choices for this post suggest that you continue to view a religion practiced by tens of millions as “less than”…
“[T]here was nothing I wanted to see in Cotonou more than this.”
– People can tell when you are only interested in an exotic (to you) photo op. Do you have a genuine interest in learning more about this important religious market?
“Many [Beninese] that identify as “Christian” take part in indigenous rituals linked to Vodon.”
– You quoted “Christian” as if to qualify the validity of how they identify. Do you consider it your place to tell people how to practice their faith?
“[The fetish market] sells [items] as a pseudo-pharmacy for its alternative approach to medicine.”
– Vodun includes traditional medicine, the oldest “pharmacy” in the world. Would it be more accurate to characterize modern medicine as a recent “alternative” to these ancient practices?
“As outlandish as I find the voodoo faith…”
According to Merriam-Webster, outlandish means “1 : of or relating to another country : foreign. 2 a : strikingly out of the ordinary : bizarre. b : exceeding proper or reasonable limits or standards. 3 : remote from civilization.” Based on the entirety of your post, you appear not to be using the first definition.
…and they could tell immediately.
It is not clear why you referenced another post with pictures you were justifiably not allowed to take. The ignorance and tone of superiority is startling:
“The local people in the north of Togo and Benin are still be [sic] believers and practitioners of voodoo, and when something is wrong in their life they go and get the poultices to take care of their ills. Generally, the parts are purchased, ground into a fine powder, then the shaman cuts lines in the skin and rubs the powder in. Seriously. Not kidding.”
First off, many people (in addition to the north of Togo and Benin) practice vodun. “[S]till … believers” sounds like he is remarking on how primitive they are. “Seriously. Not kidding” seems to characterize an ancient belief system as straining credulity or worth. He even includes a photo of French tourists “who looks [sic] absolutely repulsed by the place,” ostensibly to document its alleged grotesqueness. Is this entertaining?
To make something positive from your experience, what would you do differently in the future? What advice would you give to others? How can tourists promote positive and meaningful exchanges?
To be honest I agree wholeheartedly with your summary and comments. This trip to Africa seems to have envoked a similar and ongoing theme.
I can’t speak for Jason, but stay tuned for a wrap-up post on Africa once the return flights are done which will address some of which you comment on.
A supportive longtime reader here Metthew – just interesting to see a shift I had not seen overtly in your previous writings. Thanks again.
Most likely these vile creatures want to hide the animal abuse they engage in, including exploitation of endangered species.
Exactly – I don’t care what religion people practice. But the abuse and exploitation of animals, disregard for species, and the trading of bushmeat and magical “animal cures”? Sorry – it’s disgusting. Find a way to practice your made up religion (FYI – they all are – I’m not judging this one unfairly) without eradicating our natural world.