Tag Archives: Voodoo

Things That I Love About Benin

Here is a list of things I love about Benin–both the program I’m on and the country.  I hate to give you all such a skewed idea of my life over here, and I also don’t want to focus too much on the NU specifics, but I’m a creature crafted for analysis, so that’s usually where my brain wanders.  In the interest of fairness, levity and a more well-rounded picture, here are some things I love.

  • Everyone is so friendly. Even moreso than in the American south, everyone we meet says “bon soir!” and is excited to see us.  Children wave and flash the peace sign, and women in the market are patient with our burgeoning Parisian French.
  • The Beninois students. We did a three day exchange with students form Universite d’Abomey,
  • Vodoun and the Cuba connection. I haven’t learned a ton more about vodoun here that i didn’t already learn in Cuba, but I love seeing how it is woven in to their clture, and talking to the university students about it.  Also, I miss Cuba and my Cuba aseres terribly, so its nice o have a little reminder of home
  • French! I love languages, and speaking French makes me happy.  I like helping other people with it, and getting a better understanding of the people I meet because of my language skills.  It’s also great to see what the francophone world outside of Paris looks like.
  • The weather.  I know it’s hot and sticky and furstrating, but it’s great to be back in a warm, comfy climate.  This coming New England winter may be harder for me than the ever were before…
  • The way of life. I love dirt and messiness and wearing the same gross clothes everyday, with worn-in french braids
  • The group. We spend a lot of time telling each other how smart, kind and adorable we all are, which is just refreshing and enjoyable
  • Our leaders. It’s nice to spend a little time being warm, fuzzy and non-competetive.  For those unaware, this trip is a Human Services excursion, whcih is not my major, but is a related field.  I am one of the few political science people here, but there are many international affairs majors as well as psych, journalism, art, sociology and a few others.  I miss the fiery polisci discussions, and I tease the Human Services kids about drum circles, peace signs and the high number of piercings and tattoos on this trip, but it is acutally kinda nice.  We haven’t met Prof. Luongho yet, but Rebecca is a lawyer in human rights law (!) and Lori has a great cross between sarcasm and being a mom.
  • Julie! Our TA, Julie Miller, is great.  We’ve been doing sunset rooftop yoga led by her, and I really think yoga should never be done anywhere BUT a rooftop in Africa at sunset.  She’s a great help both socially and academically, and I think we’ll all miss her when she goes to UC Berkeley for grad school in the fall.
  • The geography.  Palm trees, red earth, lizards running around everywhere, and adorable goats that act like puppies.  This place is great.  Did I mention we went to the beach?  And Obama Beach at that.  More to come!
  • The Songhai Center. More about this later, but it’s up there with the Grameen Bank and bacon on the list of things that rock my socks.

“This is Why People Believe in God…”

Early morning traffic jam in Cotonou, Benin

“…they think, ‘Please God, make the rain stop!'”

My roommate may be on to something, there…

We woke up our first morning in Benin to a glorious monsoon-like splash for a few hours.  The call to prayer pleasantly lulled me awake, but I wish i had heard it four more times that day.

The rain helped break the heat, but created massive traffic jams and many puddles throughout the Chant d’Oiseau hotel.

The group of 22 of us (plus our TA Julie and profs Lori and Rebeca) are all staying on one floor without strangers, so we wander around the balconies and each other’s rooms, debating brushing our teeth with tap water, or the use of the weird orange tarp on our beds.  (Word on the street is that it’s to protect the bed from rats, but that has been neither confirmed nor denied, and probably never will be.)

Bug net, in the fully upright position

At night my roommate Erin and I tuck ourselves into our forts, AKA beds with bug nets.  We’ve learned to keep chapstick, the alarm clocks and a bottle of water on the INSIDE and have even perfected the art of shutting our lights off from inside our “forts”.

Amid the fairly quiet night, exposing the screeching of bats and scuttling o creatures, we drift off around midnight and get up around  eight or our breakfast of baguette du pain and cafe or du the.

We’ll be going to Porto-Novo on Thusday, bu we’ll be back at the end of our trip again, as the airport is here in Coptonou.  We’ve spent the last few days with students of Abomey University, which was enlightening and fun.  Stay tuned for more updates this week!

Religion: a Smorgasbord

Implements of a Babalao, which is someone in the Ifa tradition (part of Santeria). This belongs to Juan Mesa, a friend, guest lecturer and CASA employee

There is no state religion here, and while there was a long stretch of time after the Revolution when religion had to be underground, that is no longer the case.

Most people here are religious, in some way or another.  Here, though, it’s like a plate at a buffet.  You take what you want from each station, and it all blends together.  No one sees these as contradictory or problematic, although Pope JPII did refuse to meet with any Santeros when he came here.

A Santeria altar at Juan Mesa’s house. This belongs to both he and his wife, who are both santeros. The altar is taller than either of them.

Most people are Catholic to some extent (and yes, you can be varying degrees of Catholic, and you can practice Regla with even more varying degrees), but they also tend to add other things.  There’s a decent sized Jewish population as well.  Many add onto that Santeria, which is the most prevalent religion here.

There are different levels of involvement with Santeria, also known as Regla de Ocha.  You can go to a padrino and have your shells read if you are curious or have a particular problem you want assistance or consejo on.  You can also start to get your collares, or necklaces, for the varying orichas.  You can attend cajones or tambores or several other religious ceremonies.  I’ve done several of these things, but I’m not a santera, an initiate of Santeria.  That would involve many more collares, receiving the guerreros (warriors), and a week-long initiation rite.

A great visual of Cuba: Juan Mesa wears beads from a Santeria ceremony on the same hand as a gold crucifix ring.

Everyone here expresses a similar idea: even if you don’t believe in Regla, you respect it.  Why?  “Becuase I’ve seen things I can’t explain.”  Things like what I’ve seen, when a  man gets glassy-eyed and is possessed by a female oricha, and comes up to you for a hug.  Or when my Changó beads broke when I went into a Catholic church that had oricha altars in it, after Elleguá told me not to go near Santeria anymore.

Abakuá paraphanalia, including the costume of the Irime, a ritual dancer

Santeria is the most prevalent, but there’s also Regla de Palo (sometimes just Palo) and AbakuáAbakuá is just for men, and is sort of like a Masonic lodge with African roots and more drumming.  It’s a secret society that often mixes in Regla, Masonry, Christianity and anything else they can think of.  Palo is like Santeria but a little more intense, a little more scary, because paleros (practitioners of Palo) actually have the spirit of a dead person who works for them.  They can do good or ill, and they do it only for that palero.  There’s also Ifá, which is just a different tradition within Santeria.  It considers different orichas to be the most important, involves more work and another initiation, and is often seen as being better/having a more accurate divination process than Regla alone. Vódou comes from Haiti and can be found in Oriente, and is seen as similar to Ocha.  Some consider it “darker,” but I don’t know enough about it yet to say.

I’m going to get into my various experiences with Santeria more soon, as well as the ins and outs of Santeria specifically since it’s what I’ve had the most exposure to and will be discussing the most.  I just wanted to dispell some myths and quiet some question you may have had on the subject of religion in Cuba.