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March 10, 1996

Voodoo Lives on in West Africa

OUIDAH, Benin -- There are no factory whistles to compete with the church bells or the muezzin's call to prayer in this sun-battered town that resembles so many other forgotten stops along the West African coast. So few cars move about that schoolchildren think nothing of strolling down the middle of its sandy streets.

If it were not for the small whitewashed Portuguese fort that nowadays serves as a museum to a trade in humans that in the last century made this town the capital of what Europeans called the Slave Coast, at first glance little would give away Ouidah's place in history.

But at the price of 1.5 million souls tallied by slavers as "pieces of ebony" and shipped from here in bondage, perhaps no place in Africa has exported so much to the culture of the United States and much of the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

From Creole New Orleans to the swamplands of Florida, from Baptist church shouts to blues lyrics, talk of hoodoo and mojo -- references to Ouidah's ancient religion, Vodoun -- has sprinkled American life.

Ouidah's influence extends even further, to places like Trinidad, Brazil and Cuba, where African-inspired religions like Santeria and Candomble trace many of their roots straight to here.

In Haiti, Vodoun is a progenitor of the religion that Haitians call Vaudou, and the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint l'Ouverture is believed to have passed through this town on his way to the Caribbean.

For Africans who lived during the brutal days of slaving, leaving these shores was widely seen as a path to death at the hands of Europeans who were believed to use their captives for ritual sacrifice at sea.

If this is merely one of many misconceptions that Africans of the time held about Europeans and vice versa, historians of the period say that it is a fact that as many as half of the crowded human cargo loaded onto Western ships died from disease before they reached slave markets.

As contacts between West Africa and the so-called New World multiply these days, in forms as varied as jet travel and Internet communication, people in this country are realizing more than ever that their human loss fertilized a rich new culture across the waters.

In Ouidah, whose present-day population is about 20,000, no one seems prouder of this fact than Daagbo Hounon Houna, whose calling card describes him as the "Supreme Chief of the Grand Council of the Vodoun Religion of Benin" and whose stature can be seen in the greetings given by worshipers who throw themselves at his feet and kiss the sand.

Explaining his title, Houna, 74, stout and swaddled in colorful robes and a straw hat, told a visitor to his Ouidah temple that devotees of a religion that Americans most widely know as voodoo think of him as its pope.

In his cool inner sanctum, where earthen walls bear portraits of his predecessors going back to 1452, Houna beamed as he showed off a certificate of appreciation from the city of New Orleans, which he visited last September. In recent years, he said, he has also been invited to Bahia in Brazil and to Cuba.

Along with the touring that comes with his position, Houna, a former civil servant who inherited his title after retirement, clearly sees part of his duty as correcting distorted images of Vodoun, a religion that he says has been vilified like few others.

"When the first Europeans walked on our soil they began calling us fetishists," Houna said, speaking through a translator in his native Fon language. "That was the first of many efforts by whites to introduce their beliefs and destroy our culture."

Houna's explanation of his religion is not a simple one. There is one God, Mawu, he said, but countless names for this supreme deity's manifestations, as shown in the murals and elaborate symbols of spirits like Gu, Legba, Damballa and Hevioso -- all common figures in Haitian religion and artwork -- that appear on his temple's whitewashed walls.

What he wants to make clear, however, is that among its boundless mysteries Vodoun has nothing to do with the common Western perception of sticking pins in dolls to persecute real or imagined enemies.

"There are women who cannot conceive children, men who cannot find work and elders who cannot find peace," Houna said. "Vodoun restores hope. It protects our land and brings the cool breeze."

In belated recognition of the faith's importance in a country of 5.5 million where most people are officially Roman Catholic but few have completely abandoned their ancestral values, the country's democratically elected president, Nicephore Soglo, this year named January 10 a national holiday in honor of Vodoun.

Houna's simple version of the Vatican, with its high-flying white flag, is the center of Vodoun in this region. A short walk through the town's narrow streets leads to the onetime center of the slave trade.

Just as Vodoun priests here have kept their faith alive down the years, behind high, peach-colored walls members of the de Souza family have worked to preserve the memory of their Brazilian ancestor, the so-called viceroy of Ouidah, who they say has been unfairly vilified for his undeniably major role in the slave trade.

After nearly 30 years with no one on the family "throne," the de Souzas last fall named as their eighth viceroy, or tchatcha, Honore Feliciano Juliano de Souza, who had to be dragged away from his family's thriving commercial business in nearby Lome, Togo.

He now presides over what some consider to be the world's smallest kingdom, a walled warren of houses where chickens scratch at the sand for food spilled by playing children.

The original viceroy, Don Francisco Felix de Souza, came to Ouidah in 1754 to run the Portuguese slaving fort whose remains now form part of a museum of slavery.

Don Francisco left Ouidah for Brazil only to return a few years later and set himself up as the main intermediary between the powerful Abomey Empire, located in the interior of present-day Benin, and the Europeans, whose frequent stops here inspired the region's name, the Slave Coast.

No outsider, before or since, has played a larger role in this country's history, and Don Francisco's deep involvement led to his family's permanent entanglement in and identification with Benin.

He was named viceroy of Ouidah in 1818 by an Abomey king, Ghezo, who came to power after de Souza helped him overthrow a brutal predecessor.

To the charge that their ancestor was a principal actor in the deportation of many thousands of slaves, today's de Souzas portray the first viceroy as something of a humanist.

"Our ancestor traded in slaves, but it isn't fair just to stop there," said Marcellin Norberto de Souza, son of the sixth viceroy, whose white mustache and hair offsetting his dark skin are characteristic of the de Souza clan. "He was in fact a very generous man living in what you might call a barbarous time."

The new viceroy's priority these days is reconstructing the original two-story home of his ancestor, which sat near the front of the present-day compound and afforded a clear view of his own auction yard and what is officially known today as the Slave Route.

Just outside the walls of the compound sits a huge shade tree, which the chained slaves circled in a final, mournful rite before marching off a mile or so to the elegantly palm-lined coast for departure.

Today the route is lined with large painted cement statues that represent the symbols of Benin's once powerful royal families. Closee to the windswept coast stands an abstract monument erected in 1992, for the slaves whose last sight of Africa was often this beach.

Asked what they make of the structure, boys playing in the sand draw close to a foreign visitor. "We have been taught that this represents what Africa has given to the world," one answered.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company