Beneath a West African noonday sun the voodoo priest prepared to slay a chicken with incantation alone, and thus display his power.
I was in Benin, the cradle of voodoo. With me was Jafar, an old friend who had travelled from Ghana to be there. The priest in his white tunic and tall hat of red and gold fussed over a statue of the fertility god Tolegba, carved from a rooted tree-trunk. With his beneficent smile, the god – blue-skinned and obese – could have been an African Buddha, were it not for the gigantic penis pointing straight at me. A rancid mass of decayed animal corpses, cassava paste, palm oil, dried blood and gin was testament to past offerings. The stench was eye-watering.
Without warning the priest spat palm oil in the god’s face, then a chicken was brought forth.
He asked: “Is it for a good reason that you come to our village?”
I answered as boldly as I could. “We’re looking for the Old Man of the Rain.”
Two encounters in West African drinking spots had led me there. The first was back in 2011, at a shack bar on Ghana’s sweltering Gold Coast. You can probably picture the kind of place: tin roof, cold beer, mosquitoes, thumping ragga music. I had just made Jafar’s acquaintance, and he told me a traveller’s tale I would never forget. The previous year, at the annual Festival of Voodoo in Benin - it draws devotees from across West Africa - he had witnessed something extraordinary.
“I saw the chief priest chop off his wife’s head,” he told me. “Blood was everywhere. The priest was chanting incantations. And low and behold, the head was reattached. She came back to life.”
Ah, but it was some kind of illusion, I suggested. Probably involving mirrors and pig’s blood.
“All I can say is I was standing no further away than you are from me now,” he replied. “It happened. In the full glare of my eyes.”
I should mention that Jafar, then in his early twenties, is not a follower of voodoo. And he’s nobody’s fool. Brought up in Accra, he worked his way to studying biochemistry at college in the USA. He is a man of science. Something about Jafar’s story never left me, so years later I asked him to return to Benin for a documentary. We would confront any fears and preconceptions, dynamiting the image of voodoo as sometimes a frightening religion, bent on curses and revenge. Or so I thought.
On arrival in Benin we witnessed voodoo initiates stick knives through their own arms and smash glass bottles over their heads, spasmodic in the frenzy of possession. A worshipper’s scalp peeled open like a zipper. There were other, concerning developments. We saw an actual voodoo doll. At the Temple of the Python in Ouidah - voodoo’s spiritual capital – snakes slithered over each other in a single shiny mass, and the priest placed the biggest on Jafar’s shoulders. Did I mention that - like some Indiana Jones of Downtown Accra - my pal is afraid of snakes?
Then, in the grimy port district of Cotonou, a Fah reading. After casting his collection of bones, shells, stones and old coins across the tattered lino of his home, the fortune-teller dropped a bombshell.
“The Fah reveals about a lady that you love,” he told Jafar. “But the lady is not playing fair. She is not only for you.”
Jafar looked crestfallen. “When I go back I will have to discuss with my girlfriend and find out what really goes on in her heart,” he said. “Time will tell.”
“Fah never lies,” retorted the voodoo.
Which brings us to the second bar-room encounter, this one at a cheap hotel back in Cotonou, Benin’s biggest city. Dilapidated fans heaved the humid air like a ladle through pea soup; a mosquito light crackled and fizzed, casting the room an unearthly blue. And Arnaud, our Beninese translator, had a warning. Word of our presence had reached unwanted ears. We were asking too many questions.
“There are some things you cannot know,” Arnaud muttered beneath the clatter of a fan and the yells of local businessmen playing cards. “You are not initiated.”
But if we persisted?
“They will spiritually destroy you,” he replied. “If you are spiritually hunted, how can you escape that? The world is more spiritual than physical. They have this magic.”
I asked what might they actually do.
“They use magic for killing,” he replied. “They may think you have money. They want to see if you are powerful, so they will test you. Or they do it without reason. They will force you to do things you don’t want to do.”
Back in the UK, a guidebook writer who covers the region had told me voodoo was like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars. Voodoo means power, and its followers believe a natural energy flows through everything. There was much good in it, which people I met on the street rhapsodized over; but it also had a darker side. I suspect it was George Lucas’s inspiration.
“You cannot have the good without the bad,” Arnaud explained now.
Then he told me about the Old Man of the Rain, one of Benin’s most powerful sorcerers who lived far to the north.
“He can make rain at any time,” Arnaud went on. “Even in dry season. He can stop the rain whenever he wants. But his power is not designed to harm anyone. He uses the rainfall to water farms. He protects the people.”
It was dry season: this was something I had to see.
The further north we drove, the dustier it became; equatorial foliage receded into scrub and the ratio of mud hut to breezeblock increased in tandem. So to Tolegba’s village, close to the Rainmaker’s reputed whereabouts. The priest handed his doomed chicken to Jafar, and it thrashed in his grip.
“Keep it well!” the voodoo admonished him.
The incantations rose and the priest whirled and stamped, shaking his rattles. Then he commanded Jafar to release the fowl, which fell dead from his arms. Jafar was impressed.
“Any person who is willing to hurt you will be killed like that by the divinity,” the priest cried triumphantly.
Then he told us where to find the Old Man of the Rain.
He was waiting for us in a clearing between four huge mahogany trees. Two towering baobabs sprouted from a kopje, emerging from the broken rock itself. The rock formation could have been painted by one of the Yuan dynasty Four Masters; the ancient Chinese also believed spirits reside in trees, rivers, waterfalls and mountains. Plastic chairs had been set out on a carpet of leaves. There were no clouds in the sky.
The Rainmaker welcomed us. It was hard to guess his age. He wore a trilby hat and the worn, earthy clothes of a farmer. There was a stillness to him, a sense of peace. In this arcadian setting we discussed life, the universe and everything.
“The best lesson from voodoo is blessing,” he said. “Don’t go to voodoo to harm somebody else. To come to voodoo, you have to be pure. If you spend your time doing bad, sending curses, causing accidents, you will not succeed. What’s recommended is to do only good in life. Then your progeny will thrive.”
When he clasped my hand his grip was surprisingly strong.
“Go to voodoo to keep your family healthy and your business thriving,” he said. “To have long life and white hair like mine.”
I asked if he could bring down the rains for us. Only now there was a snag: he could not find a certain leaf needed for the spell.
“Performing miracles is possible,” he explained. “But all those miracles obey the rules. I have to be humble, because those powers I have were gifted by my ancestors. Next time, I beg you to let me know early, and we will bring you to the hill. Then you will see what we call miracles.”
Jafar flinched at my next question. What did he think of those foolish types who do not believe in magic?
I fancied a trace of anger crossed his brow. Moments later - and with the recording as my witness - a wind picked up. For the first time since I had been in Benin, the weather was shifting from its daily torpor. Leaves began to rattle and shake in the clearing.
I laughed nervously. “Are you doing this?”
He smiled, and the wind seemed to fade a little.
“This is not my power,” he said. “This is natural.”
Every traveller to Benin forms their own opinion of voodoo sorcery and its power. I will keep mine to myself. But suffice to say, Western stereotypes of this religion are less than half the story.
Discussing goodness and the meaning of life with the Rainmaker, however? That had a magic of its own.
E.M. Davey is a 37-year-old novelist and investigative reporter specialising in undercover journalism, environmental crime and international corruption. During nine years at the BBC he worked on exposés for programmes such as Panorama and Newsnight. He is currently Head of Rainforest Investigations at the NGO Global Witness. His thrillers mash up history, 21st century espionage and meticulous research, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. He once got charged by an enraged hippopotamus and had to climb a tree to escape. Find out more at www.emdavey.com
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