Vodun celebration of the Forest and War Spirits. Photo: Dan Sloan.

Vodun provides identity and self-esteem

For a long time, the vodun religion was banned in Benin and its followers persecuted. Now it is allowed again, but some fear vodun will simply become a tourist attraction. NAI scholarship-holder Liisa Nokso-Koivisto looks at the cultural heritage of vodun in Benin.

In a month-long break from her studies at the University of Helsinki, Nokso-Koivisto has been exploring the NAI library for material for her master’s thesis. Last year she went to Benin to do fieldwork in the coastal city Ouidah, a few hours’ drive from Cotonou. Ouidah is often called the cradle of vodun. It was also one of the biggest slave-trading ports in Africa. It is estimated that around one million slaves were shipped from the port of Ouidah over a 200-year period, mainly to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Liisa Nokso-Koivisto.

“They brought vodun with them. That is why vodun is well established in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti – but with local variations. Many slave descendants from the Americas come to Benin to study the origins of vodun”, Nokso-Koivisto remarks.

The word ‘vodun’ means spirit, and there are many spirits in the religion. Almost every family has its own spirit that they need to keep happy with different kinds of gifts. Food and alcohol are common, but sometimes the spirits require animal sacrifices as well. If one accepts spirits’ impact on one´s daily life, concepts such as luck or misfortune become irrelevant, because everything happens for a reason, depending on whether the spirits are pleased or dissatisfied.

“In the West, vodun has always been considered as something dangerous, focusing on curses and spells, whereas in fact blessings are more central to the faith”, Nokso-Koivisto points out.

For decades, vodun was banned and its followers persecuted in Benin by the colonial government and Christian missionaries, and after independence by military regimes. Nowadays, fast-growing Pentecostal churches are the biggest critics of vodun.

“They are not so tolerant of other beliefs – although, people say that their priests also go to vodun temples at night when nobody will see them. Actually, it is common to combine spirit worship with normal church-going in Benin. It is not viewed as a contradiction, as people say everyone serves the same god in the end. But the paths to contact God may differ”, Nokso-Koivisto says.

Vodun statue along the slave route to the beach in Ouidah. Photo: Dan Sloan.

Between 1972 and 1989, the Marxist-Leninist regime prohibited the practice of vodun. However, since the fall of communism in Benin, political leaders have used it as a mean of attracting tourists to the country.

“Some fear that this eventually will just turn vodun into folklore and that young people will abandon it. But frankly, this wasn’t what I witnessed”, Nokso-Koivisto states.

Actually, it was quite the opposite. She talked to many youngsters who affirmed that vodun is part of their culture and they do not see any problem in combining it with other modern cultural expressions.

“Vodun is not just for tourists. Local people also go to watch dances and performances by vodun practitioners. And people glow when they talk about it. So regardless of to what extent they practice the religion, vodun provides identity and self-esteem for many people in Benin”, Nokso-Koivisto concludes.

TEXT: Johan Sävström

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