Date: Fri, 16 Feb 1996 12:30:09 -0700
From: Richard Hodges <email@example.com>
DOUTOU, Benin (AP) -- Dozens of monkey and crocodile skulls dangle above the altar. As the crouching priest calls on his gods, a shaft of sunlight streams into the mud hut and the bony jaws seem to come to life.
"Pray for the good health of our families,'' chants Sossa Guedehoungue, the 86-year-old high priest of voodoo in Benin, where "Vodoun'' began 350 years ago and won state recognition this year.
"Pray for the safe journey of our visitors,'' Sossa sings, pouring gin over a foot-high mound of kola nuts, then swirling and spitting the alcohol at his startled guests.
And pray, his translator later says, that the visitors won't perpetuate the notion that voodoo is a form of sorcery to be feared.
In its West African birthplace, voodoo is coming out of the dark.
On Jan. 10, Benin's government inaugurated National Voodoo Day, giving the religion practiced by 65 percent of the 5.4 million Beninese an official place alongside Christianity and Islam.
Marxist-Leninist dogma overtook the practice of voodoo during the 18-year reign of Mathieu Kerekou, who deemed the rites a detriment to the socialist work ethic. He was ousted in 1991.
While Kerekou, who is trying to make a comeback in the March 3 presidential election, snubbed voodoo, President Nicephore Soglo, a Roman Catholic, has been accommodating.
Soglo's Renaissance Party lost its majority in the National Assembly last April, a sign of voter discontent with his leadership. Some of his detractors accuse Soglo of trying to woo support from voodoo's adherents by ordering the new, paid holiday.
"It's evident that it wasn't an innocent move,'' says Bruno Amoussou, president of the National Assembly and the leading opposition candidate in the presidential race.
Soglo's supporters dispute that. They say he already had the crucial political loyalty of Sossa, who was elected five years ago by a majority of priests to head the national bureau that oversees the practice of voodoo.
In Doutou, on the Togo border about 60 miles west of the commercial capital, Cotonou, Sossa arrives in his hometown in a shiny Nissan 4-by-4, his family flag streaming from the hood as his chauffeur races the vehicle along the bumpy dirt road.
The man regarded by many Beninese as the pope of voodoo holds court, sending envoys back and forth to negotiate his day: mediating a dispute between neighboring Muslims and Christians; divining the kola nuts for a father who wants to know his son's future.
No pins stuck into voodoo dolls, no glassy-eyed zombies lunging through the night of the living dead.
"A lot of people believe voodoo is dangerous. That's crazy,'' Sossa snorts in Sahoue, one of Benin's 80 dialects, as he sits surrounded by his two dozen wives and more than 100 children and 300 grandchildren. "If it were an evil thing, we wouldn't still be here.''
The religion holds that all life is driven by spiritual forces of natural phenomena like fire and wind, as well as of the dead, and that they should be honored through rituals.
Animal sacrifices, trances and vanishing acts are all part of voodoo. But its followers insist there is a balance of good and evil; bad comes to those who have not been good.
"So you are not protected from yourself,'' says Ambriose Medegan, a sociology professor at the University of Benin, unless you admit your sins and ask for forgiveness.
Voodoo does have its sinister side, which was brought to the surface during the slave trade. It is said the demonic spirit of Petro came into being to give millions of West Africans shipped to Haiti, Cuba and the Americas warrior-like powers to survive and cast evil spells on their enslavers.
When voodoo traveled westward, it took on a Christian flavor as its followers added Catholic saints and Christian rituals to disguise the rites that their owners forbid.
Many of those slaves were shipped via Ouidah, on the Gulf of Guinea, where for 100 years Africans were forced to march to the Port of No Return.
Today, Ouidah is the domain of Sossa's chief rival, Daagbo Hounon Houna, whose business card reads, "His Excellence, Supreme Chief of the Vodoun.''
Both men are equally revered. While Daagbo is 20 years younger than Sossa -- age in Africa earns greater respect -- his family's consecutive priesthood dates to 1452.
On a recent Sunday, Daagbo and two dozen female followers gathered outside his whitewashed family compound to give thanks to Gu, the god of iron.
The women kowtow as Daagbo, a huge man draped in stiff white cotton and necklaces of seashells, lifts a goat to the sky before slitting its throat, draining its blood on an iron altar of rusty car parts as it bleats for life.
The ritual ends with a toss of halved kola nuts to divine whether the sacrifice is accepted: Two halves up and two halves down gives a balance to signify acceptance from Gu.
Everyone nibbles on the bitter kola nuts -- which represent the body of the creator Mawu -- and sips from a tiny calabash of sweet fruit juice in a final gesture of thanks, before heading out at dusk for the evening meal.
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