Dancing With the Dead in Benin—Page 2
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Egun dancer

With their elaborately colored costumes and flowing robes, the Egun Gun twirl and jump, jerk and swoon, then randomly pick a person from the gathered crowd, directed from the spirit within, and race headlong at them, adding drama to the moment and also panic because it is believed that if the dancer touches you, your physical body will soon wither and die and you will be transported into the spirit world. Apparently this particular spirit singled me out.

To assure no physical contact is made, young apprentices accompany each dancer using a long bamboo rod which they use to poke those they think are too close, imposing themselves between the dancer and the crowd, and apparently immune to the lethal contact due to their station. As a guest I had a young boy at my side for just this reason who failed in his task.

My Voodoo Exorcism
Now, I was in effect, receiving an exorcism, and a local man who spoke English came forward to explain to me that the wand the mambo was using was the femur of a lion, killed by a warrior with a spear, thus infusing it with power sufficient to ward off my imminent departure from this earth. It was inlaid with several dozen cowry shells, a common adornment used throughout Africa, representing fertility because of their resemblance to a vagina thus were an affirmation of life and a strong deterrent to my current dilemma.

I was told to stand still as the bone was passed over my body, drawing the evil spirits from inside and corralling them inside the shell openings, pulling them out and passing them into the ether where they were harmlessly dispersed to seek another venue to invade.

lion femur

I believe there is power in voodoo, but for it to have dominion, the practitioner must also have belief in it, and while I am open to esoteric beliefs more than most people, I had no fear for my life in spite of what was happening. I have my own religious convictions, thus rendering it impotent against me, but I also understand the collective power of belief, and I was surrounded by a crowd of adherents who were firmly convinced that I was in imminent danger, so out of respect for them, I continued my role in the ceremony. After all, how many people get to experience a real live voodoo exorcism?

When he finished, the mambo dropped the lion bone, saying he could no longer hold it because its soul was too heavy, and he himself appeared physically spent, staggering back to join his compatriots on the arm of a young assistant. Only then did the head mambo retake his seat.

It was explained that I had been turned free by the spirits that had entered my body, and that I must have a great power since I was still alive where one of the local villagers could not have survived such an invasion, in fact, had it been one of them, the mambo would not have even tried to intervene. They themselves would be able to return during the next dance, just not in a living body. It was also explained that a cleansing ceremony would be performed later to restore the lion bone to its original condition as a talisman of power before it could re-instate the authority of its owner.

Behold the White Griot
To the assembled crowd, I had spent a few seconds suspended between the two worlds and so had gained a new status. It sounded like one of those stories of people close to death describing a white light at the end of a tunnel and then being drawn back to the present although I had no such experience. It was imposed upon me by those watching the ceremony.

At this point the villagers were gathering around me, touching me, grabbing my hands. Most were smiling but a few shed tears as my experience had apparently elevated me to a spiritual state I was not aware of, and had given me great face with the community.

Africa travel

In Africa, children often bow to an elder for a blessing, bestowed by the simple touch of ones palm laid flat on the crown of the head. Several mothers brought their infants to me for this blessing, now instilled with new meaning by my supposed conquest of the evil.

I had originally intended to stay a couple days to observe these ceremonies, and had I decided to do so I no doubt would have been treated as an honored guest, but that did not seem right for something that was imposed on me and I had not earned. I had experienced more in one day than most people learn in a lifetime.

With great humility I bid my farewell to all, profusely thanking the mambos for saving me great suffering, and walked through an admiring crowd, shaking hands all the way to my vehicle. I heard the word griot muttered by several people and realized they now meant me. Never would I have expected the experience I had that day, prompted by a simple photo shoot, and knew that few outsiders would ever be drawn into the secret world of voodoo in such a manner.

In Africa, events are always stories, stories soon become myth, and myth often becomes a legend.

Perhaps one day I will be sitting at a campfire in West Africa and hear the story of the white mambo who entered the spirit world and returned.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.

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Related articles:

Tracking the Hadzabe: Little is Changed in one of Africa's Last Remaining Bush Tribes by Shelley Seale
Clear and Prescient Danger in Morocco by Luke Armstrong
The Warrior Scholar from Kenya by James Dorsey
Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon by Tony Robinson-Smith

See other Africa travel stories from the archives

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