It was the kind of West African day that stories come from. The endless sky morphed through multiple shades of blue on the whim of the wind and the green forests seemed endless from my passenger seat window. We stopped briefly on a blistering tarmac to watch a dung beetle roll a feces ball three times his size across the road, and I waved at women going to market with twice their body weight in merchandise balanced atop their heads.
I was feeling that life just does not get any better.
Noah was driving and he misses nothing. I swear he sees in every direction at once and knows things before they happen. He is not exactly a witch doctor as that would be too limiting a term for him. Let's say that no one in this part of Africa is untouched by voodoo and Noah is more touched than most. He calls himself a guide and driver, but most importantly, he is a facilitator and either by chance or design, he was opening an ancient culture for me.
Voodoo permeates the land and locals will take you to a rock formation where they say the first true voodoo ceremony took place almost six millennia ago. To this day, it is the official religion of Benin, and an estimated 60% of those who make their homes in the eleven nations of West Africa practice it in one form or another. It is not just a religion, but an all-encompassing way of living.
Noah told stories while driving: one hand on the wheel while the other constantly fingered the gris-gris around his neck. They were wonderful stories of life in the bush before animal sacrifice caused the mass extinction of all local creatures larger than a titmouse. He spoke of lions and elephants, and leopards, animals that no longer exist there. His stories were filled with mystical creatures, forest sprites, and the spirits of ancestors that mixed the ethereal with the material because in West Africa there is no horizon between the two.
As we passed several boys walking on the side of the road, Noah pulled over saying, "You should talk to them." I got out, not knowing why for sure, but having total faith in Noah. They gathered around him because that is what people near him always do. They ranged in age from about six or seven to mid-teens; all well- mannered, cleanly groomed, and very polite.
The boys were beggars, all on the road with their family's blessings because they came from a village too poor to sustain them, a common occurrence in that part of Africa where begging carries no stigma. In fact, it was considered to be an honorable pursuit when no other life paths were available. It is always the boys who are sent away, never the girls, as that would be not only dangerous, but very bad gris-gris.
Older boys are in charge and treat the younger ones as their own, making sure they stay clean and neat, keeping safety in numbers as they wander as mendicants from village to village. Each one of them wore a single cowrie shell on a neck chain, given by their parents to protect them on the road; gris-gris to ward off evil spirits. Some carried personal talismans, given by their families, each with their own esoteric powers. One and all said they knew their parents loved them deeply and that they would return home one day. There was no self-pity; in fact they were all very upbeat.
Nelson was the eldest and thus in charge. He was "At least nineteen," he said, but in this land with few written records, such dates are always just estimates. He was tall and lean as a whippet, with tribal scarring on each cheek, usually the mark of one destined for a position of responsibility within the culture. He spoke and presented himself well, oozing a natural leadership and that endearing quality I have so often found in rural Africa; the immediate willingness to tell a total stranger about your entire private life.
I was surprised to learn that he had his own Facebook page that he accessed whenever he came to a village large enough to host one of the ever-increasing internet cafes that were sprouting up faster than mushrooms across rural Africa. We agreed that after parting, we would befriend each other on social media.
Each boy spoke of future plans that if pursued, would produce an airline pilot, doctor, anthropologist, and musician, among others. Their optimism was contagious, but I had to ask how would they gain the educations needed to pursue such tasks? Then, almost as one, they removed their backpacks and withdrew their tablets.
Luxuries such as paper and pens are in short supply in this part of Africa, so hand carved wooden tablets are used to write on in school. The tablets are passed down from one generation to the next and some have been in a family for more than a century. Ink is made from the ashes of the evening's fire mixed with water and a twig serves as a pen. At the end of the lesson, it is committed to memory and the tablet can be rinsed off and used over and over.
Books from the Author:
Buy Baboons for Lunch: And Other Sordid Adventures at your local bookstore, or get it online here: