The Medicine Man in Benin


The Medicine Man in Benin
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

A seeker goes in search of a famed voodoo practitioner in Benin, where the spirit worlds and physical worlds are closely intertwined.

Benin travel

I went to Africa in search of a medicine man.

Whatever actually happened that day, I have witnessed far too many phenomena in my travels to dismiss anything out of hand, and after my visit with Namari I believe more than ever that the truth is still out there.

Myths and legends abound on the vast African continent and storytelling is an honored art, especially in societies that lack a written language. Stories tend to grow in the process over time, taking on the flavor of the individual relating them.

I had heard many things about this particular medicine man.

He was credited with being a shape shifter who became a panther at night to watch over his village and many said he could fly, but his greatest power was the supposed ability to make rain. Such attributes are not uncommon in the stories of Africa but the truth within them often is.

I have met many such people in my journeys, both men and women, who claimed unusual abilities. Most of them have perpetuated their own myths. A few have lived up to expectations, while some have been outright charlatans. All have been worth visiting to find out because to quote Fox Mulder, “The truth is out there.”

Finding Namari

Namari Godogo first came to my attention in a magnificent coffee table book by the renowned photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, Faces of Africa. His fame was far and wide in the Taneka region of Benin, a land marinated in voodoo for over 6,000 years.

I have personally felt the power of being in such a vortex. Voodoo shrouds this land like a fog, not just as a religion but a complete way of life. There is no differentiation between waking reality and the spirit world. Entire houses are fetishes with clay watchmen bearing cowrie eyes standing guard for evil spirits and house doors themselves are gaping mouths ready to devour any evil entity that may try to enter.

Benin voodoo ceremony

Voodoo is a topic that mostly eludes western minds but it is an established religion in West Africa where an estimated 60% of the population practices one form of it or another. To this day it is the official state religion of Benin. Its origin is documented in a petroglyph no more than a mile from Namari’s village, with the oldest known representation of an animist ceremony carved in stone: people with arms raised in supplication to the sun and moon while others dance around a fire.

Most westerners envision dolls stuck full of pins and zombies wandering the land, and admittedly, there is a dark side to some of it, but that aspect mostly migrated to the Caribbean in the hulls of slave ships long ago. West African voodoo today is an accepted belief system that assists people coping with difficult lives in a harsh environment. Men with reputations like Namari are not uncommon in Taneka.

The Smoking Holy Man

My driver left me at a crossroads and pointed down a trail into the forest. I passed animal jawbones nailed to trees; gris-gris in the local lingua-franca: fetishes that confront spirits. At the first village, monkey skulls were imbedded in clay walls of homes and even the smallest child wore an amulet as protection. Carved wooden dolls abounded, available for a price to cast a spell on an enemy or convince a young lady to give her love.

Namari with a pipe

Amongst all the authentica there was also a good deal of cheap tourist junk offered to the day trippers and trekkers intrepid enough to wander this far off the beaten path even though in two weeks I had not seen another westerner. I never cease to marvel at how commercialism has spread its tentacles into the most remote of places.

Namari Godogo would be called a witch doctor by western standards but at home in Benin, he is a revered holy man. The morning I came upon him he was sitting placidly in front of a mud hut wreathed in a mantle of ganja smoke inhaled from a three foot long clay pipe, the type of which Taneka men favor. Other than a woven reed hat he was naked and he pulled a small animal skin over his privates at my approach but in no other way did he acknowledge my presence. He had the leathery chocolate skin of a life spent under the equatorial sun that defied assigning him an age. His chin hosted a small white beard. His eyes appeared glazed and yellow but whether from drugs, jaundice, or mystical trance I could not tell.

I sat down nearby to simply observe. Several small children ran noisily amuck while an aging woman with heavy pendulous breasts stirred a large pot issuing an unforgettable pungent aroma. When I finally spoke directly to Namari his trance-like stare continued straight ahead until a young man dressed in the local style of loose fitting and colorful pajamas approached and said in passable English, “You have questions for my father?” 

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Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

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Tears, Fear and Adventure

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