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Dahomey Diary: Notes from Benin Dahomey Diary: Notes from Benin

Dahomey Diary: Notes from Benin

by Xeni Jardin
April 11, 2009

Xeni Jardin is a co-editor of Boing Boing, and producer of the blog's daily Boing Boing Video program. In March, 2009, she traveled to the West African nation of Benin. Following are excerpts from her travel journal. Longer form video and audio features are planned for future release through Boing Boing Video.

1.

A few days before we left, I looked into a camera and failed to impress a television talent director. "Where do you look to find the future," he asked. Screen test for a tech show pilot. I knew what he meant: what blogs, which super secret hacker mailing lists, whose tweets."Africa," I said.Wrong answer for the casting call. But 30 hours of flights later, we're finally in Cotonou, Benin, and it's true. Every time I'm back in the barely-held-together whirling here, I am closest to the past, and through it, whatever is next.Swarms of zémidjans, screaming moped taxis, clog the streets in the port capital tonight. Facemasked, daredevil drivers swoop up passengers in technicolor African robes, passengers clutching cassava or cellphones or jerrycans of smuggled Nigerian gasoline.We're a few miles away from the slave port which was once the single biggest freight point for America-bound human cargo. And just outside the hotel tonight, old ladies sell fermented corn mush and grilled sugarcane-rat by candlelight, under a baobab tree.Breathing here is like sucking an exhaust pipe. It's the hot hot steam month before rainy season. Mosquitos buzz through that haze, lugging malaria payloads. French-Hausa hiphop blares from the corner bar. Cheap palm wine inside. An amputee beggar boy dances on stumps in the gutter for spare francs.Tomorrow, the long drive north, toward Burkina and Niger, to a dry village where our fixer's father was once king.

2.

Driving is dodging, it's a video game, Grand Theft Togo.We're in a beat-up 1980s Benz with more kilometers on it than the counter can display, on a sometimes-dirt, sometimes-asphalt highway hugging the Togolese border.

Cassava flour along the road.Our driver swerves around dogs, chickens, goats, stray children. In each village, there are handpainted signs for everything. For cellphone "resurrection" shops that fix old handhelds. For translucent glass globe-jugs of moped fuel, which I believed were wine, my first time here. For salons-"coiffure et tresse", or "ici bon coiffeur," they read, with a grid of hairdo sample sketches.We pass through burnt stump forests, slashed and burned, to be tilled soon into cassava mounds for tribal farmers. Vertical stacks of cassava flour bags, marked with the name of the farmer who processed it, for honor system roadside commerce.Women walk along the road's edge, bearing head-loads, baby swaddled in back. Hundred-pound firewood cords, or water jugs, or stacked brown yams. Everything the earth yields, a woman carries here.

A phone repair shop. We pass freight trucks, hauling heavier goods from the port to the desert. Some are adorned in elaborate murals for good juju: crowned lions, or elephants, or American rap stars, or the floating head of Osama Bin Laden.

3.

Dankóli shrine.Blink, driving by, and you'd miss it, but we were brought here by someone who knows. A great, asymmetrical black mound of rotting offerings, pierced with a white voudun flag on a tall staff, laced with strands of beads. An overwhelming, accumulated mass of remains: sacrificed doves, chickens, hooved creatures. Skulls, matted feathers, black earth. Prayed over, over and over again, by devotees on pilgrimage.

Dankóli shrine.Here is how it works: you come here to ask for something. You ask with palm oil, palm wine, folded bills, muttered prayers echoed by attendant priests. You pound a sharp wooden stake into the mound with the priest's mallet, you speak to the gods as you hammer. You promise to return if the wish is granted, and to return offering something bigger, maybe something breathing, something that really costs you next time.A voudunu in a used UNICEF T-shirt and white head scarf kneels nearby, a petitioner waits next to him with folded hands. The priest has gutted a goat for him. He's stringing warm intestines out on a big banana leaf, divining in tendons, reading flesh, seeing through blood.

4.

A Bariba settlement near Kouandé, in the far north near Nigeria.Our car pulls as close to the center compound as the dirt path allows. We open car doors, step out into dust, through grass thatch gates. A crowd of women are dancing, drums and high trills. We landed mid-ceremony. We're here to pay respects to a healer-queen. A few steps inside her hut, bags of blackeyed peas, flour, and hard candy are stacked like cash along mud walls-payment, tribute, from villagers. We're seated on the ground, swatting clouds of flies, awaiting her audience.

A female healer. This is the part I'll remember forever: One by one, young girls file in, after the ceremony. White mud dots on their faces, scar lines carved in dark brown skin, constellations of scars and stars, ancestor ghost signs. They call out like birds as they step inside. The healer calls back, a long vowel."Ehhhh,""Ehhhhh,""Ehhhh,""Ehhhhh,"Again and again, then quiet. The girls lie down before her, stretched out on their sides, heads bowed into the floor, awaiting a tap from her on the left shoulder. Eventually, she taps each shoulder. They rise, and leave.Soft, resonant wood thud sounds outside now, a different rhythm. Not drums this time, but older women pounding cassava, singing, trading verses of vowels with one another, as they pound roots into mash.

5.

Midnight in Savalou.Full moon climbs through blackout branches. I'm in malaria-med delirium, Lariam waking dream. Leaves on those branches are thin blades. The night birds cluster them together with twigs, craft them into messy nests up there. The night birds sing louder as moonlight opens wide. The night bird songs are a rain of blades, slippery sharp waves; descending, singing staccato knives that blot out all but sleep.

A nightvision image of priests at a shrine. Photos and video stills © 2009, Xeni Jardin
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