Benin Voodoo festival rebrands to draw tourists

Kneeling as she gazes out to sea draped in white cloth and strings of pearls, Simenou Dangnitche has just completed the final stage of her annual ritual.

Every January for the past 15 years, the 48-year-old local has joined hundreds taking part in Benin’s famed Voodoo festival.

Participants gather at the “Door of No Return”, an arch built by the beach at Ouidah in southern Benin in memory of those crammed onto slave ships bound for the New World.

“It’s more than just a festival,” Dangnitche told AFP. “The meeting here is a pilgrimage, a rejuvenation, a reconnection with the ancestors to hear them speak to us again.”

Voodoo, known locally as Vodoun, is a religion that worships gods and natural spirits along with respect for revered ancestors.

It originated in the Dahomey kingdom — present-day Benin and Togo — and is still widely practised sometimes alongside Christianity in coastal towns like Ouidah, where memorials to the slave trade are dotted around the small beach settlement.

This year, Dangnitche said she was “stunned by the organisation and structuring of the festival”.

Benin’s government has rebranded the event and changed the format to make the festivities more appealing to tourists in a bid to  boost the country’s economy.

It opted for a two-day celebration on January 9-10 with a reorganised programme in an event dubbed “Vodun Days”.

According to politician Kakpo Mahougnon, chair of the Benin Vodun Rites Committee, the government is considering further extending the length of the festival.

“It’s a new way of presenting Vodoun,” said President Patrice Talon, who took part in the celebration.

– ‘Nothing Satanic’ –

“Our intention is to fully reveal to the world what Vodoun is and how it is practised, to explain Vodoun and its spiritual and sociological concepts”, the president said.

“Vodoun is of economic interest to us, since tourism is an important sector,” he added.

Ouidah was given a makeover for the occasion, with several of the town’s attractions refurbished.

American Christopher Swain, who said he comes every year to “recharge and reconnect spiritually,” noticed “significant changes”.

Ouidah’s public squares hosted celebrations including jazz and dancing and even the president joined in.

The religion’s 73-year-old spiritual leader Daagbo Hounon told AFP: “We need to prove to the world that there is nothing Satanic or evil about vodoun.”

“Vodoun is about tolerance, sharing, love, generosity and peace,” he said.

“Vodoun is spiritual, but it is also several arts combined, as we can see from the songs and dances of the faithful.”

Alain Godonou, one of the heads of the Heritage and Tourism Agency, said the revamped celebrations “represent a major development in the promotion of Vodoun as a real catalyst for tourism.”

They were “a way of attracting more curiosity so that people come to discover the essence of Vodoun”, he said.

As well as international tourists, the government wants to focus on domestic tourism to boost the local economy and “reveal Benin to ourselves,” as Talon put it.

He declined to give details of the budget allocated to promoting and organising Vodoun Days to attract visitors.

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