[ Djougou, Benin ]
Greetings from Benin, at long last!
I arrived yesterday afternoon after a relatively easy 30km ride (despite the ongoing and best efforts of the local Peace Corps to thwart my plans!). The immigration officials in both Togo and Benin were impressively cordial, and I was soon taking my mid-day break in an otherwise deserted Beninese maquis (outdoor bar/restaurant). A gigantic spider threatened to confiscate my Sprite. No. Really.
After a final half-dozen kilometers I arrived, exhausted, in Badjoude–a small crossroads village situated along the main highway. The commandant of the nearby Police Républicaine post allowed me to camp on the station’s front porch. Literally. Best, and cheapest, room in town.
With my tent pitched and my belly empty, I returned to the village crossroads for some local fare, mingling with a group gathered for evening prayers. Before I had finished my spaghetti & spicy beef soup, I found myself invited to a festival the next morning, at a small village a few miles away, along the gravel secondary road leading north from Badjoude. Care to guess what I said?: “Sure! Yes! ABSOLUTELY!” He said he’d be by next morning at 7am to pick me up. (In fact, he and his motorcycle arrived at 5:45am, and I was glad I got up extra early–only I didn’t. Turns out Benin is GMT + 1, and it was actually 6:45am. First time I’ve changed timezones in 22 months! Oops.)
And so begins my first morning in Benin. THIS morning. Today. While you were sleeping. Imagine: I hop on the back of a somewhat dubious old Yamaha dirt bike with Monsieur Yacoubou (call him “Yack,” he insists), and we race pell-mell up the road. I pass countless plots of yam and cassava mounds, wheat, millet, groundnuts (aka peanuts); distant dew-drenched Togolese mountains bathe in the sun’s early-morning rays. It is both crazy and gorgeous. We arrive in Kawado too soon, park in the village maquis’s courtyard–welcomed by a handful of already-inebriated men staring wide-eyed at the pale outsider.
What happened next is impossible to convey succinctly, but I found myself lost in a sea of three- to four-hundred celebrants. Standing in the middle of a field, as people began to gather, then chant, sing, dance, and march. Most were clad in traditional attire with smatterings of modern accoutrements. There were weapons, LOTS of weapons–vine-crafted whips with tree-branch handles; and shields for defense. Before long, the men and boys started wailing on each other gladiator style, while other villagers served as referees and “squires” (i.e. they replaced the gladiators’ whip-weapons when they invariably broke). It was violent; unexpectedly brutal. Women were throwing talcum powder on the participants like Hindus throw colored powders during Holi (though in this case I think it was to make the skin more slippery in the event of glancing blows from the whip).
Basically? It was intense ‘af’. And there wasn’t a single outsider there to watch it except little ol’ me. Lucky me, eh?
Clearly, words can’t do it justice, so I have included a FEW images (I took nearly 700, and only reviewed a handful so far). I just couldn’t wait to post this until I can find time to review the rest.
Namaste, Peace, and Brutal Ceremonial Floggings to You and Yours,
The festival’s name is Kamouhou (sounds almost like “Camus”).
I have NO idea why, but many of the warrior men are wearing articles of women’s clothing: bras, halter tops, some even have wigs and hair extensions. And it’s only the guys who were competing. It’s definitely a strange juxtaposition.