Adventure Travel Silver Winner: That Old Time Religion

By James Michael Dorsey

Stories have always come to me in Africa.  I can’t say if it’s the taste, the smells, or the sheer antiquity of the land; or maybe it’s just the sense of belonging I have while I am there, but the words always come.

Because it is a continent lacking in written languages, storytelling serves to preserve not only local history and culture, but also the daily lives so often lost in recorded history.  In Africa, more than in the west, storytelling is an art form.  In West Africa, everyone has a story, and Abraham Boko had more than most.

Ours was a serendipitous meeting founded in a coffee shop in Togo where he was saying his farewells to a tourist group he had just led on something called the “Voodoo Trail.”  He was a gregarious talker, this Togolese giant, whose personality filled the room more than his bulk, and before long we shared a table to discuss our various encounters with world religions.

As my knowledge of Voodoo was limited to movies and books, I had never thought it to be in the realm of religion.  With my then worldly naiveté, I had filed all such unknown things into a xenophobic pile, never to be opened.  But I was there to listen and learn.

Abraham was not exactly a witch doctor as that would be too limiting a term for a man of his talents.  He spoke three local languages and several dialects, but more than anything, he was a griot, one of that ancient brotherhood of nomadic story tellers and myth keepers so treasured throughout the land.  He spoke as he drove; tracing images in the air with one hand, his lyrical voice merging with the sounds of the road, enticing me to an undiscovered place.

He alternated fact with fiction, spiritual with the material, because in Voodoo there is no horizon between the two.  His stories were filled with countless, nameless deities and forest spirits, mischievous sprites that brought Keebler elves to mind, ethereal ancestors that hovered about, and mythical creatures of unknown gender, both good and evil.  He used words like Picasso used paint and I heard truth in every one.  That and his infectious belly laugh drew me in.

He emphatically declared that Voodoo was the oldest known religion on earth, begun in nearby Benin almost six millenniums ago, and an estimated 60% of all West Africans still practice it in one form or another.  Today it remains the official religion of the country.  I thought that to be a story within itself, so when he offered his professional services for the next several days, we shook hands and I placed myself in his care.

The word Voodoo comes with many spellings and is generally attributed to the early Fon people of Benin, in whose language a loose translation means, “spirit” or “deity.”

Animism began as ignorant mans’ awed response to nature, and as it evolved, one omnipotent, unknowable deity gradually emerged who had no name, but who sent forth “Loa” or minor spirits to rule over the daily affairs of the world.  That, in the simplest of terms, became Voodoo.  It carries no dogma, has no rules, and is, in fact, different in each and every village, town, and city, and yet it carries great importance across a third of Africa, much of the Caribbean, and even a southern United State.

All of this was imparted to me by Abraham in a non-stop monologue punctuated with a razor sharp wit and his infectious sense of humor.  It was grand theater in a moving vehicle.  As we drifted ever deeper into the African interior, I felt time regress.  We were exploring another era for which I left my world behind, lost track of days, and had no use for time.  I became an inquisitive child in the bush.

We began deep in the forests of western Benin at a most unusual rock formation that resembles a giant lizard.  It is covered with petroglyphs depicting people dancing around a fire with arms raised simultaneously to the sun and moon, and is much more definitive than similar sites around the world.  Since it is officially dated to 6,000 years ago, local lore says that is physical proof that the first voodoo ceremony took place there.  If that is so, then Voodoo pre-dates all of the earliest forms of organized religion.

We stayed in a different village each night, always welcomed as friends.   There would be an evening fire followed by storytelling of both myth and legend, and each of equal quality.  I likened the griots of West Africa to court performers of the Renaissance but with more panache.  I played drums at a harvest festival, held a baby at a name giving ceremony, and drank more than one “magic “potion.  I danced around a fire with people in a trance, and shared a potent pipe with tribal elders under a blinding white moon.  I could not begin to describe what it was I ate each day.

I gave myself up to the moment and joined a diversity of Voodoo practitioners that was stunning, ranging from the most remote bush nomads, to government officials, to the most sophisticated of townspeople.  The city boy was getting an education.

To simplify an ever evolving belief system, it is a faith that unites people with their ancestors and spirits to aid them in their daily life.  This is achieved through ceremony and dance, always with music, and occasionally, the sacrifice of animals, although this practice is fortunately, quickly falling by the wayside.  For a non- practitioner to explain it more fully is impossible, but in its purest form, it is the earliest and most benign positive thinking system in history, pre-dating Joel Osteen by six thousand years.  It is at once, Kabuki Theater, a religious gathering, festival, community dance, and generally an excuse to cut loose.  I found great similarities between Voodoo and western style Christianity, and here is why.

It originally left Africa in the rotting hulls of slave ships hauling human cargo to the new world and by the time it reached Haiti, it added black to white magic.  Eventually it reached New Orleans, where it merged seamlessly with Catholicism, as New Orleans has always been more Caribbean than American.  Every Christian saint, right up to the Virgin Mary, has a Voodoo equivalent, and Voodoo ceremonies are openly conducted in more than one Catholic Church.  There is even a statue in one church to Saint Expedite, who is a Voodoo deity, but not a Christian one.  Perhaps the greatest example of transplanted Voodoo is Mardi Gras, the vestigial result of a harvest festival that migrated from Burkina Faso in the fog of history.

The most significant incident of our entire journey took place on our final day together.  We had driven overnight to a remote village to attend an Egun Gun (Egoon Goon) dance.  The Egun are a secret male society that use flamboyant costumes in ceremonies in which they work themselves into a trance in order to channel deceased ancestors.  As their vehicles, they become quite literally, the living dead, at least for an hour or so.

The general bush belief of rural tribes is that their ancestors literally sleep only inches below in the earth, as opposed to a Christian belief in a heaven, and they can, with the help of facilitators such as the Egun, re-visit their families through their surrogate bodies.  It is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but just not this time.

Since the dancer is channeling the living dead, the belief is that anyone he touches will be drawn, for good or bad, into the spirit world.  Now, the good people of West Africa all expect to enter that world one day, but only after a long and happy life here on earth first, and they have no desire to speed up the process. The dancers go out of their way not to touch anyone, and each of them has a man assigned to them who uses a long stick to intervene should a dancer approach a viewer too closely.  I was observing all of this through my view finder and not taking in the big picture when a dancer passed me, and his long flowing robe grazed my arm.  So much for the guy with the big stick.

There was immediate silence. Drummers stopped, the world quit spinning, and people froze in place.  The chief witch doctor, known as a Mambo, stood up and began barking orders.  Abraham told me to keep perfectly still.  My immediate reaction was one of those inappropriate giggles that involuntarily come from deep inside at awkward moments, like laughing at a traffic accident.

A most serious looking gentleman rushed to my side and began chanting while passing a strange object over, and all around my body, much like a TSA screener at an airport.  Abraham explained that he was using the femur of a lion, inlaid with magical cowrie shells and killed by a mighty warrior, and thus was a powerful weapon against bad ju-ju; his term for what I was experiencing.   People began to close in, forming an ever tightening circle around me.

Only then did the enormity of the situation hit me.  I had not only gone from observer to participant in an ancient ritual in the blink of an eye, but I was undergoing an exorcism!

Now, even though I had no personal concerns of forest demons hustling me off into the netherworld, the crowd of people surrounding me at that point did, and that realization was daunting.  I got the feeling that if I were to be physically lifted to be carried away by whatever means, they would all grab hold and not let go of me, not because it would be a terrible thing, but because as an outsider I would not understand what was happening to me.  I was their guest and this should not happen.

The mambo with the lion femur finished passing it over my body and slumped to the ground as two young men came to assist him back to his seat, physically and emotionally spent.  Abraham was explaining everything to me in real time and said that if successful, the bad ju-ju had been drawn out of me and into the lion bone.  So I asked him what came next, and he looked at the ground and said quietly, “We wait and see.”

The next few moments were the greatest emotional crisis I have experienced on a journey.  I was the focal point of a religious ritual I did not personally believe in, but had the greatest respect for, and so I had an obligation to continue with all due severity. I was in unchartered territory, treading water, but I had to make the believers believe that I was one of them.  I stood there like the bullseye of a target, waiting.

My heart pounded like a hammer under the baking sun.  An intruder coming upon the scene might think it a movie set.  Hundreds of eyes were on me, chanting, praying, and willing good to overcome evil.  It was then that I noticed the dancer whose robes had touched my arm.  He had removed his headgear and was watching with fierce intent.  It hit me, perhaps naively, that if he could do that, his ancestor spirit must not be interested in me.  I was OK!

After several moments, the head man loudly pronounced something I could not understand and the village erupted like the crowd at a college football touchdown.  I would be fine, but the momentary elation again turned silent.

The crowd began touching me, taking my hand, pushing small children forward to have me lay a hand on their head.  Abraham explained that I had gone to the edge of the spirit world and come back, and no one had done that before.  He said that certainly, if I had been a villager, I would have been taken away, but that as a foreigner, I had very powerful ju-ju, so people wanted to touch me in hopes of it entering them.  Abraham embraced me and I could see he had been crying.  We stayed until I had spoken to every person in the village, even though none of us had any idea what the other was saying.  In the end, I fell into the Land Rover like a limp rag.

Such a powerful experience shaped my emotions for the next several days.  I just did not feel normal and Abraham explained that it was lingering spirits still refusing to let me go.  While I did not truly believe that, at journeys’ end, with all western prejudices and stereotypes of Voodoo exposed, I came away with a new appreciation for the world’s oldest religion.

Since that time I have stayed in touch with Abraham.  He is one of those enlightened few who enter your life for a few days on the road and manage to find the path into your heart.  Even though he keeps trying, I still consider myself ignorant of much of the nuances of Voodoo.

Most recently a talisman arrived in the mail with an announcement of the birth of Abraham’s new son.  He told me that he took the infant to a diviner to find out what life path he would follow and was told that he would be a powerful leader who would use words to communicate.

In Africa, all names have meaning.

He had named his son for me.


James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author and explorer who has traveled in 48 countries to visit remote cultures before they vanish.

He has written for Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, BBC Wildlife, Geographic Expeditions, Panorama, and is a frequent contributor to United Airlines and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Wend, Natural History, and GoNomad. He writes for numerous African magazines, and is a travel consultant to Brown & Hudson of London, and correspondent for Camerapix International of Nairobi.

His last book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available from all major booksellers. His stories have appeared in 18 anthologies, including The Best Travel Writing (Volumes 10, and 11) from Travelers’ Tales, plus the 2016 Lonely Planet Travel Anthology. He has won the grand prize for best travel writing from the Solas Awards, Transitions Abroad, and Nowhere Magazine.

He is a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club.

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