Women’s Travel—Gold Winner: The Secret of the World Sleeps in a Calabash

by Kelley Calvert

In a taxi speeding wildly into tar-black night, the car’s headlights met the blindness of dust stirred and scattered. The famous wind known as the Harmattan was blowing angrily over the Sahel of Niger, carrying its fury south and leaving a veil of dust over the desert’s ever-expanding domain.

Earlier, as I had entered the taxi, the other passengers looked away, quiet in their own pensiveness. As the car began to move, the older, heavier woman beside me crossed herself and murmured a prayer, while the Muslim cattle herder to my right balanced a walking stick on his knee, and let his prayer beads slip purposefully through his fingers. My eyes peered into the darkness looking for signs of the bandits I’d so often been warned about, yet I was unsure if my neighbors prayed in fear of these bandits or… something else.

As night falls in Benin, the dead are said to stir, to walk among us in shadows where they are less visible. The language of the dead moves in circles. They have surprisingly little to say, these entities. Only their attachment to life and our attachment to them move them forward, quietly into the night.

Because night had already fallen, the taxi was not terribly crowded. Rather than the usual four people packed together in the back seat in an assortment of intertwined limbs, shifted hip bones, and baggage, we were only three. This arrangement allowed me just enough room to spread my legs a few inches apart and rest the full width of my back onto the seat, giving a semblance of comfort. I had just fallen asleep only to be awakened by the taxi’s sudden loss of inertia– we were stopped at a checkpoint. The driver begrudgingly exited the taxi to pay the customary bribe to local authorities while the other passengers in the car muttered about corruption. When we slipped back onto the narrow strip of concrete which passes as a national highway, the headlights reflected a white wall: fog. No, I reminded myself, dust.

As we rushed through a landscape we couldn’t see, a man suddenly appeared in the middle of the road facing the opposite direction. He was immediately identifiable as what villagers call a fou, a crazy person. His hair, unkempt and long, formed makeshift dreadlocks down his back. To my alarm, the driver did not slow down as we hurtled towards the fou. Taxis do not slow in the night. It could be a trap. If we stopped, bandits might descend on our vessel in an instant. The driver accelerated in a slow-motion moment that stretched back and forth with the elasticity of a rubber band.

The fou turned towards us and the whites of his eyes reflected in the glare of our headlights. Then, just as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.

I turned and looked out the back window, but there was nothing. The night, the dust had enclosed the event in its fold. The taxi driver gripped the wheel tightly. The woman next to me crossed herself again, dropped her head, and prayed. The man to my right continued praying, grasping his beads with renewed intensity. I waited for someone to acknowledge the apparition so that I could confirm to myself that it was real, but no one said a word.

During my time in Benin, it was this silence in the presence of something that could not be spoken that defined voodoo. True, there were macabre voodoo ceremonies where locals danced, played drums, and invited spirits to possess them. There, they would perform superhuman feats; I saw a man run a screwdriver into his eye socket and move it around the circumference of his eyeball without harming himself in the slightest. Another man swallowed gasoline and blew fire. Another lay on the ground and held a mortar on his chest while others beat cassava into powder with wooden pestles. Despite the enormous pressure on his chest, he never so much as grimaced.

There were also healing ceremonies performed by local traditional doctors. One such ceremony involved exchanging the life of a chicken for the life of a man. I watched as a man suffering from an unknown wasting illness held a chicken while the healer chanted a song in which he asked the chicken to give up its life for the life of the man. And indeed, the chicken slowly went limp in the hands of the condemned right before my eyes.

Yet such outward manifestations of the mystery always seemed premeditated, awkward, and full of unfulfilled expectation. Conversations with voodoo priests and healers were circumlocutions around some central point upon which I could never quite focus. When I asked a voodoo chief of the Adja, an ethnic group who migrated from Nigeria to Benin, whether or not he had ever heard of zombification, he told me, “Of course I have. We invented it and our ancestors took it with them to Haiti.” He said that he knew how to raise the dead, make a man a mental slave, and, with a menacing grin, he added, “You aren’t the first westerner to come here looking for a recipe.”
Surprised, I replied, “I’m not a scientist,” while imagining executives from Eli Lilly rolling through the tiny village waving dollar bills and bohemian Harvard botanists trekking through the surrounding forest with elderly medicine men. “I’m just interested in voodoo,” I said as he took a shot of sodabi, a local palm wine that hits the palate like a dose of rubbing alcohol.

Unaffected by the drink’s momentum, he replied with the same enigmatic smile, “A person like you should be careful with such an interest.”

*

A person like me found it impossible to be careful with such an interest. Long accustomed to the linear tocking of an Enlightenment clock, my mind swam in stories of the living dead and the cursed living. Somehow, issues of life and death, mortality and immortality were jiggled loose as time passed over me like an invisible tidal wave in West Africa. I watched people die only to hear them resurrected in the walking dead folklore of my neighbors. I ignored neighbors’ warnings not to leave my house (even for the latrine) in the ‘spirit hours’ between 2-3 A.M. I would dismiss these warnings as superstition only to find myself frozen in my footsteps by a sudden draft of cold air that mysteriously arrived every time I passed the village cemetery. I heard rumors of an evil sorcerer appearing in the dreams of children only to carry them away to the underworld. While my western mind initially categorized such reports as traditional explanations for infant mortality, reason squiggled underneath my gaze and the presence of ill intention seemed to hover like the endless mid-day heat.

In the lush undergrowth of a village in southern Benin, the possibility of malicious unseen forces rustled each time the wind blew. At night in Grand Popo, the darkness was thick and impenetrable. The only light came from the cooking fires of women preparing pate noir (a corn-based mush) with gumbo sauce. Between these flickers, the scent of fried fish hung in the heavy air along with salt from the ocean. It was in these primordial forests that voodoo was born centuries ago, alongside man. And it was here that my friend Cimion invited us down a narrow path to his home in the forest, away from the village.

Cimion made his living collecting shells and driftwood from the beach, assembling them into necklaces, and selling them to the wives of French diplomats at a resort that none of the locals could afford. When I first met Cimion, he was living in the remains of an abandoned building near the highway which ran from east to west connecting Benin to Nigeria on one side and Togo on the other. Cimion sat on the dirt floor in the corner of the room assembling shells with fishing line. Between us, tin cans lay in the sand waiting to be used as drinking cups. A yellowing picture of Bob Marley lay underneath a rock to keep it from blowing away. When I asked what he was making, Cimion responded in the vaguest way, never once referring to the necklace. His narrative seemed to bob up and down like the fishermen’s boats out on the water of his native village. His voice rose and fell like someone telling a story, but the words were like fishing nets with gaping holes; the meaning continually fell through. I found myself listening to him, unable to follow the story, but enjoying the cadence of his shy, stumbling words.

The next time I visited Grand Popo, Cimion invited me and two friends to come and see the house he had recently constructed with his bare hands. His friend Levy, an extroverted and gregarious man from Côte d’Ivoire, accompanied us and acted as an interpreter even as we all spoke the same language. Cimion’s rolling, nonsensical stories became clear through his friend. As the five of us began our walk down the narrow dirt path, we heard drumming and singing coming from a nearby family compound. The frenzied pitch of their song seemed to unsettle our friends who hurried us past the house while looking in the opposite direction. We had not gone much further when we encountered the remains of a village.

“What’s this?” I asked Levy.

“Grand Popo,” he said.

“But, we left Grand Popo back there.”

Through Levy, Cimion explained that this village was deserted when Benin gained its independence and the president encouraged his people to move out of the bush and closer to the highway in order to promote commerce. Ever obedient, the people moved to the shore next to the highway artery connecting Benin to the outside world. They left behind a series of huts that quickly disintegrated into walls, sad remnants of former homes. A cemetery lay to the side of the path, stirring with energy in the eerie emptiness of abandonment.

We spent that night next to a fire in front of the home that Cimion had built with parts of the forest. Cimion built the house with the trunks of young, flexible palm trees that were easy to bend and mold into a frame. The roof was then twined together with gigantic fronds from the jungle’s limitless foliage. We sipped citronella tea boiled over the fire and chatted in low, muffled voices. The lake just beyond Cimion’s house was home to hippos that floated sleepily through the dark. The thick stillness of night surrounded our quiet stronghold of firelight, but when mosquitoes found the only source of life in near proximity, they invaded our refuge in droves. It was time to go back, but everyone hesitated. Cimion was the first to betray his uneasiness about walking back to the village.

“I don’t have a flashlight,” he stammered quickly, “Why don’t you all just stay the night?”

With malaria and a sleepless night looming ahead, we all began to feel trapped by the darkness around us, the edges of which seemed to move inward, towards us, trying to penetrate us, already moving through us.

Sensing our uneasiness about spending the night in the forest, Levy jumped in and said, “Cimion, you know this forest. You lead. I will follow behind to make sure no one gets lost.”

Thus, moving through the darkness, we began what felt like a mythological journey led by Hermes into the underworld. I could see nothing, not even my hand a foot away from my face. The air, though empty, was charged with energy. When I tried to focus my attention on my feet moving step by step over the ground, I became distracted by what seemed to be people moving towards us. As I was accustomed to doing on narrow paths in Benin, I moved aside to let the people pass. Though I saw no one, the physical energy of a human being passed by each time I moved aside. I heard their footsteps, imagined their form in the night, but there was no one except our line of five people pushing through the jungle towards town.

Then, as though welcoming us, lightning bugs illuminated the undergrowth in response to the sound of our footsteps. A feeling of warmth and safety rushed over me. The village came into view.

As we exited the forest, the tension of the walk melted away. We hugged and said our goodbyes, all of us with the same question on our lips.

“Did you…?”

We all nodded but were unable to say more. In Benin, there was always something unnamable, unutterable, and this something seemed to be the critical element of every story.

*

Each year, the revenant (the returned) take to the streets of southern Benin. They are said to be the spirits of the dead and their solemn but volatile dispositions seem to epitomize death. Their costumes are elaborateoften appearing to be the robes of royalty. Velvety, shiny fabrics adorn the backs of the revenant as they walk slowly through the crowded streets of Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. Their box-like shape and construction make them reminiscent of the king in a deck of cards except darker, more inscrutable. Their faces are veiled and often they have horns stolen from the crown of a dead bull. They are given wide berth as they walk streets crowded with women carrying fruits for sale, motorcycles zipping around broken-down cars, goats whining their way through smog and dust, and chickens rushing down dirt paths.

Normally, all these people and objects push close together to form a nearly coherent whole out of the chaos, but when the revenant walk by, the area around them opens and a strange silence ensues. Cars don’t honk and people stop haggling over the price of a pineapple to turn and gaze. Women whisper to their children, “Never touch a revenant. If you do, you will die.” If an unruly child or drunk approaches the revenant, he is likely to be beaten with a whip or worse.

Friends might whisper to one another, “Go touch him. See what happens.” Of course, no one does. That indescribable feeling, that not-quite-knowing falls upon the stunned crowd. Men whisper amongst themselves as someone moves closer to the revenant in an attempt to take a photograph. They smack their lips in disapproval and speak of how they’ve seen people attacked for such an act. A woman from behind chips in that anyone that she’s ever known to photograph the revenant either breaks their cameras or gets blurred images returned from their film.

As I climb onto the back of a taxi-moto in the middle of the crowd, the driver turns to me and says, “He’s a revenant.”

“I know,” I reply.

“Oh, so you know voodoo then?”

“A little,” I answer, “And you?”

“A little,” he agrees with a smile.

It’s that smile again. After living in Benin for two years, his smile comes as a revelation. I used to think it was a smile that hid something, a smile indicating that someone did not want to share his or her secret with an outsider. But, now I realize that it is a smile of complicity. It says, “None of us understands these things.” And, I am finally okay with that.

*

At the New Year’s celebration, the voodoo chief sits above those who have come for their ancestors’ blessings in the New Year. His bright Kente-cloth robe is composed of bright blues and yellows interspersed with golden threads and voodoo symbols. His hat, made of the same fabric, forms a shimmering cube above his head, red and yellow yarns of thread hanging from the hat’s center. Completing the attire are the beads: greens, pinks, oranges, whites, blues, long square beads interrupted by circular ones. They are supplemented with shells collected from the ocean, feathers, cowry shells, and sachets of red and white filled with magical curative powers. Around his neck, the powers of the ocean and the air. In his presence, the promise of possibility: to see into the future, to auger human suffering, to reflect and reframe the worries of man.

On this day, practitioners of voodoo dress in white to welcome the winter solstice, which is New Year’s Day in their tradition. From this day forward, each 24-hour cycle will bring a little more light, a little more hope. Those long melancholy African sunsets that expand indefinitely in all directions will now be prolonged in space and time, impregnating the evenings with relief after another long day’s heat.

The chief speaks to the assembled and they respond, sit and stand in bewildering intervals, chant to the gods of air, earth, and water. The chief asks that everyone present be rid of evil in the coming yearfree of illness and accidents. His blessings are answered by priests and priestesses who fall to all fours and pound in rhythm, bang drums, and shake rattles. The practitioners move in jaunting movements that remain somehow graceful, ecstatic. They are moving with the cosmos, with the physics of existence, with the sun opening its light once again for the earth. We, the assembled, wait, believe that our presence is our blessing, that the year ahead is one of promise and light.

When the chief begins to speak again, I notice the calabash at his feet. The man next to me explains that the secret of voodoo is said to reside within that calabash. At important voodoo rites, the calabash sits at the feet of the voodoo chief, never to be opened. Unlike the western tradition where the contents of a box tempted Pandora to release evil into the world, the voodooists seem content to leave the calabash closed. If opened, it could destroy mystery and the world would implode into a desolate wasteland devoid of human curiosity or faith.

This secret is the essence, that which cannot be spoken but felt in the uncomfortable glances of strangers, the tense behavior of friends hiking through a voodoo forest, the inexplicable silence in a taxi moving through an impossible fog, the ambiguous smile of a taxi-moto driver, and the nebulous ecstasy of ritual. Whatever the secret is, it does not belong to us. It cannot be released into the world. It cannot be written do


In addition to traveling the world with a question mark in hand, Kelley Calvert enjoys the usual joys life has to offer: coffee in the morning, long, leisurely weekends, live music, and intelligent conversation. When not trying to decide which word goes where, she teaches others about deciding which word goes where. She currently resides in the sunshine state in a town that is usually foggy… but next to the ocean nonetheless.

Leave a Reply

Travelers' Tales