This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.2, Autumn 2013.
The Algerian brought the blade down on the snake’s head. The women screamed. The blood was so red it looked fake. He called the gardener to take it away. A man in rags dropped the body into a wheelbarrow. The Algerian nodded. C’est la saison, he said. I said c’est ça, although I knew nothing of the season. We sat smoking for a few hours and went to bed.
It was still dark when I went to the road. The motel guard walked with me for a few metres and waved. Bonne route, monsieur. I headed south.
I crossed into Benin two days ago. I had taken the road east out of Kara towards Ouaké. The tar was full of holes and the sun was on my face. I passed a bar called Dieu Donne Fufu, another called New Harlem. At the border the officials gave me a seat in the shade and asked me questions. Why are you so dirty? Are you married? You have walked from Ghana. It is not possible. Where do you sleep? What happens when it rains? What do you eat? How much is a chicken in Europe? Where will you walk now? Is your stick a javelin? Where did you learn to speak French? Are you paid? Are you a soldier? Do you carry medicine? Are you on Facebook?
I left with a sheet of paper full of their phone numbers. Any problems, you call. And do not take the dirt road to Penéssolou. It is not safe.
So I took the sealed road to Djougou, and then turned for Penéssolou. For eight days I walked amidst burnt-out trucks and herds of milk-white cattle. In the villages, the children ran and grabbed hold of my hands. When the sun was high I passed among the trees. When night fell someone found me a mattress. Each night I heard drums.
I have been walking for 1,200 miles and I have grown used to life on the road. I no longer feel my pack. I know to rest for twenty minutes late in the morning and again in the middle of the afternoon. I am patient with the children who run behind me in each village. I always carry coins as no one has change. When people ask where I’m going I say the next town. Otherwise they will say it is impossible and ask a thousand questions.
When a passing scooter stops to offer a lift I know to say that I am doing sport. This way they will let me walk on. I know that whenever I ask for directions the answer will be là-bas. I am used to eating with my hands. I know that the men with guns will not harm me. I bow whenever I meet someone older than me. I know that cigarettes cost 20p a pack, a bottle of beer 50p, a fish head 15p. I know to eat the fish head whole.
When the flies come, and they come in droves, I bind my kafir into a rope and whip it over my shoulders, like a tail, until they disperse. Because I have a kafir people think I am an Arab. When I say I am British people look back blankly. The outside world is Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and, further off, China. But above all the outside world is France. People believe that Europe is paradise and they ask me to take them there. Time has little value, money has value, and company has the greatest value of all. I am rarely alone because people want to talk.
On the eighth day out of Djougou, I reached Dassa-Zoumé and went to the oracle. The falling of the charms showed the road was clear. I knelt before a pile of skulls and the priest washed my head in herbs and flour.
If I give someone my phone number they will call twice a day to say hello. Whenever there is music there is dancing. In the towns there are policemen instead of traffic lights. Children dance from dawn to dusk. They are always smiling. The dead return to dance once a year. They come in the robes of a Yoruba divinity and sometimes chase the living with sticks. They are called back from the forest by a man in white cloth softly beating a drum. They dance like angels.
My feet bled on the road to Setto. I doused them in iodine and they turned orange. When I reached the village I went to the chief. He sat in a deck chair beside a disused railway line. Children passed and he gave them coins. At dusk we ate groundnuts and drank Nescafé. We slept side-by-side on mats on the floor. I heard drums in the night.
Animal Heads at the voodoo fetish market of Lomé © Anthony Pappone
I followed a road of red dust through fields of maize and huts of mud. I passed tabernacles and fetishes. The churches were made of straw and marked by a crucifix, a rainbow and a single eye. They were built by a pastor who linked hands with the dying and made them well. I can smell the fetishes now. It is a mixture of palm oil and dried blood. This is the smell of the sacrifice. The men chant as they sprinkle palm oil on the shrine. Someone gently taps a bell. Before they cut off the animal’s head they give it water. If it drinks, this shows that the spirits have accepted it. The animal wets itself as it dies, and blood and urine gush over the divinity.
As I neared Abomey, three women passed with sacks on their heads. The loads were heavy enough to snap my neck. The sun beat down. My hands started to burn and I bound them in cloth. A breeze came. One of the women waved. The breeze was like a benediction. The law of the road is based on size. 4x4s barge cars off the road; cars send scooters to the dust; women with basins on their heads give way to everything.
Often people ask if in my country it is forbidden to have more than one child. They tell me this is how it is in China. A bad place. Every- day someone asks what my religion is. When I answer they shout the response to those out of earshot. The world came into being through the marriage of a serpent and a rainbow. Twins are sacred. If I take out my iPod, a crowd forms because it is beautiful. If a woman has twins here and one dies, she will carry a wooden doll in a pouch around her waist everywhere she goes from the day of the infant’s burial. If someone has twins in China do they cut off one of the heads?
Like all pilgrims I am looking for God. Sometimes people ask if I am walking because I have no money. I am walking to learn about African religion. The Christian and Islamic worlds have been encroaching for centuries. In places, the spirits are little more than memories. But here they are strong. Like incense in the Catholic world, I can smell the devotion.
Lines of women sat with baskets of bread off the road into Abomey. Night was falling and they lit the candles. Figures in Scream masks danced beside a hearse. I hid in an alley. Plastic flowers covered the coffin. Men with drums walked behind.
In some West African languages there is no distinction between the living and the dead. I am going to give father a drink and I am going to water his grave are the same. Some teachers tell their children that Jesus is the secret to the West’s success. Which is why they print ‘In God We Trust’ on their money.
I ate dinner at a maquis beside the market place. Across the way there was a speaker. Like all speakers here it was so loud the air crackled. A girl sat beside me. She had scars on her face and said her dream was to open a boutique. She would sell Yoruba cloth and call the store Les Champs-Elysées.
I have heard people say they are descended from a lost tribe of Israel. I have been asked if in my country we eat salad all day long. We are the ancestors of Issachar, who wandered across the desert. Salad is a delicacy eaten by Americans on TV. I have passed villages called Canaan, Bethlehem, New Jerusalem.
Gèlèdé followers in Kétou (Benin) © Jean-Claude Moschetti
Before I left the city I went to Mass. The service was held in a basilica of grey cement built in the shape of a giant chameleon. A girl in gold sang before the altar. The song was an invocation. With each spirit the rhythm of the drums changed. The women clapped and the elders sat with canes in robes of many colours. A young mother came forward with a newborn. The priest came down from beside the stone panther. He doused the infant’s head with water from the tomb of the founding father. The priest wore purple robes and a gold watch. He thanked the spirits for protecting the mama and papa, for allowing them to have this child. They named the baby Ateche.
I have read the Bible once. I read that we shall tear down the groves; that we shall make disciples of all nations; that an angel flew in the midst of heaven saying Babylon is fallen, is fallen.
The girl thanked Hevioso for making the rain fall. She swayed from side to side as she sang the final verse. The man beside me translated so that I would understand. People say Vodou is a religion of Satan. But Vodou is a path to God. We are ready to worship to the day we die.
Her teeth were white as pearls and all the children danced.
I asked the priestess in the village of Kpoba if she feared for the future of her faith. She was of Mami Water (goddess of the sea), wore a white sheet and kept three alligators in a pool beside her temple. She laughed. This is Benin and we are Vodou.
It was harvest time and the remnants of the maize were burning.
At the crossroads the guard pointed south. He told me to watch out. The paths will trick you. I lost my way many times. I walked for three days from Abomey to the shores of Lac Ahémé. I reached the water near dusk. Children gathered on the beach to watch crabs fight in baskets. A man walked by in Wayfarers. The light was golden beneath the palms. His name was Adam and he took me to see the spirit Zangbeto dance. He told me his parents wore white robes and no shoes. Like we are told in the Bible, he said. They were of the church of the rainbow and the single eye. We went to eat at his house. His wife cooked maize pâté on a stove in the yard. We sat on jerrycans facing one another. When the wind blew, the door banged and the candle failed. Seven years ago he was born again. He attends a church of unpainted breeze blocks set up by a Nigerian pastor with a private jet. His wife came in and gave us food. A baby slept on her back. Eat, he said. The mats they slept on had been rolled up and leaned against the wall. The maize was warm to touch. The mud of the wall was cracking. I could hear every sound that came from the surrounding huts. We live as one, he said.
I walked back through the village to the auberge where I slept. At 6am I went to the road. I am near the sea now. The sand of the track is white. I have passed the python temple, and the child selling gasoline before the liquor store. I have passed the Catholic church, and the statue of the figure with three heads and six green eyes. I have passed the place that was once a slave market, the women with baskets of salt, the children dancing in the dust. I can see the sea.
European sailors first reached this shore in 1471, two hundred years before the land was carved up. The Saudis have been building here since the 1960s. The mosques tower over the surrounding earth huts. Cement is greater than mud. The sailors sailed from Portugal. They planted giant wooden crucifixes in the sand and wept as they first said Mass. The people they encountered were living in darkness. They believed that the world came into being through the marriage of a serpent and a rainbow. They believed that twins were sacred.
In 1956 the Virgin Mary appeared in a cave outside Dassa-Zoumé. In 2010 the Milan chapter of the Church of Scientology opened a school in Twewaa, Ghana. The key is how to confront suppression, Tom Cruise said. Bethlehem is marked by a rusted blue sign on the dirt road to Juaso. New Jerusalem is a suburb of Kaduna. Canaan is a super-church on the Ibadan highway. Each adept of the python temple has ten scars on his face. The scars are shaped like teardrops. Mami Water comes from the sea. Hevioso makes the rain fall. The children dance from dawn to dusk. They are always smiling. The dead return to dance once a year. They are called back from the forest by a man in white cloth softly beating a drum. Tom Cruise is the Messiah. An iPod is beautiful. The Bible is a fairytale. Voodoo is a path to God. The drumming will never end.
Words by Robert Martineau
Header image: Les masques lapin du pays Dogon. Tireli, Mali. 2001 by Cheryl Koralik