Saturday, December 7, 2013

Voodoo, Temples and Snakes, Oh MY!

Snake + Me. nbd.

The road was bumpy. Motos seemed to be passing by on every side of the truck, though traffic seemed to be diminishing, slowly but surely as we left the city. However, as the traffic diminished, the worse the road seemed to get. It was almost as if we were dwindling away from the known, civilized world, venturing into the untamed wilds of the "Dark Continent." 

Every rock we passed over, every hole we dipped through, and every debris we dodged around only seemed to remind us that our final destination was not just a simple grocery list task. Rather, the task ahead was ominous: venturing into what some have called the birthplace of "Voodoo" and explore its temples. However, despite that, we continued our journey on the unbeaten path, preferring not to think about the mysteries and potential danger that lay ahead. 

To that point, only rumors had been heard as to the mysteries of "Ouidah." Even the name is a mystery! Some have called it Gléhué, others Whydah, and then others Juidah. Even what makes this village famous is disputable: some have called it the birthplace of Voodoo, though others refute that. One might suppose that the only sure fact of this mysterious village seemed to be that there really are no facts. 

However, the history surrounding this village is frightening. For hundreds of years, it was used as a major port for one of the most disgraceful and cruel trades to taint our history books: that of the slave trade. Thousands of slaves would, according to legend, stay in less-than-habitable huts, only later to be shoved like sardines into the large masked ships of the Europeans. Even the French burned down their fort, not only to burn away any value that was left in the fort, but also to cover the atrocities that happened on the inside too. 

Though, with the amount of suffering that happened through her history, "Ouidah's" top chiefs are said to have been the definition of the word royalty. According to the locals, the chiefs would throw huge feasts and other spectacles for their European guests. Some say that they would even last weeks, the largest lasting for at least two or three months. The fortune of most of the tribal chief came, of course, from the selling of their people to their European guests. Apparently, a European cannon would cost upwards of 20 virgin women. Who knows what else they could buy with just a few poor souls. 

Of course, that history is completely different to that of the infamous Snake Temple. As the legend goes, the ancestors of this village were under attack and were about to lose their battle, but then snakes came and protected the village from their attackers. Ever since then, the townspeople have worshiped the protection given by the serpents. They are even marked on their faces, with four strikes on each cheek and two on their forehead; a symbol of their thankfulness for what the ancient serpents had done. 

Now, the traffic has ceased. The forest has become dense. The skies just a bit darker. Though the road ahead seems ominous, we charge ahead... waiting and wondering what will be our fate...

Well, at least that's what I thought on my way to Ouidah, the infamous Beninois town known for its slave trade history and voodoo background. As a missionary, that's one of the the apparent "highlights" of the mission. In Togo, that's all we heard about as the things we were missing out on! I'm lucky that I happened to fall on a trip down to Ouidah on my second week in Benin! 

So needless to say, my expectations were high and I was really excited to go visit the Snake Temple! But first, we went to the old Portuguese fort, which was rebuilt in the 1970s at the expense of the Portuguese. It's not really that great, in terms of a cool fort, but oh well! You take what you can get! Unfortunately, like I mentioned before, the French fort was burnt down by them before they abandoned it in the 1700s. However, inside the Portuguese fort (which was turned into a museum), they had a model of what the old French one looked like and it was pretty huge! 

The Portuguese fort (with the museum inside)

In the museum, they had a bunch of other cool old artifacts that were found in renovating the old Fort. On the lower level, they actually had an art exhibit from a French photographer who took photos back in the 60s of the similarities between African-Brazilian culture and Togo/Benin culture. There are some photos where you wouldn't even think there was a difference in what they were doing, even though they happened to be on two completely different continents. (See Sister SieHawk? It's like we ARE connected! Africa and Brazil!)

The old doors to the fort, donated by the Portuguese. I think they were removed because they were afraid of somebody stealing them. As for the hearse thing... not sure about the story behind that.

On the second floor, they had more of the artifacts and they explained what Ouidah was used for during the slave trade days (mostly, party central). Yeah, what I talked about in that little beginning intro was true... they would party for months with the Europeans! And it was always thrown by the tribal leaders to celebrate. However, some of the things I found the most interesting were the diagrams of the ships they would transport slaves in (I think sardines have more room in a can than the African slaves did in ships). The slaves would actually be kept in the forts for a matter of days, weeks, and even months until they could be taken down to the port and put in the ships. So, they would always have to go through a "death march" down to the shore (only about 4-5 kilometers away). There they would reach "the point of no return", which has a big memorial but we didn't get to go see it on my trip.  

Old memorial to the Portuguese... notice the canons around it, which were really bought by old Chiefs for 20 virgin slaves. Each.

The Catholic Church of Ouidah... I think there's a problem when the Voodoo capital of the world's Voodoo temple is 30x smaller than the Catholic Church next door.

After the museum, we headed on our way to the Snake Temple! VOODOO CAPITAL! Wooohoooo! Except well... I gotta say... it was kinda lame to be honest. First off... it just looks like a really unkempt garden and then, on the side, there is a tiny little hut that has a lot of cool paintings on it. Our "tour guide" (only said like 5 sentences because the temple is so small) brought out a python and then everybody took their turn and wore it, er held it. Afterwards, we were given the chance to go inside the "temple" (hut) and look at the snakes.

 Inside the grounds around Temple, this is the prophets house... or as I call it, prison cell.
 Doors of the Temple.

Now, I was expecting an Indiana Jones-type snake pit thing inside the temple. I mean, you would think that Voodoo Capital, crazy famous temple would be like that... but no. It was just a little room with a bunch of curled up snakes (it was morning so I guess they were sleeping? Do snakes sleep?). It was still kinda creepy to be surrounded by the 15 or so snakes... but... well I guess my expectations were too high. And to be honest, I wasn't even scared putting on the snake because I was expecting an INDIANA JONES SNAKE PIT. The disappointment just made me like... "oh, nbd, there's a snake on me. cool." 


Some snakes just chillin' taken it easy.

However, one cool fact about the snakes is apparently they let them roam around the town one day a week. Elder Semken told me that every time they let them out to roam around, every single one of them always comes back! Thought that was cool.

Anyway... yeah... snake temple was kind of a bust but, you pay for what you get ($2). And I still had a lot of fun being with all the other missionaries and seeing how scared they were around the snakes. 

Aside from my Ouidah trip, my week was pretty boring to be honest. Not too much to report on. I'm still trying to get used to all the newness of Benin and the Bureau but things are coming along now. I am learning a lot about how things work out here though. For example, how customs sorts through the mail, how we have to do immigration for all the Elders and how that plays a huge factor in the timing of when missionaries go home... I'm learning a lot! I am also learning that whenever you deal with the government here, you're gonna have to wait... imagine the post office, customs, department of immigration, etc about 10x as bad as the DMV back home... and for some odd reason, the Beninois DMV here has to be worse than everything else, just like the DMV back home, so it's like 20x worse. Good times!

Thank you for all your prayers and all your support that you guys give me! It's very helpful and it keeps me going. I hope everyone is starting to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit and gearing up for the holidays! Hey, maybe you could think about sending your favorite missionary a Christmas card or something?  What a great idea! 

Miss you all! Love you! 

Elder Hawkins

Note from the Fro: One thing he didn't mention in his letter this week is that he is SUPER excited for Togo to organize its FIRST STAKE tomorrow!  He's sad he won't be there on the momentous occasion, but is excited he played a part in making that happen.  Yay!  Also, he says it's a little depressing going to pick up hundreds of letters at the post office and NONE of them are for him.  :( How about taking some time to write to him this week?  I know he'd LOVE hearing from you!  Remember to wish him a Merry Christmas! Here's the address once again:

Elder Trevor Hawkins
Benin Cotonou Mission
Cadjehoun Lot#1158- Bloc F
01 BP 3323
Cotonou, Benin, West Africa

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