Voudon in Benin (2000)

'If they attack you, you must run away.' Gaston says it urgently, in rapid French patois, and at first I'm not sure if I've heard him correctly. The village drummers of Ngbecon are sweating over their instruments, and the féticheurs, about forty of them, are kicking up the dust in the little square. It is obvious that the possession ritual is coming to some kind of climax, and if that climax is going to involve me, I want to know about it. 'Are they likely to do that?' I ask. He nods. 'They are going to bring down the angry spirits, and some of them can be very violent.'

Over the last two hours, as the sun set and a light wind started to blow off the sea, the people of Ngbecon, just one of countless fishing villages strung along the coast of Benin, have gradually worked up to this moment. In twos and threes, the féticheurs, shaven headed women dressed in wax-print cloth wraps and cowrie-shell jewellery, have wandered through the space, genuflecting to the drums, singing snatches of eerie harmonies, and eyeing me with a certain lofty detachment as I sat on my little wooden chair, waiting for something to happen. The women, who have undergone long training to become the channels by which Ngbecon contacts the supernatural, are watched wide-eyed by the gang of village children who have assembled to find out what will happen when the 'yovo' visitor meets the 'vévé', the spirits.

This is voudon, the traditional religion of Benin, which despite slavery, years of Portuguese and French colonisation and the influx of Islam from the North, has survived into the twenty-first century as a major cultural force in this tiny country. About 70 % of Beninois still practice voudon, often blending it with elements from the various Christian and Muslim creeds which have footholds along the former 'slave coast'. While sophisticates from Cotonou, Benin's biggest city, may go to work in their 4x4's and dance to Zairean pop music in the clubs of the Jonquet district, a few miles down the road African village life continues much as it has done for centuries. Early tomorrow morning the Ngbecon drummers, the best and strongest of the village's young men, will get up and paddle their fishing boats out into the fierce Atlantic surf, casting their nets for sea bass, or paying out thick lines to catch shark and barracuda. Others will check the shrimp baskets in the lagoon, or the ingenious fish traps set around the tangles of submerged mangrove roots near the ferry crossing. Even the little children will set crab traps, made from wooden hinges and old tin cans, while the women load baskets of produce into dug-out pirogues to take to market.

A mile or two down the coast is Grand Popo, a beach resort of elegant Portuguese colonial buildings where French and German tourists come to sample the good life at the elegant Auberge, and Beninois industrialists and politicians maintain splendid villas, shielded from the harmattan by stands of coconut palms. These days Benin is, by West African standards, doing well. Since the dark times of the seventies, when successive postcolonial governments were toppled by military coups, the country has established a democracy and is working hard to improve the lot of its people, most of whom, like the fishers of Ngbecon, are desperately poor. Town centre billboards exhort the populace to patriotic action ('Women of Benin! Spare your children the misery of war!' , 'Let us struggle together to combat air pollution!') and the national TV station plays stirring folk songs over pictures of workmen laying paved roads and water mains. True, the current president, Matthieu Kérékou, did have a spell as Marxist dictator during the 'folklorique' craziness of the seventies, but last time he lost an election he went quietly, and although local politics are still murky ('c'est compliqué, m'sieu' is as much as locals tend to say), Benin appears to be tackling its problems and attracting much-needed foreign investment and visitors.

In the South, the sea and series of huge freshwater lakes dominate the life of the country. A national landmark is Ganvié, the biggest of many stilt villages built by the Tofinu in the middle of lake Nokoué to protect themselves from the predations of their Fon neighbours, who had a religious taboo against crossing water. Life on the lakes, even a trip to the post office or the shops, is conducted entirely by pirogue, and children learn to pole their way across the glassy water almost as soon as they learn to walk.

Only a narrow sandbar separates the lakes from the Atlantic, which smashes up against it to form a white beach that seems to run the entire length of the coastline. The ocean has, as well as wealth, also brought its fair share of sorrow to Benin. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, an average of ten thousand slaves a year were shipped through the port of Ouidah, and whether you find yourself picking your way round a crumbling slaver's fort, or staring at a gradually-oxidising set of shackles in a local museum, the legacy of those times is never far away. In Ouidah itself, now a sleepy market town, you can walk the 'route des esclaves', starting at the huge frangipani tree under which the auctions were held, and following a dusty five kilometre road to the water. These days the route is lined with fetishes - the rainbow serpent, the siren and other figures of the local voudon pantheon - and a plaque marks the spot where the 'forgetting tree' once stood, round which the slaves were marched nine times, to wipe their memories clean of their old life and prepare them for the horrific time ahead. At the beach is a moving monument known as The Point of No Return, an arch decorated with images of manacled figures and voudon symbols through which you can walk down to the shore. It is a place to think about Brazil and Haiti, which were to be the destinations of the majority of the captives who were brought here. The slaves took with them their religion, which mutated into Haitian voodoo, and the Brazilian cults of Santeria and Candomblé. Many followers of these faiths make pilgrimages to Ouidah in search of their spiritual roots, and in town one of the old slaver's mansions holds a museum of modern voodoo art, with pieces from around the world.

To the North of the lakes, Benin is a long strip of heavily forested plateau, stretching out towards the Atakora mountains, on the border with Burkina Faso. Travelling this way in a bush taxi, usually a 1970's-vintage Peugeot estate into which are crammed up to a dozen adults, plus small children, livestock and trade goods, can be a gruelling experience, but it is undoubtedly a fine way to meet people. At one point I find myself explaining the reasons for British resistance to the Euro to a Guinean hajji, while by the side of the road our driver performs the impromptu halal slaughter of a sheep, which (surprise, surprise) is dying after spending six hours tied to the roof rack in the blazing sun. Our destination is the town of Naititongou, the jumping-off point for safaris into the nature reserve of the Parc de la Pendjari, and for roaming around the country of the Somba, a tribal people who live in extraordinary compounds that look like mud and thatch Loire chateaux, and are famous for their skill at hunting with bow and arrow. Though Benin is a small country, perhaps a couple of hundred languages are spoken here, and the Somba are just one of myriad tribal groupings. Travelling through the countryside, you meet high-cheekboned women with indigo tattooing on their foreheads, men etched like printing plates with intricate patterns of facial scars, and little children with red beauty marks and charms tied to their necks to ward off illness. By contrast, in town you can find markets which seem uncannily like Shepherds Bush or Brixton, zoom around on the back of a 'zemijohn' scooter taxi or hang out in music shops which for a few quid will sell you a stack of excellent cassettes, in every musical style from Africando to High Life, Juju to Makossa.

In Ngbecon I quickly realise Gaston was serious. The angry spirits make the possessed féticheurs snarl and writhe, and several of them produce little beaten metal blades, with which they slash at the air, groaning and spitting very angrily indeed. Suddenly a determined middle-aged lady whirls towards me and Gaston jerks me out of the way, six inches of ritual blade carving up the space previously occupied by my face. Luckily for my nerves, the angry spirits are soon superceded by the mocking spirits, who produce a carnivalesque frenzy of dirty dancing. Hips grind, tongues protrude lasciviously, and when the drums pause, everyone piles on top of each other, miming orgiastic group sex. At the second break the inevitable happens and, like a rugby scrum, I am buried beneath a mound of wobbling mock-copulating African womanhood. I emerge to find the entire village convulsed by hysterical laughter, as my assailants victoriously waggle yam phalluses at me I can, I reckon, consider myself well and truly mocked.

This article first appeared in Time Out magazine.