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Couffo, Benin – As the hazy morning air lifts, a group of villagers dance into focus, kicking up dust as they make their way down a sandy road. Clad in bright beads, colourful African prints and white cloth, villagers chant and contort their bodies. At the front are a group of children, dancing and singing as if possessed by the beat. They are followers of voodooism – a religion that is part and parcel of the culture in the tiny West African country of Benin.
They march towards a small mud hut, located in the Couffo region of southwest Benin, aglow from the hot morning sun. Villagers filter in, filling every corner of this little orange compound. Beads of sweat trickle down faces etched with scars. In the middle lies a small shrine. A wooden post wrapped in old rope sits on top of animal bones.
A chief priest, draped in a white gown, an ornate crown perched on his head, takes his seat and waves a long wand of coarse white horse hair to silence the crowd.
This is just one of Benin’s many voodoo convents: places where children allegedly possessed by spirits are sent to be healed.
Children can spend up to seven years in these convents, completely disconnected from the outside world. As part of their daily routine, they are made to sing, dance and learn a new language.
Once the oracles consider them healed, they are released in a coming out ceremony. But by then, they have missed out on an education and have little hope for a bright future.
Now, child rights organisation Plan International is working with local NGOs and chief voodoo priests in villages in Couffo to support children caught up in this tradition. As a result, hundreds have been released from the convents.