Every year in Benin, locals celebrate a festival in tribute to the deities of Voodoo, the Indigenous religion that worships natural spirits and reveres ancestors.
Increasingly, the festival is drawing people of African descent from the US, Brazil and the Caribbean seeking to discover the religion and land of their ancestors who were enslaved and shipped away from the beaches of west Africa.
Voodoo, known locally as Vodoun, originated in the Dahomey kingdom – present-day Benin and Togo – and is still widely practised sometimes alongside Christianity in coastal towns like Ouidah, once a trading hub where memorials to the slave trade are dotted around the small beach settlement.
“We come here first to search for our origins and reconnect with Mother Earth,” said Louis Pierre Ramassamy, 45, from Guadaloupe who was in Benin for the first time and visiting Ouidah.
He came to discover the Vodoun festival, but his stay goes beyond that.
He said he wants to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors taken from Ouidah centuries ago and to rediscover the divinity practised by his maternal grandmother.
Consultations and sacrifices were made for him in a Vodoun convent in Ouidah to help him reconnect, he said.
“If luck does not smile on me this time, I will come back another time. I need this reconnection for my personal development,” said Ramassamy.
Dozens of followers dressed in white face the ocean in Ouidah each festival to pay homage to Mami Wata, a goddess of the sea.
Accompanied by drums and dancing, followers dressed in colourful traditional robes and gowns watched “Zangbeto” rituals – whirling dancers dressed as guardians of the night.
Nearby is an arch, the “Door of No Return”, in memory of those jammed onto slave ships from Ouidah’s beach bound for the New World.
“Our ancestors foresaw this return of Afro-descendants. They are eagerly awaited by the ghosts of our ancestors,” said Hounnongan Viyeye Noumaze Gbetoton, one of the Vodoun dignitaries in Ouidah.
“When they return, it is to take blessings and recharge their batteries to move forward.”
Anaica Durand, a Brazilian national, said she had managed to reconnect with her family of origin, the Almeidas from Benin, and is delighted.
January 10 has now become a moment of great festivity for her to revel in the songs, dances and celebrations around Vodoun.