Benin: The National Vodun Festival is now ‘Vodun Days’

Picture of the Vodun Zangbeto, Screenshot from the YouTube channel of Le P'tit Reporter.YouTube de Le P'tit Reporter

Benin continues its annual celebrations of indigenous religions, known in French (the country's official language) as the ‘fête nationale du vodoun’ (‘National Vodun Festival’), but has decided to extend the duration of this event, and has rebranded it in English as ‘Vodun Days’ starting from January 2024.

In the Republic of Benin, January 10th is dedicated to the National Vodun Festival, where various Vodun cults practised in the country are celebrated. Established in 1993 by Nicéphore Soglo, who served as President of Benin from 1991 to 1996, the festival represents a tribute by the Beninese to their cultural and historical roots within the context of this spiritual tradition.

Events take place in two major cities: Ouidah, located 42 kilometers west of Cotonou, the country's capital, and the beaches of the coastal city of Grand-Popo, situated in the south of the country near the country's border with Togo.

For years, the festivities took place only on January 10th. However, from 2024, they will expand to happen over two days (January 9th and 10th) and be renamed ‘Vodun Days.’ This year thus marks the inaugural edition of Vodun Days in Benin, as announced by the government on its website and X account (formerly Twitter):

🇧🇯 The Vodun Festival reinvents itself with a new gathering focused on the arts, culture, and Vodun spirituality: the Vodun Days.🌍

Join us on January 9th and 10th, 2024, in Ouidah! 🔥 #VodunDays #Wasexo #TT229 pic.twitter.com/z4TNtzQ2iK

—Vodun Days (@vodundays) November 10, 2023

‘Vodun Days’, a purely English term used by a Francophone country to name the event, reflects the Beninese authorities’ desire to give the event a more international appeal. During a meeting with Beninese media on December 1, 2023, Babalola Jean-Michel Abimbola, the Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture of Benin, explained:

Les ‘‘Vodun Days’’ gardent l’authenticité culturelle à travers l’écriture béninoise du terme ‘‘Vodun’’ au lieu du terme franchisé Vaudou mais surtout, ils s’ouvrent au monde avec le terme ‘‘Days’’ qui permet à tous les autres pays et continents de comprendre qu’il s’agit des journées dédiées à la culture et à la spiritualité Vodun. (…)La réflexion a été de voir comment allier le désir d’ouvrir nos portes au monde et celui de marquer l’authenticité de notre statut de berceau de ce patrimoine. C’est dans ce cadre que nous avons retenu l’authenticité par l’écriture ‘‘Vodun’’ et l’ouverture au monde avec le terme ‘‘days’’ où nous nous ouvrons à d’autres cultures, à l’universel.

‘The ‘Vodun Days’ remain culturally authentic by using the Beninese spelling of ‘Vodun’ instead of the franchised term voodoo. But they also open up to the world with the term ‘Days,’ which allows other countries and continents to understand that these are days dedicated to Vodun culture and spirituality. (…) The idea was to find a way to blend the desire to open our doors to the world with the need to mark the authenticity of our status as the cradle of this heritage. It is in this context that we've chosen authenticity through the spelling ‘Vodun’ and global engagement with the term ‘days,’ opening ourselves to other cultures, to the universal.

Further reading: In Benin, women are making a name for themselves in the country's music scene

With a population exceeding 13 million, Benin's religious demographics, as per the latest census in 2013, are: 48.5 percent Christian, 27.7 percent Muslim, and 14.2 percent who adhere to Vodun. However, Professor Mahougnon Kakpo, the head of the Vodun Rites Committee, contests these figures. Speaking to Bénin Intelligent, he maintains that Vodun is, in fact, the predominant religion in Benin:

Lorsque vous allez voir les statistiques même du Pnud, on va vous dire : au Bénin, la première religion c’est le christianisme et puis vous avez l’islam et ensuite les religions animistes. C’est ce qu’ils disent. Vous voyez comment on peut truquer, falsifier la vérité ? Au Bénin, la première religion pratiquée c’est le Vodun. Pourquoi ? Parce qu’il n’y a pas de famille au Bénin où on n’a pas le culte des ancêtres.

Looking the UNDP own statistics, you see that in Benin, the primary religion is Christianity, followed by Islam, and then animist religions. That's what the statistics say. Do you see how the truth can be manipulated, falsified? In Benin, the foremost practised religion is Vodun. Why? Because there is not a single family in Benin not practising ancestor worship.

With the ‘Vodun Days,’ Benin now seeks to embrace its status as the cradle of Vodun. This religion incorporates invisible and supernatural forces used by adherents to communicate with the gods. Present in certain West African countries such as Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, this spirituality is also practised in the African-descended communities of the Americas, particularly in Brazil, the United States, and the Caribbean.

At the start of his first term, Patrice Talon, President of Benin since 2016, declared his commitment to promoting the Vodoun religion beyond its borders and outside the continent. On November 30, 2023, the Benin Broadcasting and Television Office (ORTB) reiterated this commitment in a report:

Si l'Europe est de culture judéo-chretienne, l'Orient de culture islamique, l'Afrique est de quelle culture? Nos parents étaient des païens et ont créé des danses, les dessins, les masques et c'est cela qui a constitué notre patrimoine culturel et qui inspire nos artistes. L'Afrique est de culture Vodoun. Et nous allons révéler au monde ce patrimoine si riche, si intense, si beau que le monde aura du plaisir à le découvrir.

If Europe is of Judeo-Christian culture, and the East is of Islamic culture, what of Africa's culture? Our ancestors were pagans who created dances, drawings, masks, and these that have formed our cultural heritage and inspired our artists. Africa is of Vodun culture. And we will unveil to the world this heritage, so rich, so intense, so beautiful, that the world will take pleasure in discovering it.

This short documentary by Le P'tit Reporter presents the entirety of a Vodun ceremony. Featuring dances, rituals, and manifestations of ancestral spirits, the creator offers a true immersion into the Vodun religion:

The gathering of Afro-Descendants

Each year, numerous practitioners of the Vodoun cult from Togo, Nigeria, Ghana, and around the world convene at this international meeting. Afro-descendants from the United States, Brazil, Haiti, and Canada also attend this event.

For some of these attendees, descendants of slaves, it is an opportunity to reconnect with the land of their ancestors who were victims of colonisation, as explained in this Tv5monde video of the festival held on January 10, 2023:

The Beninese authorities’ focus on the Vodoun religion also serves as an opportunity to highlight the country's tourist attractions. As Pierre-Luc Roy elaborates in this video, the cultural and historical heritage often remains underutilised:

This inaugural edition of ‘Vodun Days’ featured performances by renowned Beninese artists such as Sagbohan Danialou, the Frères Totin, alongside African stars such as Kofi Olomidé, Yemi Aladé, Teni, and even Haitian musicians like Tabou Combo. On January 10th, these big names in music took the stage for a concert at the ‘Vodun Days’ event.

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