National Geographic On Assignment
National Geographic Explorer’s Voodoo Photo Gallery
National Geographic on Assignment, spent two weeks criss-crossing the West African nations of Benin and Togo with Wade Davis, an anthropologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-In-Residence, and Chris Rainier, a National Geographic photographer and co-director of the Society’s Ethnosphere Project. Their quest: to explore the roots of the voodoo religion in the cradle of its origin.
There’s a small village called Zooti in southern Togo known for its fierce warriors, and their big, bold, bloody voodoo rituals. We’re told about the fearless tribesmen and decide to travel off the beaten path to see them for ourselves.
We understand that it will be like nothing we have ever witnessed—a bizarre marriage of religious fervor and ancient tradition. I’m not sure exactly what to expect, but I expect I’ll be amazed by whatever spectacle unfolds. Despite the sensational and frightening aspects of this ancient religion, we are going to try to make sense out of what we see.
Zooti is about a two-hour drive east of the Togolese capital, Lome. It’s fortunate we’re travelling in a big four-wheel-drive truck because we soon find ourselves off the highway and on unpaved dirt roads. We bump along past stretches of gorgeous tropical coastline and snake through acres of farmland. Goats and pigs scramble out of our way, seeking safety on the shoulder of the road. There are no signs to direct us to Zooti, but our driver Rafiou knows the way.
When the long, thin ribbon of reddish dirt ends, a cluster of mud homes topped with straw roofs appears. It is Zooti. Like many of the villages we’ve visited, Zooti has no electricity, no phone lines, no running water. The people here grow their own fruits and vegetables, fetch water from a community well, and raise their own livestock. The children who race out to greet us look healthy and happy and crowd around with a mix of excitement and fear. They scream when they catch sight of our big video camera. It is not often they have such strange looking visitors.
I’m introduced to a local man named Sowada Atto. He’s not sure of his exact age, but reckons it’s around 45. He has two wives and seven children. Keeping them all fed, he tells me, isn’t easy. So Sowada works two jobs, in the fields as a farmer and in the village as a mason. The money he makes from building homes and fixing walls helps him to buy seeds and hire farmhands. While he deals with life’s daily struggles, he finds comfort and strength in his religion and its traditions.
“When I have a need,” Sowada says, “I express it to the gods and the gods will help me, especially when I have a big problem. I call on the gods, and they answer my prayers.”
In this village, the gods are called on and prayers issued during special ceremonies. On this day a half dozen men sit together in the shade of a thick tree enthusiastically pounding their drums, beckoning their voodoo god Koku to arrive. A crowd quickly gathers in a circle around them in anticipation of the approaching divine event. We squeeze past the kids and secure “front row seats.”
The incessant beat intensifies, and suddenly, one by one, men leap up, shouting and spinning out of control. I see that Sowada is one of them. Collectively, they have become possessed by the spirit of Koku and, while in trance, will embody his strength and courage.
“When they are taken by the god,” Wade Davis explains, “they are no longer human. They are the god. It’s not magical, it’s very real. It shows you the power of belief!”
With eyes wide, and sweat pouring off them, the warriors dance and shout, stumbling into the crowd, and bowing down in front of the village elders. On their knees they also pay homage to Koku, represented by a gnarled chunk of wood placed in the dirt. The men carry strange metal knives and hold them up for all to see.
Then, as if heeding some unspoken cue, the warriors begin raking their weapons across their arms. Blood pours from their wounds. It is unbelievable, but I learn that it is designed to show the strength of their faith and the mightiness of their god.
Koku guarantees the men protection in battle and invincibility in combat. When the men of Zooti went to war, they wouldn’t be afraid. Even if they were wounded they wouldn’t feel any pain. Or so I’m told. Regardless, it is more than a little disturbing to watch these men intentionally cut themselves, and spill their own blood. But like voodoo itself, it is an ancient tradition, performed by these people for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Hours later, I meet up again with Sowada, who is once again calm and gentle and apparently no worse for his self-inflicted mauling. I try not to stare at the rows of deep scars running up and down his arms. He tries to explain.
“The rituals and my beliefs save me from evil spirits and protect me,” Sowada says, “and if I am to live a long time it will be because of my voodoo god.”
Looking at this easy-going, smiling man I can hardly believe he’s the same person I saw taking part in the frenetic ritual. But I guess that shows the depth and appeal of voodoo. Ordinary people do extraordinary things when they harness the strength and power of their convictions. Nowhere is that more apparent to me than in the tiny Togolese village of Zooti.