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Voodoo and West Africa's Spiritual Life

Dancer "channeling" ancestral spirits spins in a trance at an Egungun festival.
All photos taken by Josh Rogosin, NPR News /
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Dancer "channeling" ancestral spirits spins in a trance at an Egungun festival.

Woman arrives dancing and singing at an Epe Ekpe festival, dressed in a traditional white toga.
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Woman arrives dancing and singing at an Epe Ekpe festival, dressed in a traditional white toga.
Statue of a voodoo god in the fetish market in Lome, Togo.
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Statue of a voodoo god in the fetish market in Lome, Togo.
Monkey skulls are just a few of the animal parts for sale at the fetish market in Lome, Togo.
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Monkey skulls are just a few of the animal parts for sale at the fetish market in Lome, Togo.
Epe Ekpe revelers take a dugout canoe across Lake Togo at sunset.
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Epe Ekpe revelers take a dugout canoe across Lake Togo at sunset.
Costumed dancer at Egungun festival, Cove, Benin.
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Costumed dancer at Egungun festival, Cove, Benin.
A bust of a voodoo god adorns one of the elaborate costumes of an Egungun dancer.
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A bust of a voodoo god adorns one of the elaborate costumes of an Egungun dancer.
Girl dances at Epe Ekpe festival, Glidji, Togo.
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Girl dances at Epe Ekpe festival, Glidji, Togo.
Hooded costume of an Egungun dancer adorned with cowrie shells.
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Hooded costume of an Egungun dancer adorned with cowrie shells.

Vodun is an ancient religion practiced by some 30 million people in the West African nations of Benin, Togo and Ghana. With its countless deities, animal sacrifice and spirit possession, voodoo — as it's known to the rest of the world — is one of the most misunderstood religions on the globe.

In the United States, voodoo has been sensationalized by Hollywood, demonized by Christian missionaries and parodied in New Orleans tourist shops. NPR's John Burnett traveled to Benin and Togo to explore the roots and current practice of this ancient belief, and found some surprising truths behind the hype. His three reports are part of Radio Expeditions, a co-production of NPR and National Geographic.

West Africa was once known as the Slave Coast, because it was at the center of the transatlantic slave trade for centuries. African slaves brought voodoo with them to plantations in Brazil, Haiti, Cuba and Louisiana. But 400 years later, the religion still remains a central part of spiritual life for millions living in West Africa.

"Voodoo is older than the world," says Janvier Houlonon, a tour guide in Benin and a lifelong voodoo practitioner. "They say that voodoo is like the marks or the lines which are in our hands — we born with them. Voodoo are in the leaves, in the earth. Voodoo is everywhere."

Every year in the village of Glidji, 30 miles from Togo's capital city of Lome, members of the Guen tribe gather together for the Epe Ekpe festival — part family reunion, part New Year's Eve, part religious worship.

The highlight of the festival is the sacred stone, sought by a priest within a sacred walled-in forest. The stone's color portends the fortunes of the coming year. This year, the stone he presents to the gathered crowd of 5,000 is white — signifying wealth, happiness, an accident-free world.

"In this perennially destitute and ill-governed country, it would be something of a miracle if the promises of the white stone came true," Burnett says. "Life is a struggle for most Togolese, and the insurgency in nearby Ivory Coast is a constant concern. Still, the Guen can now begin their new year with hope."

The individual deities of voodoo have all the character of the gods of ancient Greece — some capricious, some seductive, some full of wrath. In Cove, Benin, the voodoo faithful gather to dance and thank the god Sakpata, a powerful divinity of the Earth, for recent rains. Women dancers sway in bright dresses with a mottled pattern imitating the scars of smallpox. Sakpata can bring life-giving rain, but the god is responsible for the dreaded disease, too.

The rituals of voodoo are as elaborate as those for any Western church — learning secret, sacred languages, dances and diets are part of the initiation for voodoo priests. Central to the belief is offerings to the gods, in the form of animal sacrifices. Human sacrifices in West Africa ended more than a century ago.

Another key element of the religion is veneration of the spirits of ancestors. Among voodoo worshippers, the dead are thought to walk among the living during the dance of hooded Egunguns, who spin through the village in elaborate costumes. Touching the dancer during the trance, it is believed, could kill you — such is the power of the dead brought to life again.

In the open-air market of Lome, Togo's capital, merchants sell the basics of life — and that includes voodoo talismans known as "fetishes." They could be elaborate statues representing voodoo gods, or even dried animal heads and other animal parts, sold for medicine and their spiritual power.

There is a dark side to voodoo. Sorcerers called botono can be summoned to put a hex on an adversary, or bo, using the malevolent power of a voodoo spirit. Anthropologist Wade Davis has studied voodoo as part of the National Geographic Society's Ethnosphere Project, celebrating world cultures. He says the "dark side" of voodoo is similar to the concept of heaven and hell in Western religious tradition. "The whole point is to make manifest the darkness, so that the goodness can overwhelm it," he tells Burnett.

In one sense, voodoo is no different from other religions – followers appeal to divine powers to assure their success in life. But Christian missionaries don't see it that way. Inside a quiet, fenced enclave in central Lome, a spiritual war is being waged against the spirits of voodoo.

A retired Catholic priest who settled in Togo says many followers of voodoo convert to Christianity and leave the cult. But over time, he has observed, they return to the animal sacrifices, the veneration of fetishes, the dances with the spirits.

"The pull of voodoo is so powerful, he says, it seems embedded in the earth of West Africa," Burnett says.

Radio Expeditions wishes to thank Trans Africa for providing guides, translators and transportation for NPR teams traveling to Benin and Togo.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.