The most important day in life is the day of death – they scoff in Benin. The party is pompous. Because you can’t mess with the dead.
GBEFFA, GRAND POPO AND ADIARRA taz | Gbeffa is actually a small, sleepy fishing village in the southwest of Benin. From Grand Popo, the next larger town, a sandy track leads to the village. There is a bar on the beach and here and there small wooden stalls selling tomatoes, bars of soap and cooking oil. A few dilapidated houses are still reminiscent the French colonial period.
But on this Saturday morning, Gbeffa is blocked with cars and minibuses. It is no longer possible to get through the narrow streets. Hundreds of people have traveled from all over Benin to witness Anoumou Telesphore Akpla’s transition from this world to the afterlife.
Funerals are important social events. The actual burial will take place on Saturday so that as many as possible can attend. But the week before there had already been church services, prayer circles and a wake. If a neighbor or the mother of a work colleague dies, personal expressions of condolence are taken for granted and, in return, an invitation to the funeral service is also accepted. Akplan’s is going to be huge.
Businessman Akpla has spent most of his life in Gabon spent. Numerous West Africans emigrate to the Central African oil state to work as drivers and cleaning ladies or to actually make big money. But the only place to rest is at home. The 72-year-old was just visiting Benin’s economic metropolis Cotonou, where he had a house, when he unexpectedly fell ill and died. So the body didn’t have to be flown home and refrigerated in a morgue for months. This often happens when children work in Europe. Storage is sometimes more expensive than a month’s rent for a small apartment.
With the coffin into the parents’ house
Akpla was a Catholic, which is why three priests came to the funeral service. They wear cream colored gowns and they are family. The light brown wooden coffin with the cross on it is carried by Gbeffa. Musicians playing metal flutes and beating bells and drums lead the way, with the mourners following behind. Two women hold up picture frames with photos of Akpla for everyone to remember their faces.
The goal is two small houses in which the parents of the deceased once grew up. In both, the coffin is laid out for a few minutes. There are prayers, blessings and, again and again, sodabi, a high-proof palm wine produced in Benin. Taking the coffin to the ancestral homes is part of the traditional ceremony, which is extremely important, says nephew Anges Acakpo: “Now everyone in the village knows that he is really dead.”
It is also part of the tradition to slaughter a chicken as a sacrifice. Above the coffin with the metal cross on it, a voodoo priest first sprinkles liquor on the grey-black bird and then cuts its throat. The blood drips onto the sand. The revenants, the spirits of death, dance around the coffin. They look like big colorful raffia skirts and keep turning around themselves. They remind the mourners that the dead and the living form a community. The people around them slip them small bills. It is not possible to see who is hiding under the frames. Some people avoid them, almost frightened.
Benin is considered the cradle of voodoo. To date, around 12 percent of the 13 million inhabitants officially profess the old religion, which is particularly widespread in the south. It often mixes with Christianity, and many people practice both without speaking publicly about it. Being a voodoo follower is considered old-fashioned and unfashionable.
gods and oracles
The term voodoo comes from the Fon language, which is mainly spoken along the coast. It means god or deity. “Voodoo is an energy,” says Métard Dominique Bada. He is a professor of linguistics at the University of Abomey-Calavi and an expert on religion. Religions would regulate coexistence and impart ethical principles. Beninese, says Bada, are very religious.
Voodoo is considered an extremely practical religion. Anyone who has a specific request turns to one of the deities – sometimes they are referred to as the children of the Creator God – and makes sacrifices to her. For example, women who do not become pregnant come to Mami Wata. They give her sweet drinks or perfume. She doesn’t like alcohol. If the request is increased, a second, smaller ceremony of thanks is necessary.
Christianity and voodoo have one thing in common. “In Benin, as on the whole continent, the dead are not dead,” says Bada. “One is only on earth for a certain time, and the big house is elsewhere.” Belief in the resurrection and eternal life characterizes Christianity; in voodoo, on the other hand, it is central to honor the ancestors and to keep in touch with them. If they have important questions, they will be asked using a medium: Should I sell the property? Should we really get married?
Another way to get in touch with the ancestors is through the Fa oracle, which Fa priests interpret. After a specific question has been asked, two small strings, each with eight cowrie shells or wooden discs hanging from them, are thrown. Only those who have studied the oracle for years can interpret the answer. But many people also ask for the blessing of their ancestors every day, for example when they leave the house in the morning and go to work. All Saints’ Day is also considered an important holiday, on which people even go to the graves. Otherwise they are poorly maintained. Because the dead are everywhere.
Noël Agossou is convinced that their wishes must be taken into account. He has set up a museum in Adjarra on the Nigerian border and has been collecting masks and statues from West and Central Africa for decades. Voodoo is also omnipresent around the museum. Sakpata, the smallpox god, is worshiped here. The white cloth with the black dots on it is reminiscent of him. “We have to stick to what someone tells us before they die,” says Agossou. Otherwise the mind cannot rest. In one case, the children did not bury their father on the family property because they preferred to sell it. An accident and illness followed. In Benin, accidents and misfortune are often explained by the fact that rules were not observed.
Gbeffa’s funeral procession has ended and the hearse is taking Anoumou Telesphore Akpla’s coffin to Grand Popo Cemetery, where the actual burial will take place. Akpla’s widow, the five children and their families follow. All wear dresses and suits of black fabric with white leaves. Nieces and nephews, in turn, have chosen a fabric of blue and white. The colors and patterns symbolize togetherness. Also, everyone knows immediately who belongs to which branch of the family.
In the cemetery, it’s the turn of the Catholic priests again. They say the last prayers before the coffin disappears into the dug grave. For a moment there is no sign of the big party, calm returns and the closest relatives mourn again. They trickle sand onto the coffin. The hole is slowly being filled up.
Anyone who comes by receives drinks, meat and rice – regardless of whether they knew the dead person or not
On the other hand, white tents are being set up on the beach at Gbeffa, and plastic chairs and tables are being set up. A truck delivers cases of soft drinks and beer. Women cook on an open fire. The family had two muttons slaughtered. Music blares out of the speakers. Funeral celebrations are also a line of business from which caterers, tailors, disc jockeys, photographers and rental companies make their living.
Anyone passing by Gbeffa is given drinks and a full plate of meat and rice, whether they knew the late businessman Akpla or not. Nobody wants to estimate how much money the funeral service will cost. It’s probably many thousands of euros. The costly funerals are increasingly under criticism. Especially surviving dependents with low income sometimes get into debt for many years. However, Métard Dominique Bada says: “It’s also about charity” and also about making someone happy.