THE KING AND I
HERE for pictures of this trip. (Opens in a new window)
Da-Homey, a name whispered only in fearful awe by the citizens of the surrounding Kingdoms, had enough chill to send a shiver down the spine of anyone who crossed its path. Its Kings, descended from the son of a Princess who slept with a panther, were protected by the only genuine Amazon army the world has ever known and they lived a life of extreme brutality. The walls of their capital, Abomey, were festooned in the severed heads of enemies and former friends of whom they had grown tired. To relax they feasted on a harem of hundreds of virgin girls and for sport they made well on their coronation vows to expand by war the size of the Kingdom they had inherited. To fund it all the many prisoners that this near constant state of warfare generated were wrapped in chains and sold to the European slavers along the coast. But the real ace of terror up their sleeves was not the fear of a life of slavery. It was something far worse. It was a word full of black magic. A word that still makes us shudder today. For Da-Homey is the home of Voodoo.
There must still be a lot of magic stashed away in the branches of the Sacred Forest of Kpassé, because after leaving the tree King, the guardian of the forest pointed to another large tree and announced that we must be cautious for this tree was also magic, One day, he told me, There was a big storm and this tree blew over and the path was blocked, so when the storm was past some workmen came along and started to cut the tree up, but while they were doing this they suddenly went mad and the tree got up and put itself back together again, Wow, thats a good story. When did that happen? I asked, assuming we were talking of a centuries old legend. Nineteen eighty-eight. Lots of people in town saw it happen in case you dont believe me. He neednt have worried, for if I had learnt anything from the month I had spent here, it was that you should never underestimate the power of magic.
Da-Homey eventually became
Benin, a small nation no larger than Portugal, nestled onto the coast
of West Africas Gulf of Guinea. It is, alongside its westerly
neighbours, Togo and Ghana, one of the least understood corners of our
surfing universe. With a strip of palm fringed coastline facing straight
into the path of Antarctic created south swells these three nations
are just crying out for surfers. Yet, despite the odd mention of Ghana
in the surfing media, we still havent made it out there. Maybe
its because of the Voodoo?
My journey to the magicians backyard started, along with French/Ivorian surfer, Fréd Roux, late one morning close to the Beninese/Nigerian frontier with a bunch of overhead beach breaks and an even bigger bunch of excitable kids. Fréd has spent most of his life flitting between the point breaks of nearby Côte DIvoire, the reefs of Senegal and the barrelling beaches of France and his experience of West African surf is second to none, but even for him knowledge of the surf of Benin, Togo and Ghana was as close to zero as mine and, just like me, the thought of a surf coastline as virginal as the girls of the Kings of Abomey was too much to resist. We had chosen September and October as the best months because the monsoon and its light onshores would be coming to an end and the wind patterns starting to shift offshore, but the Southern Ocean would be active enough to keep a steady flow of waves coming our way. And by and large that is exactly what we found. At first there was little but beach breaks and the odd river mouth and the best waves we came across were in a small and rusty little town where a rock jetty and a brown, sludgy river combined to make a shallow sandbar, down which raced beautifully formed little rights. We surfed here for a couple of days and I think it would be fair to say that Ive never surfed so many waves in such a short space of time. It was like being on the magic roundabout take off, tube, short paddle back out and straight into another pit. And of course we didnt see another surfer in all the waves we rode there.
The African skies might be thick with sorcery but you certainly wont find magicians pulling rabbits out of hats on every street corner. Its something you have to look for and it took us until we had got a few beaches further down the line. It first appeared as a passing remark whilst we lazed in the back of a dug out canoe, our boatman, Michel, paddling us towards an uneventful river mouth set up. Drifting past a riverside village Michel told us how the voodoo was strong here, but it was a calm and trustworthy voodoo and we had nothing to fear. Nearby though was a village where he would not go, no one who could help it went there and no one would take us, because the Voodoo in this village was so strong and powerful that if we went there even we would hear it speak to us and the voice we would be hearing would be that of the Devil. It then appeared in a more tangible form as we shopped for fruit in a market. A quick turn down a side alley led us from colourful pyramids of tomatoes and bananas to the stench of death and Voodoo. A crucified baboon, a cat with its guts spilling out and the vacant eye sockets of a table full of monkey skulls. All the animals of Africa seemed to have left their body parts distributed across the market. Crocodiles guard houses from evil Voodoos, chameleon pieces are used in love potions and the head of a hyena generates great wealth. Its said that in the shadier recesses of remote village markets the cruelest of sorcerers supply their customers with the skin, bones and organs of freshly killed children. Talismans and charms were for sale everywhere, some guard against the evil eye, others ensure a safe journey and, my favourite, a charm that turns a girl of your choosing into putty in your hands. Well alright, maybe not all magic works.
For most people Voodoo means the Caribbean and they are surprised to learn that it actually originates from this obscure corner of West Africa from where it spread to the Americas through the slave galleys. European slavers set up a string of forts along the coasts of what are today Benin, Togo and Ghana and, handing the heads of the various Kingdoms a stash of guns they let them set off to war with each other. The resulting prisoners filled the dungeons of the forts and boughs of the boats for a while, but soon the demand became so insatiable that the Kings did away with the time consuming wars and just went off on slave raiding missions. Those forts are still there, some full of the tools of the trade and graphic pictures, others dark and brooding places better forgotten, whilst one or two are now so sanitised that tourists like you and I can sleep in comfy beds in the dungeons that once held so many. But below many of them is something that, too many of us, ironically symbolises freedom. Dozens and dozens of right hand point breaks. It was on one of these that we met Stephan Conftansa, another African born Frenchman who has devoted his life to both the waves and magic of Africa. He led us through a whole host of points, beaches and reefs that he normally surfs all alone. If not the best then certainly the most memorable was a long right that peeled into a bay of rainbow colours. A thousand spectators clothed in greens, oranges and gold watched us ride towards the shore and brightly dressed fishing boats pushed through the waves behind and ahead of us. Even the local groms got in on the act, paddling out on bits of wood salvaged from the beach and grabbing their first rides with all the natural grace of those brought up in the water. There was more magic around these slave forts than just that found in the waves though, but I have no idea if it was black or white. One such slaving town in which the magic is strong is Ouidah and there, in the middle of a cobbled square just back from the sea, is a fat and twisted tree. Today the locals pass the stifling afternoons sat in the shade cast by its branches, but, once upon a time, the chains that were fastened to the feet and arms of their ancestors dragged on the floor as they paced painfully around the Tree of Forgetfulness. Nine times for the men, seven for the women and children and afterwards, thanks to the magical powers implanted in the tree by King Agadja they would have forgotten their names, their family, their identity and the life they no longer had. For their sakes I hope the Kings magical tree worked.
Aside from being a man with enough of a conscious to provide the slaves with a way of forgetting what was happening to them, King Agadja was also the one who came up with the bright idea of surrounding himself with an army of virgin fighting women happy to die for him. Now a King with an Amazon army was the kind of King I wanted to meet. So, one afternoon, Fréd and I set off for an audience with the King of a floating town. His Majesty Gbêsso Adjiwatonou Allodji II, King of Abomey-Calavi was everything that his cruel ancestors were not; unfortunately this also included not having a stash of Amazons. Instead he was the perfect good King of the fairy tales and his palace, situated on the edge of a beautiful lake, overlooked a town built on magic and floating on water. We had arranged our audience with one of secretaries who, at the appointed time, led us into the throne room where we prostrated ourselves in front of a large, plain and unoccupied wooden throne and then waited for the arrival of His Majesty. After an hour a gong sounded and we all again lowered our heads and kissed the floor in front of the throne, keeping our eyes averted as His Majesty entered the chamber, his gold staff thumping the ground with each step. When seated he commanded us to look up and in turn Fréd and I were requested to step forward and present ourselves. After that the formality rolled away and His Majesty turned out to be a jolly and happy King, proud of his heritage and determined to do well by his people. After questioning us of our thoughts on Benin he regaled us with the stories of his Kingdom and how the floating town came to be. Back in the 17th century, King Abodohoue was under attack from his neighbours whom he knew would chase him anywhere but over water. So, turning into a pure white Egret, he flew across some nearby lakes and water channels until he found a suitably remote spot in which to re-house his subjects. But how to get them to this watery paradise? Well if you can turn into an egret then you can also turn into a crocodile and so taking this form he persuaded the other crocodiles of the lake to help carry his people on their backs to the centre of the lake where they could construct their new town out of harms way and there they have stayed, happily ever after. As our audience with the King came to an end a side door into the throne room squeaked open and in hobbled an old and wrinkled woman with one eye and a single breast hanging out of her top. The Kings secretary galvanised himself into action and prostrated himself in front of the old woman, Fréd and I following suit. This, the King announced, was the highest Voodoo Priestess in the Kingdom and he had asked her to come and bless us and grant us a safe journey. Facing the throne the two of us put our heads to the ground and repeated the string of choruses and chants that she uttered and, with a final slobbering kiss of the mat placed in front of the throne, we were blessed. And was I going to be glad of that blessing during my next other worldly encounter ..
So far on this trip we had met Kings, magicians, magic vegetation and Voodoo Priestess. So it was of no real surprise that, a few days after our audience with the King, whilst staying in a small coastal town with a glassy shore break, that we had our most bizarre encounter of all. One afternoon, walking around the town, minding our own business and who should we bump into, but God. There he was just strolling down the street, big horns growing out of his back, a mask of cowry shells where his face should be and a large stick in hand. Now, I have to admit, that of all the magical encounters that had taken place in Benin this one was by far the most disturbing. Though I knew that it was just a man in a costume there was something strange about it. For a start the towns people were clearly nervous about the presence of an Egungun, which means a man possessed by the spirit of a dead person, through whom Legba, the Supreme Gods right hand man communicates to the human world, and they had good reason to be nervous because lets face it, if God calls you up for a chat then chances are youre in trouble. Secondly, was the Egunguns total disregard of everyone around him. If you were in his way then he simply marched straight through you, and its said that if you are so much as touched by an Egungun then you are a dead man. But for me, the scariest part of the whole encounter was the manner in which the Egungun was speaking, there is no other way to put this, it was simply not the voice of a human being
It was within minutes of
the Egungun turning down a side street and disappearing from view that
I was again asked if I believed. Selecting a man who looked to me as
if he wasnt going to be taken in by such fairy tales as dead people
and Gods walking down the street I asked him exactly what it was we
had just witnessed. You know what you saw. You have eyes dont
you? He demanded, It was a ghost, but no ordinary ghost,
for they are common. What you saw then was very rare and very real.
You saw a God of Voodoo and so now you can never doubt us. And
he was right, for I could never again doubt the unknown. I believed
it all. I believed in ghosts. I believed in magic. I believed in African
surf and I even believed in the fairy tales of the Kings of Africa who
turn into trees and, as in all good fairy tales, I believe that the
trees of Africa will live happily ever after.
Thanks as always to Oceansurf, www.oceansurfpublications.co.uk and C-Skins Wetsuits, www.c-skins.com but more importantly thanks to Donne Kakpo, Geoff Burnett, His Majesty Gbêsso Adjiwatonou Allodji II, King of Abomey-Calavi, Rudolf, Remi Seglonou, Michel Komou, Stéphan Daou and Stéphan Conftansa for showing me the magic and Bradt Travel Guides, www.bradtguides.com for packing me off to Benin in the first place.