Beautiful female Vodunsi (Voodoo initiates) in their ritual cloth, spiritual trademark beads and wraps sitting in a rows during annual Voodoo Festival at Ouidah in the Republic of Benin, West Africa. Voodoo (Vodun) is a derivative of the world's oldest known religions which have been around in Africa since the beginning of human civilization. Despite Voodoo's noble status as one of the worlds oldest religions, it has been typically characterized as barbaric, primitive, sexually licentious practice based on superstition and spectacle. Much of this image however, is due to a concerted effort by Europeans, who have a massive fear of anything African, to suppress and distort a legitimate and unique religion that flourished among their enslaved Africans. When slavers brought these peoples across the ocean to the Americas , the African's brought their religion with them.
The "Novitiate" of the vodunsi: "School of life"
The very day a child enters the Hun-kpamè or Vodun-Kpamê (Vodun enclosure), i.e. Vodun convent, the Vodun (Divinity) takes possession of the child, girl or boy, who has chosen it. He or she is therefore Vodunsi ipso facto and, for three months, will be Kajèkaji (a gourd who increases the number of gourds): a neophyte. What we call "novitiate" is therefore the process by which they will be made to become in fact what they already are mystically.
The neophytes are supervised by the xwégan (head of house), the Kangan (master of the rope) in charge of discipline, then there are the Hunso and the Nagbo who are "novice" master and mistress respectively. The Hunkpamê (the convent) is a harsh school of renunciation and endurance. Within it, the elect are initiated to the cult of their "spouse", the Vodun to whom they are consecrated for their whole life. Initiation to the Vodun is a particularly important moment that deeply marks the life of the individual. Its aim is gradually to lead the profane from non-existence to their existence as sacred persons; the novice undergoes a series of separations which are each a death to the previous profane life. Before anything else, the Vodunsi must make a solemn vow of absolute discretion as regards what they have seen and heard or will see and hear in the convent. Any Vodunsi who cannot keep quiet about what is to remain secret and act with the veneration that is due to the sacred object he carries on his head will be a traitor. Failure to observe the rules of initiation, of consecration and of proper behaviour in the profane environment is an infidelity and a threat to the authority, not of men, but of the Divinity. One exposes oneself by this to the unpleasant effects of his anger. Those guilty of it can only make amends by paying a large fine and acceding to the rites of Flá (conjuration) and Wùslasla (purification).
In the pedagogy of initiation, the neophyte is required to prove his capacity for endurance in the formation trials; these formation trials are themselves a condensed form of the trials of life. Training through trials, which is already a characteristic of the Fon educational system in general, finds its strongest expression in the Hunkpamê. Discipline and tenacity are essential, and corporal punishment serves to develop these. In this respect it can be said "the body records knowledge". Each Vodunsi "stores up in his body, the soil in which the initiatory word is sown by means of gestures, attitudes, rhythms and, if need be, flagellation": the teacher’s words and gestures must be memorised and reproduced exactly by the students. The pedagogy of initiation involves the transmission of words and gestures, which requires action both by the group of initiators and by that of the "initiands". "Mind, heart and body work together to build the total man"
Apart from learning the Vodun language, cultural chants and dances, to satisfy the material needs of the convent and the Hunnon (Vodun high priest) the young "must devote themselves at fixed times to working in the fields and manual tasks: making baskets, mats and raffia cloth…which are then sold in the local markets by the convent servants". There is no "dolce far niente" in the initiation period; laziness is to be hated like the plague; "Kajêkaji mo no do hwemê mlon" they say: "the neophyte does not take siestas".
The Vodunsi, male or female, must show maturity and be serious in matters of religion. In this way they are to contribute to the balance and order, social, cultural and religious integrity of their community and people. Before returning to the world of non-initiates, after their consecration and initiation, among other recommendations they are urged to cultivate a sense of brotherhood with all the other Vodunsi, to respect the Vodun and to feel responsible for the land of their Ancestors. The ceremony of the giving of sand to the ex-Kajêkaji is significant in this respect:
"About fifteen years after I was Kajêkaji, the Vodunun gathered all the Vodunsi of my year and told us that he was going to lock us up in a retreat ("xwe mi do xo"). We had been told to utter a strident shout ("gbo") all the way from our houses to the Vodunon. He put a little earth in our left hand. With this gesture of offering earth, he said: "Danxome ko tonye die emi so do alomê nu hwi ma nu e jê ayi gbede o" (Here is the earth of the Danxomê which I place in your hands, let it never fall!)"
BY: Kweku Darko Ankrah