Benin | February 1

The Ghost Dancer

Daniel

[Ask a teen boy to present this first-person report.]

 

I am Daniel—at least that is the name I have taken. I live in the country of Benin, the birthplace of voodoo. 

My grandmother was a voodoo priestess. When she died, my mother took her place. My father was also a voodoo worshipper, so I was deeply into voodoo. I watched my parents perform many voodoo ceremonies. 

My mother and grandmother said that they belonged to the spirit from the sea. They believe that a spirit in the sea takes possession of a person who must become a priestess. The person, nearly always a woman, performs ceremonies to make women fertile, to help people get jobs or money, to make a man fall in love with them, or to give people power. People bring a goat, chicken, drinks, or money to have a service performed. Once a person comes to a priestess for service, that person becomes a servant of the priestess and of the spirit of the sea. You can tell who these priestesses are because on Friday they all wear white. 

Women who came to the priestess are told to whisper their problem to a cowry shell. The shell is put near an idol, which is supposed to whisper the person’s problem to the priestess. Then the priestess tosses the shell on the ground and chants. The position of the cowrie shell tells the priestess what the problem is. Then the priestess tells the person what they must do and bring to receive what they wish. Sometimes they must bring an animal sacrifice before they receive the herbs or oil that will “cure” their illness. 

My father worshipped the spirits of dead people. He called on them to come back and bring peace to people who were troubled.

The Dancing Devils 

I was supposed to follow my parents into voodoo. My father initiated me into the secrets of how he does his work. He explained that the “ghosts” that dance during voodoo ceremonies are really just men or boys. He invited me to join him in the dancing and be one of the “ghosts.” He told me that if I danced well, people would give me money. “But be careful,” he warned, “for others will become jealous and will try to kill you.”

One time some people hired our group of dancing devils to perform in a ceremony. I danced very well and got quite a bit of money. I didn’t notice that anyone seemed jealous, but when I returned home I didn’t feel well. 

A few days later my legs became swollen and painful. I showed my father, who recognized that someone had put a curse on me. He said it was urgent that I get treatment, or I could die. I didn’t know who had cursed me, but I was afraid. 

I went to an old voodoo priest, and within a few days I felt better. But I decided that this devil dancing was too dangerous and that I needed to get out of it—fast. 

Turnaround

I had heard of Jesus, but I laughed at Christians, for I didn’t think their God was any different from voodoo gods. But after my brush with death, I was not going to make fun of anyone’s God. When I heard an evangelist speaking one day, I went inside the tent and listened. It seemed that the speaker knew me, for he spoke right to me. I was touched, and continued attending the meetings. When the pastor invited people to abandon traditional gods and give our lives to God, I stood. I wanted to become God’s servant. 

I kept my decision to become a Christian a secret from my parents, for I knew that they would be angry. But I studied the Bible with the evangelist. And when I was ready, I went to a distant city to be baptized.

Shortly after my baptism my father called me to dance in a big ghost festival in our home village. I told my father, “No, I don’t dance anymore.” He insisted, so I took a deep breath and said, “I have found a power that is stronger than witchcraft.” I knew that my words were a challenge to my father and the ghost dancers who go into the bush to practice and do their juju [witchcraft], usually by putting crushed herbs on their skin. 

Kidnapped

When I did not show up for the practice session in the bush, some people came to remind me. I told them I was not going to dance. They argued and tried to convince me, but I refused. Then these dancers grabbed me and forced me to go with them. 

When we arrived at the place where the ghost dancers were preparing for the dance, someone forced me to drink something, and I lost consciousness. They tried to wake me, but I did not wake up until the next day. They tried to get me to dance, but I could not even stand. Finally my father told them to leave me alone. I slept through the entire ghost ceremony. 

After the ceremonies ended and I regained consciousness, my father took me aside and reminded me of vows I had taken not to tell anyone what we did in our dancing. Then a friend told me to leave the village or face death. I left and have not returned. 

I was 18 years old, had no job and no money, with just three or four years of education. But God has not abandoned me. I am learning a trade so that I can support myself. It is not safe for me to go back, for I know that the other people in the ghost group will try to kill me. I am not afraid of them, for I believe that Jesus is stronger than voodoo gods.

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