On Saturday, the Peace Corps took us to the city of Ouidah (pronounced wee-duh). Ouidah is a popular spot for visitors because of its’ rich history and culture. It was one of the first major sites for slave exportation and the people of the region have strong traditions deeply rooted in a culture that has withstood mankind’s worst kinds of storms.
First on the day’s itinerary was a visit to the Python Temple. In this region, pythons are worshipped and revered. I walked into the small concrete compound to see a haphazardly constructed straw hut on the left where people sat around a fire; a circular temple with engravings decorating the outside walls and door in the far left; and to the immediate right, a black and white goat tied to a cement slab. As we moved further into the compound, an elderly man came out of the circular temple, draped in pythons and flashing us a toothless smile. He began to hand the snakes out to people in a similar fashion that firefighters give out candy at parades. Some recoiled to the back of the group with wide eyes and fearful brows. I won’t say I was particularly happy to be handed a python, but, when in Rome, right? I felt the weight of the cool, cylindrical animal around my neck as it proceeded to make itself comfortable hugging me closer. My time with the python had expired and a fellow volunteer helped me remove the creature. I proceeded towards the back of the group to find the black and white goat in a heap with a pool of its’ own blood beside it. This had been a sacrificial goat, in addition to a chicken, whose carcass was set beside it. Another moment of culture shock for the books. Which now operates in volumes. I entered the circular temple to have a flashback to Indiana Jones Temple of Doom. The floor was carpeted with slithering critters. I like to imagine that those were the royal pythons, the regal pythons living in the temple that rule over the lay-pythons of Ouidah.
Following the temple, we visited the Sacred Forest of Ouidah. The reason for its’ sanctity is still a mystery to me, but we walked through a stone-lion guarded entrance into a lush green jungle. The trees had barks that resembled a large bouquet of vines that gave the impression that these trees were the most ancient of them all; perhaps these trees were what made the forest sacred. Their girth and bark exuded wisdom and whispered the painful past of a city that had witnessed too much strife.
Next was a museum about the history of the slave trade and also explained the influence the slave trade had on the culture of Ouidah. There was, and still is, a strong Brazilian influence. Our guide explained different artifacts and read quilts composed of squares with symbols sewn onto them. A local artist was selling paintings, carvings and wood-burned etches onto thin pieces of wood. I bought a wood-burned etching of a weary, but still strong, tree, with the words “L’arbre du Retour” burned below. The literal translation being “The Tree of Return.” At the time, I had no idea what its’ true significance was. After the museum, we were driven along the route that enslaved peoples were forced to walk to the ships. It was about 7 or so miles long. The people were forced to walk this distance in chains and bound around the neck by wood to the person in front or behind them. Along the route, there was a tree called the “Tree of Forgetting,” or “L’arbre de l’oublie” and people would walk around this tree with their families, seven times and promise themselves to forget the life they were leaving behind; forget their homes, their culture, and their captors so that they could open their minds to their new life and deal with the new world they were about to enter. Further along the march was “L’arbre du Retour,” which is not intended to be translated literally, and actually means the “Tree of Hope.” People would walk around this tree three times with their families and hope that they would someday be able to return to their homeland. We arrived at the beach where a monument had been erected about 25 years ago and entitled “La Porte du Nonretour” or “The Door of No Return,” (this is what is pictured above). It was here that, perhaps symbolically, our tour of Ouidah ended.
Each village, much like towns in America, has its own history and unique traditions that require time and patience to unearth and come to appreciate. I am enthusiastic to learn about my own village and its traditions and history.
P.S. I am leaving for my post on Sunday, and thus will not be posting a blog next week and am unsure as to when I will be able to access the internet again.