Boat Sighting in Grand Popo, Benin Photo Credit: Zetwal Ashade
Grand Popo, Benin | Photo Credit: Tossie Long
Towards the end of our stay in Benin, my Dance Kin and I took a two day excursion from Cotonou to Grand Popo, to relax and unwind. Through my research, I learned that a small coastal town by the name of AGOUÈ was near the border between Benin and Togo. A Benin/Haiti spiritual connection! Always looking for an adventure, we jumped in our van and took a drive.
Agoue welcomes us!
A Few Fun Facts!
AGWE TAWOYO the admiral of the sea in Haitian Vodou
AGBÈ in Fon is the divinity of the sea
AGBETAWOYÓ in Fon is the ‘sound of the sea’
Agbè - Spirit of the Sea Tö - River Awoyó - Huge
The Immense Sea or River
Gesner Abelard Agwe-ta-Royau (Ceremonial Offering for Agwe, God of the Sea), ca. 1955
"We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep."
The parallels between Benin and Haiti are undeniable! Connecting the dots, one journey at a time. Unlocking the keys... We are a singing people, a group that sing everywhere, cause that too is a form of devotion. I’m most certain Agwe Tawoyo heard our prayer. ⚓️
AGOUÉ. AGBÈ. AGWE. Dahomey to Ayiti...
Agwe Tawoyo in the head of Manbo Maude | Sosyete Nago | Jacmel, Haiti Photo Credit: Bonkira
A Grant Salute to Manmi Maude and my spiritual siblings of Sosyete Nago, for collectively making this extravagant ritual for Met Agwe Tawoyo happen.
This is the work! It’s simply gorgeous!!
For a visual documentation of Bak Agwe, the film version of Divine Horseman (Deren/Ito, 1978) may be helpful.
Excerpt, “The sea ceremony for Agwe is, for an inland Manbo or Houngan, perhaps the most elaborate of all ritual undertakings. She must accumulate the offerings: vegetables, cakes, maize, bananas, pigeons, rams, chickens, etc...she must convene her Sosyete, delegate and supervise responsibilities, provide food and lodging for all her helpers and guest, arrange for a truck to transport everything and everybody, rent the sailboat which will carry them all out to the sea, and remember a million other secular details. Because it was both costly and difficult, many Houngan’s and Manbo’s never undertook it at all.”
Source: Divine Horseman • The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren
I was blessed to work with Haiti Dance Co., an amazing troupe of dancers during Vinn Pran Baget Dance Retreat in Jacmel, Haiti. Here they are, along with a Houngan and Manbo's (Vodou Priests) dancing for Met Agwe Tawoyo, as part of a video project choreographed by Dieufel Lamisere. Video Credit: Zetwal Ashade (2017)
AGWE in NY
Sosyete Kle Erez celebrates Agwe with an annual celebration at Jacob Riis Park Photo Credit: Stephanie Keith
AGWE in BOSTON
Agwe Tawoyo in the head of Zetwal Ashade Bon Manbo Sosyete Nago | Boston Fet Danbla 2016 Photo Credit: Loraj Gwonde Bon Manbo
Agwe Tawoyo mounts Manbo Shenaia Sosyete Nago | Boston Fet Danbala 2017 Video: Loraj Gwonde Bon Manbo
I’ve made it my responsibility to search for answers to my probing questions. Vodou is VAST. The beauty of this tradition is, it varies and is practiced regionally, particularly in Haiti. One person isn’t the QUEEN OR KING of VODOU. Multiple sources are a beautiful thing. Develop relationships. Locally + Internationally.
ONE PERSON DOES NOT HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS, OR SUPREME KNOWLEDGE!
It is up to an individual to research, study, and find your truth. Do yourself a favor: Travel outside of INSTAGRAM & FB for knowledge and information regarding the history, politics, and various spiritual lineages of Vodou: extensions of the tradition - they do exist and are intact. Don’t take another persons experience in Vodou as your own!
It is a personal path. A deep, intimate journey that requires space & time. Commitment, Dedication & Discernment.
Cultivate a relationship first with your ancestors, then the spirits that walk with you - because they ARE with us. Agbètawoyo | Agwe Tawoyo didn’t remain solely in BENIN or in AYITI. He too traveled through the Middle Passage with our ancestors on those slave ships. He is here too, in the New World. From shore to shore, let the circle be unbroken. Unlock the keys to your truth!
Celebrating Agwe: Paying Homage to the Vodou God of Water in Brooklyn | Photo Credit: Garry Pierre
Sand between the toes. Ocean Salute. Prayers. Libations. Salute to the Ancestors and the Spirits of the Sea. The Door of No Return. Chants. Wade in the Water. Agwe Tawoyo + La Sirene. Giving thanks. I/We made it home.
Photo: Elvin Nathan Jones
Ancestors, do you hear us?!
We come to you with an open heart, humility and reverence. We are here in this moment - in Africa because of YOU. We give thanks for your sacrifices, guidance, and messages. We heard the call and answered. We honor you. Oakland to Benin. The Vodou Voyage continues...
On the way to Ouidah... Pahou. A small town in the Atlantique Department of southern Benin. Rooted in Ritual. Space + Time.
✨Vodou Voyage | PAHOU ✨
“If theater is ritual, then dance is too... It's as if the threads connecting us to the rest of the world were washed clean of preconceptions and fears. When you dance, you can enjoy the luxury of being you.” ~ Paulo Coelho
When the Village Mama’s and Priestesses guide you to dance in front of the drums, you release the preconceptions and fears. Surrender! Let Spirit guide + move through!
This Dancing Spirit Visual Storyteller Researcher Documentarian & Cultural Preserver journeyed to the source seeking knowledge and information. Sighted. Listened. Savored. Participated & Conversed with Practitioners doing the work! Fulfilling my DESTINY!
A GRAND SALUTE to the Queen, The High Priestess Hougnongan Touna for the warm welcome. A blessed, most memorable day in ritual, on sacred ground, in living, activated shrines, communing with African divinities. Hougnongan Touna - A WOMAN! is the backbone of the compound. Sitting front and center, I was a witness and can testify. An informal talk/presentation was in process with my Dance Kin. History flowed, through her, to us. She’s a de Souza, with Brazilian Roots. We were gently put on hold several times: community members asking questions, a client (in a suit) comes and kneels before her. She had his juju ready in a bottle. A few libations were poured, and a prayer...he went about his way. Her attention comes back to the group, but then... she tells us she is vending at an upcoming Vodou ceremony so she and a few Mami’s begin stringing beautiful glass beads to sell... throughout this entire “presentation” this Priestess has on Bluetooth earbuds, is cackling with a home girl she hasn’t talked to in some time, and doing it ALL effortlessly, with such gentleness and grace. BOSSY!
"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
Vodoun Divination System. Science. Life Sign (Kpoli) + Oral Texts = 256. DU: Oral Divinatory Literature. Destiny. Universal Life. We are all Connected - through Spirit. Nature. Earth Connections: Kola Nut, Leaves, Palm Oil. Animal Sacrifice. Blood and Spirit linked. Vodun. Vodou. VODOUN in BENIN. ABOBO. AYIBOBO!!!!
Ready for the consultation. Front & Center. There is no where to hide. Spirit present. Community witnesses. Questions and Answers Confirmed. CONFIRMATIONS! Revelations. The Oracle doesn’t lie.
I give thanks to the Bokonon (Diviner) for interpreting the information to assist on the journey. My Blueprint. Clarity and Insight is a beautiful thing. A deep Curtsy to His Majesty Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna II Guely, the leading authority of African Vodoun in the Kingdom of Dahomey/Benin Republic. A Grand Salute to Legbanon Dah Alotehoun who assisted in opening the door, the Counsel of Elders who participated. Queen Mother Manbo Dowoti Desir, Supreme Gratitude. I’m indebted. My Dance KIN - We in this! TOGETHER! My Global African Family, I thank you!!!
Back Story: Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna II Guely was scheduled for a first time visit to New Orleans, complete with a welcoming ceremony at Congo Square. Two days before the Kings arrival, I was flying out of NOLA. I tried everything in my power to shift, adjust and rework my schedule in order to attend the ceremony. It wasn’t in the cards. I was SO close to meeting the Supreme Chief of Vodou!
Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna at Congo Square | NOLA
Previous unsuccessful solo attempts + schedule conflicts prevented a highly sought-after visit with the Supreme Vodou Chief in Haiti. In 2014, I finally sat with Ati Max Beauvoir, surrounded with my Dance Tribe in his temple in Mariani. Insight + Words of wisdom humbly received from his brilliant daughter, Manbo Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique “Sometimes you gotta break the Calabash” and in exchange danced, dropped libations (Jete Dlo) and sang Priye Ginen with him - in the temple’s Spirit room. A dream fulfilled!
Spiritual progression + enhanced academic & professional development was met with urgency! Ati Max followed by Dada. Two movers and shakers, unapologetically teaching the philosophy of Vodou globally, while upholding the sacred rituals in both homelands, Haiti and Benin.
"You will get there when you are meant to. Not one minute sooner. You are meant to, so relax, breath, and be patient."
I watched Dada’s visit to NOLA via social media. Hundreds of people were in attendance: journalists, dancers, drummers, youth, teens, elders, spiritualists, city officials... happy to witness the enthusiasm for the King, but was overly stimulated with the amount of chaos and energy felt through the screen. I knew. I wasn’t meant to meet him in NOLA. I spoke out loud, with conviction:
“I will meet Dada when the time is right. On BENIN’S soil.” "In the company of his Spirits, on his land."
A year later, my words manifested. I recently walked on His Majesty Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna II Guely’s land. In BENIN. Saluted his ancestors. Sat on the mat. Fa Divination. Ritual in the temples shrine room. Offered sacrifices.
ReNAMED. ReCLAIMED. ReBORN. ReJOICED in dance.
Cause when the King asks you to dance, you betta get to steppin’! Da/Dan/DANBALA, the divinity and energy that flows through this vessel, greeted the drums and danced Yanvalou with a passion and conviction unlike any previous performance, ritual or ceremony.
Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna in Ouidah, Benin | August 2019
My lesson? TRUST the process. TRUST in the power of your words. TRUST when the time is right, it WILL happen. TRUST that Spirit will hold, cover and guide you. TRUST!!!
Dancing feet planted firmly on the compounds soil Gracefully gliding through space Secular to ceremonial Undulations, Ripples, Accentuated Spines Heads covered in White Priestesses Honoring spirit through DANCE- a crucial role in the African way of life.
An introduction, welcoming, and salutation to the Chief of the compound. It is true! We each have a twin in Africa. The priestess in the center (photos forthcoming) has a striking resemblance to Taraji P. Henson! You know those eyes! The pronounced cheekbones, and she had the nerve to have on lashes, okay? The swag and slayage is here in these temples too! Yass, Queen(s) come through!
If you’ve taken a Haitian dance class, you will feel this! THIS is the ROOT. The Source.
Continuously inspired by my Beninese people. This country, the rituals, the reverence for the divinities, the knowledge and information that I’m learning by watching. Receiving by participation. Actively seeking, engaging, connecting. Vodou is open, it’s free. It’s accepted. It is...
This Vodou Voyage couldn’t begin without consulting Legba - on Benin’s soil. It was imperative that we greeted and saluted this divinity who opens doors, opens roads, opens communication, and opens the way for an abundance of possibilities.
RTL Vodou Voyage Participants with Legbanon Dah Alotehoun
Legbanon Dah Alotehoun was the priest who officiated, and divined for our group. He was warm, welcoming, bright eyed, with the brightest smile while relaying Legba’s messages. Sacrifices and offerings were given to Legba, with an open heart and complete reverence.
We were blessed with a beautiful litany of prayers, chants, a cleansing with palm fronds, and an individual message that applied to our own personal journey.
"I heard of old folk tales of jazz players in New Orleans, going to the crossroads at midnight to get their instruments tuned by an old man that hobbles over. Once tuned, the player would sound incomparable to any other player in the city and would be great."
musician at the crossroads | google image
I’d like to have a dialogue. An on-line discussion, if you will. An opportunity to inquire and learn, cause one never stops learning when serving the spirits. It is a lifetime of study and dedication. Aside from my service as a Manbo Asogwe in Haitian Vodou, I am a full time Educator, Professor in Dance + Healing Arts Practitioner, focusing on Movement Therapy. I research. Things, people, places. Stuff. I require my students to do so, as well. So this burning question, among others, is the Researcher/Manbo coming forth. I’m using this social media platform as an educational tool to gain insight.
Legba. Papa Legba. Atibon Legba. Legba nan Petwo, among many others whom we may or may not know... is revered as the Lwa who opens doors & gates. Keeper of the Spirit Gate. Protector of the home. Divine Messenger. The Lwa of Communication. Opportunities. Most often he is asked to: “ouvre baye” - open the GATE in his songs and in prayer. Many Vodouyzan serve Legba on Monday, but as the Lwa of communication, he is always available when you need to speak with him.
My first question: When did going to the crossroads every Monday with offerings for Legba begin? Is this Regleman, or is this Millennial/New Age Vodou? - Made up nonsense/ish, in the name of Lwa. There is a distinct difference.
"My suspicion is that it may come from African American conjure and lore, conflating "the man at the crossroads" with Yoruba practices, and mixing traditions. I see this a lot coming out of New Orleans Voodoo as well." - Koki Doré Bon Manbo
Papa Legba Voodo/ Hoodoo Doll Source: Google
Voodoo/Hoodoo Veve | source: Google
Papa Legba Veve Pendulum Board - Hoodoo/Voodoo | source: Google
"I have not seen this done in Haiti. What I'm thinking is people are mixing Vodou with Hoodoo. I have no idea when this started, but it's popular. I can't say if it's right or wrong, but I will say it's not the way of my elders or my ancestors." - Houngan Michael
In all of my years traveling to Haiti, I've yet to see a Vodouyizan make their way to a crossroad every Monday with Veves drawn on paper, candy, toys, drink and money. The beauty of Vodou is that it varies, and it is REGIONAL. I gave up using the words "right and "wrong" many moons ago, when speaking on Haitian Vodou. What is practiced in the Northern part of the country does not apply to the South or Central Haiti. What rings true is that there is specific information on how to serve Legba appropriately. This information will vary from lineage to lineage. I'm fortunate to have traveled throughout the country to document AND experience the differences. It’s beautiful, fascinating, confusing, frustrating and contradictory, all at once. Welcome to VODOU!
"I guess the crossroads have always been a pivotal place, but as a Houngan I have never been instructed to perform offerings to Legba at the crossroads, nor have I seen it in Haiti." - Pa Pou Suiv Bon Oungan
Pictured: Houngan Mihenle mounted by Legba | Photo Credit: Phyllis Galembo - Vodou Visions and Voices of Haiti
Since Vodou is Regional, how did THIS PARTICULAR ritual of going to the crossroads make its way to the US?
Who brought it here?
Which Vodou lineage does it belong too?
Or... did someone just make this shit up, and now folks are following blindly, without researching, because “everyone is doing it” or my favorite: "My Manbo/My Houngan told me to do it."
News flash: Everyone is NOT! I personally do not follow this service, and don't need to. Legba is with me. ALWAYS. In my house, right at my door. In my body when I dance, In my heart when I pray. In my soul when I sing.
"There is also the idea that unless your hands and head have the heat to knock in those metaphorical doors, you don't know what you're actually taking to the crossroads. Folks forget that a lot of stuff lives there, not all of it is nice, and a whole lot of it will happily be called by whatever name you put out there." - Bonkira Bon Oungan
Alabama Street intersection in Redlands
It's real out here in these Spiritual Streets!
I’m told folks are going to busy crossroads in severe weather conditions - rain, sleet and snow!
Risking potential accidents with oncoming, passing cars and of course on-lookers questioning "what the hell you doing in a busy intersection?" The Lwa need us ALIVE and healthy in order to serve them, to be present for our family, community, and most importantly, to fulfill our destiny. I was genuinely curious about this Crossroad Phenomenon, and sought out Haitian Vodou practitioners for insight.
Folks on FB and Insta are bypassing sitting at the feet of elders to learn. Sure, you can post images, memes, talk about Lwa, and regurgitate the SAME information in these on-line Voodoo/Hoodoo groups, but are you LIVING this tradition? What internal work are you doing? What steps are you taking to further your knowledge and growth within the tradition? In this information age, the focus is on obtaining info quickly, without any desire to formally train for a period of time. Thankfully, there ARE reputable elders who DO teach and train, but that also comes with a level of trust and commitment from interested individuals who more than likely want a "quick fix".
another thing... for those of us who are serious about this spiritual journey, who sacrificed time, energy and money, went to Haiti, been in the Djevo, received our tool from Papa Loko, and EARNED the RIGHT to call ourselves Manbo and Houngan, KNOW who embodies the Crossroads... It ain't Legba.
"I think people get sucked in by all the Insta Manbo's and think they can reap the benefits with zero training. Without planting a seed how can a crop be harvested? - Se Li Ya We Bon Manbo
Don't let Sosyete Facebook become your Learning and Resource center!
There are self-initiated, social media priests who are claiming African Traditional Religions.
Use those critical thinking skills when you are told or asked to do something out of the ordinary. Dig deep to learn their INITIATED lineage. Stay present. Alert. Ask Questions.
I use Social Media as a tool. It is my platform to share, inform, and inspire. Honor and Respect to the Vodou Priests who came forth and engaged in this necessary conversation, and who also gave encouragement to share the dialogue. AYIBOBO! - Zetwal Ashade Bon Manbo
"There is no short cut or quick fix when gaining knowledge. It takes time, direction, and patience. Unfortunately, some people will learn the hard way. This is not a game or an opportunity, there is honor in serving spirit, some people will never understand that." - Manbo Machete
The Petwo nation of Spirits are Hot, Aggressive, and get things DONE!
Mare Paket is a beautiful, colorful, fiery Petwo Ceremony that takes place during Kanzo (Initiation). Paket Kongo are ritual items made by skilled Manbo and Houngan Asogwe, which are given to new initiates to take home after Kanzo is completed. Saluting the Lwa who embodies the crossroads, is essential in opening the way, so all that juicy Petwo magic can come forth and flow. Kalfou is the Kreyol version of the French word "Carrerfour" which means crossroads, In true Petwo fashion, Met Kalfou is called upon with fire, the drums are blazing, rum is sprayed, energy is high and intense with a purpose: to heat up the Pakets, to strengthen the initiates relationship with the spirits in their spiritual esko.
'"Strength grows in the moments when you think you can't go on but you keep going anyway"
During my Mare Paket ceremony, my stomach was turning flips, knees were shaky & body extremely hot. It wasn't meant to be easy, with Haiti’s blasting July heat, blazing Petwo drums, AND overtaxed arms, while carrying a large basket of powerful, ritually charged medicine on my head. Admittedly, I didn’t think I was going to make it. But the thing is: if you know anything about Bwa Kayiman, you know that the rituals, salutations, oaths, dances, songs and drums, were the catalyst of a major defeat - The Haitian Revolution. Born from the Petwo nation. A mighty nation. A nation of spirits that gave enslaved Africans, revolutionaries, and freedom fighters, the strength, determination and mental capacity to execute a revolt that would change the course of history. Endurance. Stamina. Determination. I needed it ALL. I called on my ancestors and mustered strength from deep within and eventually made it through.
Inside the temple, initiates dance around the Poto Mitan with their Paket Kongo in a Laye, placed on their head, spinning, continuously to activate possession, which confirms the spirits presence and energy within the Pakets.
Initiation IS uncomfortable. It’s hard. It’s stepping into the unknown.
There are also reasons why initiates are tight lipped and reluctant in revealing too much information. African Spiritual Traditions ARE Secret Society’s. We take OATHS, heard by God, our ancestors, spirits, and an entire community! Initiation is a sacred act of complete sacrifice and devotion to Spirit. Unfortunately, you will not have this experience reading through pages of a book. This experience was/is an actual RITUAL & PRACTICE that requires faith and courage. The Mare Paket ceremony liberated my soul. Empowered my entire being and reinforced the reason we salute these mighty Petwo spirits.
Typically, in African Traditional Religions initiates are adorned with beads that have been consecrated and ritually fed.
ELEKES - worn in the Orisha/Lukumi Tradition | Photo Courtesy: Shango Lade
In the Orisha/Lukumi Tradition, Elekes are beaded necklaces in patterns and colors of the Orisha. Once an individual’s head is crowned to an Orisha, other adornments such as bracelets for Oshun, Yemaya and Oya, in addition to an Ide - an intricate beaded bracelet indicating the initiates head Orisha, is also worn.
In Haitian Vodou, none of the aforementioned accessories exists within our spiritual/initiation system - with the exception of a sacred beaded necklace, known as Kolye. Kolye’s are long in length and stylized for a particular individual, which includes the representation of all Lwa. Ritually fed and presented, this is a badge of initiation into Vodou.
We do not have a single strand beaded necklace for Legba, in whatever color(s) folks are debating belong to him, charged at the crossroads.
No cutesy, pink & gold beads for Freda, ritually dipped in champagne. Blue & crystal beads cleansed in the ocean for La Sirene & Agwe don’t exist. Red and blue for Danto or Ogou? Black and Purple beads for Gede & Manman Brijit charged in a cemetery?! No. Traditionally, we do not have handmade bracelets, waist beads, anklets, or amulets that are “ritually charged” under a full moon, to “open doors”, aid in protection, love or prosperity in the name of Lwa. This is Millennial Internet Vodou for monetary gain. This is an individual who is clearly arrogant to think “Vodou Lwa Necklaces” exists, and it’s acceptable to create this nonsense. If someone is making and selling these Etsy/FB/Insta trinkets to you, please know you are simply wearing jewelry - void of any energy from Lwa. If this person is a Manbo or Houngan: THEY KNOW BETTER!! Use Discernment.
KOYLE - worn by Hatian Vodou initiates | Photo Courtesy: Loraj Gwonde Bon Manbo | Soysete Nago
Just as Elekes are received in a beautiful ceremonial fashion, Kolye is ritually washed, prayed and sung upon, by an entire community, with an animal sacrifice included - it is empowered! It is ACTIVATED by initiated hands, with license to do ritual work. It is then placed upon the neck and crossed across the body of the initiate, which indicates priesthood into Vodou - KANZO, which seals the commitment to be a servant of Lwa until death.
Lukumi and Vodou have many similarities, but they are two vastly different spiritual systems. They should be respected and treated as such, when ritual implements/tools & regalia is concerned.