I am in the remote farming village of Hlande in south Togo, home of the Ewe tribe. This is the second time that I am witnessing the spectacular Vodun (“spirit”) dance ceremony involving the so-called Zangbetos, but this time I am more present to the moment and notice things I didn’t catch the first time, when I was here five years ago. Looking around the scene before me, I notice how the children of the village take in the scene with absolute awe written on their faces and bewilderment in their minds. Zangbetos must be enormously powerful creatures, very wise and capable of tremendous feats of magic.
Lomé, with a population of 837,437, is the capital and largest city of Togo. Located on the Gulf of Guinea, Lomé is the country's administrative and industrial center and its chief port. The city exports coffee, cocoa, copra, and palm kernels.
Zangbetos are also called the “guardians of the night.” Traditionally, before the existence of modern law enforcement, Zangbetos wandered through African villages, scaring away evil, catching thieves, delivering them to the villagers for punishment and keeping law and order. To demonstrate their power and infallibility, while in trance, Zangbetos perform acts of magic for everybody to see - and all that while remaining invisible to the audience.
Zangbetos are cone-shaped haystacks about 1.80 m (6 ft) in height. During the ceremony, they turn like dervishes, spinning faster and faster across the village square while being prevented by their “handlers” from crashing into villagers and by-standers. Eventually they come to a standstill. The “handlers” then hit the sides of the haystack with their hands before lifting it off the ground. This is to show that no person is underneath the haystack costume. Rather than a person, something else is revealed: a (very much alive and fast-moving) young crocodile, a figurine with moving arms, a banana-eating animal skull or an alcoholic drink. The Zangbeto has used its magical powers to transform itself!
Vodun, a similar version of the voodoo religion practiced in the Caribbean islands and in parts of Brazil, is not as evil and dark as many westerners believe (the Vodun religion evolved into Voodoo when slaves trade brought the religion to the New World). Local practitioners claim that it has nothing to do with black magic and sorcery. It promotes the idea that we are all one with nature, that there is one Creator, that we are all connected, that one event affects changes elsewhere, that our dead ancestors watch over us and can be called upon for help and that various divinities can act as intermediaries and help us create the reality we desire: a healthy child, being cured from a disease, a good job or delivery from poverty.
Surprisingly, the 10,000 year-old spiritual practices upon which the Vodun religion is based contain similar elements as Catholicism. That may be the reason why, not only in Togo but in many other parts of the world, the spiritual practices of the Ewe people in southern Togo form a complex mixture of ancient cultural traditions and Christianity. The villagers of Hlande see no conflict in attending mass first and then participating in a Vodun ceremony right after church.
Perhaps to underline this relationship and in recognition of the long-established amalgamation of Catholic and Vodun spiritual practices in this part of the world, Pope John Paul II visited neighboring Benin in 1992 to meet and dialogue with Vodun priests and elders. Adherents of Vodun saw this event as proof of legitimacy, a clear sign that the Vodunists have their place alongside the Christian faith. Following the Pope’s visit, the Vodun movement gained strength and religious practices based on this ancient cult became more popular. At this time, approximately half of Togo’s population practices indigenous religions with Vodunists occupying the vast majority.
Back in the village square of Hlande, I am still puzzled by the Zangbetos and their magic tricks. Surely, there must be a person inside that cone, spinning the haystack around and around at an ever-increasing speed. If I could just catch a glimpse and see the underside of a cone! No sooner did I finish that thought when a haystack costume “parked” right in front of me. To my surprise, four adult men approached the Zangbeto and overturned the cone in my full view: the cone was completely empty! Did I miss something? Perhaps there was a time lapse and I entered an altered reality. How did that happen? I have no idea but one thing I know for sure - this is going to cause me some sleepless nights.