In the Western world vodun is mainly associated with mystic rites and bloody sacrifices, spirit possession and a belief in dark powers. For the adepts in Benin, however, vodun is much more than a religion. For them, vodun is a comprehensive world view which gives meaning and direction to important events of life and forms a guideline for their everyday life.
Vodun ties in with the traditional understanding of the world that goes back thousands of years in the history of West Africa. In this world view, all life on earth consists of spirit and matter. Matter is perishable, whereas the spirit will remain alive.
At the head of the spirit world are the vodun to whom the vodunconvents are dedicated. The spirits of ancestors also remain in this world.
Vodunsi are the brides of a vodun. They are priests or priestesses who have undergone the required initiation rites and are responsible for carrying out the numerous ceremonies, the rituals and the sacrifices to be made for gaining the favour or appeasing the anger of the vodun.
Becoming a vodunsi is not a matter of choice. It is the vodun who is calling you. Once chosen, being called cannot be refused. Refusal will certainly lead to the vodun putting a curse on the chosen child or a member of its family.
If a child becomes seriously ill and the doctor in the hospital as well as the traditional healer are unable to establish the cause of this illness, the parents will often decide to consult the oracle. Often it turns out that a vodun had chosen this child, boy or girl, to become his bride. After the oracle has determined which vodun is calling the child, the child is taken to the convent dedicated to this vodun; mostly nothing more than a secluded courtyard with a small spirit house for the vodun and a hut for the brides. The convent is not accessible to people who are not initiated. There the child will be healed of its illness by means of rituals and traditional medicines
During this healing process the child will be reborn as the bride of the vodun.
As soon as these children are healed, they will be initiated into all the ceremonies and has to learn the dance, songs and language specific to this vodun. During this period of initiation, the child lives in the vodunconvent separated from its friends and familie. It is not permitted to attend school. It is even not permitted to speak its own language.
Again it is the oracle that decides when and accompanied by which ceremonial sacrifices the child can safely return home to its parents.
After being freed from the convent, it is the child’s own choice, whether active or not, to take part in the performance of future ceremonies. Irrespective of this choice it will be protected by the vodun and held in high regard by the local community. No one will ever harm the child.
THE PROJECT “IMPROVING THE RIGHTS OF CHILDREN IN A VODUNCOVENT”
Gilbert Djofin is head of the PABEEB Foundation, a foundation created for the purpose of protecting children in Benin. As a juvenile lawyer, he is employed by the Benin government. The often long-term stay of children in the vodunconvents in extremely primitive conditions and the school absenteeism that puts the children at an unbridgeable distance continued to occupy him.
Gilbert is a vodun man as well and his fears for the power of the vodun kept him to refrain from taking any action.
Eventually, in 2014 he contacted Mama Hounza Tognon, the President of the vodun chiefs in the district of Couffo (one million inhabitants). It then became clear that the vodun chiefs started to consider children living in vodunconvents for years to be a huge problem, too.
Various consultations among the chiefs of the convents and between the leaders of the vodun and the secular leaders resulted in an agreement on a Letter of Intent signed by all parties involved in October 2015.
The starting point adopted by the parties in this Letter of Intent was that the period for children to live in vodunconvents must be limited to a maximum of three months, the duration of the school holidays.
This project is a fine example of a process of seeking a balance between maintaining the old traditions needed by the people who would feel lost without them, and the new demands of modern life. In this process, the traditional religious leaders work together towards reaching an agreement with the secular leaders in a typical West African way, by having endless, detailed conversations until the parties succeed in reaching a compromise reflecting mutual respect.
Although the practice proves to be unruly and the three-month period is usually exceeded, thanks to this project, more than a thousand children, about six hundred girls and four hundred boys, have already been able to leave the convent earlier. The vast majority of these children live with their parents again and go back to school.
For those children who have lost their parents and for whom a safe home cannot be found, the juvenile lawyer Gilbert Djofin has founded the Family Home named “La Solidarité”.