Holi, the ethnic group of tattoos (and Gelede masks ceremony)


The day has taken us north of Porto Novo to reach the unknown town of the Holi o Ije in the surroundings of Onigboló. We are facing an ethnic group that has survived the times and stands out not only for his body tattoos and facial scarifications, but because he is believed to be one of the last man-eating peoples that has existed. And the surprise of the day after that "Authentic Voodoo ritual in the Temple of Skulls ... human!" or that "coronation of a voodoo king in Porto Novo" with rituals of the secret societies of Zangbetos and Egungún? What could we miss? Pray is almost unfeasible that we could see it but attend a ceremony of gelede masks It was not so crazy ... And we have lived it in a lost town! Dances and dances with unique pieces carved in wood that bring the Yoruba closer to the spiritual forces that surround them.

We are going for our twelfth day in Benin, about to meet a unique ethnic group quite unknown and enjoy its hospitality that Euloge had already warned us ...

The Holi, the animistic people of the scarifications

There is hardly a group of about 50,000 people but it is a culture that survives, for better or worse, imperishable over the centuries. The Holi, related to the Yoruba, were until recently a man-eating ethnic group, that is, they ate meat and human tissues. It seems that around 1984 these practices were abolished in the country and "supposedly" disappeared. But let's go in parts, first see the route of the day, similar to this ...

At this point in the trip I begin to realize that those eagerness to know the world's oldest tribes and / or ethnic groups, their way of life, their own rituals, practices, traditions, norms ... cannot lose the ethics or perspective of the place of the world we have come to. Although all the photos have been respectfully requested, as far as possible I have avoided putting the photos of children unless they had context in the story or claim that I tried to tell how this story will be, but there is no to forget that we are in a very distant Africa to the tourist offer, where the cultural shock is still great, electricity does not reach 50% of the country or there are continuous cuts, professional doctors are scarce and education is not the best and, at All of this adds an ancient religion that has baffled us. We reach the domains of Onigboló and the first thing that surprises us is to see the prepared road and that huge factory in the background ... and a Holi woman standing on the road.

Tattoos and Scarifications are ethnic symbols very present in the Holi tribe (we had already seen and talked about it in "Somba Country") and this kind woman, like almost all the people we have met on this trip, shows them proud. The factory we see in the background is the Lafarge cement company that has been installed in the area a few years ago and has completely changed the landscape. The positive part of the continuous passage of trucks that they wanted to avoid and could not, is that the business has given employment to locals leaving some wealth in the area. Maintain identity or prosper at the expense of everything? They have as much right as we do and they should be able to decide.

Surprising to see one Evangelist church in a small bamboo and wood cabin at the edge of the road. We had read that the Holi, in addition to their own animistic beliefs, are considered Beninese Christians and really here that "fifty-fifties" concept is more palpable than ever.

In addition to Catholicism and Protestantism merged with animist religions, or Muslims further north as we saw with the Togo kotokoli, we were surprised to see a series of sanctuaries of the call celestial Christianity, a Christian branch that sees voodoo and animistic religions as satanic, founded by a man from Porto Novo called Oshoffa in 1947.

We abandon the evangelistic sermon with the idea that we are facing an ethnic group of cheerful and welcoming people, whose presence not only does not bother them but also opens their doors ... although unfortunately these are of the greatest poverty we have seen these days.

He water the Holi drink, although it costs us that Euloge himselfLoana Travel has actively helped by financing water purifiers, it's collected in those puddles of rain that are dammed on the sides of the road. Here we have stopped because we are going to make a visit and the reception cannot be more impressive, the lady more old woman who still has body tattoos that new generations will never carry. Please, that nobody feels offended by the photos but quite the opposite, do not see with what illusion and offer this lady wanted her legacy to remain.

What we were going in this town is the hardest and most cruel part of Benin that reminds us that we are in the most disadvantaged Africa (of which there is too much). A dozen bamboo houses around a central sacred tree serve several families to call some very bad living conditions in an isolated environment of the world.

Naked or half-naked women weave or separate the few vegetables from one poor diet, based on just two daily meals (sometimes one) and little variety around corn or yam, seeds, rice and without fruit or vegetables. This causes a visible malnutrition in children with bellies swollen by water worms who drink that many times will affect their chances of life.

The men, who are entitled to the larger rations, eagerly wait for Euloge to take off the brandy that he brings on his visits to start a kind of ritual.

In this town you can see perfectly how young people begin to deny more and more of the scarifications because they are too flashy facing the outside and either because of shame or because of future “social problems” (such as difficulties in finding work, this is how some of the young people of the tribe), prefer to get away from them.

The scarifications began as a symbol of beauty (when they became pregnant they tattooed their bellies for aesthetics) but it resulted in a symbol of ethnicity, something like an identifier. It was even to the point that if a child did not wear any tattoos, it was implied that he was a bastard or that he had no family, which gave more strength to the tattoo-ethnicity relationship. This is also being lost. Time to leave Euloge? I don't know how to explain it, but that approach to the Holi has been the moment in which I have most welcomed the whole trip, fulfilling once more that the less you have… the more you give. Something tells me that I will return to this place to return what I could not give them (or maybe you Olivia if you read this to me one day?)

When Euloge took us to eat at that curious Restaurant "La Traitoria" (5,200 CFA) and heading north, a huge storm fell on us and inevitably I could do nothing but remember that town and its living conditions and the fortune or misfortune of being born on one side or another of the world.

I guess that belief that both everyday objects and elements of nature have a soul and that everything that has a soul has life helps them in their day to day. Or so I want to think ...

Gelede Mask Ceremony, Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO

Throughout the morning, Euloge had dedicated himself to throwing us some "hints." He already knew when we left what was going to happen this afternoon in a remote location "God knows where" in this area of ​​Benin. Nevertheless, storm and storm especially violent, did not predict much more to a day already complete. The reddish dirt roads began to seem impracticable, with deep puddles of water where at times it seemed that it could run aground. But we arrived!

Where are we Euloge? Here there is no one, which is not for less with which it has fallen although it seems that it begins to remit. Two calls later a little man appears out of nowhere with a pair of rubber boots for us.


In addition to Koutammakou, the country of the Batammariba in Togo that we visited a few days in that country (Somba Country in Benin is not declared that way), in Benin there are 2 World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, one cultural and the other natural, and 1 Intangible Cultural Heritage

- The royal palaces of Abomey, proclaimed in 1985 as a kind of “gift” by the people of Fon towards their monarchs. We will see it the day after tomorrow.
- W complex, named Patrimony of the Humanity in 1996, a complex that includes three different countries (Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger). The part that corresponds to Benin is the Pendjari National Park. This park is recognized for its wild life in which the African elephant, the West African lion, the hippo, buffalo, among others stand out. It also has a large number and variety of birds. Wild nature in its purest form.
- Gelede oral heritage, a dance ceremony that is characterized by the use of unique carved masks and by the use of the Yoruba language that narrates their traditions.

Drums! Drums are heard! This already begins to look like a movie with script twists every bit. But what can come after that "Authentic Voodoo ritual in the Temple of Skulls ... human!" or that "coronation of a voodoo king in Porto Novo" that we lived yesterday?

Dozens of people congregate in what looks like the town square while Ogbagba appears, considered the messenger of the gods. We are IN A GELEDE MASK !, one of the last secret societies of voodoo that we had left to know on this trip after having lived the one of the Zanbetos or the Egungún, especially important in Benin like Nigeria for the Yoruba.

Like the whole trip, we are completely alone. We have no longer coincided with any group, but with any tourist since our departure in Cotonou almost 2 weeks ago. This lost village among sacred forests will start us (which I dare not explain much more) in a ceremony of dances, dances and songs where carved wooden masks with great care and detail are placed on the head while narrating in Yoruba language fragments of its mythology and history.

This secret society is also the only one whose members are women, focusing their messages on paying tribute to the primordial mother, Iyà Nlà, and their role in the social organization.

Especially important is the preparation work where each size is carefully thought out and has an end, whether on the occasion of important events, droughts, epidemics, family or global issues.

In front of us they are "dancing" true museum jewels, many of them animated from the costume and always with the prior permission of the wise man of the town to whom a kind of consultation is made. From that moment on, Colorful suits and metal rings on the ankles, chants, dances and drums, merge in unison while telling incomprehensible stories To our knowledge.

Another thing that was clear to us is that in this parade of figures, often assimilable to a puppet theater, the irony and mixture of lyric and poetry was not lacking in order to transmit that oral heritage that does not seem to be in danger of being lost.

There was no lack of our moment in "the arena" and it is that at all times all its villagers made us feel so comfortable that they wanted to make us partakers of their ceremony. Of course, with much less style, right Sele? There was no shortage of laughter, although I will never know whether our outfits with rubber boots included or the "rap-type" dances that we marked ourselves. Anyway ... "live stuff" ...

If I had to keep one of the wood carvings that paraded in front of us, I would certainly keep the one that fired the event for us, a kind of woman's face with scarifications that combined the mask with a torso of a pregnant woman also wood that a baby loved ... lively!

It was beginning to get dark and Euloge gave us directions to go slowly without disturbing what looked like a ritual that would last even a few more hours although I would have loved to understand each song associated with each masquerade. Something tells me that I will coincide with one of them at some point in my life. Already staying in the modest TG Hotel of Cove and after a simple dinner (2,700 CFA) based on "the usual thing" (chicken, guinea fowl or spaghetti) where, by the way, we saw our first aggressive mosquitoes of the trip - next to the town of the masquerade - (as it shows that they appeared with the rain ) that forced us to spray from RELEC., we left behind one day knowing the ethnicity of the Holi and a ceremony of the secret society Gelede that have completed a unique trip in Benin. Or is there still more?

Isaac (and Sele), from Cove (Benin)

EXPENSES OF THE DAY: 7,900 CFA (approx. 11.97 EUR)