The African country of Benin is thought to be the birthplace of Vodun (aka Vodou/Voodoo), and it is the third largest religion in that country (after Christianity and Islam). But despite the enduring popularity of Vodun in Benin, it has been slowly losing ground to Islam and Christianity, particularly in places like Cotonou, the country’s economic hub and largest city, where Christianity is prevalent. Enter Vodun priest Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala, a direct descendant of the semi-mythical princess Aligbonon, who’s become an evangelist and advocate for a new openness within his faith.
“Mr. Aligbonon takes it a step further. He regularly speaks on radio and television in Benin, a priest with a will to electronically diffuse the wisdom of ancestors from centuries past. The aim, in his telling, is to bring voodoo and associated teachings out of the closet and up to date, just like with the rapid-fire training he is developing to create initiates in three months, instead of the usual three years. Even though voodoo is widely followed in Benin — “The double practice persists, even among university people,” says Mr. Iroko — an unjustified stigma still comes with it, Mr. Aligbonon says indignantly. “Voodoo is not the devil, and still less Satan,” he writes emphatically in one of the pamphlets for sale in his storefront, a detailed guide to the religion’s principal divinities.”
Vodun priests in Benin have long complained, even to directly to the Pope, about smear campaigns by Christians against their faith.
“Two days into his 10th African tour, Pope John Paul II tacitly acknowledged vodun’s hold tonight, meeting in Cotonou with a group of its practitioners and leaders and telling them that, while they would certainly gain from converting to Christianity, “the church considers freedom of religion to be an inalienable right, a right that brings with it the responsibility to seek the truth.” In response to his proselytization, the vodun leaders made their own point about some members of the church that seemed to reflect strains. “One cannot but bitterly deplore the campaign of systematic denigration to which the practice of vodun is subjected by certain churches and parishes,” said Senou Zannou, a spokesman for the group of 30 senior vodun priests who met the Pope and placed him on a carved wooden throne to address him.”
It seems things have reached a point where some aren’t content with this status quo any longer. Aligbonon, according to the New York Times, has become quite popular with young people in Cotonou, and a quoted historian and sociologist both agree he’s become an influential figure within the Vodun community in Benin. Could this mean the dawning of a new activist spirit within the Vodun community in Benin, the cradle of that religion? Will his new, faster, training process swell their ranks? Perhaps a new day is dawning in the person of Mr. Aligbonon? It will be interesting to see how this affects not only Vodun in Benin, but Vodou in Haiti and the diaspora.