The Origin of Vodun
A religion rarely spoken about
Where our Story Takes Place
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About our author
Mémé VLAFONOU is a loving mother of seven children, Marie, Madeleine, Luc, Martin, Victoire, Raphaël and Galbert. She was born into a polygamous family. When she was an adolescent, her mother told her the tale about the Origin of the Vodun. Mémé VLAFONOU wants to pass on her Beninese culture to younger generations. Mémé VLAFONOU likes to watch her children and grandchildren grow over the years. Meme VLAFONOU speaks three languages including Mahi, Fongbe and Nago. Mahi is her mother tongue.
About Polygamy in West Africa
Polygamy, and in this case polygyny, is the practice of one husband having multiple wives. In 2004, West African law prohibited this practice but has done little in preventing polygyny. Historically speaking, the women who were raised in the parts of Africa that have been essential to the agriculture community have a less likelihood of being involved in polygamy families. This is because women who are actively working in agriculture are viewed as somewhat of an equal. It is important to note that the polygamous marriages that were conducted prior to 2004 are still honored. In some cases, polygyny relationships that are forbidden can be maintained with a tax-like structure, but not always. Polygamous relationships are sometimes promoted in religion but often it could be practiced because of the lack of eligible males in a country. According to anthropologists, countries with higher disease rates often have more polygamous relationships prevalent. An underlying rationale to this phenomenon, is to give birth to as many children as they can since many of the children may pass away due to disease. Therefore, outlawing polygamy does not prove to lower these types of marriages. Polygamy is the norm in West Africa and is often looked as a strong familial support system. Children are looked after by not just their biological mother but also their father’s other wives. Wives often become close family members who share the goal of raising healthy and prosperous children. Men are often pressured to uphold polygamous relationships even if they themselves are not too keen on the idea. Societal pressures to have multiple wives is buried in the idea that those who are wealthy should have more wives. Often time the first wife is under the impression that she will be the only wife. Some wives are content with this idea because they do not have to feel pressured by all the responsibilities while other wives do not like this practice.
The author of a few of our storybooks are either from families with polygamous relationships or currently in them. Their situations make them who they are regarding how they raise their children, both their biological one and the ones from their polygamous family.
Images From Our Story
As humans, we identify ourselves upon a variety of beliefs and values. Among these identities is often a religion – be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Vodou (sometimes referred to as Voodoo in popular Western contexts, though it is the less preferable spelling). What is different among these religions is the lens upon which each is viewed. Many power dynamics are at play where religion exists. Our Benin folktale, told by Meme Vlofonou, centers on the history and origin of Vodou and to understand the story it is important to understand a bit of the history and diaspora of Vodou in Africa, Haiti and the United States.
With the history of the transatlantic slave trade came another history that changed the culture of many places. The movement of ideas, customs and beliefs created a diaspora of people when those ideas mixed with the local beliefs. Specific to this topic, there was also a movement of spirituality. According to Saumya Arya Haas’s article “What is Voodoo? Understanding a Misunderstood Religion,” Vodou has no written text and when practiced in the America’s, is thought to be a combination of Catholicism, Native American Traditions, and African beliefs. Haas points out that this religion looks different in different parts of the globe – as most religions do. She says Vodou “is community-centered and supports individual experience, empowerment and responsibility.” This is very different from the popular conversation in the “Western” world and it is important to make this distinction before carrying on.
What is the responsibility of the mainstream media and places like Hollywood to represent topics that are sacred to others in a realistic way? At the moment, there is still a lack of respect in much of the public representations of Vodou. One example to start the conversation is the article “Black Savagery and “Voodoo” Horror at Universal Studio’s Bayou of Blood,” also written by Haas. She discusses her disappointment in the Universal Studio’s film about her religion and she discusses a letter she wrote to their office addressing this concern. She explains that they appreciated her concern, but their view on the topic comes with an assumption that the audience has the means and know-how to rise above these stereotypes and that they realize that this is fiction rather than fact. This is not a fair claim due to the repetitive nature of the misinformation of the Vodou religion that most Western audience’s experience and with a lack of personal experience.
So basically what we ask of you, as an audience of this folktale, is to realize the misrepresentation of the religion of Vodou (if you hadn’t already) and enjoy some of the rich history and artistry of its roots. This story would often be told orally and would be passed down through the generations. Our partners in Benin have taken photographs and drawn pictures to enhance the text and we are all excited to be a part of this project.
A very special thank you to Karishma Kumar, Anna Garwood, Megan Villone, Hanna Beck Sawyer, and Terry Wright for their work in compiling the storybook, the Three Sisters Education Fund. The folktales of tradition, culture and love were written by these talented individuals: Madame VLAFONOU, Meme VLAFONOU, Madame Angele AFFOVOH (Maman Rosine), Maman Rachelle AGBAKA, and Donald LINKOU.
Thank you to all the following individuals on their hard work. Our illustrator Madame Anie Gandoto SEMASSOUSSI, our photographer’s Madame Judith VLAFONOU, Marcy Hessling O’Neil, and Florence OLOUBAI. The models to help explain the culture; Linette ADJINATA, Sandra ADJINATA and our staff and assistants in Benin Madame Sandrine CHIKOU, Mlle Nikki Ayouba WOROU.
Also thank you to the Peace and Justice Studies program at Michigan State University as well as LEADR for their support.