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Reporter Lorne Matalon’s African assignment was part of the National Geographic Society’s ongoing Ethnosphere Project, a five-year series of expeditions to study cultural diversity. Watch for related coverage on the National Geographic Channel, and tune in to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition this week for related broadcasts on Radio Expeditions on National Public Radio (NPR).
A 38-year-old subsistence farmer, Koffi Ameko lives with his wife and four children along the Mono River in Benin, West Africa. Together with the 20 families of his small village, Ameko shares a genetic predisposition to produce twins and a fervent belief in their special place in the vodun, or voodoo, religion.
Like other indigenous peoples in this part of West Africa, Ameko, a devout follower of voodoo, believes twins are living deities that symbolize fertility. He worships them as a member of what is known as the Cult of the Twins.
This belief is especially apparent during the Voodoo New Year, which generally falls in September, a time when Ameko’s family structure and his spirituality intersect.
As part of Voodoo New Year celebrations, Ameko offers prayers for divine protection of his four-year-old twin boys and other sets of twins in his village. “During our New Year, we also pray our twins will bring blessings to our village,” he explained. “We dress our twins in ritual white clothing, and we bring them to a shrine where we offer food in their name to our spirits.”
Anthropologist Kossi Djonouku, from the University of Lome in neighboring Togo, says the Voodoo New Year ritual marks a renewal of the bond between twins and their neighbors. “Twins are considered beings of divine origin who live forever and will bless all who treat them with reverence and respect,” Djonouku said. “Because New Year is a time of prayers for a plentiful harvest, twins play an important role at this time as symbols of fertility.”
Ritual and Sacrifice
Anthropologist Wade Davis is a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence and the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow, a book-length account of his investigation into the botanical and animal sources of voodoo zombie potions used in Haiti. He notes that some cultures view twins as symbols of imbalance. But here in Benin, “twins here are viewed as two halves of the same soul,” he said.
As icons of fertility, twins are featured in a Voodoo New Year ritual in which villagers pray for the success of the next harvest. Cassava flour and palm oil are two staples of the West African diet. During ceremonies, they are mixed in a ceremonial gourd and poured slowly on the ground.
“The mixture of flour and palm oil is a sacrifice offered to maintain the fertility which the twins signifiy,” said Roberto Cerea, a former Catholic priest from Italy now living in Togo. Cerea describes himself as both a student and admirer of voodoo culture. “The liquid formed by the mixture seeps into the ground, creating a link between the village and the ground which they depend upon for their crops.”
Koffi Ameko’s late paternal grandfather and grand-uncle were also twins. According to Ameko, twins never die, and he describes his long-gone elders as being “away collecting wood.” Ameko showed a visiting reporter uniforms used to dress wooden dolls representing his elders during Voodoo New Year celebrations.
After his grandfather passed away, Ameko took possession of a doll carved by his father, a wooden image representing the living spirit of his grandfather. A similar doll representing his grand-uncle is always placed beside it.
Ameko also described a daily ritual that takes on a particularly poignant meaning each New Year. He described how the dolls are bathed, clothed, and fed each day. “My grandfather and his brother are here with my family. We speak with them every day. They know we are here, which brings them comfort. For our New Year, we dress the dolls in white cloth and green caps. The white means purity. The green is for eternal life.”
Ameko believes voodoo gives him guidance on family structure and the ongoing dialogue between the living and one’s ancestors. The celebration of the link between the living and the departed is a highlight of the West African Voodoo New Year festival.
Lorne Matalon in Bouche du Roi, Benin for National Geographic News.