Thousands gathered for a day of slaughtering goats and ritual dances to celebrate the dark but fascinating voodoo festival in Benin this weekend.
Followers donned traditional robes and brightly coloured trilby hats as they supped gin, danced in the streets and visited the sacred forest in the tiny west African country, which is the spiritual home of the religion.
But despite slaughtering animals and offering bowls of their blood to the spirits, the people of Benin prayed for peace at the festival this year, as the country looks ahead to its presidential elections this February.
Benin has no history of significant electoral violence. But David Kofi Aza, a well-known priest, said last month that an oracle named Fa had predicted dozens of deaths in post-electoral violence because the loser would refuse to cede to the winner.
King Daagbo Hounon (centre left), Chief of the Voodoo religion in Ouidah, walks through the streets during the annual Voodoo Day celebration on January 10, which had a very political tone this year
A man in a trance dances with a sacrificed goat above his head during the annual celebration. But this year, the people who took part prayed for peace
But despite wishing for peace, there is still a brutal element to the voodoo religion, which calls for the sacrificing of animals
Blood from a sacrificed goat that will be offered to the spirits as part of the tradition of voodoo, officially declared a religion in 1996
A man blows liquid on a voodoo idol as hundreds of followers of the traditional religion gathered in the Atlantic coast town
A photo shows a statue representing past kings in Benin, once an important port in the slave trade and still the centre of voodoo
A man holds an ornate bottle containing what is believed to be sacred medicine in a religion with a dark reputation
The oracle did not reveal how the crisis would be resolved, Aza said, as people gathered in the Atlantic coast town of Ouidah, once an important port in the slave trade, to pray for calm.
At the ceremony in Ouidah, spiritual leader Daagbo Hounan Houna II appealed to the dead to help keep order during the vote. ‘The elections will pass in a peaceful manner in the name of the bounties of the ancestors,’ he said.
Further inland in Savalou, the hometown of Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, priests and dignitaries set a chicken on fire at a ceremony before spreading its blood and palm oil on a fetish made out of cowrie shells and sand.
The election campaign has been overshadowed by a controversy over the ruling party’s choice of Zinsou as its candidate, a pick approved by outgoing president Thomas Boni Yayi.
The tattoo of Mami Wata (Water Mother) is seen on a voodoo devotee at the festival which now attracts thousands of people
Here, the followers leave the Sacred Forest of Kpasse Zoun in a day filled with ritual dances, goat sacrificing and gin drinking
Benin’s voodoo festival is held every year and is the west African country’s most vibrant and colourful event
Bats are seen flying over the Sacred Forest of Kpasse Zoun. Many see the voodoo religion as a dark one, yet people prayed for peace as they look ahead at the presidential elections this year
Last Tuesday, politicians from the opposition and dissidents from the ruling party met for discussions on the formation of a coalition to prevent Zinsou’s run.
Zinsou is both French and Beninese and spent a large part of his life in France. Critics claim he is an outsider without a true understanding of the realities of life in Benin.
But he does enjoy local support. ‘Diversity must be a richness and exclusion is a source of war,’ Gbaguidi Tossoh, the king of Savalou, said at the ceremony there.
Boni Yayi has been president since 2006, when he took over in a peaceful transition of power after 28 years under Marxist coup leader Mathieu Kerekou, who gradually came to embrace multiparty democracy.
A voodoo devotee throws rum over a shrine made of broken glass bottles (left) and a man stands in front of a voodoo statue in the Sacred Forest of Kpasse Zoun (right)
Benin has no history of significant electoral violence. But David Kofi Aza, a well-known priest, said last month that an oracle named Fa had predicted dozens of deaths in post-electoral violence because the loser would refuse to cede to the winner
The oracle did not reveal how the crisis would be resolved, Aza said, as people gathered in the Atlantic coast town of Ouidah, once an important port in the slave trade, to pray for calm. Pictured is a man sacrificing a goat
Women dressed in white robes pray in the Sacred Forest of Kpasse Zoun, asking for peace and calm in the presidential elections
A man dressed up as a Voodoo Idol walks the streets before the start of the annual festival at the weekend
Aside from Zinsou, prominent businessman Sebastien Ajavon and Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, a former senior official at the International Monetary Fund and a 2011 presidential candidate, have officially declared their runs for the office.
The celebrations of voodoo, a traditional African spirit religion that spread to the Americas with the slave trade, were declared a national holiday in 1992.
This year they drew practitioners from nearby countries such as Togo, Ghana and Nigeria and locations as far away as Haiti, Brazil and the United States.
‘For nearly 15 years, I have not missed this celebration,’ said a man in his 60s from Brazil who gave his name only as Antonio.