On the path of stories

Huge anecdotes, hundreds of pictures. Our visit to Villa Karo last spring was a memorable and above all an educational experience; a dive into a culture that was unknown to us and a rather diverse religious system.

Text: Veera Pitkänen
Photos: Veera Pitkänen, Bjombo si ja Husiga


Already at the very beginning we became well aware of Benin’s countless vodun gods and goddesses. This new world opened up story by story. The village threatened thunder god Heviosson to retaliate if the recently lost goat was not returned to its owner, and the follower of Mami Wata who we met, said the gods had recently advised him to get out of the car in order to avoid an accident. 


Bjombo si (left) and Husiga (middle) study their deities at their Vodun monastery in Agbanakin. They documented their lives and dreams during a photography workshop. Photo: Veera Pitkänen.

We got closer to the vodun traditions through interesting, often confusing and palm-wine sodabi-fuelled encounters. We heard about the latent powers of the wooden twin dolls and got a peek into the secrets of the divine-god . We also visited Ouidah, the only school in Benin where vodun is an integral part of the curriculum.


Our community photography workshop on Togo’s side, on the other hand, helped us to understand deeper the everyday life of the vodun monastery children through their perspective. In these so-called boarding schools, many Beninese and Togolese spend time delving into their own deities.


Unlike the adults, children don’t need to spend day and night at the monastery; they sleep there and during the daytime, they help their families with house chores. The time in the monastery culminates to a ceremony of appeasing the deities, after which the initiates can continue their lives in the normal way. The pictures taken by the three eight-year-old girls in the monastery took us inside their experiences, memories and dreams.


Thanks to all this, our time in Benin was not left to merely view the new environment through the eyes of an outsider and through the lens of a camera. The experience formed a cultural dialogue with the people we met.


Taking care of siblings is also part of the monastery life. Bjombo si is carrying her little brother. Photography workshop in the village of Agbanakin, Togo.

I stayed in Grand-Popo for another month after Villa Karo closed its doors for the holiday period. After the Finnish scholarship holders - including my working partner - and the French beach holidaymakers packed their bags and headed towards the summery Europe, I got to study the subject I was researching in a new way, and to the countless stories in them.


Now the pictures of the photography workshop can be seen in my visual anthropology thesis books and covers, and in Berlin in October, and in the spring and winter in Helsinki. Although, with the return to everyday life, the months in Benin seem very distant, the flamboyant waves of Grand-Pop still ring silently in my ears, reminiscent of the eternal presence of the sea goddess.


Veera Pitkänen is a Berlin-based photojournalist and cultural researcher who conducted a study of young girls' experiences in vodun monasteries in spring 2014. Also read Akpé's issue 1/2014 of her and Anniina Mustalahti's thoughts before the trip.


The pictures in the story have been published with the permission of the girls and their families


Women and children gather during the day with the Husiga family. Photography workshop in the village of Agbanakin, Togo.


Husiga (left), Bjombo si and Bjombo si carry water on their shoulders. On top of their heads, they are not allowed to carry the goods until after the initiation ceremony. Photography workshop in the village of Agbanakin, Togo.


Monastery goers greet visitors and their family members. Photography workshop in the village of Agbanakin, Togo.


Husiga's sister Fiomagnan is disturbed by the spirit of her dead aunt. Now he has already performed the necessary ceremony. Photography workshop in the village of Agbanakin, Togo.


Husiga’s aunt napping at the monastery. Photography workshop in the village of Agbanakin, Togo.


Bjombo si’s little brother is waiting for his sister by the door. Photo: Veera Pitkänen


Gu, the god of iron and war, disturbs Bjombo si, and that is why he has already spent days in the monastery. For the upcoming initiation ceremony, he needs four goats. Photo: Veera Pitkänen


Bertrand Hounza with his venavi twin dolls. The dolls represent his deceased loved ones. Photo: Veera Pitkänen


The studentscelebrate the last school day. Ecole Primaire Privée Confessionel Vodoun-Hwendo; located in Ouidah, is Benin’s only school whose curriculum includes vodun. Photo: Veera Pitkänen