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Voodoo Magic May Be Stumped by Bird Flu

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  • Voodoo Magic May Be Stumped by Bird Flu

    Voodoo Magic May Be Stumped by Bird Flu

    Benin's Fight Against Evil Spirits With Chicken Rituals May Endanger More People

    ABOMEY, Benin, March 22, 2006 ? - Along the back roads of Abomey, bird flu is more than just a public health hazard. It threatens a way of life that has survived for centuries: voodoo.

    Watch David Wright's full report on 'Nightline'

    And despite chasing evil spirits, people here are at a loss as to how to counter the potential devastation of a deadly virus.

    Abomey, once as famous as Timbuktu, is known for two things: the birthplace of the African slave trade and of voodoo.

    Bird Flu at The Door?
    Benin's king seems worried about the bird flu virus spreading across Africa and infecting birds in Benin, wedged between Nigeria and Togo in western Africa. "We're almost sure to catch it," Majesty King Behanzin II said in French.

    "I hope a vaccine arrives quickly," he said, sitting in his palace, where the walls are said to be sealed with human blood.

    Two neighboring countries have already reported cases of the H5N1 virus and Benin will likely be hit next.

    People here have special reason to fear, because the national religion is voodoo and chickens figure prominently in most rituals.

    Voodoo ****tail: Bird Blood and Gin
    One ceremony, for example, is supposed to summon up the spirit named Kokoo, which involves killing something precious to appease the gods.

    Each of the participants receives a blessing from the birds being sacrificed in a sort of baptism of feathers.

    Then each person drinks blood straight from the chicken's neck.

    The rest goes into a glass full of gin.

    Participants then fall into trance. People believe the person is no longer a man but a fetish -- a human body inhabited by a spirit.

    The spirit apparently likes to play with the body, which leads to a frenzy of dancing.

    A local priest doesn't seem to think bird flu will ever affect his followers.

    "We know bird flu is sweeping across Africa and around the world, but it has no effect on us," he insists. "There's no problem."

    "I am sure of that," he adds after being questioned again.

    "They have to stop killing chickens," a relief worker said. "They should stop it at once!"

    Fighting Evil Spirits
    Benin voodoo priests changed their practices about 15 years ago, but seem unwilling to do anything now.

    Until the early 1990s, human beings were sacrificed instead of chickens. But change seems unlikely now as superstition runs rampant.

    At the fetish market in Porto Novo, a foul-smelling hodge-podge of stalls, salesmen say they sell exotic cures for every ailment.

    Protection against evil spirits clutter the stalls and most salesmen wear talismans on their belts, but none of them have a cure for bird flu.

    At a nearby voodoo convent, the priests showed off their night watchmen: spooky straw figures.

    "They have guarded Benin since the beginning of time," the priest said. "They never sleep."

    He warned not to point at the figures because it could lead to a finger falling off.

    Even under the watchful eye of the guardians, the priest admits knowing very little about a potential pandemic and all of its dire consequences.

    The priest wondered what they should do if they encounter a sick bird? Where they should go for help? Who will compensate them?

    Relief workers are supposed to be out educating people, but most people seemed to be in the dark.

    The Benin government, including the King of Voodoo, have no answers.

    "What will voodoo do?" asked Mito Akplogan, the Minister of the Voodoo Cult. "If voodoo can't eat chicken, voodoo will starve."

    Akplogan stopped eating chicken a month ago when he first heard about bird flu, but that's all he can think of doing.

    Now more than ever, Benin needs all the magic it can muster.

  • #2
    Re: Voodoo Magic May Be Stumped by Bird Flu

    Benin priests battle bird flu with Voodoo <!-- END HEADLINE -->
    <!-- BEGIN STORY BODY -->
    By Samuel Elijah

    Sacrificing chickens in a spray of blood, Benin's traditional priests celebrated Voodoo Day on Thursday and declared their ancient religion would protect them from risk of infection by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.
    The small West African state, home of the Voodoo rituals carried by slaves to the Americas, last month announced at least two cases of bird flu in poultry which tests in Europe confirmed were of the deadly H5N1 strain that can be fatal to humans.
    After Benin lifted a previous ban on the practice of Voodoo, it was declared an official religion in the former French colony in the mid-1990s and January 10 is celebrated as National Voodoo Day, a public holiday ranking with Christmas and the Muslim Eid.
    Benin health experts have warned the country's Voodoo priests their practice of sacrificing chickens -- sometimes by tearing out the birds' throats with teeth or drinking their blood -- creates a major risk of contamination from sick birds.
    "It's not a question of religion ... the unprotected manipulation of poultry is dangerous," Julien Toessi, director of health promotion at the Health Ministry, told Reuters.
    Voodoo practitioners, spurning the protective suits, gloves and masks recommended for handling suspect birds, declared their faith would shield them from infection during ceremonies in which sacrificed chickens' blood is sprayed over the faithful and the ground to "purify" them and gain favor from the gods.
    "If you buy a chicken to sacrifice it to your God, he will not let you buy an infected bird," said Dah Aligbonon, a Voodoo priest from Abomey, the former capital of the ancient African kingdom of Dahomey.
    H5N1 bird flu has killed more than 200 people around the world, mainly in Asia, since 2003 and over the last two years a string of West African states, including Benin's immediate neighbors, have reported outbreaks of the disease.
    "We don't fear infection from bird flu ... because there is a divine power that accompanies our sacrifice," Aligbonon added.
    Voodoo "convents" across Benin held ceremonies on Thursday accompanied by dancing and drumming. Dancing devotees sometimes go into a trance to communicate with their deities.
    Such celebrations draw thousands of tourists each year to Benin, especially to the coastal city of Ouidah, from which hundreds of thousands of African slaves were shipped by European traders in past centuries to the Americas and the Caribbean.
    The so-called Gulf of Guinea "Slave Coast" gained a fearsome reputation for disease, death and cruelty among European ship captains, who coined the warning ditty: "Beware, beware the Bight of the Benin, for few come out though many go in!."
    The captive slaves shipped in chains across the Atlantic took their traditional beliefs with them to their new homes in the tropical plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean islands.
    Voodoo has a strong popular presence in Haiti and similar African-origin rituals are celebrated in Cuba under the name of "Santeria" and in Brazil as "Candomble."
    Descendants of slaves who returned to Benin use the National Voodoo Day to remember victims of the slave trade.
    "The Voodoo festival is an occasion to make sacrifices to remember our ancestors who were sold to unknown buyers and who today contribute to the development of the Americas," said Emile Ologoudou, another Voodoo dignitary.

    Since the H5N1 bird flu outbreak was announced last month in Benin, authorities have slaughtered hundreds of suspect birds and banned the import of poultry from neighbors.
    Street stalls in Cotonou selling roast chicken, a prized local staple, also report a big drop in sales. (Writing by Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Matthew Jones)