Whipping Fête ~ October 26 – 28
Lucky me that one of the most interesting festivals in Benin (and I’m not biased at allll) happens in my little village at the end of every October. It is called ‘la fête de chicotte’ – the Whipping Fête.
I know much more about it since having interviewed two village wisemen about it several days ago for an article I’m writing for PC. I will try to figure out how to make link to that article but don’t hold your breath!
Though I’ve learned a lot since, back in the last week of October I had little more than a vague collection of facts surrounding the event: largest Lokpa celebration, during which young men whip each other, a sort of ‘rite of passage’ in order to attain manhood in the eyes of the community. Oh yah and there would be lots of drinking.
Happily, my house became “Whipping Fête central” where I welcomed nearly 20 volunteers over the two days, including the first volunteer in Badjoudé – a village hero, and rightly so – Annie! She came at just the right time in my service, when I felt comfortable and familiar enough with Badjoudé to want to learn more. She introduced me to different important people, gave me tips about the house and general living, and gave me a lot more insight into Lokpa culture in general, and the Fête in particular.
With her help we hosted quite the event: ordered drinks from the bar and two large barrels of the local brew Chouc-chouc (a cross between beer and cider, in my opinion, and made from millet) to offer visitors and dancers throughout the two nights of festivities. We also made appropriate visits to the village King (yep, had no idea Badjoudé had one of those!) and mayor. She even spoke with local police and border patrol, and organized a bus and 5 guides for us to go see the festivities in a nearby village just across the Togo border the day after Badjoudé’s celebration. It was a crazy and amazing two days.
The fête itself is so hard to describe to someone who was not there. I know I will fail miserably in trying to do so but I hope to get a few pictures up to give a better idea. The morning of Badjoudé’s, always the first of the season with the surrounding village’s festivities happening throughout the following week, we awoke just before sunrise. Luckily, my house is just a stone-throw’s away from the action so we lazily made our way up to the main road and waited. Just as the sun came up over the trees we started to hear the drums and whistles in the distance. More spectators came to join our crowd and within a few minutes we could make out two mobs of people dancing, blowing whistles, and singing their way towards each other from opposite directions on the long dirt road. They were two of Badjoudé’s quartiers (neighborhoods), rivals, and there was going to be a rumble!
When the two groups finally met in front of us, there was much battle crying and boasting. Then, all at once, everyone turned and stampeded into a nearby field. What had just moments before been a calm clearing of waist-high grasses rustling in the wind, was instantly transformed into a battle field. The best way I can think of to describe the mood is “cheerful chaos.”
At first, looking into the field you would have no idea what was going on: there are so many people, whips flying, the deafening din of hundreds of whistles and raised voices, white powder being thrown around… I got doused by an enthusiastic spectator and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was baby powder. Saved me a shower and I smelled baby fresh the rest of the day!
Eventually, your eyes adjust to the commotion and you begin to see that there are dozens of matches going on at the same time. For each match there are two competitors armed with a whip in one hand and a long club for blocking in the other. In between them stands a “referee” who blows a whistle to let them know when it is their turn to make a hit or to defend. Each fighter gets two consecutive chances to try and hit their opponent. All of the competitors are shirtless, so when someone makes a solid hit, even with the surrounding ruckus, there is no mistaking the sound of whip on flesh. WWWWHAP! And you wince because you know that’s going to leave a mark! Talk too long with any Lokpa man, especially when he’s had his daily share of chouc-chouc, and he’ll soon be lifting his shirt or sleeve to give you a tour of his “battle scars.” They are so proud!
What surprised me about this event, and still surprises me reading back through my description, is how NOT barbaric it actually is. I first thought my mind would reject the battling as foreign but in the end my expectations were reversed. It turned out I was not as shocked by the whipping and more surprised by the free-for-all atmosphere of the spectators. People are screaming, dancing, singing, dressed in every which way. The men who have already undergone the ceremony are the craziest: decked out in anything imaginable… the only staple being some item of women’s clothing. A general outfit might be a cut-off jean skirt, flashy red bra, elmo stuffed animal tied to the waist, plastic bags around the ankles, and a small animal scull attached to a headdress on top of a tinsel wig.
My sociology major mind did not miss the irony of hundreds of flashy, cross-dressing men in a country which officially denies the existence of homosexuality. (I’ve had several curious people ask me about the “phenomenon” and then shake their heads disbelievingly, concluding it is must be an “American” or “European” thing). I had guessed this tradition of dressing in women’s clothes must be a modern add-on but my wise men informants told me that it has been a part of the customs since the beginning. It is a way for men to demonstrate the strength and security of their masculinity. Uh-huh.
After a sufficient amount of battling has taken place the two groups merge with spectators into a big dancing circle and then eventually dance their way up the main road to the center of town to merge and battle with other neighborhoods. After a morning of following different groups, everyone crashes for the afternoon repos (nap time!) and then reemerges lazily for celebrating that lasts well into the night. Our group happily took the rest time, then got up around 2 to go greet the king and thank him for permitting us to attend the festival. As is customary during any holiday, we were welcomed with chouc and food (little fried bean cakes) and then sat around making small talk with each other and the king’s family under the shade of two ancient baobabs.
The whole day seemed like a dream, a bright sunny morning illuminating an incredible cultural experience… made personal by the fact it was MY village: MY students running around (and some of them proudly whipping), dancing next to MY neighbors, MY Papa holding court over the first battle, etc etc I’m sure the dreamlike effect was not at all dampened by the continuous supply of chouc which I was obligated to drink in order to be polite to our hosts!
The next day we got up early again and piled into a bus to head over to Kemerida, which Annie promised was worth the trip. We were not disappointed. This village’s Whipping Fête turned out to be an interesting contrast to Badjoudé’s. Theirs was organized, each little neighborhood having a personal ceremony and tiny courtyard battles. In fact we divided ourselves into small groups of three or four so as not to overwhelm these more intimate events. Here we could actually see what was going on; the protocol, each step of the ceremony which the day before seemed incomprehensible. They had official sites for each “tournament round” bringing together more and more groups until the final “play-offs” neatly held inside a huge stadium-like circle. There were even Red Cross officials on-hand to handle injuries… it felt very much like a soccer tournament, screaming “soccer moms” on the side-lines and all!
When all my visitors eventually packed up and headed on their way I was exhausted, the house was a wreck, and there were lesson plans to write, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. That weekend, more than anything that had happened yet, made me feel like I had ARRIVED.