As forests shrink and the world grows warmer because of climate change, few countries are more concerned about Earthâ€™s future than Benin, a former West African kingdom widely considered to be the birthplace of Voodoo, a religion whose origins are deeply entwined with nature.
Over the course of centuries, Beninâ€™s forests have faced threats, initially from hostile actions against Voodoo, first by European colonizers who demonized the faith, and subsequently from rapid demographic growth, urban development, and the encroachment of agriculture.
From 2005 to 2015, Benin experienced a significant decline in its forest cover, exceeding 20 percent. The deforestation rate remains alarmingly high at 2.2 percent annually, as reported by the World Bank.
While Beninâ€™s government is faced with the challenge of balancing forest conservation with national development, followers of Voodoo are concerned that the potential loss of these sacred spaces could have far-reaching consequences, Associated Press reported in an October 28 feature story.
Deforestation is not only an ecological issue but also a matter of concern for the cultural and social cohesion of a country with a population of about 13 million peopleâ€”around 11 percent of whom are practitioners of Voodoo.
Benoit Sonou, a Voodoo priest, witnessed the disruption of his communityâ€™s forest in his youth. When the government introduced roads, and people in his part of Benin had to cease their activities in the sacred forest, they â€śstarted getting sick and having all kinds of problems,â€ť Sonou told the AP.
An ancient religion, Voodoo has its origins in the historical kingdom of Dahomey, now known as Benin. While people in West Africa, particularly in Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria, share similar beliefs, in Benin, Voodoo has official recognition as a religion.
The faith is deeply rooted in animismâ€”the belief that everything from inanimate objects like rocks and trees to living beings and locations, possesses a spirit.
Followers seek out Voodoo priests to conduct ceremonies to protect them from malevolent spirits, heal illnesses, and attain success in their careers and personal lives.
In fact, many who officially adhere to Christianity or Islam also integrate certain Voodoo elements in their faith, particularly during moments of crisis.
In October, during a visit to Benin, AP West and
Central Africa reporter Sam Mednick documented what seemed like a
powerful, swirling wind that arose from two of the forests after Voodoo priests
Whether the sounds were connected to spirits remains unclear, but scholars of religion emphasize that the key point is adherentsâ€™ ability to connect with the forest and thereby adhere to Voodoo principles.
Danny Hoffman, a cultural anthropologist who is director of the University of Washingtonâ€™s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, remarked that besides underscoring the concept that human beings are not the sole agents of change on the planet, Voodoo beliefs show that the disappearance of forests limits opportunities for believers to experiment and innovate.
Spaces designated for spiritual practices are important, Hoffman explained, because they serve as places where people gather to contemplate â€śhow theyâ€™re going to respond to new challenges and new difficulties.â€ť
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