Benin is a West African, tropical, sub-Saharan nation. The region was named ‘Slave Coast’ due to the large number of slaves shipped to the New World during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Precolonially, Benin was home for the ‘Kingdom of Dahomey’ which was a prominent West African kingdom known for its cultures and traditions. The military achievements of Dahomey earned it the name ‘Black Sparta’. The practice of Vodoo originated here. The country celebrates a National Vodoo day. Post the colonial era, the country issued a formal apology for the African involvement in slave trade. Currently Benin is one of the stable democracies of Africa.Economy of the country is mostly cotton export based or agriculture dependent. Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world and has one of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality.
Slave Coast of Benin;monument erected by UNESCO(Source:http://www.gettyimages.in/detail/photo/point-of-no-return-monument-route-of-the-high-res-stock-photography/108120238)
Literature in Benin had a strong oral tradition long before French became the dominant language. When I tried to source a book for this blog, there were any number of them available on Benin, but not so many from Benin, specially in English.
‘Will Do Magic for Small Change‘ by Andrea Hairston, an American author, is set partly in modern day America and partly in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th Century. The fact that it promises a story filled with magic was sufficient to convince me to go for it.
‘Will do Magic for Small Change‘ is one of the most unusual books I have read in recent times. It begins on a somber tone, at the funeral of Sekou, the half-brother of Cinnamon. Her father is already in a coma from a gunshot during a random shooting incident. Her mother is wasting away under the pressure of it all. Cinnamon is clutching onto sanity through the ‘Chronicles of the Great Wanderer’, the book Sekou gave her. The story set in the kingdom of Dahomey, feels strangely relevant. There seems to be some connection between it and her family. Cinnamon’s elderly grandparents – ‘older than the hills’ – try to heal her spirit with gentle Vodoo practices like ‘Mojo. A prayer in a bag.‘ to glide her through it all.
The Chronicles record the experiences of the Wanderer, an alien being living across dimensions, who meets the ahosi (warrior wife) Kehinde when she is being hunted as a rebel against the Fon kingdom.
‘I was stunned by the magnetic field and the urgency of desire – for food, for touch, for expression and connection. The first experiences are paradise.’
Kehinde is fierce, aggressive and a trained killer. She is also kind, aching and ready to sacrifice everything for someone she loves. And what greater sacrifice is there than giving a kind death to a loved one in prolonged suffering. Kehinde is with a man, whom she mercy-kills. She is drowning under the sorrow and clutches the Wanderer for support, the only being who does not want her captive or worse. The Wanderer is hungry for experience and tries to learn everything from the only person near it.
‘Spying on Kehinde felt wrong; yet, I rehearsed her dance in the theatre of my mind, her love and anguish calmed me. I resolved to be a good witness.’
They start running from the kingdom together. Kehinde says,
‘Hurry, civilization comes this way to tame us.’
They are looking for a woman the dead man desperately wanted to be found. The kingdom is in tatters and their task is near impossible. Their journey takes paths beyond their own wildest imagination.
For me, the most unsettling part of the book was the Wanderer – cursed with immortality – returning to modern day Benin and trying to look for the any sign that there was a time past, in which it was here. How might it feel to search for the past truth in the present? It says,
‘Tourists and pilgrims take this staging of a legendary past as the past itself, as stolen memory restored, as healing for the aching ancestors in our hearts. I found not a building or a rock or a tree that looked familiar, not an echo of Kehinde or our past anywhere. It was as if we had never happened.’
This is a saga for a lost soul’s search of self, a warrior’s struggle for dignity and freedom, a boy’s embrace of love even though it is with someone of the same sex, a man’s urge to stand up for what’s right, even if it lands him in a coma for life, a woman’s struggle to get to grips with a life of loss after loss and of a girl’s coming to terms with her family secrets. It is a beautiful novel about tolerance of all shapes and forms, of all kinds of love. Although, in no measure a short read, I feel enriched because of reading this story.
Other Options from Benin:
The Viceroy Of Ouidah – Bruce Chatwin
A Brazilian making his fortune in Benin. Can he survive the madness of the Slave Coast?
The Amazons of Dahomey: An Account of the Female Warriors of an African Kingdom Kindle Edition
Collection of articles that appeared in the New York Sun