A rare encounter in West Africa with the supreme leader of the global animist faith, which mixes prophecy and ancient tribal rites with a modern quest for religious tolerance
OUIDAH - "In 2011, don't dress in red," says Daagbo Hounon Houn II, considered the supreme leader of voodoo. "Whoever does is going to face dangerous situations, disasters, diseases."
Perched on a wood throne lined with lace, Daagbo Hounon was dispensing advice provided to him by the oracle known only by the onomatopoeic name of Fa. His Majesty — as they call him — rarely talks to journalists, but has allowed La Stampa into a cone-roofed hut with traces of sacrificed blood on the walls, shells and bones on a nearby mat. Soon, the moment for the rite of purification arrives, when visitors bow barefoot to kiss the sun-baked purple earth and drink water and African vodka.
With stern eyes, an imposing frame, and necklaces and amulets draped over a black and white tunic, Daagbo Hounon offers up another prophecy: "It will be a difficult year for women who want children, they will need some particular protection." But his majesty also has a message of inter-religious tolerance ahead of next November's visit to Benin by Pope Benedict XVI. "Dialogue is the core value of voodoo: we preach honesty, peace, love and harmony. I hope that Christians and Muslims will listen to each other more, for without hypocrisy you can put an end to the tension."
We are in Ouidah, a city of 65,000 on Benin's so-called "Slave Coast" along the Atlantic Ocean. This is the capital of voodoo — the ancient cult not formally recognized in Benin as a religion until 1996 — practiced by 80 million people around the world.
In this dark and mystical corner of Africa famously described by English writer Bruce Chatwin, where the exhaust from old cars mixes with campfire smoke, the international festival of voodoo has just concluded. The festival brought together thousands of followers from Brazil, the Caribbean and Europe, who could also visit "The Door of No Return" monument (where slaves once departed for America).
This is the Mecca for animists who have come for two weeks to practice ancestral rites together, propitiate the future, purify villages of hostilities, appease the spirits, and celebrate January 10 (the only date available to the public) for Voodoo New Year's Day, marked with a series of pulsating tribal dances. These are the days when the poor of Africa do not cry, but sing and dance, play and pray.
Voodoo is not, as is widely misperceived, a kind of black magic, or baseless fetishism practiced by zombies, but rather a comprehensive pantheistic religion, with rituals, temples and congregations. "The protagonists are the Voduns, the anthropomorphic deities that are forces of nature to be respected in return for protection," said Bruno Barba, an anthropologist and researcher at the University of Genoa, who was in Benin for the festival.
There are spirits of the sea, of the dead, of storms, of iron, of fertility and then there is Erzulie, the mythological Venus of Africa. In the Temple of the Python in the middle of Ouidah, the powers of more than 40 snakes are harnessed. They are a symbol of vitality and duplicity to be fed and venerated. These offerings feed the life of the tribe not unlike Ave Maria for Catholics.
During this period, a fetishist market flourishes in the shantytown: street peddlers sell the skulls of monkeys, dogs, reptiles and mice; corn flour mixed with palm oil is spread over the half-naked bodies of dancers. There is, however, no doll to pierce. "Those are silly western ideas. It's like if you were to talk about Christianity and Satanism as the same thing. Here the religious aspect overcomes the folklore," said Flavio Nadin, from Faenza, Italy, who, with his Beninese wife, opened the "Maison de la Joie" home for women and children rescued from modern-day slavery.
An orchestra of bongos makes the earth shake, kicking up red dust announcing the emergence of the Zangbeto: dressed as straw-men they embody the gods that guard the villages and run around Dervish-like, emitting a guttural chant. They have the power to punish thieves and criminals, because here Gods are part of the family, functionaries in the structure of society, who teach order and rules.
In the streets, a river of tarantula-like people do pirouettes of the Revenant, which can make your head spin: it is the spirit of the deceased. At sunset, the children are taken to the sacred grove for the initiation ceremony. Meanwhile in the city one must be careful not to make eye contact with Oroh, the evil deity who is said to wander in the wind, a sign of impending disaster.
Linda de "Nobili, a photographer from Rome avoided Oroh, but did manage to photograph the sacrifice of a chicken: "I got them cutting off its head," she said. It works like this: Choose the gods and then express a desire to ingratiate yourself by offering an animal sacrifice. If the wish comes true, you must return to give thanks.
At the festival, you will also see tests of wills and acts of martyrs: a belly dancer stabbing at the air with knives, men swallowing shards of glass, other sheep and chicken sacrifices. The spectacle is too much for a French couple, in shock, who are tended to by a group of Italian doctors. The faithful are praying for a good harvest, painless childbirth, healing, rain. And security for the villages.
In Benin — where presidential elections will be held in March — the ritual climax of the festival occurs when Daagbo Hounon Houn severs a goat's carotid artery to the applause of the faithful, then promises political and spiritual peace. "Ouidah is and will remain an example: we have a Christian cathedral, a mosque, a Protestant church on the way, and our Temple of the python all in the same neighborhood, " says His Majesty. From this poverty stricken corner of Africa, the spirit of brotherhood taught him his proverbs: "Only mountains never meet."
Read the original article in Italian
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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