Masks Rock Africa's Cradle of Voodoo, Explorer Says

Chris Rainier
for National Geographic News
Updated February 10, 2004

View a West Africa Dancing Mask Photo Gallery by Chris Rainier: Go: >>

Editor's note: Chris Rainier is a National Geographic Society photographer and co-director of the Society's Ethnosphere Project, a series of expeditions over the next five years to study the web of cultural diversity around the Earth. Together with anthropologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, Rainier recently traveled through the West African countries of Benin and Togo to explore the roots of the voodoo religion in the cradle of its origin.

Deep within the soul of Africa there can be heard a distant sound, the pulse of the rhythmic beat of dancing drums. Scattered throughout tiny villages during festival season, the dancing masks of West Africa can be heard and seen.

I have had a long fascination with mask dancing around the world, especially in the West African countries of Benin and Togo. Since the mid-1990s, I have journeyed here to witness the rituals of voodoo and the powerful Gelede and Egungun mask dances of the Yoruba people. Now I have returned as a National Geographic Society photographer on a cultural expedition with my friend and associate Wade Davis, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. We are in search of the roots of voodoo.

We journey to West Africa, during the height of the spiritual season of celebration, renewal, and the transition into the Voodoo New Year in September.

The Gelede mask dance is by far the happier and more entertaining of the numerous mask dances. Its primary goal is to both entertain and bridge the worlds of the dead and the living, considered the sacred and the profane.

The mask dance in Africa is charged with the responsibility of keeping the balance of life between humans and the gods. The mask becomes the visual and living manifestation of the gods, both good and evil.

Balance of Power

The Gelede mask acts out daily life, and more often than not, the conflicts and misdeeds of the mortal man. All the events of the past year—theft, love affairs, corruption, abuse of officials—are brought to light. The head performer, "Efe," a female character, acts out her performance with sarcastic remarks and reprimands that serve to lighten intricate village tensions.

A central part of the Gelede mask dances are the performances of the women spirits, especially the head female Gelede spirit, Iya Lase. This female mask performs to balance the power of the witches always found throughout African tribal society.

As Benin villagers gather once a year for their annual Gelede mask dance, they will once again be woven into the deep and long tapestry of responsibilities of again becoming an honorable citizen—to the family, the village, the community, and the spirits that dwell at the edge of the forest.

Cult of the Dead

Continued on Next Page >>


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