A Piece of Crockery

By Jheri St. James

Benin and the surrounding area was settled in the 13th century by Ewe-speaking people in the south and by Voltaic speakers in the north. Some time before 1600 the Adja people migrated from the west, mixed with the Fon and founded the kingdom of Allada which broke up into the rival states at Abomey and Porto-Novo in the 17th century. The first of these grew into the Kingdom of Dahomey, which dominated the area until the 19th century.

“Bordering Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north, its short coastline to the south leads to the Bight of Benin, after which the country was named. Its capital is Porto Novo, but the seat of government is Cotonou.

“Benin was a French colony from 1902 until it achieved independence in 1960. Military officers took power in 1972, proclaiming a “Marxist-Leninist” state and changing the country’s name. Benin renounced Marxist policies by the end of 1989 and in the following year became a multi-party democracy. Benin has embarked on a path of democracy which is a model in Africa. Presidential elections in both 1991 and 1996 saw a peaceful transfer of power. Increased freedom of the press and strengthening of civil society institutions have reinforced the country’s democratic tendencies. The continuation of market-oriented economic policies after the 1996 election of President Kerekou has strengthened reforms by demonstrating the broad political consensus around such policies.

“The South of Benin has several beautiful beaches and lagoons with pile villages. The northern part of the country distinguishes itself by the combination of vast savannas, landscapes and hills with plenty of waterfalls. Of special interest is the area of Somba with its unique architecture and exceptional traditions and customs. In the Pendjhari wildlife park, also in the North, many animals like elephants, lions, baboons, antelopes, buffaloes and many different types of birds can be observed.

The largest city and commercial capital is Cotonou. The name is from the Fon phrase ku tc nu, “at the lake of the dead”, in reference to the belief that falling stars represent the souls of those who have just died falling to the underworld. It is said that when Cotonou was founded, the lights of the laketop village of Ganvie across the lagoon were reflected in the waters, suggesting fallen stars at the bottom.

“… What characterizes this area besides its beautiful landscape, are its voodoo practices and the interesting, often gruesome history of glorious kingdoms, slavery and colonialism.” (

“With pounding drums and pulsating rhythms, Benin on Wednesday celebrated the rebirth of voodoo as an officially recognized religion. About 60 percent of this West African nation's people follow voodoo, which originated in the region, but the Marxist regime that came to power in 1972 discouraged its practice. President Nicephoro Soglo's government said Tuesday that, in an effort to ‘correct an injustice,’ it was formally recognizing voodoo as a religion. It declared Jan. 10 a national, paid holiday to celebrate voodoo and the country's other traditional faiths, saying they deserved the same recognition as Christian and Muslim events. Sossa Guedehoungue, president of the national voodoo bureau, led prayers and the offering of gifts to the spirits during a ceremony in Cotonou's stadium. Dancers and drummers kept up a spirited pace as alcohol was poured onto the ground as an offering to the gods to ensure peace and prosperity. A similar celebration took place on the beach at Ouidah, 25 miles to the west, which is considered the center of Benin's voodoo culture. Voodoo has its origins in West Africa, and followers worship spirits, or fetishes, to guide them in their lives. The religion started about 400 years ago and was brought to the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, during the slave trade.” (AP, 10 Jan 1996)

Our soil collector in Benin was John Cushing, who works for the U.S. Embassy there. His soil came from Ouidah, one of the most important coastal centers of slave trade in the 19th century. At the end of the 18th century, European slave traders started kidnapping slaves in order to sell them to North and South American plantations. They traded weapons, munitions, fabrics, neads and utensils for prisoners of war of the kingdoms. It didn’t take long until the various wars between kingdoms were fought around the appropriation of territories, and people. Southern Benin was called the “Slave Coast” at that time. In the former Portuguese fortress you can find a museum and a monument dedicated to this gruesome and dark period of history, located at the “Point of No Return”. Here the slaves had to say goodbye to their native land, which they would never see again.

For the people of Benin, Ouidah is especially famous for its powerful voodoo priests and fetishes. The snake temple has turned into a tourist attraction, where one can be photographed with snake around neck. One small addition to Mr. Cushing’s collection: “The soil comes from the road down which slaves were marched from a holding pen at a French or Portuguese fort in Ouidah to the beach, where they were ferried out to ships. Most of them ended up in brazil or Haiti. The crockery pieces are from a garbage dump where slave ships threw their broken dishes and bottles. C’est tout…” We thank Mr. Cushing for his touching contribution of more than just soil to Common Ground 191.

One wonders what artist Gary Simpson will do with this piece of crockery. His process uses a variety of materials, including concrete, plasticizers, foaming agents and water reducers, metal shavings or metal wire, and pigment. Will it be ground up and included in the pastiche of the 191 soils collected? Or will it take a place of memorial and honor on the surface of one of the 42”x42” pieces in the final fresco of 196? The broken crockery is surely a perfect symbol of broken humans on slave ships, broken spirits that would perpetuate such crimes, and the once-broken land of Benin, now healed, remembering, and remembered…through a piece of crockery.

The word for peace in Benin is in French: La Paix (fifa).

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