A Piece of Crockery
By Jheri St. James
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
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
“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.
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.”
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)
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).