COTONOU (Reuters) - Sacrificing chickens in a spray of blood, Benin’s traditional priests celebrated Voodoo Day on Thursday and declared their ancient religion would protect them from risk of infection by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.
The small West African state, home of the Voodoo rituals carried by slaves to the Americas, last month announced at least two cases of bird flu in poultry which tests in Europe confirmed were of the deadly H5N1 strain that can be fatal to humans.
After Benin lifted a previous ban on the practice of Voodoo, it was declared an official religion in the former French colony in the mid-1990s and January 10 is celebrated as National Voodoo Day, a public holiday ranking with Christmas and the Muslim Eid.
Benin health experts have warned the country’s Voodoo priests their practice of sacrificing chickens — sometimes by tearing out the birds’ throats with teeth or drinking their blood — creates a major risk of contamination from sick birds.
“It’s not a question of religion ... the unprotected manipulation of poultry is dangerous,” Julien Toessi, director of health promotion at the Health Ministry, told Reuters.
Voodoo practitioners, spurning the protective suits, gloves and masks recommended for handling suspect birds, declared their faith would shield them from infection during ceremonies in which sacrificed chickens’ blood is sprayed over the faithful and the ground to “purify” them and gain favor from the gods.
“If you buy a chicken to sacrifice it to your God, he will not let you buy an infected bird,” said Dah Aligbonon, a Voodoo priest from Abomey, the former capital of the ancient African kingdom of Dahomey.
H5N1 bird flu has killed more than 200 people around the world, mainly in Asia, since 2003 and over the last two years a string of West African states, including Benin’s immediate neighbors, have reported outbreaks of the disease.
“We don’t fear infection from bird flu ... because there is a divine power that accompanies our sacrifice,” Aligbonon added.
Voodoo “convents” across Benin held ceremonies on Thursday accompanied by dancing and drumming. Dancing devotees sometimes go into a trance to communicate with their deities.
Such celebrations draw thousands of tourists each year to Benin, especially to the coastal city of Ouidah, from which hundreds of thousands of African slaves were shipped by European traders in past centuries to the Americas and the Caribbean.
The so-called Gulf of Guinea “Slave Coast” gained a fearsome reputation for disease, death and cruelty among European ship captains, who coined the warning ditty: “Beware, beware the Bight of the Benin, for few come out though many go in!”.
The captive slaves shipped in chains across the Atlantic took their traditional beliefs with them to their new homes in the tropical plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean islands.
Voodoo has a strong popular presence in Haiti and similar African-origin rituals are celebrated in Cuba under the name of “Santeria” and in Brazil as “Candomble”.
Descendants of slaves who returned to Benin use the National Voodoo Day to remember victims of the slave trade.
“The Voodoo festival is an occasion to make sacrifices to remember our ancestors who were sold to unknown buyers and who today contribute to the development of the Americas,” said Emile Ologoudou, another Voodoo dignitary.
Since the H5N1 bird flu outbreak was announced last month in Benin, authorities have slaughtered hundreds of suspect birds and banned the import of poultry from neighbors.
Street stalls in Cotonou selling roast chicken, a prized local staple, also report a big drop in sales.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Matthew Jones