It is a hot and muggy afternoon in southern Benin—typical weather for February, the guide says—as the motorbike leaves the main road and heads down a red dirt track. Ten minutes later a tiny rural village comes into view. Many of the inhabitants seem delighted by the arrival of visitors; smiling children gather around and an old lady says “thank you for choosing to visit my country and learn about my religion.” Whilst this warm welcome alone makes the dusty journey worthwhile, visitors to this remote location have traveled here to see something specific.
Crouched in the middle of the village is a giant chameleon. So far so unexciting perhaps; after all, chameleons aren’t a completely unusual sight in West Africa. But this lizard is a little different. Towering more than 10 meters above the ground, with bulging eyes and a gaping, cavernous mouth, the chameleon is made entirely of stone. Deep within the lizard’s enormous stomach is what tourists come all this way to visit: one of Benin’s Voodoo temples.
The guide explains that, unfortunately, the temple is only open on Sundays. Instead of going in, one can scramble up next to the chameleon’s massive stone legs, to get a look through the window. Inside is a cathedral-like space, dusty and undecorated, lined with benches awaiting the next mass.
Continuing around the outside of the chameleon, up a spiral staircase and over the lizard’s huge stone back, one can enter the building through a gloomy doorway. Inside, the floor is dust and stones—a long corridor off which stand many empty rooms. At the end of the corridor, the space opens out just behind the chameleon’s head. Into the curved walls have been cut windows, through which the light pours. The guide explains these rooms are used for Voodoo ceremonies. When will their construction and decoration be completed? The guide says it is all a matter of funds. If visitors choose, they can give money to the village leaders to help them complete the project.
Know Before You Go
The temple is accessible from the nearby town of Abomey. It is recommended one takes a guide, to explain the history of the structure, its surroundings and the voodoo religion.