The devastation of the earthquake in Haiti has left no one indifferent, least of all the people of Benin, an African nation with strong ties to the first black republic of the world.
By Razzack Saïzonou
"We are deeply affected and feel solidarity with our Haitian brothers,'' said an emotional Queen Djehami following Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti. Djehami is the wife of Kpodégbé Toyi Djigla, King of Allada, a town in central Benin and one of the largest kingdoms of the country.
"We are deeply affected, primarily because I am African, but mainly because I am from Allada. There is a sense of desolation at the palace."
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Benin played a key role in the slave trade. Thousands of men and women were uprooted and sold as slaves to work in plantations in Europe, the Caribbean and America. Many of them came from Allada, as did the family of Toussaint L'ouverture, who later founded the Republic of Haiti.
Toussaint L’ouverture (1743-1803), nicknamed the Black Napoleon, was born on a plantation in the French colony of Saint Domingue. He was named Breda after the plantation as was the custom for slaves.
His master, the relatively humane Mr Baillon de Libertat, encouraged Toussaint to learn to read and write, and appointed him as his coachman and then as his foreman. Later Toussaint led a revolution against slavery and Haiti became the first republic to be ruled by leaders with African ancestry.
Apart from the historical ties between Haiti and Benin, the two countries share the religion of their ancestors: voodoo. This religion is central to the worship and traditions of thousands of Haitians and Beninese.
Queen Djehami believes that this week’s earthquake has happened because Haiti’s ancestors failed to carry out sacrifices.
She explains that during his trip to Haiti six years ago, King Kpodégbé had warned the then President of Haiti of the need to organise sacrifices to appease angry spirits and ward off evil ones. His trip was part of bicentenary celebrations marking the death of Toussaint L’ouverture.
Although the Haitian authorities probably didn’t ignore the king’s warning, they did put off organising the rituals. "Haiti is profoundly African and these things should not be underestimated," exclaims Queen Djehami.
"His Majesty the King asked for a number of things to be done when we were there, but his wishes were not met. Was it negligence, was it that nobody believed in it?”
In an outburst of solidarity with the victims of the earthquake, the people of Benin and particularly those of Allada have organised traditional ceremonies to appease the spirits and seek the blessing of their ancestors for the Haitians.
"A purification ceremony is planned for Haiti and a trip to the devastated island is even possible. We will continue to pray that it never happens again," says the Queen of Allada.