Strength in Diversity: Protecting Benin’s Sovereign Waters

Monday, 08 Aug, 2022

Commentary and photos by Captain Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd Global Director of Campaigns.

Mami Wata, a water spirit revered in the Vodun religion, on the bow of a fishing pirogue. Scroll for more images.
Offerings for the water spirit, Mami Wata. Scroll for more images.
An abandoned Lockheed L-1011 TriStar near Obama Beach.

Benin, West Africa - Within eyeshot of an abandoned Lockheed L-1011 TriStar — formerly used to fly Hajj pilgrims from Cotonou to Mecca, now left to rot on a stretch of sand between Obama Beach and the Diaspora Benin Hotel — lay an overturned wicker basket full of fruit, flacons of perfume, and hair-care products in plastic bottles, all waiting for the tide to carry these offerings out to sea. The recipient of these gifts was Mami Wata, a water spirit revered in the Vodun religion — more commonly known as voodoo — whose half-human, half-fish likeness was painted in white on the prow of a cobalt blue fishing pirogue nearby that had recently been hauled out from the sea. 

It is fitting that Mami Wata is both the Vodun water deity and the spirit of good fortune. Much of the wealth of the Kingdom of Dahomey, the precursor to the country of Benin, nestled between Togo and Nigeria in West Africa, came through the sea trade. Much misfortune, too. The sea gave, and the sea took. Some hold the belief that transatlantic slave ships lost at sea were capsized by an enraged Mami Wata. 

The ships loaded shackled people off the beach at Ouidah, where today two stone statues portraying Zangbeto, the traditional Vodun nightwatchmen, stand on permanent watch to welcome back the souls of the departed. As they were marched from the interior along the Slave Route to the ocean that would take them away, many captive Vodun practitioners circled three times the Tree of Remembering to ensure that their spirits could return in death.  

With more than five hundred people on board, chained from neck to foot, the slave ships would have passed the fishing communities of Grand Popo on their brutal passage to deadly sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. The Grand Popo region remains the beating heart of the Vodun religion. 

It is also home to the Bouche du Roi marine reserve, a protected area where industrial fishing is banned and where dense thickets of mangrove forest protect fish spawning grounds.  

A Beninese talisman known as a Zangbeto. Scroll for more images.

I met my first Zangbeto in Grand Popo. These elaborate costumes are conical in shape, resembling a haystack covered in red- and blue-dyed strands, with a crown of horns draped in strings of shells. A deep, thunderous trumpet sound emitted from within as the Zangbeto turned and twirled like a whirling Dervish, welcoming us to the village of Lanhou. 

As the Zangbeto moved across the village square, its long skirt kicking up clouds of dust, it deposited pairs of miniature replicas of itself throughout the village, like a mother hen pausing during a spellbinding dance to lay two eggs that served as idols. 

“As you can see, these are part of the Zangbeto,” the Vodun priest declared to the villagers, holding up a nightwatchman mini-me before handing both off to a group of seven local fishermen, who then carried the talismans down to their canoe. From there, the talismans would be strung up on wooden poles driven into the muddy bottom of the lagoon to serve as markers in the mangrove forest — watchmen in their own right — delineating the areas now off limit both to fishing and forestry. The protection lasts in perpetuity.  

“If you fish between the talismans, you will be struck dead by lightening,” the priest warned. 

The talismans are taken to the lagoon to serve as markers in the mangrove forest. Scroll for more images.

The deforestation of mangroves in the lagoon became a concern of the Beninese government when offshore fish populations were decimated by industrial trawlers fishing illegally inside the Bouche du Roi reserve. As local fishermen were driven out of legitimate work, some turned to the illegal harvesting of mangrove and the poaching of wildlife.  

For that reason, the government and Eco-Benin, a local NGO, turned to the Vodun priests for help. Vodun, and the sanctification of tracts of mangrove forest, was integrated into the conservation management plan. 

After the sanctification ceremony, over a meal of tofu and fufu at a seaside restaurant within the boundary of the marine reserve, I noticed the glare of a set of red, green, and white navigation lights offshore, competing with the reflection of the moon in the dark waters somewhere out near the invisible line where the authority of the Zangbeto and Mami Wata met. 

Those lights would turn out to belong to Fada 18, a trawler that in the days following would be arrested by the Beninese navy working on board the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker. 

In 2019, the government of Benin teamed up with Sea Shepherd to conduct joint at-sea patrols against illegal fishing. It was the first time since the country’s independence in 1960 that the navy had a vessel asset that allowed them to cover the entirety of Benin’s sovereign waters. Seven trawlers have been arrested to date. 

The strength of a marine ecosystem lies in biodiversity. Similarly, the conservation movement draws its muscle from a mélange of methods, which includes states and NGOs working together. 

Somewhere offshore beyond the steady guard of Zangbetos, the Bob Barker with an armed complement of Beninese navy sailors stands watch, with Mami Wata witnessing it all, as the tide turns on the plundering of Her ocean kingdom.   

Learn more about Operation Guegou, Sea Shepherd's campaign in partnership with the Beninese givernment. 

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