Lynda and Rod Hollinger-Janzen are visiting churches in Benin, Burkina Faso and Congo, through a partnership with Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Mission Network. This is the second in a series of reflections that Lynda is writing as they travel. Click here to read her first reflection in this series.
The red earthen walls of the Royal Palace of Abomey, located in the heart of Benin, exuded their usual mystery, even though the excited bustle of pre-COVID-19 days was absent. The palace, where the king of Abomey still holds court, was closed to the public, due to government regulations. But the artisans' courtyard was open.
Rod, my husband, and I admired the bronze figurines of roaring lions; acrobats; and graceful women, carrying water on their heads and babies on their backs. We watched a growing length of cloth appear, as a weaver's shuttle danced back and forth between the red and yellow cotton threads that were stretched for yards in front of the loom. We strolled through booths of appliqued maps of Africa and animal wall-hangings.
And then, in Cécile Yemadjé's booth, we saw a work of art that caused the breath to catch in our throats — an appliqué depicting a history lesson on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, from a Beninese perspective. Yemandjé told us that the art of recording history through appliqué was passed down to her from her parents and ancestors.
Yemadjé's visual story depicts a huge man, who towers over palm trees; a building, and a ship. This giant's head grazes the top of the wall-hanging. Yemandjé identified him as a Portuguese slave trader. He is surrounded by so many objects that he can't hold them all — a bottle of alcohol, a paper, a book and a cannon.
I noticed that the cannon didn't take up much more space than the book and paper, the alcohol, or the machete tucked into the waistband of an African agent on the far right of the scene. I interpreted this to mean that betrayal, through written contracts that are not honored and the destructive power of alcohol, is just as devastating as the killing that happens in warfare.
The kings of Abomey captured people to be sold — most often from rival ethnic groups. Colonial powers, unfamiliar with the geography and lacking immunity to local diseases, would not have been able to engage in human trafficking to the same degree without the cooperation of African authorities.
Yemandjé and oral historians we encountered in Abomey proudly told of the way their warriors resisted the military might of the colonial powers. (This pride is depicted in the similar size of the machete and the cannon.) The historians of Abomey said that their people were often victorious in declared battles. It was their ancestors' trust in the integrity of signed contracts that eroded the political dominance of the kingdom, so that, today, the king of Abomey has only cultural and religious influence.
French military officials called a truce after a particularly bloody battle. The king of Abomey accepted the ceasefire in good faith but realized too late that the French would use the ensuing two years to rearm. This led to the downfall of the powerful kingdom in 1894. When the French attacked again, the Abomey army was quickly defeated. Benin's largest city, Cotonou (meaning, "by the river of death"), was named for this slaughter.
"The river flowed red with blood," Yemandjé said.
In her wall-hanging, Yemandjé features two female prisoners and two male prisoners in bamboo neck shackles, holding out their hand-cuffed palms in supplication. She identified the building as the fort in Ouidah. The fort is surrounded by the Tree of Forgetting and palm trees. One of the palm trees contains coconuts. The other harbors a snake.
After a forced march of about 70 miles from Abomey to Ouidah, women were made to walk around the Tree of Forgetting seven times and men nine times. The objective of this requirement was to make the captured people forget their identity, their culture and their history, in the hope that they would be more docile when purchased as slaves. At the Ouidah fort, the bound men and women were branded with the identifying symbols of the Europeans who bought them, Yemandjé said. Then, they were rowed out to the waiting ship to begin their horrific sea voyage to the Americas.
When Rod interrupted our casual stroll through the artisan booths by pointing out Yemadjé's appliqued work-of-art. I immediately reacted, "I don't want to have to see that hanging on my wall every day!"
However, the more I have studied it, the more my appreciation has deepened. There were endless appliqued variations of lions, giraffes and village scenes in the artisan's courtyard. But Yemadjé's commentary on the slave trade was the only one of its kind. I believe she created it to share a truth that is burning as a fire in her belly — a hard truth-telling that is a first step to God's liberation for all who have ears to hear.