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Storm destroys symbolic tree in Benin voodoo capital

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Ouidah, Benin

Benin voudon religious dignitary Oscar Kptenon is still in shock, ten days after the fall of a centuries-old giant tree on a historic square in Ouidah, once at the heart of the slave trade.

A huge storm brought down the tree that for centuries stood witness to where slaves were auctioned before being shipped off from Benin’s nearby coast.

It was a symbol of the city’s history and culture.

Kptenon, a tourist guide in Ouidah, also a centre of voodoo practice, said residents cannot believe it’s gone, some even hinting something is amiss.

“We need explanations on all levels,” he said. “This tree has suffered more storms but has never yielded.”

Ouidah is an important Benin tourist site for the Voodoo religion and also its slave history. The government has been promoting the town to appeal to descendents of slaves to visit.

Known locally as Vodoun, the religion worships gods and natural spirits and respects revered ancestors.

It originated in the Dahomey kingdom — present-day Benin and Togo — and is still widely practised alongside Christianity in coastal areas such as Ouidah, where memorials to the slave trade are dotted around the small beach town.

On the night of June 2, the giant tree collapsed after heavy rain, in what some residents and dignitaries described as an “incomprehensible phenomenon”.

“This is no ordinary fall. The tree literally split in two, revealing a male part and a female part on the ground,” one town official told AFP.

The official said they had reviewed the Fa — a reference in voodoo to consulting with ancestors and gods –- to try to find out the meaning.

“We have just lost an iconic symbol. A living witness to the entire history of the slave trade has just fallen before our eyes,” said resident Tognon Adjovi.

– Old age or mystery –

But the tree’s fate has also split opinion with some saying it was nothing more than old age that brought it down.

“It’s normal for a tree of this age to eventually give way under heavy rain,” said Mathias Kpehounton, 56, a retired bank executive.

“I went to see the scene the day after the tragedy, it looks like the roots of the tree just gave way.”

Hounon Amandigbe, another of the dignitaries of the  cult in Ouidah, warned “not to trivialise” the fall of this tree which, he said, was supposed to “have an unlimited lifespan”.

“What happened that night… is a mystery,” he said.

Since the tree came down, the slave auction site has been made inaccessible, with perimeter fencing.

Social media images just after the fall showed the giant tree uprooted and branches broken.

“Scientifically, this fall can be explained. The tree is old and has undoubtedly given way gradually while no one had time to realise it,” said Fernand Babadjihou, a local environmentalist.

For Emilien Adjovi, 38, a hotel developer, the tree’s demise also showed a “lack of maintenance and attention”.

“Ouidah has received a big blow with the fall of this historic tree. It is a loss for the whole world and Ouidah,” he said.

str/pma/bp

© Agence France-Presse

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