Swapping voodoo convents for classrooms in Benin
“If you don’t go to school, you don’t know anything and you grow up and do nothing.” Like many other children in Benin, Madeleine, 10, was taken to a voodoo priest and sent to live in a convent for two years, where she underwent tribal markings and missed out on her schooling.
Children that are allegedly possessed by spirits may spend up to eight years in the convents, where they are stripped of their name, forced to learn a new language, given little food or sanitation and are subjected to rituals including singing, dancing and scarification.
By the time these children leave the convents, it is too late for them to carry on their education. But Plan International Benin has worked with local priests to release 300 children from the convents after just three months of rituals, meaning they can go back to school and have a life of opportunity.
President of the chief voodoo priests, Mama Hounza Tognon Mahouchi, explains; “Children used to stay in my convent for up to eight years. There wasn’t a lot of food, no toilet and children couldn’t wash, we didn’t allow them to see their families.
“I allowed this to go on because I was ignorant. Plan International helped us to see that we could accelerate the healing process so children could leave the convent and continue their education.”
Boys and girls are now going back to their normal lives and can plan for their future. Gisele, 15, spent six years in a convent. “I live with my parents now and I’m an apprentice seamstress. Men have greater advantages than women in my community. People just think girls will grow up, marry and leave home, so there’s no need to invest in them.”
For others life around them has changed drastically. Eric doesn’t know what happened to his parents while he was in the convent, but when he was released his uncle sent him to an orphanage.
Though he misses his parents, he’s still much happier outside the convent: “I was half naked most of the time, every day we had to sing and dance – that’s all we did. But here the living conditions are much better and I’m able to go to school. My favourite subjects are science, maths, English and sports. One day I’d like to be the president of Benin.”
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