ABOMEY, Benin, March 22, 2006 — -- Along the back roads of Abomey, bird flu is more than just a public health hazard. It threatens a way of life that has survived for centuries: voodoo.
And despite chasing evil spirits, people here are at a loss as to how to counter the potential devastation of a deadly virus.
Abomey, once as famous as Timbuktu, is known for two things: the birthplace of the African slave trade and of voodoo.
Benin's king seems worried about the bird flu virus spreading across Africa and infecting birds in Benin, wedged between Nigeria and Togo in western Africa. "We're almost sure to catch it," Majesty King Behanzin II said in French.
"I hope a vaccine arrives quickly," he said, sitting in his palace, where the walls are said to be sealed with human blood.
Two neighboring countries have already reported cases of the H5N1 virus and Benin will likely be hit next.
People here have special reason to fear, because the national religion is voodoo and chickens figure prominently in most rituals.
One ceremony, for example, is supposed to summon up the spirit named Kokoo, which involves killing something precious to appease the gods.
Each of the participants receives a blessing from the birds being sacrificed in a sort of baptism of feathers.
Then each person drinks blood straight from the chicken's neck.
The rest goes into a glass full of gin.
Participants then fall into trance. People believe the person is no longer a man but a fetish -- a human body inhabited by a spirit.
The spirit apparently likes to play with the body, which leads to a frenzy of dancing.
A local priest doesn't seem to think bird flu will ever affect his followers.
"We know bird flu is sweeping across Africa and around the world, but it has no effect on us," he insists. "There's no problem."
"I am sure of that," he adds after being questioned again.
"They have to stop killing chickens," a relief worker said. "They should stop it at once!"
Benin voodoo priests changed their practices about 15 years ago, but seem unwilling to do anything now.
Until the early 1990s, human beings were sacrificed instead of chickens. But change seems unlikely now as superstition runs rampant.
At the fetish market in Porto Novo, a foul-smelling hodge-podge of stalls, salesmen say they sell exotic cures for every ailment.
Protection against evil spirits clutter the stalls and most salesmen wear talismans on their belts, but none of them have a cure for bird flu.
At a nearby voodoo convent, the priests showed off their night watchmen: spooky straw figures.
"They have guarded Benin since the beginning of time," the priest said. "They never sleep."
He warned not to point at the figures because it could lead to a finger falling off.
Even under the watchful eye of the guardians, the priest admits knowing very little about a potential pandemic and all of its dire consequences.
The priest wondered what they should do if they encounter a sick bird? Where they should go for help? Who will compensate them?
Relief workers are supposed to be out educating people, but most people seemed to be in the dark.
The Benin government, including the King of Voodoo, have no answers.
"What will voodoo do?" asked Mito Akplogan, the Minister of the Voodoo Cult. "If voodoo can't eat chicken, voodoo will starve."
Akplogan stopped eating chicken a month ago when he first heard about bird flu, but that's all he can think of doing.
Now more than ever, Benin needs all the magic it can muster.