Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Sacred Stone Festival

Last week we were invited to the annual Sacred Stone Festival, a ceremony that takes place in the heart of Togo's voodoo region. The highlight comes when the high priests of the voodoo religion interpret the stone's message to forecast the next year's events. My nanny forbade me from talking to anyone while I was there, lest they curse me.

A quick description of the event:
Every year in the village of Glidji, 30 miles from Togo's capital city, members of the Guen tribe gather together for the Epe Ekpe festival--a lively community celebration dripping with West African song, style, and color. A celebration of the Guen new year, the festival draws families from around the region to gather together in anticipation of the highlight: the presentation of the sacred stone. High priests collect the stone from a sacred forest and present it to the community as a harbinger of the coming year's fortunes. Although it is for the high priests to interpret and communicate the details of the message, for the sacred stone, color tells all:
  • Blue: abundant harvests and rain
  • Red: impending conflict and war
  • Black: famine, disease, and devastating rain
  • White: peace, good luck, and abundance
Traditional voodoo beads.
Body painting with mud, clay and plants.
The festival is marked by a dancing kaleidoscope of colors and a cacophony of chants and songs. The voodoo priestesses are bare-breasted, dressed in white skirts, and ordained with natural dyes, beads and embellishments.

Among all of the sights and sounds, certain images emerged as truly unforgettable:

At the beginning of the spectacle, the priestesses stood on the margins of the arena while waiting for the priests to summon them. They chanted and swayed with focused gazes, creating a beautiful, yet sometimes eerie, scene.

After a few rounds of dancing, the speeches began. Elders and priests delivered a warm welcome, evoking the traditions of their forefathers and building the crowd's anticipation for the presentation of the stone. At the height of their soliloquies, one official interrupted with an urgent announcement: "The sacred stone has left the forest!"

It was heading our way.

Since the journey from the forest would still take some time, we were treated to several more rounds of dancing, singing and speeches. As the anticipation mounted, the man on the microphone screamed louder, the crowd elevated the volume of their cheers and chants, and the women danced with such vigor that several of them danced themselves into a trance and had to be escorted out of the arena, big-eyed and wailing.

All covered women who attained the "trance stage" were relieved of their beads and tops, baring their breasts as the music climbed to a fever pitch.

After the priestesses came out of their trances, they returned to the arena topless, but wearing their beads, and looking just as focused as they did during the height of their trance.

Finally, the announcement was made. "The stone is entering the arena!" The crowd erupted into cheers as we waited for the stone to enter. Then, just as suddenly as the cheering began, it stopped. A handful of priests reverently carried the stone into the arena. The crowd fell silent. Everyone wanted to see it. The gendarmes, dressed in riot gear, accompanied and protected the voodoo priests who carried the stone in, since everyone was pushing and pulling to catch a glimpse.

While they walked around the arena, showing everyone the stone, they chanted and sang, thanking the voodoo gods for blessing the community with a white stone, which ensured a year of peace, good fortune, and bountiful harvest.

The showing of the sacred stone.

The sacred stone.

The priests.


  1. Kate, did you take these photos? They are outstanding! What a great thing to have experienced and witnessed. I love learning about other cultures. Thanks for sharing. (Kelly Lewellyn)

  2. I did, thanks Kelly! I left my point and shoot at home at brought out the fancy camera for this one! Funny story though-- I only brought the zoom! I forgot the other lens, hence all the close-ups. :)

  3. Wow, what an awesome experience! Makes me feel like I'm not taking enough advantage of being here in W. Africa and experiencing the culture. It's been ages since we've made it out of Lome. Love the pictures. Also isn't it interesting how many people even from Togo have such a misconception of how "evil" Voodoo is?

  4. Quite interesting read..What are you exploring in Africa.. :)

  5. Your photos are amazing! Great story to go along with them too. I have so many questions and am totally in awe of all your adventuring and exploring.

  6. We are going to try to present this festival as best we can at our booth for Thinking Day for Girl Scouts. Thanks so much for your page. It is really helpful.

    1. Sundry-- I'm not sure if you'll get this or not, but I have a brochure and a little flag from the ceremony if it would help your booth! Let me know!

  7. This just gave me chills. I love the way you conveyed all of the events that took place, as I can literally see them unfolding within my mind and through these amazing pictures. What a blessing for you have to witnessed this!
    Thanks for sharing!