This belief acknowledges the existence of a life force in natural beings, be it man, animal, tree or river. Animistic rites therefore seek to capture these vital forces that inhabit the universe and can ensure security and improved living conditions.
Sorts of deities, usually the personified forces of nature and spirits (including those of the ancestors), are therefore honoured. In the great moments of the life of the peasant and his group (birth, initiation, marriage, funeral, etc.), they are consulted and animals are sacrificed to them.
Animist prayers are essentially aimed at ensuring the strength, wealth and fertility of the group. The notion of sin does not exist; it would be better to speak of transgression of prohibitions. Sickness, drought, hunger are always felt in the minds of animists as the consequences of a serious fault. No duality between matter and spirit either.
Attachment to traditional beliefs is very strong in the majority of populations.
Religions and beliefs
The dominant religion of the Beninese is animism. But Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, not to mention the many evangelical sects) is practised by nearly 43% of the population and Islam by 24%, figures that do not mean much since one can very well be both a Christian (or Muslim) and actually practise voodoo.
Benin is the cradle of voodoo, a cult devoted to a set of deities present everywhere and in everything, which then developed in the West Indies and Brazil with the arrival of slaves. It is more precisely the southern half of the country that saw the birth of vodoun, the north having its own religions, also animist but significantly different.
The gods of Vodoun form a pantheon of more than 250 deities, highly organised, with its god as creator of men and the universe, and a host of gods with diverse and precise attributions. It has been pointed out that this religious system is somewhat reminiscent of that of the ancient Greeks: the same mixture of familiarity and terror towards the gods, constantly solicited and intervening in daily life.
These deities have their territory. Here and there in the country there are some sort of islands of dense, virgin, undestroyed forest: they are in fact sacred forests because a fetish lives there.
The tontine is a practical symbol of the African spirit of mutual aid and is a kind of savings bank between friends or neighbours. For a long time, the peasants used to get together to clear the fields; the one whose turn it was offered the palm wine. Today, it is especially popular in countries of emigration.
The members of a tontine pool a certain amount of money and each in turn at the end of the month pockets the totality of it. This money is usually used to set up or bail out a business. No papers are signed, all relationships are based on trust. And then we know each other: we belong to the same family, the same village or neighbourhood.
Tonti, the 17th-century Italian banker who gave him his name, did not think that one day his “invention” would end up in Africa on a large scale. What is interesting about this practice is that, more than a forced saving, it is above all a state of mind, an opportunity to get together, to support each other. The tontine can also support social initiatives, such as a village school. It also fulfils the role of social security: no member will be left alone in case of illness or accident.
This mutual aid is fundamental. It is common to see the families of the sick cooking in the courtyards of public hospitals where meals are not taken care of. They assist them, they stay close to them. Africans do not understand Europeans who entrust their parents to a hospice or retirement home.