The crowd watched with ease as a barrage of blows struck the naked bodies of the two men. Bereft of all clothing and pride, the men stood solemnly with humiliation by their side. As the hands of injustice struck them, they took each beating courageously. They had accepted their fate. A man gripping a large tree branch, stripped of its leaves, struck one of the men. Unable to stand any longer, the man fell to his knees.
The sun was unrelenting that day in the Gogonou commune; the air was dry and thick. I could see beads of sweat form on the brow and upper lip of the man beside me. The village smelled of burning wood and plastic, livestock and dust -- it was a typically odorous afternoon.
Gazing into the crowd, everything appeared to me as if it was in slow motion. I watched the reactions of the people beside me. Despite the brutality before our eyes, we could not tear ourselves away from it, and yet, faces remained blank, seemingly unaffected and composed.
It was clear that the perils of Benin went beyond life-fearing taxi rides and deadly mosquito bites. People were being murdered in unimaginable ways, all in the name of witchcraft.
I tried to wrap my mind around the concept that these men were being beat to near death because they were accused of performing black magic, gris-gris. There was no proof, no trial, and no justice -- just the word of an ordinary man against the word of a self-proclaimed witch.
Confusion, sadness, and anger circulated through my body. Not knowing what to do, or how to feel, I realized I too was a passive onlooker, helpless and vulnerable. I was no different than the people standing next to me.
This was my third time to Benin. This trip was unique in that I was working on my master's journalism dissertation, focusing primarily on rural life in Benin. I had been in country for roughly three weeks when I heard what seemed to be an outlandish story about a teenage witch named Marguerite. Through the town gossip, I understood that she had the power to tell if someone was conducting black magic in order to harm others. All I knew for sure was that if Marguerite said someone was performing black magic, most people believed her.
Marguerite would put on a public trial of sorts, which was in reality a public beating. If a person survived the beatings, the villagers would then kill them. This was a spectacle, and most often the person was murdered in front of family members. Sometimes they were burned alive, or beheaded and left for all eyes to see. Bodies were disposed of on the side of a dirt road along with all the black plastic bags people had no use for anymore.
Marguerite was only a short bike ride away from where I was staying, in a neighboring village named Kali. With some reservations, I decided to venture into Kali to investigate the rumors. I felt safe due to the fact that being Western, and of a different skin color, most people I knew did not think it was possible for me to believe in or understand the powers of black magic.
When I arrived in Kali I discovered there were more than 100 people there with the same purpose -- to see Marguerite. I had been told to contact a man who would help me so that I could arrange a meeting with her. After finding this man, and asking permission to both meet Marguerite and use my camera, I was brought to an outdoor area where Marguerite's hut stood isolated from other buildings.
Sticks had been assembled to create a circular barrier around the hut, and inside this circle was where the beatings were to take place. People sitting on mats and tree trunks, eating mangoes and rice, waited patiently for Marguerite. We waited for her to return from the woods where she claimed she met with a spirit who gave her jewelry and money. In an act of purposeful selflessness, she gave the jewelry to the villagers. This led the villagers to believe that Marguerite was some sort of walking deity.
After waiting for some time, Marguerite came walking out of the woods holding long tree branches. Without acknowledgement of the hordes of people watching her, she walked straight toward the circular thatch and mud hut.
Like the moon's influence over the ocean's tide, the presence of Marguerite created a sea of people who engulfed the area surrounding her hut.
After what felt like hours, but was maybe a mere 30 minutes, Marguerite and her helpers -- three men and two women -- began their show. A heavy-set woman began singing loudly, a monotonous tune reminiscent of an ancient tribal prayer. The thin, frail woman made a continuous whistle noise with her tongue. It was as if they were calling everyone to join them, like a crow caws to its kind.
After nearly everyone in the village gathered, Marguerite casually pulled 11 men out of the crowd. Marguerite said that two of the men had committed murder. There was no tangible evidence, no eyewitnesses to be heard from. It was Marguerite's word against theirs.
A robust man who appeared to be near 40 was being accused of killing a child who died after becoming sick. Marguerite believed the man had performed black magic to bring this child to its untimely death. No consideration was given to health complications, disease, or malnutrition -- the primary cause of death for children under five years of age in West Africa.
It was unclear as to what the second man was being accused of. He looked near 80, but was at most 60. The local tongue, Bariba, was being spoken, and somewhere between the translation from Bariba, to French, to English, understanding was lost.
After the men were berated for committing crimes for which no one had proof, crimes involving psychic abilities and magical spells, it was time for the verdict: a brutal beating, or death by machete.
Time stood still as Marguerite made her judgment. This was the quietest moment I ever experienced in Benin; all that was left were the sounds of crying goats in the background. I kept my video camera rolling, as I watched Marguerite channel the higher powers for her answer.
Finally, the verdict came. She accused the two men of practicing murder by way of black magic. The punishment was to be stripped naked and beat with thick tree branches.
Marguerite would occasionally hit the two men with the wide edge of a rusty, blunt machete. Her helpers whipped the men until their bodies were bruised and lacerated.
The older man defecated; the younger man could barely hold himself up, and any attempt to sit down warranted a harder blow to the head.
This continued for a while. Finally, after everyone had enough, Marguerite let the men go home, naked and on foot.
Later that night, a rumor spread that villagers murdered the two men in the nearby village, the same village I was living in. I was never able to find out what happened to the men, though I didn't doubt the rumors. The true reason these men -- and many others -- were accused of black magic is still unknown to me. I suspect the truth was buried along with the individuals, and is residing in the conscious of a few select people.
It took two weeks and 33 killings before the military decided to act on what was happening in the Gogonou commune. Finally, the military came with four cars to extract her during the night to take her to jail.
Some people seemed relieved about this, but many of her supporters believed she would be back. Rumors began to spread that Marguerite was going to break out of the prison, using her psychic abilities. As far as I know, she is still awaiting trial.