The Orisa and Vodun traditions belong to a single spiritual and cultural heritage, whose exact origins are embedded into the ancestral memory of the Yoruba and Fon peoples of West Africa. Learning to serve the ancestors and the deities properly - with precision and sincerity - is a particularly important aspect of West African identity. In this regard, the Orisa and Vodun School of Life aims to gradually lead the individual from anonymity to divinity. More precisely, as you learn and develop as a student of the ancient ways, you undergo a series of separations, each of which is a death to the previous profane life.
If there is one principle that defines the educational process, from beginning to end, it is discretion. This is revealed in the terminology we use to identify all Orisa devotees: Alawo, keepers of the mystery. Before anything else, then, the neophyte must make a solemn vow of absolute discretion regarding what they have seen, heard and experienced in the sacred spaces. Any devotee who cannot keep quiet about what is to remain secret and act with the veneration that is due to the sacred insignia he carries on his head will be considered a traitor. And so the Yoruba say, It is not everything the eyes see that the mouth must say:
It is not everything that the eyes see
That the mouth must say
This was the babalawo who cast Ifa for Iwori
On the day he was going to take a peep at the genitals
- Holy Odu IworiMeji
Many years ago, I was introduced to the writings of Bernard Maupoil, Paul Mercier, Pierre Verger and Remy Hounwanou, each of whom has written pioneering books on Vodun. And while those authors have done exceptional research on Vodun, some of my most enlightening insights have come from a sixteen page essay written by Barthélemy Zinzindohoue . I have especially enjoyed his detailed descriptions of the educational process of Vodun.
Firstly, unlike the Yoruba, who typically train the Orisa devotees in the personal homes of the priests, the Fon have a place called the Hun-kpamè or Vodun-Kpamê (Vodun enclosure). It can be compared to an ashram, where priests reside and neophytes come to live and get trained in the various aspects of Vodun tradition. For the first three months, the neophyte is considered Kajèkaji (a gourd who increases the number of gourds). This category reinforces the fact that the training process will enable each initiate to bring forth the mystic potential that resides within themselves.
The neophytes are supervised by the xwégan (head of house), the Kangan (master of the rope) in charge of discipline, the Hunso and the Nagbo, who are the heads of male and female instruction, respectively. Very much like the Yoruba training one would receive on the compound of his Oluwo and Apetebii, the Hunkpamê - Vodun Enclosure - is a harsh school that requires strict renunciation and relentless endurance. The educational process explicitly trains and conditions the neophyte in the life long art of serving the Vodun.
In the pedagogy of initiation, the neophyte is required to prove his capacity for endurance. A carefully choreographed series of challenges is administered by the priests and priestesses in order to prepare the neophytes for the trials of life. Training through trials, which is already a characteristic of the Yoruba and Fon educational systems in general, are even further concentrated in the Orisa and Vodun School of Life. For this reason the elders will remark, "It is preferable to suffer in the beginning and enjoy in the end." Discipline and tenacity are essential, and corporal punishment is used to develop these. Each devotee internalizes the educational experience and stores it in the body. Through gestures, attitudes, rhythms and, if need be, flagellation, the teacher’s words and postures must be memorized and reproduced exactly by the students. As Booker T. Washington instructed us, the mind, heart and body work together to build the complete man.
Apart from learning the sacred language, chants and dances, the neophytes also perform to chores around the temple and engage in fundraising activities. Ultimately, laziness is intolerable, which prompts the Fon to say, “Kajêkaji mo no do hwemê mlon”, which means “the neophyte does not take siestas”.
The neophyte learns to show maturity and be serious in matters of religion. In this way they are being trained to contribute to the balance and order of their community. All devotees are urged to cultivate a sense of brotherhood with all the other practitioners, to respect the deities and to feel a sincere sense of responsibility for the land of their Ancestors.
The Fon have a particular ritual which reinforces this virtue. It is called Kajêkaji (giving of the sand):
“About fifteen years after I was Kajêkaji, the Vodunun gathered all the Vodunsi of my year and told us that he was going to lock us up in a retreat (“xwe mi do xo”). We had been told to utter a strident shout (“gbo”) all the way from our houses to the Vodunon. He put a little earth in our left hand. With this gesture of offering earth, he said: “Danxome ko tonye die emi so do alomê nu hwi ma nu e jê ayi gbede o” (Here is the earth of the Danxomê which I place in your hands, let it never fall!)”
 The Vodou Phenomenon in Benin. Barthélemy ZINZINDOHOUE