Chacha VIII – Enthronement Ceremony in Ouidah

The ceremony to enthrone Honoré Feliciano Julião de Souza as Chacha VIII took place at the Singbomey estate on October 7, 1995, on the day that marked the 241st anniversary of the birth of the dynasty’s founding father. It was without doubt the biggest public event of “Brazilian” ethnicity ever held in the Republic of Benin, aside from the Bonfim festivities in Porto-Novo.

The schedule of events for the enthronement and investiture of the eighth Chacha went as follows:

Friday, October 6, 1996:
2pm-4pm: Meeting of all the youth in Singbomey
4pm-6pm: Carnival (around Singbomey, the Portuguese fort, the basilica, and the French fort)
6pm-7pm: Supper
7pm-8pm: Prayers
8pm-11pm: Cultural performances (theater, singing, Bourignan [sic])

Saturday, October 7, 1995
7am: Blessing ceremony by the
tassinons
7.30am: Songs and prayers to ancestors
8am-8.30am: Arrival and settling in of guests
9am-10am: Enthroning and investiture of the Chacha, or “
Mitô
10.15am-midday: Mass
midday-1pm: Felicitations and offerings to the new Chacha: a) members of the Supra-National Council; b) the
tassinons; c) the youth delegation; d) special guests; e) personages of note – first visit of the Chacha around Singbomey in the company of the Houngan, or high priest, and the Amazon warriors (three times) – Return home - Refreshments
1pm-2.45pm: Lunch
3pm-4pm: Intervention by “Mitô,” after which he retires
4pm-5pm: Entertainment
5.30pm-7pm: Public appearance of “Mitô”
7pm-8pm: “Mitô” retires into the house
8.45pm-10pm: Entertainment – Bourignan
11pm: Dance

Sunday, October 8, 1995
8am-10am: Free time – visit to tourist sights
10am-midday: Mass for the 241st anniversary of Francisco Félix de Souza
12.30pm-1pm: Homage to the Chacha
1pm: Family lunch

The working day of the new Chacha on the eve of his enthronement ceremony began at seven o’clock in the morning with the investiture of a family chief from the Brazilian quarter of Ouidah. The Chacha is effectively responsible for ritually legitimizing those who are chosen to head the families in Ouidah. This tradition is observed by the families from the Brazilian quarter and other districts that remain under the influence of the De Souza family, such as the Adjido, Abata, Maro, Zomaí, and Agbodji families.1

Singbomey was the hub of considerable activity as of the Friday afternoon. The first guests arrived and, at around half past five (on schedule), a carnival parade began, with much dancing and singing of Burrinha songs, as well as praise to the Chacha. The evening’s entertainment was provided by Burrinha musicians, who played well-known songs, their traditional instruments reinforced by an accordion, to which people danced the “samba.”

The ceremonies on October 7th were divided into two parts: a private portion, attended only by the family’s grandees, and the other for the “general public,” open to the whole family and guests, summing around 1,500 people. The private ceremonies were held in the former home of Dom Francisco, where the ritual blessings were given by the tassinons between seven and eight o’clock in the morning. The second part took up the rest of the day and was hosted in the big courtyard, measuring around 30m x 40m, much of which was covered with awnings.

Throughout the ceremony, great emphasis was put on the special status of the “Brazilians” and their particular cultural roots. This concern was clear not only in the way everything was organized – there were two “carnival” parades, a festivity that is traditional in Porto-Novo but almost unheard of in Ouidah – but also in other respects, such as the clothing worn by the family members and the choices of dishes for the family meal. In a way, the De Souza family ran the events in such a way as to give a clear, public indication of their intention that the Chacha should be the legitimate representative of this mixture of African and European cultures, which is increasingly dominant in present-day Benin. Unlike the other traditional chiefs – such as the kings of Abomey or Queto or the religious leaders like Daagbo Hounon – who represent pure, unmixed traditional cultures, the Chacha is supposed to symbolize “modernity,” which dates back to the Chacha’s original role in shaping the very beginnings of the country’s modernization.

The private portion of the enthronement ceremony of Honoré Feliciano Julião de Souza was based on ancient family customs. It began with the blessing of the new Chacha by 12 tassinons chosen from the Julião and associated branches of the family, namely: Virgínia de Souza, Adjoa Sike de Souza, Martine de Souza, Afiavi Felicia de Souza, Henriette Leroux, Generosa de Souza Sagbohan, Araoyte, Videroh, Rita J. A. de Souza, Henriette Agbo, Edwige Atakoui, and Berthe Leroux, Honoré Feliciano’s oldest sister and the oldest tassinon present. Honoré Feliciano, wearing a dinner jacket like his grandfather Julião, in the company of members of the Supra-National Council and other prominent family members, first went into the large room alongside the bedroom where Dom Francisco died. On his right was Marcelin de Souza, the first son of Chacha VI, and on his left was Noël Feliciano de Souza, his oldest brother. It was in this room, of such great symbolism to the family, insofar as it is the antechamber to the tomb of their forefather and the place where portraits of all the Chachas are hung, that the tassinons performed their blessing ritual. They sang catholic canticles in Fon and French as well as the Veri Creator in Latin, before saluting the Chacha, raising their left hands towards him.

At half-past seven, the tassinons took the Chacha to the chambers of Dom Francisco, where his tomb is situated together with a statue of St. Francis and the bed where he died, as family tradition tells. When an ancestor is worshipped in this way and their protection is called on, they must be given food and drink. Mitô Honoré, in the company of Geoffroy de Souza, Secretary-General of the Executive Board, walked up to the tomb. Four tassinons took their place amongst them – two standing (Catherine dos Santos and Henriette Leroux) and two kneeling (Generosa de Souza and Berthe Leroux) – and uttered the prayers, beseeching their forefather to help Honoré in his role as Chacha VIII.

Berthe Leroux sprinkled some water on the floor and prayed in Fon. The others accompanied her, following each phrase with “amen.” She repeated the same procedure with the other drinks. When everyone was back in the other room, the tassinons again started to intone prayers to the Chacha in Fon.

It was already nine o’clock when everyone marched ceremonially to the podium set up in the courtyard. They were headed by a tassinon bearing a large key on a cushion, followed by others also bearing objects on cushions: a small marble baton with a fist sculpted at one of its ends; a scepter made of wood decorated with a sculpted elephant; a small cape of dark red velvet; and a kufi decorated with gold embroidery, similar to the one worn by Dom Francisco in his official portrait. Next came Marcelin de Souza, Mitô, Noël Feliciano, and the other tassinons, in that order. The rear was brought up by a group of women from the Brazilian Quarter dressed as Amazons and armed with pickaxes.

By now, several hundred people were gathered in the courtyard and throughout the Singbomey estate. Most of the family were wearing clothes made from a fabric printed especially for the occasion. The print featured a portrait of Dom Francisco framed by a tree with seven branches, each one bearing the name of one of the Chachas. Almost all the men were wearing a jacket and tie. The guests were received at the entrance of the estate by two rows of young people whose job it was to show them to their respective places. These receptionists were carefully dressed in “Brazilian style.” In particular, the women stood out for their long dresses and hats, looking for all the world like ladies from nineteenth century Brazilian society.

This Aguda tradition of wearing “Brazilian” dress has always been an important identity marker, as we have seen throughout.

In the courtyard, alongside the altar set up for the mass was the podium with a large throne upon it flanked by two elephants sculpted from Brazilian hardwood. Mitô and his entourage ascended the podium for the enthronement ritual. Tradition dictates that the Vigan, in this case Germain de Souza, is the one who should put the man chosen by the family on the throne. He was assisted in this task by Marcelin and Noël. They seated and raised him three times before he was installed definitively in his throne. The deacon of the tassinons, Berthe Leroux, then placed the kufi similar to that of Dom Francisco on his head; Marcelin handed him the symbolic key to Singbomey; and Noël Feliciano handed him the small marble baton, symbolizing his functions. He then solemnly declared: “Before God and in the name of Dom Francisco Félix de Souza, I deliver you the recade [baton] of command of the De Souza family.”

The way the Chacha’s enthronement is arranged gives a visual representation of the way he wishes to fulfill his role, in much the same way as his predecessors. In this case, he was keen to combine the adventurous spirit of Dom Francisco with the ways of Julião, who had himself portrayed as a European or Brazilian aristocrat from the Belle Epoque. It is through the imagery of its family chiefs that the family symbolically brings back to life its origins and roots in the history of Benin.

The Supra-National Council members were arranged behind the throne, as were members of the families closest to the Chacha. His twin nieces, wearing long dresses and hats, stood on each side of his throne like maids of honor. None of the council members was wearing a boubou or any other traditional African attire.

Six security guards from a private agency wearing parade dress and armed with large wooden truncheons stood guard on either side of the throne while the family members and other personalities individually paid their respects to the Chacha. The honorary consul of Brazil, Karin Urbain da Silva, was given precedence, dressed in character, even wearing a top hat, as he solemnly tied a green and yellow sash around the Chacha’s waist and greeted him with a handshake.

Daagbo Hounon, supreme leader of Voodoo worship and certainly the most important figure in Ouidah, was also invited to greet the Chacha. His words of greeting were: “We are very happy to see you in good health. All the divinities will look over you, and the family ancestors, too.” Then, directing his words to the Chacha, he added: “Everything you say shall be heard and respected by all.” He was then enthusiastically applauded and many voices called out “thank you, Daagbo!”

After the other key figures had paid their respects, Geoffroy de Souza proffered a ten-minute historical overview of the family’s origins. Soon after that it was the turn of the Amazon warriors to perform, saying: “You will never regret your choice. The world will look over you. Our Lady of the Victories will look over you. The Sacred Heart will care for you. St. Anthony of Padua will care for you. You will lead us.” One of the new Chacha’s grandsons then took the floor and gave a short speech that ended with the words: “I give you my love, so that nobody should stand in the way of our Mitô...”

Just a quarter of an hour behind schedule, at half past ten, the mass was celebrated by the two bishops from the family who were present (a third, Dom Agbotan, was unable to attend). They were assisted by eight priests, all with a De Souza mother or father. After communion, marked by a 21-gun salute, all the priests, headed by Dom Sastre, went up to greet the Chacha. They incensed him and sprinkled holy water on his “recade” and scepter. Before they left, the two bishops, with all their accoutrements, and carrying their miters, solemnly blessed the Chacha, reciting verses in Latin.

According to tradition, the Mitô should have been walked three times round the family estate in a hammock, but this proved impossible. In the sweltering heat, just one turn around the grounds was completed, yet this of itself took almost an hour and certainly had great ceremonial effect. A crowd of people danced and sang as if this was a real Brazilian street carnival parade.

Behind a banner reading “Eternal glory to our ancestor Dom Francisco Félix de Souza,” hundreds of people, many of whom were wearing masks or fancy dress, intermingled with characters from Burrinha, like Papa Giganta, singing and dancing to the sound of the band. Everyone shouted the prayers to Dom Francisco at the top of their voices, not just in Singbomey, but, after the departure of the Chacha, along the streets of downtown Ouidah.

The Chacha brought up the rear of the retinue, preceded by two sections of women in “Brazilian” dress. Behind them came the Amazon warriors and the royal drum, Hougan – the original instrument given to Dom Francisco by King Ghezo over one and a half centuries earlier. The successor to the viceroy of Ouidah brought up the rear of the parade in the open-top car of a private security company, waving to the crowds, protected constantly by bodyguards armed with truncheons. Behind this car, employees carried the large parasol with symbols of the kings of Abomey, a status marker.

A good many of those who took part in the ceremony stayed for lunch at Singbomey after the parade. Eight cows provided the meat for the “Brazilian” bean stew (feijoadá) and the other dishes of African cuisine. The people grouped together in their families or with their friends around the improvised kitchens set up throughout the grounds and in the different houses there.

A similar line-up of entertainment to what had been put on the previous evening began late in the afternoon. It started with a performance of the Bourignan, or Bourian, and ended with a “samba” ball, which went on until five in the morning. As the only official event scheduled for the next day – the mass celebrating the 241st anniversary of the birth of the dynasty’s founder – was eventually cancelled, the enthronement and investiture ceremonies for the eighth Chacha came to an end with a “samba” dance.


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