Photo credit: Plan International/Angela Singh
As the morning haze lifts, a group of villagers dance into focus, kicking up dust as they make their way down a sandy road. Clad in bright beads, colourful prints and white cloth, villagers chant and contort their bodies. At the front I see a group of four children, dancing and singing as if possessed by the beat. They are followers of voodooism - a religion embedded in the culture of Benin, West Africa.
They march towards a small mud hut, tucked away in the Couffo region of south-west Benin, aglow from the hot morning sun. I step inside and it's another world. Villagers filter in, filling every corner. Beads of sweat trickle down faces etched with permanent scars. In the middle lies a small shrine. A wooden post wrapped in old rope sits atop animal bones.
A chief priest draped in a white gown, an ornate crown perched on his head, takes his seat and waves a long wand of coarse white horse hair to silence the crowd.
He calls me forward and I crouch in front of him. He presses money to my forehead and blesses me, my family and the organisation I work for, Plan International, with peace, love and happiness.
Secrets and sorcery
This is one of Benin's many hundred voodoo convents: the home of secrets, sorcery and a place where children allegedly possessed by spirits are sent to be healed. Children can spend up to seven years in these convents, disconnected from the outside world and I'm here to find out more.
If parents are unable to find a cure for common illnesses, children are sent to voodoo convents. Only the oracles decide when they can be released, which can be anything from two to seven years. By then children have missed out on an education.
"I lived in a voodoo convent for three years. I suffered a lot," Elise, 15, tells me as perches on a weathered wooden bench, sheltering from the hot afternoon sun. "If I was having trouble learning traditional songs or dances, I was beaten severely."
Elise is one of hundreds of children who have been sent to a voodoo convent to be healed by the voodoo gods.
With a population of 10 million, Benin is the spiritual home of voodoo, whose followers believe spirits and other elements of a divine essence govern Earth through a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities ruling nature and society to the lesser spirits of individual streams, trees and rocks.
Draped in decadent white robes with a calm air of authority, Dhossou Yaovi, a chief priest of a voodoo convent in Couffo, heals children who are allegedly possessed. I wonder how open he will be, but Dhossou is willing to answer my questions
"Voodoo is our traditional religion given to us by our forefathers," he says. "If children fall sick, their parents seek treatment through the voodoo gods within our convent. It has proved a very effective medium of healing."
The rituals of voodoo are shrouded in secrecy and only those indoctrinated are aware of what goes on behind closed doors.
Houndedji Sowalos, 62, one of the elders who looks after children in the convent, reveals: "When children arrive they are kept in one of the shrines for three months. A shrine is a tiny dark room, where the place of worship lies - often made up of animal bones. Children aren't allowed out and nobody can see them. Once children are in the compound, they are trained in singing and dancing."
Depending on the nature of the illness, scarification is used to assign each child to a specific voodoo god. "We give them tribal markings with knives or razors based on the god who is healing the child," says Houndedji.
I travel to another convent, welcomed warmly by a group of villagers. Sun filters in through the bamboo roof, light dancing on the red muddy floor. In the corner sits a young girl flanked by two friends. White paint is daubed on her face, while three deep vertical lines are scoured into her soft skin.
Madeleine, 10, lived in a convent for two years. "I had to undergo scarification," she says quietly. "There was so much blood. It was everywhere. For me, the worst part was the lack of food. We weren't allowed outside and we had no money."
Plan International Benin is working with local NGOs and chief voodoo priests across villages in Couffo to support children caught up in this tradition.
Voodooism is part of life in Benin - and it's clear to me it's one that needs to be accepted. That's why Plan International is committed to working with chief priests and leaders to help to them realise the importance of children's education. Now, after many discussions with voodoo priests it has been agreed children shouldn't be kept in convents for so long.
"Last year, there was a formal ceremony where all the priests and the hierarchy of the voodoo religion in this area came together to sign an agreement in front of the local governor, promising they would release children from the convents and send them back to school," says Rheal Drisdelle, country director of Plan International Benin.
As a result, more than 300 children (including 193 girls) have been released from the convents, giving them the opportunity to get an education and realise their dreams. Out of those released, 280 have returned to school and 30 have gone into apprenticeships.
A further agreement has been put in place that states if children do have to enter a convent, they will only live there for three months, during the holiday period, so they don't miss out on school.
"While I was in the convent, I was half naked. I didn't like living there at all," says Eric 13, who was released recently. "After one year, I was told I was allowed to leave. I felt so happy. I am able to go to school and learn again. I want to continue with my education and be President of Benin one day."
It's an incredible story and one I feel privileged to have covered. I've been let into a world that is shrouded in secrecy. Yet what's clear is voodoo leaders are open to change and together with Plan International they want children to enjoy the future they deserve.
To find out more about Plan International's work in Benin, visit plan-international.org/beninSuggest a correction