Togo: It's a kind of magic

By David Brown

Decades of instability in the West African country of Togo seems to be coming to a close. David Brown finds the hotels are cheap, the locals are welcoming and there are still places where you can discover a new fetish.

Dried heads of monkeys and big cats can be found in the marketplace and vodun pharmacies of Togo. Photo / David Brown
Dried heads of monkeys and big cats can be found in the marketplace and vodun pharmacies of Togo. Photo / David Brown

The young man casts a handful of cowrie shells on the concrete floor a few times before quietly turning away to read a text message on his mobile phone. Even here, in the heart of West Africa's most revered voodoo market, times have clearly changed.

But there is much that is timeless about the sprawling market around us. The charms and fetishes, dead animals and dolls are on sale - much as they have been for a thousand years, and possibly for much longer.

Although Hollywood movies link voodoo with Haiti and the American South, the belief system is actually far more international and much older than the Haitian link would suggest.

Originating from Benin and extending right across the Gulf of Guinea coast from Nigeria and Cameroon in the east to Ghana in the west, voodoo (more correctly known here as vodun) was carried to the Caribbean by slaves taken across the Atlantic in the 16th and 17th centuries. There it took hold, incorporated elements of Catholicism, and developed a reputation for being downright evil.

Here in Togo it all seems relatively benevolent. The young man, who my guide Abraham introduces to me as Kodjo, presents a range of fetishes, most of which look like little more than twigs painted with tar.

Abraham explains that in one, a small hole has been bored and filled with a stopper. At the beginning of a journey, the stopper is removed, and the traveller whispers a prayer into the hole before replacing the stopper. Carrying the charm with him keeps the prayer close.

Similar charms protect the home, the heart and family much like any decent insurance policy, although in this case feathers and small clay pots take the place of policy documents.

At Kodjo's side is an impressive clay altar, cluttered with shells, a leopard skin, a cow's skull, and a small bottle of brandy, although whether this is for the spirits or for Kodjo himself I am not entirely sure.

The vodun religion is based upon belief in powerful spirits. There is a single god, Mawu, who has seven children, each governing one aspect of nature, such as storms, the wind or sea. Every inanimate object, be it a rock, stream or tree, is inhabited by spirits who must be appeased and guarded against. Ancestors are also worshipped, as it is believed that the dead exist side-by-side with the living, potentially influencing almost every element of our lives.

As interesting as all of this is, it is the House of Horrors outside that really brings in the tourists. The Marche de Feticheurs outside the Togolese capital city of Lome is the largest fetish market of its kind anywhere on the coast, though is by no means the only one. Similar markets can be found in Cotonou (Benin), and hidden within the vast markets in Ghanaian cities like Kumasi and Accra.

The products are often artistically displayed, making for a staggering - though absolutely horrific - sight. Photo / David Brown
The products are often artistically displayed, making for a staggering - though absolutely horrific - sight. Photo / David Brown

Although Abraham informs me that I am now in a vodun pharmacy, all I can see are dead animals, piled over wooden crates and wheelbarrows, spread across tables and trays. In the moist heat, the stench is more than a little unpleasant.

Abraham walks us through the piles, holding up a dried monkey's head, a series of dried parrots in a pleasing assortment of colours, elephant skulls and the dried head of a deer. From another table he finds a gigantic boa constrictor skin. Back further he points out the head of a leopard, which seems to have been dried and shrunken slightly, but is otherwise intact.

Many of the animals have been arranged into rows and stacked into neat piles for display like shoes in a shoe store. It is a staggering but absolutely horrific sight. With heads and skulls dominating, it is hard not to take in the expressions, which seems to be pained, suffering, and often rather surprised.

The corpses are generally dried, ground into a powder, mixed with herbs and then sometimes burnt before being taken either orally by a patient as a cure for a particular symptom, or being rubbed into a wound.

As you swallow the powder, you also swallow part of the power of the spirits that rule over it. Often the cures seem to be very literal - dried parrot is known to be good for the voice, Abraham explains, while Viagra could be put out of business by the amount of dried buffalo penis on sale.

There are cures for sore throats, headaches and bad cuts, all of which can be prepared by the stall proprietor in a matter of minutes. Even infertility can be cured, Abraham assures me.

Though Hollywood movies invariably present voodoo as a religion of spells and curses, in Africa the beliefs are more often associated with medicine and protection than anything to do with sticking pins in dolls. There are small carved figurines for sale in the market, but Abraham denies they are anything to do with curses.

"They are just symbols of protection," he explains. "We don't put spells on people here."

Although I wonder at the ethics of even visiting a market which is peddling leopard heads, at no point does Abraham ever suggest I buy such a thing, and I doubt many other tourists do either. The market has existed for a thousand years, and even in modern times seems to continue to play a part in locals' lives.

Like Ghana to the west, Togo is an enthusiastically religious country, divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south. With both religions so well established, it is difficult to understand how voodoo can sit so easily alongside them. Yet clearly it does - one researcher tells me that as many as half of all Togolese people believe in voodoo powers to at least some extent, and may use them when more traditional methods of medicine or worship fail.

Though Abraham is reluctant to admit it, the main proponents of voodoo now seem to be the poor and underprivileged, particularly the migrants from rural areas now crowding into the larger coastal cities of Lome and Accra.

While Christianity explodes with vigour - there are Mormon churches in every village, and every power pole here seems to carry an advert for an evangelical revival or sermon by visiting American Baptists - voodoo harks back to traditions both ancient and overlooked by the mainstream church. Or, at least officially overlooked, for as Abraham admits, many practising Christians are the first to turn to fetishes and spells should their prayers go unanswered.

From the market it is only a 10-minute taxi ride through rundown suburbs back to the comparative civilisation of Lome itself. Beside the pool with a nerve-settling cocktail, the piles of monkey heads seem completely incongruous with the rest of Togolese life and culture. Restaurants line the main streets, serving up French-influenced delicacies like crepe suzette and coq au vin, and almost uniquely in Africa, wine is more available than beer.

The hotels are cheap, and the people as wonderfully welcoming as anywhere in West Africa. Not that Togo has many tourists to welcome, tucked off the beaten track as it is between the more popular Ghana and the even less-visited Benin and Nigeria.

There are signs that may soon change, with decades of political instability apparently at an end, and an increasing appreciation for the charms of Togo's hill country at Kpalime.

Lome is a mere three hours by shared taxi from the Ghanaian capital of Accra, and border procedures are mercifully brief by West African standards.

In terms of what draws tourists into the region, it may well prove that voodoo is far more of a blessing than a curse.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Lome, the capital of Togo, going via their hub in Dubai.

Further information: togo-tourisme.com.

- NZ Herald

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