Left: Animal skulls at the Akodessewa market; right: the author with a voodoo dancer from the Bwa tribe.
The fetish market in Togo, Africa, is a one-stop shopping paradise for witch doctors and medicine men – as well as a must-see for tourists.
This dusty lot in the center of town covers an entire city block: row after row of tables are piled high with animal parts from the tiniest door mouse to the largest cape buffalo, while vacant-eyed gorilla skulls and tails of oryx greet the visitor. This is supply central for African voodoo.
Voodoo is an established religion whose oral history can be traced back 6,000 years to Benin, where it is the official religion today. An estimated 60% of people living throughout West Africa practice voodoo in one incarnation or another. Voodoo is based on ceremony, ritual, and unfortunately, animal sacrifice, which has claimed much of the wildlife in West Africa. This is a hard fact for Westerners to accept.
But an open mind is necessary to understand the nuanced cultural differences that separate our societies. While we in the West are overwhelmingly animal lovers, Africans have lived side by side with wild predators for thousands of years and long ago accepted their sacrifice as a logical means of supporting their own way of life. This grew out of ancient animism in which powerful deities such as the sun, moon and stars had to be appeased so as not to inflict their wrath on the people – and taking the life of an animal was the way to do it. As a result, West Africa has become something of an animal-free zone.
If you venture through this part of the continent and see nothing larger than a titmouse, know that the remains are available at the Akodessewa market, the largest in all of Africa. Here, all creatures big and small have been killed to fill the needs of local voodoo.
Have an unfaithful lover? A local griot or medicine man is there to advise on which spell is necessary and what animal part is needed to carry it out. Want to put a hex on your ex? They have just the potion. Need a doll to stick pins in? They will make one to look like the intended victim.
Inside a steaming hot shed, I was introduced to powders and elixirs provided by Calixte, a local griot who likes to set off small touches of gunpowder for visual effect and delights in the surprised look on tourists' faces when they read his business card (left) that states he is a practitioner of the occult sciences and member of the academy of African voodoo. According to Calixte, voodoo is a misunderstood force for good, and without it the world would be overrun by evil beings.
While some of the medicine men put on shows of supposed rituals and casting spells for tourists' money, they are all the real thing and ready to open their world to anyone with a genuine interest.
To a visitor it is an almost incomprehensible world, but what seems unthinkable to one person is a way of life to another. And isn’t the main purpose of travel to learn about these differences that separate us – and to learn from them?