Shopping For Fetishes

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November 24th 2009
Published: June 23rd 2017
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With the sands of our adventure time draining out quickly, we have two countries to visit and the central theme is, wait for it, 'voodoo' thus completing our three legged and rhyming travel stool of Timbuktu- Ouagadougo- Voodoo. This was not, however, the Hollywood voodoo of black magic, zombies, and curses. The more famous voodoo sites of Haiti, Dominican Republic, and New Orleans can trace their roots back to West Africa via the slave trading routes but there are big differences. One of the largest differences between African and American Voudun is that the African slaves of Haiti and the southern US were obliged to disguise their gods (Lwas) and spirits as Roman Catholic saints, a process called syncretism.Voodoo (aka Vodoun, Voudou, Vodou, Vodun, Sevi Lwa) is an animist, or nature-based religion that originated in West Africa with the Fon and Yoruba people. The name Vodun is derived from the local african word for spirit, and can be traced back about 6,000 years. The practice and structure of the Vodoun religion throughout West Africa differs markedly in that its makeup is specific to the regional ethnic groups whose descendants were responsible for its development. We had seen a number of spiritualists and shrines in Burkina and Ghana in particular and, while similar to what we were about to see in Benin and Togo, there were many significant differences as well.

In all cases, and contrary to Hollywood beliefs and preconceived notions, Voodoo is a Monotheistic religion. Similar to Catholicism there is One God with many helpers (Orishas).

This Supreme Being is called Mawu. That God is the creator of the universe, of mankind and of all that exists is generally accepted. And this notion of God existed among these peoples well before the arrival of the great monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam).

Firstly, the Vodun(s) are considered as the sons of Mawu, God the Creator. Here are the seven most important of these:

Sakpata: This is the eldest son of Mawu to whom the earth was entrusted and his power is feared and terrifying. His attributes are the arm of smallpox, scissors, a chain and black, white and red spots. Sakpata has many sons, including the Vodun of leprosy and of incurable sores.

Xêvioso: This is the Vodun of the sky who manifests himself in thunder and lightning. He is Mawu's second son and is considered a Vodun of justice who punishes thieves, liars,
criminals and evil-doers. His attributes are the thunderbolt, the double axe, the ram, the colour red and fire.

Agbe: This is the Vodun of the sea. He is represented by a serpent, a symbol of everything that gives life.

Gu: This is the Vodun of iron and war. He gives man his different technologies. He is the Vodun who does not accept complicity with evil. Therefore he is capable of killing all accomplices in acts of infamy if he is appealed to.

Agê: This fifth son of Mawu is the Vodun of agriculture and the forests. He reigns over animals and birds.

Jo: This Vodun is characterized by invisibility. He is the Vodun of the air.

Lêgba: This is Mawu's youngest son. He received no endowments at all because all had already been shared out among his elders. He is jealous, and it is he who loosens the rigid structure of the pantheon. He is the Vodun of the unpredictable, of what cannot be assigned to any other and he is characterized by daily tragedies; all that is beyond good and evil.

Eshu is the divine messenger deity who transfers and relays messages between the human world and the world of the Orishas. He
is depicted as a very dark, short man who carries a large staff. He is commonly associated with having a pipe, candy, or his fingers in his mouth. He is the one who is said to be the mediator between the gods and the living and maintain a balance in order, peace, and communication. Almost every shrine we saw had a wood carving of Eshu

After dropping our packs at the guesthouse, our next stop in Lome, was the Fetish Market. The name is a holdover from French colonial days- in actual fact, this is the market where you would purchase the needed ingredients for any potion or mixture that had been identified by the Diviner/Spritualist. The Fetishes or statues (which you couldn't actually buy at the market) were protective figures used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken evil spirits, prevent or cure illnesses, repel bad deeds, solemnize contracts or oath-taking, and decide arguments. Through the mediation of statues or fetishes a Diviner or holy person would activate the statue (and the fearsome powers of the supernatural Fetishes) using magical substances- the ingredients were the things you would be instructed to purchase at the market by the Diviner.

The diviner, or fetishist, operates in principle for the good of all. His help is sought in times of need, for he is seen as the mediator between members of the tribe and all the powers of darkness. For this reason he also acts as a healer.

The market itself was a gruesome display of animal parts in various states of decomposition (which, in the heat of the day, was certainly a direct attack on the olfactory system). This was one of those dilemmas you find yourself in as a traveler- as North Americans we certainly can't claim the moral high ground when it comes to the treatment of animals but, by the same token, it was tempting to voice our concerns over the dropping populations of the very animals you could find pieces of within this market (we saw the foot of a gorilla which brought back memories of our visit with the nearly extinct Mountain Gorilla in Rwanda!). Much of this is influenced by our own belief system which generates serious doubt around the effectiveness/usefulness of the various potions, powders, and remedies that result from these ingredients. At the same time it was hard not to be fascinated by and, to a certain degree, impressed by a faith that has served this area for such a long time.

DH was having a much harder accepting what we were looking at as we wandered through the dusty, fetid fetish market among rows and rows of stalls hawking all manner of dried animals, birds, crustaceans and skulls and skeletons. On display were different birds--vultures, and an owl. We saw chameleon- alive and in various stages of decay, the heads of a snakes vipers, cobras, as well as the skins of a tiger, lion, and hyena (my guess). One of the locals talked us through some of the healing potions that are made to 'cure' things like asthma, skin rashes, loss of hearing, and even AIDS?? He also introduced to the market Diviner who just happened to be there that day (sounded like he was the Mick Jagger of voodoo- constantly on tour even at an advanced age) and we were taken through a number of the rituals which was good fun until the price tag for the assorted ‘protectors', talismans, and travellers ‘telephone' trinkets came to a whopping $200 (after the Diviner had rolled shells to determine what the gods wanted us to pay). In a country where half the people earn less than $1.25 per day, this was a little hard to take, and forced us to beat a hasty retreat ducking whatever voodoo spells and curses that might be coming our way.

West Africa has been about constant dilemmas akin to car wrecks back home, and this market was no different- you know you shouldn't be looking and yet you can't help it, it's often gruesome but it's fascinating at the same time.

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