Growing up in the UK my visits to the doctor typically engendered a basic set of common expectations: clean surfaces; brightly lit rooms; medical professionals proudly displaying certificates of educational achievement on their walls; and a general sense of foreboding.
Other than the general sense of foreboding, the situation I found myself in couldn’t have been any further from those most basic of expectations. Instead, surrounded by the decapitated heads of hundreds of desiccated animals, and with the lingering stench of dead carcass in the air, my Togolese ‘medical professional’ began chanting my name as he played a bell-like instrument in a state of concentrated meditation. You see, my host was no normal doctor, he was a Fetish Priest at Togo’s Akodessewa Fetish Market; the largest Voodoo market in the world!
The Origins of Voodoo
So before we get to the gory details let’s start with a little historical and religious context (but of course if you don’t really want any historical context and only found yourself here looking for the gory details of the fetish market then you can skip this section, I promise I won’t be offended!).
Thanks to the fine people of Hollywood Voodoo is commonly perceived as the root of all evil; black magic, witchcraft, and pin-laden effigies to be avoided at all costs. Whilst such sinister sensationalism undoubtedly sells movie tickets it largely ignores the religion’s traditional, often misunderstood, and entirely less ominous, West African history.
The origins of Voodoo (regionally known as Voudon) can be traced back to what today is known as Benin; and in particular to the Fon tribe (if you read my blog regularly you’ll know that I previously discussed the Fon and their belief system when I talked about visiting Ganvie). In particular the Fon subscribed to the religious belief system of Animism; namely the belief that otherwise inanimate objects, in addition to places and creatures, have a spiritual presence and that there exists a supernatural power which organises the material realm. It is then thought that West African Voodoo evolved from this animist belief system including its ethics system, folklore, stories (such as that surrounding Ganvie’s creation) and medical practice.
The modern-day Voodoo that we now associate with the Caribbean (particularly Haiti) and the deep south of the US (particularly New Orleans) comes as a result of the slave trade; much of which originated in West Africa. Upon arrival in the Caribbean and US the Voodoo practicing slaves merged their more traditional beliefs with the Catholicism that was thrust upon them to create a new hybrid that was made widely known by the infamous Marie Laveau (if you’ve been to New Orleans, then you’ll hear that name a lot and be able to visit her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1!).
So that’s the history Voodoo in three easy paragraphs!
What is the Akodessewa Fetish Market?
The simplest answer to that potentially complex question is that the fetish market is diagnostic clinic and a Voodoo emporium all rolled into one. It’s also, according to my guide, a last resort when western medicine has failed to alleviate medical symptoms, or when a problem isn’t medical at all (spiritual or superstitious issues, for example).
Along the outer edge of the market you’ll find a whole range of healers; the Voodoo equivalent of having a multitude of doctors and spiritual advisors all under one roof. Voodoo practitioners will visit those healers (sometimes called Voodoo High Priests) for a diagnosis. Unlike more conventional medicine, where one might then be sent off to the pharmacy to grab a prescription medicine, the patient is instead provided a gorier list of animal parts, trinkets, herbs or charms to head off and procure.
Now being in possession their list of unsavory ingredients all one has to do is step outside into the market where the patient will be immediately surrounded by stallholders looking to assist in fulfilling the lists’ required elements (all for a stiffly negotiated price, of course). Whether it be a desiccated puffer-fish, the hand of a monkey, the head of a dog, the skull of an antelope or a fully dried cobra you’ll undoubtedly find it here stacked and racked in its full, stench-ridden glory; and with each element having a very distinct assigned benefit or purpose.
With a bag full of rotting goodies, it’s time to return to the good doctor who’ll use your ingredients to create a whole ream of potential ointments, potions, lotions, or powders; whether that be a ground up bat powder to cure a virus or the construction of a talisman or fetish to better protect your home. One of the less appealing remedies my guide told about was the grinding up of animal parts into a paste that can be directly applied to the skin or added to water in which to bathe. Given the rather fragment smell of the market, the thought of bathing in the source of the stench leaves little to be desired.
So what else did I learn?
- The practice of Voodoo fetishism is not what Hollywood often refers to as “Black Magic”. Instead, the kind of healing offered at Akodessewa Fetish Market is called “White Magic”. That’s not to say that Black Magic doesn’t exist within the Voodoo world – in fact my guide was explicit in explaining that Black Magic does exist – it’s just that Black Magic is not welcome at Akodessewa. In summary, there’s no bad hoodoo or juju to be found at Akodessewa fetish market.
- According to my guide, the carcasses sold at the market all died of natural causes and no animals are hunted for sale in the fetish market. Apparently, one of the main reasons for this is that a hunted animal loses its power and beneficial healing or talismanic properties. Of course, there’s no way of actually verifying this, so I guess you just have to take it at face value. However, given the relative dearth of wildlife in Voodoo-prevalent West Africa when compared to Southern and Eastern Africa (where Voodoo is not a major religion or belief system), it does raise some potential concerns in my mind as to how the marketplace for such remedies pose a potential threat to indigenous wildlife; particularly as some of the animal parts included endangered species. Of course, this very western concern has to be balanced against the cultural and spiritual significance of traditional remedies, rituals and cultures and the value that those who hold these beliefs place on them.
- Being the largest market of its kind in the world, Akodessewa Fetish Market draws Voodoo practitioners from all across West Africa. In addition to Togo itself, practitioners from neighboring Benin and Ghana are frequent visitors.
So did I come away with an enlightened and open view of the healing benefits of fetishism? Let’s just say that I don’t think I’ll be relieving my doctor of his duties just yet. However, a visit to the Akodessewa fetish market did provide a fascinating insight into traditional West African culture. I also came away with a killer recipe for anyone that’s interested in being able to ‘mate like a bull’. That’s a win-win if ever I heard one!
The Akodessawa fetish market is, unsurprisingly, located in Akodessawa; which is a district on the outskirts of Lomé, Togo’s capital city, close to the main cargo port. It certainly isn’t walkable from the city center and you’re therefore going to need to grab a taxi or a zemi-john (local motorbike taxi) and have them wait for you. I didn’t see an abundance of either hanging around the market area, so if you risk letting your transport leave then you might struggle to pick up a return journey. As always, make sure you negotiate your fare in advance and agree on a time limit for your time in the market (or else expect a grossly inflated fare to be quoted to you later).
You can, in theory, walk around the market of your own volition and for no charge. But where’s the fun in that? The main reason to visit the fetish market is to learn more about Voodoo and its medicinal applications. Without that info you’re essentially walking around a pet cemetery and staring into the vacant eyes of the decapitated corpses of Noah’s ark. I would therefore strongly suggest that you hire a guide. They can be found at the entrance of the market in a small gatehouse (but if you don’t see one I wouldn’t worry; they’re sure to find you if you don’t find them). The good news for us anglophiles is that guides are available in English as well. At the time of writing the guides were CFA 3,000 (about USD 5) and that includes a tour of the market and a visit to one of the Fetish Priests for a quick consultation. If you want to take photos then that’s an extra CFA 2,000 (about USD 3.50).
I’ve seen a few people online questioning if Akodessewa fetish market is just a macabre tourist attraction. I can understand why people would suggest that might be the case; after all there are a couple of stalls where the items for sale are definitely geared towards tourists (and in fairness, my market guide clearly pointed out where that was the case). However, when I was at the market a couple of locals arrived whilst I was getting the tour. The stall holder reaction to their arrival was completely different to when I arrived. As their motorbike pulled up in to the car park half of the stall holders immediately raced out to meet them to try and get them over to their stalls. It became clear pretty quickly that their business is reliant on the sale of items for Voodoo rituals and medicines rather than the one or two masks or Voodoo dolls they sell to the casual tourist.