Among the exotic treats, voodoo and its instruments
COTONOU, Benin — It’s a hot, humid day. I follow Paul, my guide and a voodoo practitioner, down a narrow path wedged between houses, navigating among goats, chickens, and half-naked children. “Yovo, yovo!’’ I can hear the kids shout even as I reach the doors of the temple. “Yovo,’’ means “white man.’’ There aren’t many of those in Benin.
Paul enters without knocking. The sweet smell inside, a mixture of dried leather and herbs, is overwhelming. Half of the floor is covered in bottles, some of them containing hard to distinguish animal parts. A young man in polyester robes welcomes me. He’s a Fa priest, a voodoo oracle. I note all the mysterious objects cluttering the room. “Can I take pictures?’’ I say. “Only if we pray to the spirits for permission,’’ the priest replies.
He reaches for a dusty bottle with a snake inside, takes a sip, then spurts the contents over statues of deities. Then he picks up a bulbous rattle made of calabash, which he shakes vigorously to encourage the gods to speak. After a while, I receive the gods’ authorization, take the photos, then sit down to have my future told.
The priest uses a necklace of cowrie shell to communicate with gods. He throws it on a table and interprets its form. He gives me general advice on life (“You should be patient, don’t lose your temper’’), then tells me I’ll live long, and should wear white at nighttime to appease the spirits. One thing he mentions, a detail about my past, makes my heart skip a beat. How did he know that, I wonder. Maybe I will sleep in white, just in case.
For a small West African country, Benin offers the rare tourist quite a few treats: lake villages built on stilts, unspoiled beaches, cheap but great safaris. Yet for me voodoo tops the list. After all, Benin is one of the religion’s cradles.
Over half of the people in the country identify themselves as practitioners of voodoo. Here, you stumble upon voodoo wherever you go. Sometimes it’s a clay statue of a god leaning against a hut’s wall, or a distant chant from a sacred forest. If you walk through villages on the shores of Lake Ahémé, you may meet voodoo priestesses, their shoulders and feet customarily bare.
If one place could be called a voodoo capital, it’s Ouidah, where every January a voodoo festival attracts thousands of believers from around the world. Ouidah is a bit touristy (as Benin goes), but the temple of pythons swarming with snakes and the peaceful sacred forest are well worth a visit.
Just an hour and a half ride from Ouidah, on a bumpy road that follows the Atlantic coast, is Lomé, the capital of neighboring Togo, which hosts what is probably the biggest fetish market in the world. You can smell the market before you can see it — animal skins being parched by the sun, herbs wilting, feathers rotting. Several look-alike stalls are spread on a dusty, brick-colored ground. The products on display make me dizzy: rows of desiccated birds, dried up-snakes coiled in piles, heads and skins of almost all local animal species — even endangered ones — from all over West Africa.
It’s fascinating and disturbing at the same time, and it’s hard for me not to flinch at the sight of a dried dog’s head. “How much,’’ I ask the shopkeeper. “Two thousand five hundred francs,’’ he replies, then adds: “Dogs are cheap, lots of dogs everywhere.’’ That’s five dollars, probably an elevated tourist price. A hippo’s head costs almost a thousand; an elephant even more, one thousand four hundred, the storekeeper tells me.
A few voodoo dolls lie scattered on the ground. I pick one of them: “Is this for black magic,’’ I ask. The man that sells them looks taken aback. “No, it’s just a souvenir. We don’t sell black magic here.’’ But I press him. “So where can I buy a real voodoo doll?’’ He shrugs: “Tourists think voodoo is just about the dolls, but it’s a religion, like many others, with good and bad stuff in it.’’
For residents, the Lomé market is little more than a pharmacy. A porcupine quill? Cures asthma. Mahogany seed? Good for memory and brain stimulation. A Fa priest prescribes a concoction, then ingredients are obtained at the market.
To the disappointment of the sellers I decide against buying any skulls. Instead, I visit an amulet vendor. Germain’s shop is hidden at the back of the market. It’s a dusty little place, orange-hued, illuminated only by a weak stream of light oozing through a rear window. I’m not sure how to behave; I don’t want to offend any spirits (or even worse, any humans). But Germain’s smile sets me at ease.
Amulet-buying is a complicated ritual: There is chanting and shaking of rattles, special gestures to follow and magic formulas to repeat that will make the charms exclusively mine. I decide on two. The first is a telephone charm, a travel insurance policy of sorts, a tiny piece of pink-stained wood into which you whisper wishes for safe travels.
My second choice is a Legba, a small clay statue of a deity that has a hole for a mouth and two frayed feathers sticking out of its head. The user manual is simple: Let it smoke a cigarette once a year and in return it protects your house. If someone breaks in, Legba will blind the thief and keep him running in circles until the owner returns. Efficient, easy, and cheaper than conventional house alarm systems. How cheap depends on your bargaining skills, and those had better be good, since you are supposed to haggle with gods.
Once I have chosen my charms, Germain grabs four cowrie shells and throws them onto the ground. “The gods want 20,000 francs,’’ he says. It’s way too much. “Two thousand?’’ I offer. Germain throws the shells once again. “Gods say ten thousand,’’ he says. At the end, the gods and I settle on five thousand francs, which Germain collects on their behalf.
On my last night in West Africa, only five hours before takeoff, Paul asks if I want to join a small voodoo ceremony. I cannot refuse. It’s pouring, but Paul promises that where we are going, there will be no rain. “They have prayed it away,’’ he says.
And indeed, as I sit on one of the plastic chairs placed in a semicircle on a sidewalk, the weather changes. The ceremony, dedicated to the opening of a new temple, is just starting, but the music is already on. Two drummers play standing barefoot on goat skins, which they are not allowed to step off. Voodoo priestesses, their heads wrapped in white scarfs, start to sing. Before long a crowd has gathered and the dancing begins.
As the evening progresses, the rhythm of the drums accelerates, singing becomes more vibrant and bewitching. One of the priestesses stands suddenly and goes on to swirl in the middle of the dance floor, her arms in the air. “She is going into a trance,’’ whispers someone behind me. The street fills with aromas of burnt herbs, of grilled food and rain, with clapping and laughter: The early African night has already fallen.
“I have to go,’’ I tell Paul. “Can’t you stay a bit longer?’’ he says. “Next time,’’ I promise him, and myself.
Marta Zaraska can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.