Karl’s Chronicles Article 9 The Fetish Market
Boar skulls, calcium white with worn teeth and small tusks, had been lined up with the same passion for precision as a greengrocer. Though they had no eyes, one felt a particular charge of a dozen piercing stares. The smell of decay followed you around with the menace of a phantom, you couldn’t shake it off, but it was decay not death. On the next table, lying supine on a bed of dried coiled snake skins, was the face of a monkey. A pair of ivory white incisors clasping two tobacco red teeth. Its hair brushed outwards from a peeling forehead, finalising an appearance of a Halloween mask. As I turned around, my eyes caught sight of another little primate, sitting on its bench, hollow and dried to a smokey yellow. Looking out in mummified silence to a dozen people beyond. It contained that faded, worn appearance of a neglected Victorian toy, a macabre design that popped up in the bizarre inventions of high-class society — thrown in a trunk in a gloomy attic only to see daylight a century later. Though, appearances aside, the monkey, the snakes, the boar skulls and an array of other animal and bird parts all possessed crucially important qualities towards protection. For this was West Africa’s largest Fetish market-based in Lome in Togo. The ‘Marche des Feticheurs’ was founded in 1863, providing all the ingredients, charms, talisman and performed rituals under Voodoo.
Also known as Vodou and Voudon, the Voodoo religion started in Benin under the most powerful King Bienze. ‘Everything’, I was informed, ‘came from Benin.’ Established at a time when there were no hospitals in Africa. When the sick, for the first time consulted with the Voodoo priest, their names were incorporated into the ritual, making it highly personalised. The consultation would be initiated, followed by the appropriate prescription. Using animal parts, where the priest made the medicine which was consumed or through a talisman worn on the body.
One could only be born as a Voodoo priest, but it appeared a priest could teach his son, succeeding him on death, and there could only be one fetish priest in the family. Voodoo meaning protection, represented the Almighty God and the four elements of fire, water, wind and air, activated by signing the cross across ones face. Voodoo, incorrectly portrayed as black magic or witchcraft, has never been used to invoke pain through curses. Neither to cause continued suffering or violent death on another, implemented by jealousy or greed. Voodoo is used as a protection against such evil and also for matters in one’s health, to encourage success in the pursuit of love, safe travel and paying homage to the ancestors. In Togo, the majority of people still adhere to this traditional practice of animist belief. Even many Christians and Muslims incorporate the rituals into mainstream doctrine. People come here from as far afield as Gabon and both the Congo’s. From Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast.
The practices and prescriptions were as varied as they were mesmerising to Western eyes whose medical beliefs ascend from science and biology with no room for spiritual effectiveness. The long backbone of a snake, worn as a necklace would help combat rheumatism and arthritis, A live chameleon kept in bathwater for seven days could turn evil spirits into good, once the inflicted had bathed in the same water. One could extract the power of the mightiest animals, gaining protection from witchcraft by a liquid potion made from the foot of a lion, leopard skin, hyena, elephant and baboon. All the great predators that roamed the wilderness, their strength could be consumed by the priest’s powerful concoctions. There were seven different talismans, which afforded benefits to the holder. Either held or worn like an amulet.
- Sadame – travelling protection of a tribe. A small piece of hollow wood much like a whistle with a tiny plug. One spoke the wishes into the hole before inserting the plug, keeping the talisman about you as you travel. On arrival, one would remove the plug.
- Dagbakui Queen – an ebony seed is offering memory retention. Protection against bad dreams and seen as ideal when studying for exams.
- Tila – A tiny pouch stuffed with 41 different leaves with cowrie shells on the outside. Protects against poison when worn like an amulet.
- Wanyinou – The fetish of love. A single person looking for love would place three drops of perfume on their left hand, say their lover’s name three times and their own four times. Placing additional perfume over their body before going to meet their intended. Shaking their hands would pass the scent onto them. For a couple prolonging their marriage, the woman would hold the fetish (two dolls, male and female, face to face) in their left hand while the man puts three drops of perfume and calls his wives names three times. The act is then reversed, followed by the sprinkling of perfume on each other. The fetish is then thrown into the sea as its movement symbolises a spirit going forward.
- Lehba – known as ‘back to the sender’, a small clay figurine with leaves sealed inside, with two holes for eyes and a mouth. A cigarette is ignited and left to burn in its mouth, seen as protection against thieves.
- Kpedo – (Viagra) A piece of wood (Gbanguinah) placed in alcohol for thirty minutes, removed, where one drinks the alcohol for greater potency.
- Aylekete (King) & Avlessi (Queen) protectors.
The Fetish market was a popular place visited by those wishing to consult with a priest or those looking for a new talisman. Though the animal parts portrayed a similarity to a Chinese medicine market, their inclusion was used with a different set of beliefs- more spiritual and the personality of the animal considered just as important. The wisdom of an owl or the strength of a lion. It is important to set aside ones opinion concerning the use of animals in medicine before gaining a greater insight into its foundation. It would undoubtedly be easy to dismiss Voodoo, clouded by a strong bias over animal welfare and the demand for species that could be on the endangered list.
Facts: The market is authentic, but tourists are required to pay an entry fee of 2000 cfa, which includes a guide. They greatly illuminate the religion and will answer your questions as well.
3000 cfa extra for photography. Allowing you to walk around quite freely and take photos of the displays. If you have a consultation with the priest and buy the odd talisman, you can take photos here as well. Prices are negotiable for the various amulet, and it is worth taking your time as prices fall quite substantially.
Known at the ‘Marche des Feticheurs – Akodessewa’ and every motorbike (zemidjan) and taxi driver knows its location which isn’t that far from the centre.
Flights to Lome go via Paris, Morocco and Brussels if flying from London. Tap (Portuguese Airline will discontinue their service in October – lack of demand).
You could pick up a cheaper flight to Ghana and go overland from there, but you will need a visa for Ghana, which is time-consuming, expensive and required before you depart.
One week visas can be purchased at land borders for 15,000cfa and at the airport. The nearest Togo Embassy to London is in Paris.
Anywhere in West Africa requires a Yellow Fever Certificate. Obtainable (at a cost – roughly £50) from your GP. It is now valid for life and not ten years like it used to be. The WHO recently declared this as fact (worth viewing on their website) and so far while crossing many borders in Africa, no official has ever challenged the certificate.
Current exchange rates: £1.37 =1000cfa $1.67=1000cfa Euro: 1.53 =1000cfa
There are a lot of hotels in Lome and prices start from 11,000cfa per night. Booking.com is a good place to start as they cover a greater range from budget to high end. You can also reserve and cancel for free most of the time. Paying on arrival with cheaper tariffs then if you walked in.