Beneath the midday sun, I reluctantly inhale the overwhelming stench, which distinctly reminds me of festering road-kill baking in the heat of an Australian summer.
As subtly as possible, I hold my wrist over my nose and breathe through my mouth, not wanting to offend the smiling and impeccably dressed man walking towards me.
“Bonjour,” he says gregariously, holding out his hand to take mine. “Je m’appelle Monsieur Dossou. Bienvenue a la marche des fétiches.”
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Mr Dossou’s shiny black skin is velvety around his impossibly white teeth, and his traditional West African ensemble of bright green pants and matching shirt is somewhat at odds with his brand new converse trainers and heavy gold watch.
As I shake Mr Dossou’s hand, my gaze drifts towards what looks suspiciously like a wooden table piled high with monkey heads. I peer closer. Oh god, they are monkey heads; hundreds of them, many with tufts of hair still atop their severed craniums, their beady little eyes staring blankly above teeth bared in final grimace.
The smiling Mr Dossou hands me his business card, into which his official title has been punched with a type-writer. “Guerisseur en Medecine Traditionnelle” it reads. He’s a traditional healer: just what I’m looking for.
I am in Lome, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Togo. I have come to the country’s biggest fetish market, La Marche des Fetiches Akodessewa, hoping to learn a little more about the religion that uses them — voodoo — and, more importantly, to pick up a couple of fetishes for myself.
The market, which stands in a square courtyard about half the size of a football field, is much bleaker than I had imagined. With glorified visions of voodoo in my head, I was expecting vibrancy and frightened chickens and blood and drama and dolls-with-pins and god-knows-what-else. Instead, it’s drab, stale and — aside from Mr Dossou’s extraordinarily lairy get-up — very, very lifeless.
“Please, take a look around,” says Mr Dossou in his delicious Togolese-accented French, sweeping his arm around the courtyard in a gesture loaded with pride.
As Mr Dossou wanders off, leaving me to explore the market’s bizarre offerings, the leathery head of a giant sea turtle looms large in my line of sight. I cringe as I find myself staring into a macabre smorgasbord; a bizarre banquet of body parts there for the taking — some from animals rarer than I’d like to think about.
There are dried chameleons — long ago drained of their mesmerising colour — laid out artfully alongside countless sets of huge, swirling antlers. A horse’s head, eliciting a morbid and permanent grin, lies next to the hairy head of a wild piglet, eyes ajar. It looks like it’s not been in the market very long and would, I imagine, have actually been quite cute when attached to its living, breathing body.
There are sheep heads and petrified lizards; brittle equine penises and stunned-looking puffer fish; assorted tails and a tattered stuffed leopard; crocodile skins, collections of teeth and feathers, and dried snakes of all varieties. It’s a veritable, twisted menagerie of ill-fated wildlife, selected for their healing powers and inherent spirituality, and destined to play a part in a fascinating religion which has been central to West African culture for time immemorial.
Despite the more recent presence of both Christianity and Islam, voodoo is still a widely-practiced religion in West Africa and, contrary to many pop culture interpretations, those who use voodoo do so with largely positive and peaceful aims.
Incorporating elements of animism — in which supernatural powers are ascribed to inanimate objects, giving them the ability to protect their owners — voodoo is a tradition which has survived decades of colonial rule, and fetishes and traditional healers are still very much a part of modern Togolese culture.
While voodoo ceremonies are not always easy for outsiders to witness, fetishes (otherwise known as amulets or talisman) are easily accessible for those wishing to dabble in the age-old practice.
Commonly, fetishes are made from wooden or stone carvings, combinations of dried animal parts and herbs, or other objects such as shells, thunderstones or trinkets. Those who use them believe they have the power to fulfil their every desire, from curing illness and disease to boosting fertility and virility, fending off evil spirits or those with evil intentions, and even causing one to fall in love. “There is no end to what voodoo can do,” Mr Dossou tells me, “as long as your intentions come from a place of good.”
Lome’s sweeping and sun-drenched boulevards, distinct remnants of Togo’s French and German colonial past, are dotted with fetish markets of varying sizes. The Akodessewa market, however, is the big mama of fetish markets, and its reputation as the most comprehensive in West Africa means that no trip to Togo is complete without experiencing it.
Before long, Mr Dossou interrupts my wide-eyed and at times uncomfortable musings and invites me into a dimly-lit shack at the edge of the market. “Now I will bless some fetishes for you, but they must be for you and no-one else,” he says. “They will work only for you.”
I nod in comprehension and sit on a low stool next to Mr Dossou. He picks up some cowry shells and jiggles them around in his closed fist. There are rows of carved fetishes (or grigris) — some the size of chess pieces and others the size of small children — at his feet, as well as tortoise shells, stones, assorted bones and leather pouches. A deathly-looking creature, carved from stone and with eerie, hollowed-out eyes and a gaping mouth catches my attention.
“What is this one for?” I ask, pointing to the scary little object with void eyes.
“He will protect your home,” explains Mr Dossou, picking him up fondly. “You must place him in your house, and if anyone who is not invited tries to enter, he will take away their eyesight.”
So, he’s as nasty as he looks.
“I’ll take him,” I say, grinning at the sudden realisation that I am doing business with a traditional healer in one ofAfrica’s voodoo strongholds. As Mr Dossou blesses the strange little fetish, he tells me that every now and then I must offer it something to keep it happy. “It likes to have a cigarette,” he says. “Just put it in its mouth. That way he will be happy.”
This little grigri really is a bad character.
You dont want to mess with this little bloke
“Do you have something which will keep me safe, keep me healthy?” I ask. “Bien sur,” says Mr Dossou, picking up a tiny, hand-sewn leather pouch adorned with two cowry shells. The pouch is stuffed with a special mixture of ground herbs, explains Mr Dossou, and if worn around the neck, its wearer shall come to no harm. He picks up the pouch and, with a rattle of a trinket and a few uttered words, he blesses it for me, making it my own.
“Now, we must ask the gods how much you will pay for this protection.”
I was waiting for that. It is, after all, a business transaction.
To my surprise, I discover that even when seeking the blessings of a traditional healer, bartering is still an accepted part of the process. The gods, it seems, are willing to budge if the initial price suggested is too high for the buyer.
Mr Dossou asks the gods how much I owe by shaking and tossing a handful of cowry shells into the dirt and interpreting how they fall. While my French is not bad, I don’t speak cowry, so I have to trust that Mr Dossou will pass on the gods’ wishes honestly.
The first price he gives me is ludicrous: the gods, it seems, are feeling lucky.
I politely explain to Mr Dossou that I’m unhappy with what the gods have suggested, and the process is respectfully repeated, time and again, until Mr Dossou interprets the cowries in a way which is acceptable to all.
A fair price is thus agreed and I hand over some francs, throwing in a few Australian dollars for Mr Dossou’s personal collection of international currency. We shake hands and venture back out into the glare of the fetish market.
Immediately, the stench from which I had been granted brief respite slaps me in the face. Once again, I begin to breathe through my mouth, bidding Mr Dossou a nasal farewell and taking one more look around the most curious market I’ve ever seen.
Clasping the leather pouch, which hangs silently but strangely powerful around my neck — and locking eyes with my scary little house protector as I put him in my bag — I make my way out the market gates and back into the dusty streets of Lome.
Claire’s a journalist, traveller and writer. This post first appeared on her blog.