Vodou Footprints: I Have a Fetish For You in Togo

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Stepping out of the car, there is a flurry of excitement. Not the over-zealous, exaggerated enthrallment of celebration, but one of sprinted adrenaline, like termites scurrying from an anteater’s invasion.

We emerge from our vehicle as another approaches, spitting up dust from a pair of screeching rear tires. We have just pulled into a fenced compound in the middle of a thick market district of Lome, the capital city of Togo. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low, casting a beautiful soft orange light through a low-hanging haze that spills across the bamboo sheds. People suddenly go from lounging on benches in shadows to shouting amidst a frantic escapism. But it’s not because of us.

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Walking into Togo, one has to step out of one’s car and pass through a series of guarded gates. First stamp passports at the Beninese customs stand. They couldn’t care less who you are. Next pass through a doorway where a man checks you have been stamped. Then into another concrete bunker where you’re waved through into Togo. Follow signs, enter another building. Stand in front of two Togolese officials and hand over your passports. They’ll take them and slowly go through the process of filling out a handwritten visa; and if you stand in front of their television, with a flick of the wrist they’ll tell you to move because they’re busy watching a dubbed-over original 1950’s version of Rashomon.

Looking around the scabby office, one will notice a few framed photographs of Togo’s president, Faure Essozimna Gnassignbe. He’s a round young looking man (actually he’s 48), comfortable and content with an education from George Washington University and the Sorbonne in Paris. Next to him is an intriguing sign. My partner points it out:

If the sheep’s courtyard is dirty, it’s not for the pig to say it.

I repeat it in my head while he silently laughs under his breath. We look at each other and then back at our guide Stephano.

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When passing through the series of gates from Benin to Togo, we realized Stephano presented no papers, no identification, nothing. Entering Togo he joked with the official and slipped him a quick cash-laddened handshake. When we asked him about this he shrugged and shook his head.

“Fucking Togo. I hate these corrupt bastards.”

Our eyes lit up and we laughed slapping him on the back. “But you have no ID,” my partner said.

“No. I don’t need one.”

“What do you mean you don’t need one?”

“I didn’t bring one,” Stephano confirmed. “I don’t want these fuckers to know me.”

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We couldn’t believe it until now, until we stood affront the two absorbed Togolese officials underneath the sign that spoke the truth.

The officials charge us both ten extra dollars for our visas and without argument we hand it over. The sheep’s courtyard is definitely dirty, but the pig’s is dirtier. We’re the pigs. The government claims to be the sheep. How dare we judge them as mere citizens.

We jump in our car only to be accosted by another Togolese official, this time a soldier wielding a heavy semi-automatic rifle. Stephano puts up a fuss. The soldier is adamant and so is Stephano. They argue back and forth, the soldier’s grip firm on the trigger, Stephano glaring into his eyes. He leaves the car. Surrounding us is Togo and numerous roadside stalls. They are selling fresh meats fired on grease-stained grills. Kabobs of red encrusted chicken legs and thin slices of beef steak sizzle. Towers of glass bottles reading Jack Daniels and Crown Royal. Packets of gum and tissue. Young men walking around selling toilet paper. And the older ones seated on stools with handfuls of currency from neighboring countries. Apparently, we weren’t supposed to get in the car at that particular point along the roadway. Fines are dished out.

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An hour’s drive and we’re in Lome. Nothing special. Just another African city. We find our hotel. Check in. Leave. Pass a restaurant called Mama Tampons. And then enter the market district. Today, we come to Togo for one thing and one thing only: The Akodessewa Fetish Market.

Tables and stalls of dried animal parts. Bones, skins and pelts, organs and jars filled with more anatomical remnants of species once living; we begin to take it all in as a man says goodbye. He’s thrown into the car that sped up behind us, the one that sent the market sellers in a frenzy. He’s cuffed and guarded by two soldiers harboring those semi-automatics. Everyone is dressed in civilian clothes and as quickly as they came, they’re gone. Just another day. Just another illegal deal.

A local takes us around. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a nice man, completely welcoming and excited we’re here. This is a new feeling to us because most individuals are suspicious, albeit welcoming, but suspicious. Steve, however, expresses none of that and kindly guides us from stall to stall explaining the uses of the ingredients and their importance to Vodou culture.

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Fetish. Not the toe-sucking fetish. The spanking, pulling hair, hand-cuffed lashings of S&M fetishes in Hollywood, but the West African fetish. You mention fetish to a Ghanaian and they shriek. You say fetish to a Beninese, they smile. You say fetish to a Californian, their eyebrows lift licentiously and they begin to think. That’s what my partner first thought. That’s what I was imagining. But a fetish in Vodou is a powerful tool, a magic ingredient, and a witchdoctor’s answer to the spiritual, which allows him to communicate with the gods and deliver their healing powers.

Take for example this live hawk. It looks depressed and any bird lover would see it in his eyes. The hawk has been underneath the table, tied at its fleshy leg to the wooden leg by a thick nylon cord. There is plastic debris surrounding it, along with a filthy bowl of water. I watched one of the hawks poop in the little plastic bowl, which is meant to be their drinking source. So much for nature.

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Well this bird is a tool used by Vodou practitioners. If a client comes to a Vodou priest explaining evil spirits possesses them, the witchdoctor will consult the god specific to his/her temple and discover the necessities to treat. Out at the market, the priest will purchase the ingredients, one of them being a live hawk. And the following day with the possessed client present, the doctor will perform the rituals and as a symbol of letting go, the hawk will be released with the client’s evil spirit upon it’s back. Client healed. Exorcism complete.

This is just one version of many different possibilities. Vodou is an open book and anything is available. At the fetish market, young boys run around showing us whale vertebrae bones, live baby crocodiles in yellow plastic jerry cans, stacks of dried herbs, cages of mice, frightened turtles, boxes of dried chameleons, enormous mummified cockroaches, shelves of stacked monkey skulls, decapitated wild dog heads with jaws open as if frozen in time, hippopotamus skulls, antlers four feet tall, snake skins, baboon, hyena and leopard heads, as well as the most poignantly disturbing of all.

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There was one little boy. He was the quietest of the lot. Others yelled out Monsieur! Monsieur! incessantly. But this boy was calm, tapped us on the shoulder and held up a foot.

There is that famous photograph of local rangers in the Virunga National Park within the Democratic Republic of Congo. The photograph by Brent Stirton is taken from above of a silverback lying on its back upon a tourniquet made of branches. Wrists tied back over his head. Feet tied at the ankles. A huge protruding belly facing the heavens. Locals are beneath the animal, carrying it through the war-torn jungles of the DRC, dead because of gun shot wounds by supposed illegal charcoal traders. This was the image I thought of as I saw the little innocent child holding up a dried gorilla’s foot. He wanted his photo taken.

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The next morning we return to Vodou’s largest fetish market. The oddity strikes and we know we want to discover more. For hours we linger, wandering the stalls, photographing, talking to the kids. A Vodou practitioner arrives on his motorbike. The sellers scramble, running toward him to garner the morning’s first sale. Then I realize, this is the first pharmacy ever. Take away the metal fence, the motorbike and the corrugated tin roofs. What you have left are wooden stands, bamboo walls and dirt. Locals come, foreigners from afar—they’ll all seeking a cure. If you have tendinitis. There is a cure. If you have a wart on you finger. There is a cure. If you want to win your next soccer match and score a hat trick. There is a way. Come to Akodessewa Fetish Market in Lome, Togo.

Next essay –>

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Comments

  1. Marisa R says:

    Your writing is absolutely striking — thank you so much for taking the time to capture your moments in breathtaking words alongside your photography!

  2. I can see why the vodou culture has such notoriety throughout other parts of Africa. I find it really creepy, especially that first picture of all the dried dog heads.

  3. Thanks Marisa R! And thanks Greg! Vodou has an amazing impact on the people of West Africa, especially Benin where it is considered everyday life. Part of the project is to “demystify” Vodou for Western cultures. In many respects it parallels that of shamanism and the New Age spiritual rise, but much more elaborate with costumed dances and ceremonies. Like all religions, it has it’s good and it’s bad – it’s primary purpose being a source of inspiration and strength for the people.

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