For many of us, when we have a headache or minor medical complaint, it’s simply a matter of going down to the local drugstore and getting something to make us feel better, or perhaps seeing a doctor. In most developed countries, it’s the most natural thing in the word, to the point that many of us wouldn’t even think twice about it. Yet in West Africa, having a medical problem may entail going down to the market to pick up an alligator head, a monkey hand, and a lizard’s tail to grind up into a powder. Instead of a doctor, one might go to a healer who will burn animal parts into ashes to rub into wounds. Welcome to the world of West African voodoo, a world which to Western eyes may seem to be a dark, sinister place yet for many of the people here is an everyday fact of life. Perhaps nowhere else is voodoo so widespread and visible as the nation of Togo, and perhaps there is nowhere else that compares to the sheer amount of voodoo merchandise on offer at what is the world’s largest, and certainly most bizarre, emporium of such goods; The Akodessewa Fetish Market.
The West African nation of Togo is one of the smallest countries in Africa and is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east, and Burkina Faso to the north. Although in recent years it has become more known for violence, riots and human rights abuses, when one sees the beautiful beaches here and meets the warm, friendly people, it is not hard to see why Togo was once known as the “pearl of West Africa.” The capital city of Lomé, located on the Gulf of Guinea, is the largest and most populous city of this nation, and is famous for its colorful marketplaces, including the famous Lomé Grand Market, referred to in French as the Grande Marche, which occupies an entire city block, among many others. All things told, it is actually a rather pleasant and quaint place to pay a visit in peaceful times.
As one takes in the sights of the city and wanders about the numerous marketplaces and bazaars on offer here, you might notice what from a distance appears to be merely just another of the cities many such markets. As you approach, you can probably make out the vendors going about their daily business and selling their wares, as well as tables piled high with something you cannot yet quite make out. Then, as you approach, the smell hits you. Even in the open air, the atmosphere becomes redolent with the thick, heady stench of what can only be described as the smell of rot and death. Pervading the air is a potent brew of the scent of rotting animal carcasses, exotic smelling herbs, and sun caked mud, all coming together to form a nauseating stink that blankets the area and invades the nostrils. As you approach even closer, somehow suppressing the haunting, putrid stench which saturates the air, you may start to notice that the tables, which you at first may have assumed were packed with fruits, spices, meat, or dried fish like many of the markets here, are actually overflowing the macabre sight of desiccated blank-eyed animal heads in various states of decay, dried animals of all sorts, all manner of bones and skulls, the dismembered hands, paws, claws, tails, and other assorted amputated parts of who knows what creatures, as wells as spooky blood stained idols and creepy wooden dolls all vying for your attention in a gut wrenching ghastly display sure to leave you reeling with its sheer grotesqueness. You have just stumbled across the Akodessewa Fetish Market, also known to the locals as the Marche des Feticheurs, the world’s largest market for all things related to voodoo.
Yes, voodoo, or as the locals call it, Vodoun. While many have the image that voodoo is a product of Caribbean nations such as Haiti, it actually has its roots in West Africa, where it flourished for centuries in countries such as Togo, Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin before being taken by slaves to America and the Caribbean, where it became what we now know as voodoo. Today, voodoo is actively practiced in many West African nations such as Togo, where at least 60% of the people still maintain its traditions, and it is the official religion of neighboring Benin. Voodoo is a complex religion involving countless different rituals, spells, ceremonies, and indeed animal sacrifices, for which various exotic ingredients are needed which are not typically available in your ordinary market, or drugstore for that matter. This is where the Akodessewa Fetish Market comes in, a veritable supermarket and one-stop shopping mecca for fetishes, charms, trinkets, idols, animal parts, herbs, and everything else a voodoo practitioner or witch doctor could ever possibly need, and people travel here from all corners of West Africa and even as far away as the Congo to stock up on what they need.
Here at the Akodessewa Fetish Market for blocks around you can find all manner of exotic voodoo ingredients which are sure to test the limits of disgust for many outsiders. Mingled together in row upon row upon simple wooden tables are the heads of monkeys, alligators, leopards, gazelles, antelopes, lions, rhinos, gorillas, dogs, and the dried remains of chameleons, assorted snakes such as cobras and vipers, lizards, birds, and insects, among others, as well as a myriad of animal parts such as horns, bones, paws, hands, and hooves or feet. There are also many different herbs, spices, statues, idols, and charms. The animals parts are used in a variety of concoctions, rituals and spells to cure a plethora of ails and problems, including curing sicknesses, treating infertility, cursing people, conversely removing curses, righting wrongs, smiting an enemy, making someone love you, increasing athletic prowess, bringing financial success, or mending the ways of an unfaithful lover. They can power rituals, be mixed into potions or elixirs, or be cooked up with special herbs to create special powders, lotions, or pastes to apply to the skin. It really seems that there is virtually nothing something from here can’t do.
For instance, many different types of animal heads are used in the manufacture of medicine. The heads are ground up and mixed with special herbs, after which the concoction is roasted over open flames. The resulting black powder that remains is rubbed into the “patient’s” body, often after a series of small cuts have been made to draw blood. Depending on the affliction, different animal heads or a combination of heads are called for. Other health problems can be addressed using the myriad of animal parts on display as well, including medicines for curing infertility, arthritis, and major physical handicaps such as blindness or deafness, or even serious or conventionally incurable diseases such as malaria, AIDS, or cancer. While the use of all of these dead animal parts for making medicine may make some westerners cringe, in West Africa, where adequate medical care is not always available and poverty runs rampant, many people see themselves as having no choice but to turn to these traditional voodoo medicines and folk remedies. It is also seen as a last resort for those with incurable illnesses or ailments for which mainstream medical care can do nothing. While a tourist might see these grimacing animal heads glaring at them along with monkey hands and elephant feet baking under the hot sun in the thick pervading stench of decaying flesh and think this is a menagerie of horrors, for the people of Togo this place is more like a pharmacy. In fact, for them it’s even better than a pharmacy, as the things that can allegedly be fixed with the wares to be found here go beyond mere physical ailments or disease.
For instance, there are also powders, potions, elixirs, and other items for increasing athletic performance, fixing monetary woes, mending heartache, getting revenge on enemies, protecting one’s home, or ensuring victory in sports. For example, one popular item sought after by soccer players, a game which is very popular here, is the hand of a chimpanzee or other primate. The hand is ground up, mixed with herbs, and rubbed on the athlete’s body to make them faster and stronger. For endurance athletes such as marathon runners, the head, heart and four legs of a horse are all combined together to make the powder. Different animals are attributed with different effects, with gorilla parts typically used to enhance strength, monkeys to improve memory, or chameleons to improve business, to name a few. Another popular item is the bones of large, powerful animals such as elephants or lions, which are used as talismans to protect houses. In fact, many of the animal parts on display here can be infused with powers through special rituals in order to be used as charms or talismans with a variety of effects, such as protection, ensuring academic success, or for healing. There are also various statues, idols, and even actual voodoo dolls on display, which are called legba and are fashioned from wood, animal parts, and even human hair.
At the Akodessewa Fetish Market, pretty much everything you see is for sale, and visitors are encouraged to roam about and look through the wares, but one may notice that nothing has a price written on it. This is because at the Akodessewa Fetish Market prices are determined through a ritual to consult with the gods. A merchant or healer will toss some shells and confer with the gods on how much they think you should pay, and if it’s too much it seems that even the gods can be haggled with, as the process will be repeated until you can reach an agreed price. Some typical examples of prices you could expect to pay here are around CFA12,000 (US$24) for a dried tortoise or a voodoo doll, CFA150,000 ($300) for a whole elephant foot, and around CFA65,000 ($129) for a dead baboon. It would probably be wise to bring cash, as this does not strike me as the type of place that accepts credit cards.
If you are a little rusty on your voodoo and don’t know what to do with a dead baboon, elephant foot, or dried monkey hand, you can go to one of the numerous healers, witch doctors, voodoo priests, priestesses, and medicine men offering their services here, all actively vying for your attention with boisterous voices, magic tricks, and even special effects using flashes of gunpowder. Upon entering one of these establishments, usually located within a hut, you can expect to be asked what exactly your problem is down to every detail possible, after which the medicine man will consult with the gods or with spirits called loa, and come up with a list of the ingredients you require. It may be necessary for you to go back out to the market to purchase what you need before returning to the hut, where the medicine man or woman will prepare the ingredients into a powder, paste, or potion and instruct you on its use. Other merchants will perform spells or rituals for you or prescribe talismans and charms.
The Akodessewa Fetish Market has become renowned throughout Africa and although there are parts from protected or endangered species, illegally poached animals, and even according to rumor the occasional parts from humans or human skulls no doubt procured through dubious means, authorities mostly look the other way and things are typically business as usual. This lack of action by police to enforce laws here, as well as the money to be made from the growing popularity of the market, has unfortunately contributed to rampant poaching and bush hunting in the region, which has severely depleted some species in many West African countries. There are places here which due to unchecked hunting have become nearly barren of all wildlife larger than a mouse. Although these folk remedies and rituals are part of the way of life of the people here, it seems a sad trade-off for the biodiversity of the region and the contribution it makes towards the imminent extinction of some critically endangered species.
Regardless of the threat to wildlife that the market poses, considering the widespread belief in voodoo and animism in West Africa, it does not appear it will be going anywhere anytime soon. For anyone with an interest in getting a macabre peek into a culture and belief system that may be completely alien and perhaps quite shocking to outsiders, the Akodessewa Fetish Market is very welcoming of tourists and visitors. Despite the revulsion many outsiders may feel upon viewing the merchandise here, it surely does offer a rather fascinating, if a little grim, look into a whole other mysterious world that most outsiders can’t imagine really exists until they see it for themselves. If you have an interest in the truly creepy world of West African folk remedies, rituals, and voodoo, or if you merely have some nagging health issue and want to try something different, there can be no doubt that you will find something to catch your attention at the Akodessewa Fetish Market.