Spirits, Shrines And Spells: The Story Of West African Voodoo




Thanks to its portrayal on the silver screen, voodoo has become a maligned and misunderstood religious practice. The movie industry has harnessed the religion for its own sensationalist ends, casting it as a sinister force in celluloid classics such as Curse of the Voodoo and Hoodoo for Voodoo. Solitaire’s tarot cards and the demonic Baron Samedi, rising from a grave during an unholy ceremony, are as memorable as Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond in Live and Let Die. Music has also got in on the voodoo act, for example Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and Dr. John’s New Orleans blues records such as “Gris-Gris.”

Even outside the world of B-movie zombies, voodoo is often seen as a nefarious practice — and commonly associated with the Caribbean and the American south. In fact, the religion began on the stretch of West African coastline that runs from Nigeria to Ghana — via Benin, where it’s still the dominant religion. The practice is so ingrained in the country that Christians and Muslims are nicknamed “50-50s,” as they often follow voodoo in addition to the Bible or the Koran. Throughout the region, voodoo (originally known as vodun, which means ‘the hidden’ or ‘the mystery’, and sometimes now spelled ‘voudoun’) influences every aspect of life — the way people do business, divvy up food, haggle over bush taxi fares, socialise, and perceive the world around them.

So how did voodoo reach Haiti, Cuba et al? In the same way some musicologists believe the music that gave rise to the blues crossed the Atlantic from the banks of the River Niger to the Mississippi: on the slave ships. Benin, called Dahomey until 1975, was West Africa’s main slave-trading hub in the 19th century. Every year, about 10,000 Ewe and Fon slaves were shipped to the Americas, where their religion fused with Catholicism and took the form that has inspired Hollywood treatments.

In Africa today, voodoo is an animist religion with plenty in common with the indigenous beliefs found across the continent. It does have a dark side, of course — market stalls in Benin and neighbouring Togo sell voodoo dolls riddled with nails. The line between voodoo and juju (witchcraft) is blurry, and the latter does give rise to some heinous behaviour. A few years ago, a Nigerian lynch mob demanded the police incarcerate a goat, which they believed to be a shape-shifting car thief.

However, for millions of Africans, voodoo is less about skullduggery than about showing respect to their ancestors. Fetish shrines stand guard outside family compounds, topped with animal skulls and littered with offerings such as food and palm wine. Communication and good relations with the ancestors, who live in a spirit world ruled by the supreme deity Nana Buluku and twins Mawu and Lisa (voodoo reveres twins), is seen as the key to a healthy, prosperous life.

A common way of communicating with the dearly departed is by entering a trance and becoming possessed by a spirit — a powerful example of which is the cowrie shell-masked figure of the Egungun. Men in this state do genuinely speak with an unnerving, otherworldly voice, and touching them or looking into their eyes is supposedly fatal. When I met an Egungun in Benin, surrounded by excitedly shrieking children, I became the butt of a jibe from beyond the grave; the character quipped, ‘Eh, le blanc’ (the French-speaking country’s equivalent of ‘hey whitey’).

Entering such a trance is normally the role of the priest, or juju man, who has an important place in the community for his ability to contact the dead. Consulting the priest normally involves a trip to the fetish market with a list of the ingredients he needs to make a gris-gris (talisman or charm); rather like visiting the chemist with a prescription from the doctor. The markets are stacked with animal parts from monkey testicles to bat wings, thunderstones and other curios.

In Togo, there is an impressive fetish market on the outskirts of the elegantly decaying coastal capital, Lomé. The Marché des Féticheurs’s tables and mats are piled with grisly items such as porcupine skins, snake heads and monkey skulls; if you go shopping, check you are not buying an endangered animal part. Most markets in Togo and Benin have a section devoted to fetishes, while the latter country has some famous sites such as Ouidah’s Sacred Forest and Python Temple. Don’t expect to live out your Indiana Jones fantasies at the latter, although an attendant may drape a sleepy python around your neck for a photographic opportunity.

Ouidah was the final stop on African soil for slaves sold across the Atlantic by the Kings of Dahomey – the fearsome, human-sacrificing rulers immortalised in Bruce Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. You can follow the slaves’ footsteps on the Route des Esclaves, a 4km track from the Portuguese fort to the beach, lined with fetishes and monuments and concluded by the Point of No Return memorial. Egunguns converge on the Voodoo Festival there in January, while another fascinating Beninese spot is Abomey. The town was the seat of the Dahomey dynasty and you can tour their centuries-old palaces and temples, which are slowly crumbling into the dusty lanes.

Given voodoo’s sinister undertones (thanks to its representation on film), encountering the religion in situ can be a powerful experience. In a Beninese village where fetishes and dolls adorned every house and shop, I asked a priest for a travellers’ fetish. He offered me US$5 and US$10 options, saying the price dictated the concoction’s potency. I chose the economy option, as the fee seemed to have more to do with the quantity of sodabe (moonshine) I would have to ply him with, and he sent me to buy a parrot’s plume and a small bottle of perfume.

As I sat waiting for my charm, I grew increasingly nervous. Although I tried to calm myself with the rational thought that I was simply exploring another culture, I was seized with concern that I was meddling with an African art that could alter my very karma. Eventually, after various incantations in front of a fetish shrine, the priest presented me with the perfume bottle, stuffed with mysterious herbs, rags, and that red plume. He instructed me to sprinkle some on my face and arms to travel safely. A few years later, I’m still travelling safely with that little bottle in my bag.

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