Voodoo Market in Togo Thrives With Love Potions and Curse Spells Galore

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LOMÉ, Togo—For at least half of Togo’s population of 2.5 million, Vodun, or Voodoo, is a way of life. European colonialism and post-colonial autocracies failed to fully suppress the religion and its rituals—which include elaborate esoteric dances, secret languages, and animal sacrifices dedicated to the many Vodun gods.

Today, the continued existence of Vodun is celebrated with the Fête du Vaudou in Benin, the birthplace of Vodun, each January.

But as I travelled through Togo, it was clear Vodun here is much more hidden. There are no voodoo churches or large public monuments of any kind. In fact, for a country that cites Vodun as a cultural and religious staple, you’d be hard-pressed to find out exactly where it’s taking place.

That’s because Vodun, as a practice, is deeply personal; there’s no central organization or regime around it. People looking for cures to their ailments—from fertility to financial—must find a Vodun priest or practitioner to consult with the gods.

The location of Togo and Benin in West Africa.

Jody Bennett

If you’re new to Togo, you’ll have to ask a local exactly where to go. Most Vodun priests or priestesses are found in their homes, visited by those in their immediate community. They’re like doctors, servicing those around them who are seeking to heal pain, cast a love spell, or remove a curse through an offering.

After diagnosing an issue, practitioners direct their patients to a Marché des Féticheurs (Fetish Market), a sort of “Vodun pharmacy” that contains petrified, dried, or preserved organic animal carcasses in bulk required for ritual or ceremony. Small fetish markets are scattered throughout the country, but sometimes dried carcasses can be purchased in the back of a store, restaurant, or from a contact who might have leftovers.

The Akodessewa Fetish Market claims to be the largest Vodun market in the world. Located just a couple of kilometers from the international airport in the capital city of Lomé, Akodessewa is a full square block of walled space, indiscriminate from the rest of its neighborhood surroundings. Next to it sits a café, and behind it, an auto shop.

Heads of goat, fowl, snakes, and other dried carcasses are laid out for purchase in the Akodessewa.

Jody Bennett

A $5 fee is required for entry, and an additional fee for each lens used to photograph or film inside the market. Foreign tourists are usually unable to purchase anything due to the customs regulations in their home countries, so these fees have helped maintain the market, which has been operating for over 150 years.

Akodessewa is an open-air market, where monkey hands, baboon skulls, alligator skins, rat carcasses, starfish appendages, snake tails, and parrot beaks lay out on makeshift tables. Inside, there are also English- and French-speaking tour guides who provide the history of the market and details around the products. They will kindly show you the ropes should you wish to visit a Vodun priest on location.

Guides and groundskeepers in Akodessewa happily present a petrified lizard.

Jody Bennett

Thousands of people visit this market each year to obtain items for their own needs, but there is no standard prescription or ceremony in Vodun. A practitioner will prescribe a range of treatments, prayers, and rituals based on their own upbringing, their own devotion to one of the over 40 gods in Vodun, and based around their sense of the requestor.

When I visited a practitioner in rural Benin, for example, he asked me to bring a bottle of gin and a live chicken to begin a ceremony of good fortune upon my continued travels throughout Africa. He doused me in a gin-herb mixture. When my colleague, Ben, a photojournalist from the U.K., took part in the same ritual, the priest gave him a seed to plant when he returned home instead of the gin-herb wash.

A vodun practitioner in Benin handles the chicken and gin required for ritual.

Jody Bennett

But another person looking for a similar outcome from a different practitioner might be asked to bring a skull or rat tails to facilitate their ritual. If you suffer from erectile dysfunction, a Vodun priest may request you buy a snake vertebra or a bushel of horse hair. A decaying chameleon or owl corpse could be used to remove a curse. If you’re looking to increase speed and stamina, you may need herbs mixed with a dog or rabbit’s head.

All of it can be found in the Akodessewa market for a price.

The prices for most individual items in the market ranged from 10,000-20,000 CFR ($15-31). The GDP per capita in Togo last year was $921, so it’s easy to understand how expensive these products are on an average monthly wage of $76. Locals in the countryside who have little to no access to these markets will often pay trappers or hunt for these animals themselves, though this is a risky endeavor. The guides in the market claimed all of the animals in Akodessewa died of natural causes.

Vodun priests were also available at the market. Sitting in small tin shacks along the market’s back wall, visitors politely enter without shoes and speak with a practitioner. For an additional price, the priest would diagnose an issue, request the associated animal hide, and perform the ritual for you—making the market a virtual one-stop shop.

Inside these shacks, practitioners place the fetish objects into a tortoise shell and perform an incantation. Candle wax, pungent palm oil, and chicken feathers are commonly spread around before a specific ritual takes place. Rum or animal blood is sometimes spilled about during a prayer, and price negotiations begin as they roll tiny shells like dice.

A Vodun practitioner in Benin rolls tiny shells like dice.

Jody Bennett

All of this money makes the Akodessewa Fetish Market a remarkable place in Togo, including for locals eagerly waiting around the market to transport visitors to their next location, or sell them a unique ornament or jewelry.

Outside, some locals were hauling large animal parts wrapped in bags into the backs of their cars or strapped to a motorbike, leaving the rest of us wondering just exactly what they were going to ask a priest for. How bad could your problem be if you’d need an entire horse leg?

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