Tuesday, 26 January 2010

I have this fetish

[People who don't like grisly or macabre things, this post is worth skipping.]

Back again, with reports from sunny Togo.

I went earlier today to the Fetish Market just outside Lome. To clear up any confusion: it is not a meeting place for Togolese sexual deviants. Rather, it's a place where people can meet with vodou practitioners, buy components for vodou magic, or just pick up bizarre animal-based souvenirs to horrify their families with.

The fetish market is genuinely fascinating; it's a courtyard filled with stalls piled high with all sorts of vodou components and bizarre curios. Most common are the dried animal parts. They stock an impressive selection of mammals: leopard skins, puppy pelts (a la Cruella), monkey heads and feet, even a whole dried bat! They have a large buffer stock of dried reptilian and amphibian life (ex-life?) -- dried frogs, lizards, snakes, baby snakes, baby lizards, etc. There are numerous bone-based carvings which offer protections against a number of maledictions. I should note that the range of skulls was very substantial, with everything from tiny rodent heads to a half-shattered elephant cranium (tusks gone, of course). Here are some medium-sized heads (mostly primate) for your grisly viewing:

Although it probably plies a good trade selling to tourists, the market has genuine links with vodou. Vodou (or vodun) is the name of a set of religious practices from coastal West African, but centered around Benin. New World interpretations of vodou have given birth to the popular understanding of voodoo, at least as portrayed in a number of Hollywood movies (aside: the worst of these is surely Skeleton Key, starring Kate Hudson). So, many of the items the vendors sell are indeed traditional healing items or components of various vodou spells.

Surrounding the animal-part heaps are a number of vodou shrines, which double as boutiques where various relics can be foisted on the eager tourist. The first shrine I went to was staffed by two very young kids (the eldest was probably 11) who were subbing in for their father, who was in Nigeria. They explained a number of different herbal remedies to me and asked if I would like to try a pungent-smelling stick that the kid claimed was "comme prendre le Viagra naturel" if boiled in water. How does an eleven-year old know about that stuff anyways? Kids these days!

The next shrine I went to was staffed by a priest and a translator who explained the properties of various charms: a traveler's talisman, a memory-enhancing device, a love amulet, a gri-gri to enhance luck, a little clay figurine to whom you feed a cigarette in exchange for protection. They were all arranged against a clay monster-looking thing that I later learned was the god of the shrine. When the priest said a blessing for me and rang a bell at the clay god, I knew I was in the middle of an elaborate sales pitch. When we finished the introduction, the priest asked me if I wanted to take any charms, and that if I did, the god could suggest a price for them. I agreed, because I had to see how this pitch was going to play out.

Here's how it went: I picked out a few charms that I said I wanted and the priest muttered things in Gbe and threw some cowrie shells on the ground. He talked to the god for a moment and then told me that the god (lucky me) was willing to reduce the normal price by 60% and offer me the talismans (talismen?) for a mere 9,000 CFA ($20). I asked the priest to tell the god that I was a student and could probably only pay 1,000 CFA for two items, so I couldn't pay the god his original price. (Although really, if the god was so great, wouldn't he have known how much money I had?) The translator explained this counter-offer to the priest who relayed it to the god, who replied that it was willing to lower its asking price but that I could only have one charm for 1,000. The god also said that if I was willing to throw in a little more, I could take a picture with him and get the phone number of the priest for a follow-up call. Would that I had the money!

In the end, the experience was highly amusing and quite informative. I am also the proud owner of some vodou items blessed by the small and tough-bargaining clay god of Lome.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Fetish Market, you can probably find stuff online, but you might want to make sure your Adult Content filter is switched on. Because of the name and all that. I'll also upload some videos of the market when I get back to the US. Until then, may the god(s) be with you.

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