Visiting Togo’s Voodoo Market May Just Make You Lose Your Lunch

All around is the stuff of nightmares: grisly swathes of animal skins, severed heads with viciously sharp teeth, and stark white bones of all shapes and sizes. What’s more, even though their eyes have long since dried up, the dozens of skulls piled on tables seem to be staring menacingly whichever way you look. The odor of decaying tissue permeates the air, too, adding to the horror – and underlining the fact that this is only a place for those with very strong stomachs.

Despite the gruesome reminders of death all around, though, this is also a place of hope. People flock here to find the right sets of bones, skin or heads that they can use to help rid them of their fiscal troubles or health afflictions. In fact, Togo’s Marché des Féticheurs is essentially one giant, macabre pharmacy.

This market like no other is to be found around 2.5 miles northeast of the center of Togo’s capital city, Lomé. Its unusual and gruesome wares, moreover, are used by locals as charms, fetishes and in general as provisions in the practice of voodoo.

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And while the whole spectacle may seem bizarre or creepy to outsiders, Marché des Féticheurs does also hold considerable significance, acting as a means by which native traditions – and indeed local incomes – are kept going.

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Marché des Féticheurs has been in Lomé in some shape or form for at least four decades, although it’s argued that the trade has actually been taking place here for over 100 years. Voodoo maintains that every single creature, alive or dead, is divine and holds power – something that may explain the sheer variety of animal parts to be found at the market.

Voodoo is thought to have its roots in West Africa – in particular, having developed through the tribal faiths of those in what was once known as the kingdom of Dahomey. In the 1600s slaves taken from that area were shipped to Haiti, where voodoo came into being as a new religion incorporating powerful and overlapping elements of the different tribes’ original beliefs.

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However, the faith faced particular challenges in Haiti: cultural pressures meant that followers of voodoo often couldn’t appear openly devout. As a result, devotees resorted to “syncretic” means of worship to somewhat camouflage their practices – notably, by masquerading their religion’s spirits, or “iwa,” as Catholic saints.

In fact, in Haiti voodoo was so frowned upon that it was outlawed until as recently as 1987 – and devotees had to wait a further 16 years until it became legally recognized as a religion equal to Catholicism. Meanwhile, the fact that Catholic iconography is incorporated in Haitian voodoo has proven to be one of the biggest differences between the form of the religion practiced in that country and the African version of the faith.

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Hollywood has also had its way with voodoo, presenting it – erroneously – as full of nightmarish rituals such as the pressing of pins into wax figurines. In reality, though, African voodoo, or “vodun,” is an all-encompassing way of life that combines dance, art, culture and philosophy.

Vodun’s supreme deity is Mahou, but there are also approximately 100 other gods representing everything from war to healing. It is to these divinities that the religion’s priests ask for assistance – sometimes by sacrificing animals. Indeed, spirit worship is integral to the faith, whether one considers the all-powerful gods controlling some of the most awe-inspiring aspects of nature, or humbler deities that followers believe reside in organic features like bodies of water.

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And vodun is a religion practiced by people across West Africa, everywhere from Togo and neighboring Benin to the territories of Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe. Devotees can also be found in south and east Ghana, particularly among the Ewe people.

Interestingly, vodun is somewhat of a matriarchal religion. Clans are headed up by women, who lead followers in prayer. However, this role is distinct from that of a priestess – a title reserved for divinely chosen female members of a group’s “convent.” Furthermore, while female clan heads are responsible for things like ceremonies and presiding over local markets, priestesses spend much of their time in convents following spiritual teachings.

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Priestesses – and indeed priests – are additionally responsible for prescribing cures to locals for everything from illness and disease to debt and marital issues. This is done after speaking with the gods – and a venue like Marché des Féticheurs is where many cures can be found.

Once the cure – often an animal part – is sourced, it is crushed up with herbs before being cooked by fire to form a dark powder. Next, the bizarre ingredients are rubbed into a patient’s open wounds – these cuts having been inflicted by a healer. However, outsiders curious about such medicinal practices needn’t draw blood; instead, the powder can be applied to their undamaged skin.

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And the market’s wares are definitely not for the faint-hearted. Because vodun relies heavily on the spiritual power of animals, their remains, in various forms, are everywhere at Marché des Féticheurs. Walk around and it’s possible to discover elephant femurs – which apparently improve strength – boa constrictor skins for burns, and even monkey heads, the latter of which reportedly help students concentrate as they approach their exams.

Also seen here are hippos, whales, antelopes, goats and alligators at different points of the decomposition process – the smell of which is unmistakable, despite the market’s outdoor location. One animal that isn’t found dead here, though, is the hawk. In fact, the creatures are sold live to people believed to be occupied by devilish spirits. Once a bird has been bought, a priest will “transfer” the demon into the bird before setting it free.

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Sadly, some of the many wares at Marché des Féticheurs may have been procured in illegal and quite possibly unsavory ways. Demand for these remedies is high, so sellers are willing to break the law to satisfy their customers’ needs – and not without risk, for some folk are occasionally arrested for handling outlawed products.

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Still, no matter what ailment a person may have, it’s likely that they’ll find a cure at Marché des Féticheurs – or at least that’s what the vodun merchants will claim. The macabre medications don’t come cheap, though: expect to spend up to almost $120 for an elephant-bone bracelet and around $300 for a dried hyena head.

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Interestingly, working out how much to charge comes down to throwing sea snail shells – a means of asking deities to set a subjectively suitable price. Still, if the gods appear a little greedy, it’s okay for patients to haggle via the healer until a figure in their price range is met.

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Marché des Féticheurs, then, can be an uncomfortable experience for tourists not used to animal remains being used in this way – nor, indeed, to the practice of slashing skin to rub strange ingredients into it. However, for many locals the market and the use of its wares are not just important but an absolute necessity.

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