Zombies, voodoo dolls to annoy your worst enemy, and enough animal sacrifices to turn PETA inside out. How can this not end fantastically badly?
06.02.2017 - 20.03.2017 30 °C
"Now, say your first name out loud three times," said the witch doctor, "then say your last name out loud three times after that." As I did so, while moving the amulet towards my chest every time I spoke, the voodoo doctor ferociously shook his calabash rattled and mumbled indecipherable words in Ewe. I was buying a small charm for good travel luck at a smallish voodoo market in Togo. As a side effect, the amulet would also make it impossible for people to poison me. Apparently, I was told, the witch doctors only awaken the power of the amulets, and sometimes, some amulets have multiple functions. I mean, it’s not like they’re making this stuff up… right?
Voodoo is probably best known from Brazil, the Caribbean – especially from Haiti – and New Orleans. However, it’s not native to the Americas but stems from the West African coast around what is today Togo, Benin and western Nigeria. The voodoo rituals were brought to the Americas on board slave ships in the 16th and 17th centuries, with many captured slaves from the voodoo region in West Africa ending up in Haiti and Brazil. Don’t tell me that Globalisation is a new phenomenon.
These slaves brought with them their rituals, but Voodoo wasn’t a full-flung Religion (with a capital R) until it got mixed with Catholicism. This is also why voodoo tends to be misunderstood as a practice of black magic. ‘The light’ (aka. white magic) is solely the domain of God’s miracles (more totally not made up stuff). Other myths about voodoo include both zombies and the classical voodoo dolls, full of pins (damn!).
While zombies have featured in rural Haitian culture and mythology, they’re not connected to voodoo. Even less so to the voodoo of West Africa. While dulls, know in West Africa as fetishes or nkisi, are used as part if voodoo rituals their usage have nothing to do with the pin poking practices. That seems to be solely a matter of Western imagination inspired not by African traditions, but from old British practices, where dolls were poked to make other people suffer (Hutton, 1999).
Voodoo practices and witch doctors have more in common with spiritual practices and medicine men, which is found all over West Africa, than with ‘black magic’. Voodoo dolls, for example, are used to keep good spirits in, and to protect villages and houses from bad spirits, or as portals to the family ancestors. Likewise, most of the dead and dried animals seen on voodoo markets are crushed into powder and then mixed with water and herbs to cure all kinds of ailments and sicknesses. To my surprise, these shakes aren’t for drinking. Instead, you wash with the water for the treatment to work. A huge disappointment for me personally, as I had been looking forward to drinking dried snake mixed with powdered crocodile…
All this keeping sickness at bay, protecting against evil spirits and bad luck, and communicating with family ancestors are considered good deeds. Just as we find the work of a hospital doctor for good deeds. Thus, tourists are told this is "white magic". That is not to say that "black magic" is unheard of here. While the witchdoctors refuse to perform "black magic" for tourists who just want a cheap laugh, both spirits and medicaments can be used to create bad luck or even sickness and death for people. For local peoples here in West Africa, this has nothing to do with magic. Spirits, to their minds, are as real as gravity is to ours. And even I, a sceptic, wouldn’t rule out that some herbs and other natural medicines could have some effect
One of the most dramatic examples of the use of spirits for evil is when human traffickers smuggle young women to Europe and force them into prostitution. One of the ways dealers keep these women quite – there’s plenty of physical abuse involved too – is by casting evil spells on them that will result in great harm to themselves and their families should they try to escape. Physiological abuse if you will.
Back at the voodoo market, I simply opted for a small amulet, made of herbs rather than dead animals. Getting some extra travel luck doesn’t really seem necessary since I’ve survived so far and the trip is nearing its end. The fact that I don’t believe in shaking a rattle over some herbs is going to do anything for my luck doesn’t help either. But it was the only way to see the witch doctor doing his thing. At least it makes a good souvenir – and it has the bonus that I can attach it to my travel hat…
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Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University