West Africa, home of the Voodoo

Voodoo, known locally as Vodoun, originated in the Dahomey kingdom, present-day Benin and Togo, is still widely practiced sometimes alongside Christianity in coastal towns like Ouidah, once a trading hub where memorials to the slave trade are dotted around the small beach settlement.

The first stop to get inside the Vodoun world is  in Lome, Togo, to the fetish market, “Marche’ des Feticheurs,” which offers supplies for Voodoo ceremonies. Unblessed heads of monkeys, dogs, elephants, antelopes, goats, and gorillas, you name it, sat on display and emitted the stench of rotting flesh. A fetish priest, “Voodoonou,” explained that the animals died natural deaths prior to being preserved. Each animal is used for a specific ceremony, such as ground elephant bone to cure elephantiasis. No object possesses power until blessed by a Voodoonou.

“Most Voodoo is white magic, to summon the good spirit from our ancestors,” the Voodoonou said. “Good spirit is stronger than bad.” 

Fetish followers, (about 50% of the population) practice animism as part of Voodoo, worshiping the Python. They believe that the snake will not bite, but if you kill one, even accidentally, you will die. Voodoo is completely normal in Benin. People across West Africa, especially Togo, Ghana and Nigeria hold similar beliefs but in Benin it is recognised as an official religion, followed by some 40% of the population. Voodoo Day is a public holiday and there is a national Voodoo museum. It has none of the negative connotations it has in the West and many of those who are officially Christian or Muslim also incorporate some Voodoo elements into their beliefs, especially in times of crisis. But Voodoo is more than a belief system, it is a complete way of life, including culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music and medicine.

The Voodoo spiritual world consists of Mahou, the supreme being and about 100 divinities – or Voodoos – who represent different phenomena, such as war and blacksmiths (Gou), illness, healing and earth (Sakpata), storms, lightning and justice (Heviosso) or water (Mami Wata). Voodoo priests ask these gods to intervene on behalf of ordinary people but local adherents stress that they have nothing to do with sorcery or black magic.

People here do not stick needles into dolls to cause misfortune to their enemies, as you see in some Western films – this image may have arisen from the icons of a particular god which a priest may have in their shrine. Some Voodoo priests use herbs to cure the sick – and possibly to poison enemies. They also sometimes ask for offerings, such as a chicken or a sheep, which is then sacrificed to the divinity, or some alcohol is poured onto the floor. This can happen when asking for help or when you wish has been granted. People seek help on a variety of issues – to be cured of a disease, find a job, complete a business deal, find a spouse or have a child