When I was researching Peace Corps (ie reading every blog I could find online), I thought I was going to be placed in either Senegal or Benin. In reading one blog of a Benin volunteer, I learned about this small country that had been mentioned in one of my college classes, Togo. The PCV had been placed on the border and secretly biked over to Togo to check out a huge voodoo ceremony only to find chicken sacrifices and dogs speared through posts and large fires. I remember saying to myself: Wow… and there’s Peace Corps in Togo? They must send the most hardcore people there. How interesting it would be to be placed in Togo and encounter voodoo ceremonies like that…
Fast-forward to now… finishing up my Peace Corps service in Southern Togo and always asking to learn about the practice of voodoo. Finally, finally, after two years of nagging my counterparts, I was able to go to visit some sorcerers in my village. Voodoo is the ceremony to conjure up spirits, and in most situations, devils. Animism is the practice of worshiping your ancestors. You have to practice some voodoo to worship your ancestors. It’s kind of like you’re Catholic and you worship by going to mass. You’re animist, so you worship by practicing voodoo. Sorcerers are the people who are mediums for the charlatan, the spirit. Fetishes are the items they use to conjure the spirits and perform ceremonies, and you can buy them in the weekly market. There are things like animal skulls and skins, weird dried looking date things, puka shells, rocks, and just so many other items. I’ll definitely take pictures of the spread before I leave. There are many different types of voodoo, and 4 present in my village. Some sacrifice chickens, some require payments, all conjure spirits, and when asking about your future, they refer to your horoscope. In the different voodoo groups, there are some girls that are “sacrificed” by their families to live in a commune of women. They normally have identical scarification, wear puka shell bracelets and anklets, beaded necklaces, have white paint somewhere on them, and wear plain cloth wraps. They live there and learn the practice of voodoo. So! Onto the story of meeting 2 different sorcerers today:
My counterpart Joseph took my replacement Anna and me to see a male and female sorcerer today. They practice different types of voodoo and their ceremonies couldn’t be more different.
The first one we went to was called afakaka or something similar, and was lead by a man. This type of voodoo is the “natural” voodoo and encompasses all the sky and trees and ground. The spirits do not speak through him, but rather to him. To become a sorcerer for this sect of animism, one is born with the gift and then it is recognized by a fellow sorcerer who will teach said child. The sorcerer required that I sleep with a 500 cfa ($1) coin wrapped in a piece of paper underneath my pillow. I also had to whisper into the coin what I wanted to know/ what I wanted the ceremony to reveal. When we arrived at the man’s house, we sat inside as he set up his area: a mat, a pile of random items like bottle caps, stones, shells, even an old bird skull that was similar to a toucan (I see them flying around often but I don’t know what kind of bird they are? Black with a large curved yellow beak. The birds are small. I digress….), essentially all the stuff I see in the market every week (we asked him where he got all of it and he said they were found magical items….). He also put a massive really nasty looking black bull horn at the head of the mat, and then asked me to hand him my paper with the coin in it. He let the coin slip out of the paper and onto the ground without touching it with his hands. He pulled out some interesting chains made with metal and what resembled large pits/stones from a fruit and started the ceremony. He later told us that these chains are specific to his ancestors and family: his grandfather was able to induce the labor of his great grandmother with them. Next, the sorcerer chanted in local language, did a lot of mixing up of the pile of small objects, whipped the chains around a lot and after a bit, he was done. Joseph translated for me and the charlatan basically gave the sorcerer my future, which is apparently based off of my horoscope (which he didn’t ask). Basically, I’m going to be successful in my future, I shouldn’t share my secrets with anyone, people are going to try to stop me from succeeding, I am the rock for my family, and my star shines bright in the sky with marriage, work, travel, management, etc. Anna and I asked him a lot of questions about voodoo and he was very patient and nice. Then I asked about my travels… Anna leaned over and asked me if I really wanted to know if my plane was going to crash in the ocean but by then it was too late. He had me hold onto a stone placed inside of a shell and whisper my question into it, and then hold my hands behind my back. Then, I was to place the two objects on the mat and he would read the fortune from there. He found that my travels would be fine, but when I arrive at my destination, there will be a problem. He even cited a proverb I don’t understand: An animal cannot survive on three legs. For a small fee, we can perform a ceremony to right that….
The second sorcerer we went to was actually a sorceress and a bit weirder. She was wearing all the normal voodoo woman garb, with all the different puka shells and necklaces. She had all three of us wrap ourselves in pagnes to be able to enter her ceremony room, so as to please the spirits. It was a dark room and she had a lot of puka shells in a hole in the ground, an animal skin on the ground, and a basket full of the weird twigs and the like that are also sold in the market. Even if it was late morning, the room was dark and cool. She asked if we were ready to start, and I expected that she would sit down and do the ceremony right there, but she disappeared behind two straw mats nailed over a doorway to a hidden room. All of the sudden this high pitched baby voice came from the room, accompanied by a noisemaker common in Togo (kind of like a maraca) and Joseph translated, “she has conjured the devil”. Anna and I felt somewhat prepared because it reminded us of True Blood, and Anna was fighting back giggles because the baby voice was so obviously the sorceress. A few days before coming to this woman, Paul and I decided that we would test her by asking her to talk to my dead grandfather to see if she could speak English. When I asked her to contact my grandfather, she/the devil said that to go to different countries, it would cost extra. How much for America? 20,000 cfa ($40). So, we settled for a telling of my horoscope again, just to see what she would say and because it’s cheaper. The sorceress “sent” the devil spirit to check out my house here in Zafi, and when he came back, she gave my fortune: all will be well, but I won’t be able to keep a man to marry. My star comes from the water, and I need to return to the source, so I must do a ceremony where I sacrifice 2 ducks and wear a perfume and bathe in the water from 5 different sources. Upon further questioning, we found that if I found someone of the same powers, they could perform the ceremony, so I’m all clear to do the sacrifice with an appropriate medium once I get home ;) She has seen this type of bad luck on a girl in the past, and she had 9 fiancés disappear on her. Once she did the ceremony, she became happily married.
Joseph was totally convinced. Or at least he seemed that way. Between the two ceremonies, I was trying to get a feel on how much he believed, because I didn’t want to end up not doing the supplementary ceremonies only to be living with a curse. He told Anna and I this crazy story about consulting the charlatan and finding out that someone was going to try to kill him. Lo and behold, the military tried to assassinate him in 1994 for being politically active in an opposition party. He even sought political asylum at the American Embassy for 3 weeks. Of course, all this happened even after he spent the extra money doing another ceremony to stop it from happening. According to his story, those military hit men killed 3 other people that week. He also says that it is because his first wife’s only boy died (as voodoo told him was a necessary sacrifice (not that Joseph killed his kid, but rather there was no ceremony to make sure the kid would live)) and could give no more boys, he is now polygamist. Needless to say, Joseph is hell-bent on doing this extra ceremony to make sure my trip home goes well.
Anna and I were kinda skeptical, kinda thinking Well...Africa is a mysterious place…. There were some things that were weird, like that one sorcerer said my star comes from air, the other said from water, when in reality, I’m a Taurus (according to horoscope), which is an earth symbol. The whole "don't tell people your secrets" is interesting, because, if you have read my interview with my host family, you'll note that it is a cultural thing to keep all secrets/information to yourself because a neighbor might put a curse on you for succeeding. Also, what was the point of me sleeping on the coin and whispering my intention into it if the sorcerer didn’t even touch on the subject? He literally made no reference to what I sent to the coin. And, the travel thing….I’m going on a trip and visiting many countries, and it seems that the sorcerer assumed that I was going to one destination: home. I just wonder how much of this NEED to do extra ceremonies is just searching for more money?? I debriefed Paul on all of this and he just laughed and shook his head: “They were just tricking you. I’ll take you to a real sorcerer in a village that doesn’t know us and we’ll see what he’ll say. Also, we had an inside into the government and were warned by a friend that someone was coming to assassinate us, I don’t know anything about a charlatan when that all happened. And Joseph is polygamist because that’s just him...we all know it’s his sperm that made all those babies female”. Ha! Well, when I see this next sorcerer, I may do a good-luck ceremony for job hunting? :)