First the voodoo priest wanted to know our names.
Seated inside a darkened shack at the edge of La Marche des Fetishes, Ganyehessou Calixte explained through an interpreter that the love fetish he was preparing would protect from hardship the bond that exists between my fiancé and myself.
He placed what looked like a small lump of shellacked wood in the dirt at the base of a shrine — a scorched humanoid statuette covered in melted wax and oil — and rang a hand bell above it.
Calixte then put the lump in Trisha’s left hand and instructed each of us to tell it our name, three times, while he accompanied with the bell.
Then he pressed my left palm against Trisha’s with the lump in between, rattled his bell over our hands and in his indigenous dialect pronounced us husband and wife.
“That is traditional marriage,” Zachary Sounkawe, our hired interpreter, said in French.
We all laughed. It was a funny moment, and a far gentler brand of voodoo than was on sale outside Calixte’s hut on the outskirts of Lome, capital of Togo.
The tables of the fetish market were covered with animal skins and skeletons. Leopard heads, dried chameleons, horse tails, dead vultures … the animal kingdom was well represented in rows of decaying flesh, feather and bone.
“We use them for different things,” Sounkawe explained, gesturing to the petrified frogs.
For example, crocodile skin might be ground into powder and then made into a drinkable potion or cut into the veins with a razor blade as a vaccination against scabies, depending on doctor’s orders.
“This is traditional medicine,” Sounkawe said, pulling up his shirt to show his chest scarred with a lifetime of voodoo treatment.
“When we take the medicine we take the essence of the animal, we take its power for protection.”
Lots of people use the fetish market, he went on, explaining how African Christians and Muslims also observe animist traditions.
“I’m Catholic,” Sounkawe said with a shrug. “We can do both.”
To understand how, a Westerner must first cast aside the common misnomer that ‘fetish’ refers exclusively to something weirdly sexual.
A fetish is foremost an object believed to possess certain magical power or spiritual essence.
In West Africa it could be something animate (like a tree), formerly animate (like a bird corpse) or inanimate (like our marriage lump).
The Hollywood myth of voodoo dolls and Haitian black magic must also be dispelled.
Voodoo comes from the region of West Africa formerly known as the Dahomey Kingdom, now called Benin. It was imported to the Caribbean from Benin and neighbouring Togo during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
While it’s true that “evildoers” practising black magic exist, the voodoo they practise is not as common as the everyday pharmaceutical variety.
“If someone wants your place in life, but can’t have it, they’ll curse you so that you become sick,” said Sounkawe.
You might protect yourself from sorcery with essence of owl mixed in herb tea, or keep an elephant foot in your home.
Common items, such as frogs and lizards, cost between $7 and $16 depending on their age, while fresh pieces of rare species, like rhino horns from far away Tanzania, are typically more expensive.
The market didn’t have the most powerful fetish — the lion head — in stock, but the lone elephant foot was worth 200,000 West African francs, or about $400 US, said Sounkawe.
“Sometimes the animals we need are not found here.
“The elephant foot came from Nigeria. In certain countries they are allowed to kill such animals.”
The trade in endangered species is not illegal, he said.
“Everything you see here is for tradition. For the things that we need the authorities know that we practise this.
“They have allowed us to have these elements.”
Western tourists often come to the market to satisfy their curiosity, and voodoo practitioners proudly share their culture, he added.
“It is madam who keeps that,” he said, gesturing to our marriage lump.
It’s up to me to spray some perfume on it once we get home, he said.
Then we’re to rub the fetish with our hands while telling it our names again, spread its essence over our bodies and keep it somewhere in the bedroom.
“You tell it how you want to be together: no divorce, eternal love, good work, good service, good promotion of life,” said Sounkawe.
“You tell it everything.”
The initial price for the fetish priest’s services was outrageous. Out of respect for foreign culture we haggled firmly and walked away with everyone happy.
It wouldn’t do to anger a voodoo priest. Wouldn’t want a curse on our bond, with lion heads in short supply.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.