Togo's voodoo fetish markets do brisk trade

LOME, Togo — Roman Catholic priest Michel Badagbor can only wonder just how many of his parishoners visit the fetish market, where remedies to block evil spells and "juju" can be bought to ensure prosperity.

“We don’t know who goes there and comes here,” he said outside St. Maria Goretti church. “When someone informs me, we call that person. We try to resolve these problems.”

Christianity and Islam have expanded so rapidly in the past century throughout Africa that many thought traditional local religions like voodoo would disappear.

But a new report finds that millions of Africans in the sub-Saharan region also practice religions of their ancestors, believing in witches, evil spirits and sacrifices.

“The big point here is very sizable percentages who are Muslims or Christians, and in fact very religious Muslims or Christians, also are retaining and participating in African traditional beliefs and practices,” said Alan Cooperman, an associate director at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Washington, D.C.,-based organization interviewed 25,000 Africans in a 19-country survey that shows one in five believe in black magic — that some people can cast spells. The same percentage of Africans possess juju, a blessed object that holds protective power.

Islam and Christianity were followed by small minorities in 1900, but today the two religions dominate the sub-region. There are 470 million Christians, which is about double the number of Muslims. Including heavily Muslim northern Africa, both religions have between 400 million and 500 million followers on the continent.

Cures for everything from asthma to impotence are available at the fetish market in Lome, the capital of this small West African country.

“Here be like a pharmacy for everybody in the world,” said Joseph Abo, a market guide.

And business is good.

“Many Africans come here. Muslim people use it, Christian people use it, any kind of religion can use this, white magic,” he said.

About three-fourths of Senegalese — nearly all of whom are Muslim — say they use traditional religious healers when a family member is sick, the survey found. Four in 10 Christians in Ghana do the same.

Togo and neighboring Benin, considered the birthplace of voodoo, were not included in the Pew Center survey. U.S. State Department figures say one-third of Benin’s 8 million people identify as animists, who believe spirits exist in trees, rocks and animals, as well as humans. The fetish market is largely operated by men from Benin.

A guided tour in English costs a few dollars and Abo provides a decent overview. Here, they don’t practice black magic, in which spells are cast on other people. White magic is good, he said. It’s for good health and prosperity.

The pre-negotiation price for the asthma remedy is $150. He explained that it requires 16 porcupine quills, 16 boa snake spines, seven tortoise shells and 41 herbs — all of which must be blessed by a fetish priest. They are ground together and put over a fire. The result will be a black powder, which then is mixed with a half-bottle of honey.

“Take small glass [for] about three days,” he said. “When half-bottle of honey is finished you can never have asthma in your life, never.”

Abo ignores the absence of medical proof. He insists they are successful.

“We are not forcing you to come here. If you believe, you come here, if you don’t believe, you stay away,” he said.

Badagbor, the Catholic priest, says a true Christian can’t practice both religions. Muslim scholars say the same.

“Christians in particular who do are hypocrites. There is only one God to love. Christians must be models for others,” he said.

Didier Domeko is among the few Africans who identifies with neither Christianity nor Islam. He says he believes in several idols, or gods.

“Every morning I pray [to them] that my family will be in good health,” he said during an interview in French. “They are all very helpful. They’re used for healing people.”

Domeko works alongside hundreds of retailers at an open-air merchandise market featuring used clothing, shoes and household goods. His booth contains various types of herbs, wood, seeds, perfumes and candles for religious ceremonies.

Adjacent is a seller who is Christian. He taped a cardboard sign above his booth. The hand-written message, translated from French, asks its readers: “If you die today, are you going to heaven or hell? Jesus loves you, come to him.”

Voodoo’s influence is not limited to West Africa. The slave trade exported voodoo across the Atlantic.

A separate Pew Forum study last year found that 32 percent of black Protestants in the United States believe in the “evil eye” — the black magic belief of casting spells.

The slave trade brought voodoo to Haiti, where it’s still popular. There continue to be heated debates about voodoo, which is seen by some Christians as demon worship.

American televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, claimed the recent Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people was God’s revenge for a pact Haitian slaves allegedly made with the devil when they revolted against the French in 1791.

“African traditional beliefs and practices live on but they’re living on primarily by being incorporated by Christians and Muslims into their daily lives,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. “How they square that with their primary allegiance to Christianity or Islam is a separate question.”