Magic is central to West African society. Every phenomenon, event or process is explained and enhanced by magic. This is a deeply animistic society where the traditional monotheistic religions play second fiddle to ancient animist beliefs.
The Kabye blacksmiths, outstanding craftsmen famous throughout the region for forging metal with a 15 pound stone rather than a hammer are also traditional healers, able to treat wounds caused by fire or metal with a mixture of herbs and incantations.
The Bassar, who mine iron ore and transform it in their earth smelters, use magic charms and spells to do their work.
We hear of the Night Plane at Kara airport in Togo’s second largest city, which takes off at night, unseen, though its engines can be heard. It travels the world invisibly, carrying witches to their congresses.
We visit a colony of reformed witches. Banished from their villages for having caused harm or death to some people, they live in a “safe house” under the supervision of powerful fetish priests.
It is difficult for a rationalist to fully accept the role attributed to magic in Africa. The Fire Ceremony we attend, late one night, in a remote village in Benin seriously shakes our skepticism though. We see men from the Tem tribe rub burning torches against their bodies and their faces, munch on red hot embers like crisps – feeling no apparent pain and bearing no wounds on their bodies. The old man leading the ceremony moves with almost demonic energy, shrieking in a blood curdling voice and staring at us with mad eyes. He covers himself in flames two feet away from us, then cuts himself with sharp pieces of glass – to no apparent effect.
Magic, apart from its role in bringing order and understanding to their lives is also a filter through which people here are able to see the world in a more interesting, colourful manner. It is a script written over an otherwise harsh, mundane life.
In another even more remote village, we join a voodoo mass. The villagers have all assembled around a courtyard, coming from miles around. With the frantic beat of drums echoing, the adepts start to dance in rhythm, their bodies outlined kinetically against the stormy sky.
And then, the Spirit enters the body of an adept, sending her in convulsions. A wide circle of people forms around her. A few elders come to her, salute her (she IS the spirit, now) and calm her down until she starts to communicate her message to the adepts.
We witness the manifestation of two voodoo spirits. The Crocodile Spirit and the Snake Spirit. The latter, a major Voodoo associated with water, with a large body of followers across the country, recognizable by the white garments or head dress which they wear.
Voodoo, an animist religion based on the worship of spirits, is deeply embedded in West African culture, and particularly in Togo and Benin. The voodoo gods communicate with their priests, or fetishists, by possessing them and speaking through them. Voodoo priests also act as traditional herbalists, preparing various cures, potions and charms on the instructions of the spirits.
Deep in the countryside, in a remote village, Seko, we visit a voodoo temple and meet its priest. A young man, he was chosen by the spirits to be priest, the third generation in his family to have that honour. Interestingly, the spirits bypassed older, more erudite relatives to select him.
A wholesome and eager young man, he is fascinated with the boys who he believes to be twins, a powerful principle within the voodoo religion.
At the fish market too, strong Togolese women dominate the activities, while the fishermen who work for them are mostly Ghanaian men. Most of the fishing boats are financed by women who then own their catch and sell it at the fish market.
As interesting, if a little more spine chilling, is the Akodessawa fetish market, Africa’s largest. This is where the voodoo medicine men and “fetish masters” officiate and create magic potions, charms and cures. It is strictly about “white magic” – or so we are told.
The Voodoo animistic religion permeates society in this part of West Africa, with 51% of the population being “adepts”. The Fetish Market is where people come to buy ingredients for spells and magic potions. Voodoo doctors remove evil spells, heal the sick, break a spell of bad luck or even help to improve students’ mental powers before an examination.
With its central location, deep-water port and long trading tradition, Togo is a major commercial city in West Africa.
Lome’s Grand Marche is the region’s main trading hub, where every kind of product is bought and sold. People from Benin sell ready to wear, the Lebanese specialize in used cars, electronics and alcohol and the Togolese in traditional cloth (the “pagne”). The pagne is worn by all women, and is a vital status symbol in West African society. People come from all over the region to purchase them here. They serve as status markers and are the main component of a dowry, with the top quality ones selling for hundreds of Euros. Interestingly, a Dutch firm, Vilsco, which started copying Indonesian batik cloth in the nineteenth century, is still the dominant supplier of high-end pagne
The big pagne traders, ladies known as “Nana Benz”, literally “Grandmother Benz” (from the cars they like to drive), are powerful figures in Togo. Wealthy ladies, with strong personalities, they bankroll many a political campaign and have both economic and political influence.
Togo, our first foray into West Africa, has the unfortunate distinction of having been colonized by three European countries, Germany, Britain and France. France, the last colonial master before independence in 1960 seems to have influenced Togo the most.
Together with the food, which is excellent, the French left arrogant and unhelpful civil servants, nonchalant if not sullen service and…constant strikes and demonstrations ! On the journey from the airport, our car gets stuck in a school children’s demonstration. The kids are demonstrating in support of their striking teachers and have occupied a main road, blocking traffic with stones laid out on the road.
Lome, the capital, is a run down, dusty city, with only a handful of asphalted roads, rubbish piling up on the sidewalks and street vendors relieving themselves in full view of the passing traffic. Its few high rise buildings, built well before Perestroika, are proud examples of the Stalinist school of architecture. Their saving grace is that most of them have been long abandoned and they are slowly falling apart so that they will eventually spare humanity of their grotesque presence.
To complete the picture, Togo, with a currency (the CFA Franc) pegged to the Euro, is outrageously expensive. We come to love Lome though because here, for the first time in over one hundred days of travelling through Africa, we find consistently good food and…ice cream. On a permanent ice cream high, the city does not look so ugly after all!