Voodoo markets in West Africa

What is voodoo?

Cast aside all notions of sticking pins in dolls; Voodoo is in fact Vodou, or Vodun, an official religion in West Africa, principally in Togo and Benin, as well as parts of Ghana and Nigeria. It was carried across the Atlantic along with the slaves, and variations of it exist in Haiti and even in Louisiana in the US, too.
Vodou is a very complex religion and its vast geographical reach means it comes in many forms, but one of its key characteristics is a number of spirits or gods, each of which is responsible for a different aspect of life, from love and health to hunting and war. It also involves ancestor worship, and the use of fetishes – animals, objects or places – through which people and spirits can communicate with one another. There are also traditional medicine practices, songs, dances, folklore and festivals which are all essential components of Vodou; it has been described as a way of life, not just a religious belief.*

What are fetish markets?

Vodou fetishes are a kind of charm or talisman believed to be endowed with particular powers or inhabited by spirits. Visitors to West Africa will see these in the fetish markets, or marchés des fétiches. Wood carvings, clay figurines and nuts, for example, can be used as fetishes, but more commonly the fetishes are comprised of animal parts: skulls and other bones, tails, paws, hides and more. Even the medicinal treatments likely involve wildlife, as bones are ground into dust and mixed with herbs and liquids to form “healing” pastes.
Some fetish markets, such as Akodessawa in Togo’s capital, Lomé, have their own Vodou healers and practitioners, who prescribe cures to customers. This may involve cutting the skin to rub paste into the wound, taking an infusion, or perhaps sacrificing a chicken or goat in order to hope for a better harvest or improved fertility. In Cotonou, Benin, the Grand Marché du Dantokpa also has an extensive – and rather fetid – fetish market section, which sells plant based medicines, animal parts and some live creatures, too.

Are all fetish markets connected with Vodou?

There are fetish markets in parts of Africa which do not follow Vodou beliefs, but where people still believe in the magical or healing powers of these items. In addition, there are witch doctors, traditional healers and shamans across the continent who use traditional medicine and witchcraft to treat patients. In South Africa, for example, these are called Sangomas. There is much less cultural and political tolerance in Southern Africa of the use of illegal animal parts in traditional medicines. In part this is because, unlike Vodou, this is not a recognised or official religion, and Sangomas are not as integral to the national identity as Vodou practitioners are in West Africa. As a result, if you do see Sangomas in South Africa or Swaziland, for example, it is likely that they are trading in legal goods, and may even have permits. Raids are more common, so any practitioners using illegally obtained animal parts would not be doing so openly. Tourists are therefore unlikely to come across illegal practices – although if you do notice anything suspicious, it is best to advise your tour leader.

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Are the fetish markets legal?

Many of the species whose animal parts are sold in these markets are endangered. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) prohibits the international trade of many endangered species, including chimpanzees, gorillas, forest elephants, leopards and cheetahs. Along with items such as the hands and skulls of gorillas and chimpanzees, monkeys, snakes, sea turtles, chameleons and smaller mammals can also be found on the Vodou stalls. However, the CITES ban does not apply unless the species have been traded across international borders. It is therefore the responsibility of each country to decide what is and isn’t legal within its borders, regardless of the conservation status of each species. This is one reason why it is so tough to police the traders, as it is down to each government to create the laws to protect the species, as well as to enforce these laws. No international body is authorised to do this if the animals remain in their native country.
Additionally, many species sold in the markets are not endangered, but hunting them may still be illegal, especially if they are poached in wildlife reserves and national parks. And of course, even if a species is being legally hunted and sold, there is still the ethical question of killing an animal and selling it not for food, but as part of a traditional or spiritual medicine practice, which may simply function as a placebo.

Where do these animals come from?

While many of the species may have been hunted locally in Benin and Togo, several of the species – including the apes – are not found in these countries. This points to an illegal trade in species which stretches across Africa, including countries where Vodou is not practiced. Although the fetish, traditional medicine and bushmeat trades are separate issues, in some cases the same animals may be used. So for example, while sea turtle meat is eaten, its shell may then be sold on to a fetish market. Likewise with chimpanzees; while they are sold as bushmeat in their native country of Cameroon, their hands and heads are used by Vodou practitioners in Togo.

How damaging are the markets?

There are a number of reasons why it is virtually impossible to understand the scale of the trade, and how many species might be threatened – at least locally – as a direct result. These include the unwillingness of governments to enforce the law; the inaccessibility of the regions where many of these species are poached and traded; the crossover with the bushmeat trade; and the reluctance of stallholders to discuss the provenance of the fetish items. Additionally, while the widescale poaching of species for bushmeat, ivory and Traditional Chinese Medicine (such as pangolin scales and rhino horn) continues to have such devastating impacts across the region, large conservation NGOs are less willing to focus their resources on the smaller – but still significant – trade in species on Vodou markets.

Should you visit a fetish market while on holiday?

We have several tours in West Africa that visit Benin and Togo and explore the Vodou culture in these countries – participating in festivals, ceremonies and visiting spiritual sites. Some also tour the fetish markets.
We would never, ever recommend purchasing any animal parts sold on a fetish market, whether endangered or not. However, deciding whether to visit is a trickier issue. On one hand, Vodou is a recognised religion, and the fetish markets are part of a traditional cultural practice. It is not for us as tourists to judge or condemn cultural norms about which we know very little. And traditional medicine is popular in many parts of Africa where there is minimal – if any – access to doctors, hospitals and pharmacies. Even in highly developed South Africa, there were estimated to be eight times as many traditional healers as Western doctors in the 1990s; this factor increases to 500 across Sub-Saharan Africa.**
It could be argued that by simply “window shopping” in the fetish markets, tourists are not financially supporting or condoning the illegal trade. These are local markets for local people, and they exist regardless of tourism; a tourist boycott would have no impact on their existence. At the same time, as responsible travellers, it is very hard to justify visiting a place which promotes the poaching of and trade in threatened species. And while tourists are unlikely to buy a baboon head, they are lured here with the promise of seeing these more grisly items, and may end up spending money on benign herbs or carvings. It has therefore been suggested that traders may be keen to display these more shocking artefacts in order to encourage visitors to come, and then purchase other trinkets.

Additionally, entrepreneurial local residents have started charging visitors for tours of Lomé’s marché des fétiches, with extra fees for photos, which of course may include some of the more grisly items. Witch doctors – guérisseurs – are on hand to perform “white magic” on curious Western tourists, using bags of herbs, wooden sticks and so on.

At Responsible Travel, we understand that cultural traditions often stand in opposition to conservation, such as indigenous communities who hunt whales or polar bears, or traditional medicine practices in the Far East, for example. Fetishes are such an intrinsic part of what it means to be a follower of Vodou, so it is difficult to see how the religion could exist without this practice. However, although the governments of Benin and Togo seem to have turned a blind eye to the Vodou trade, they are party to the CITES Convention, which means that these markets are illegal. Tourists need to be aware of all these issues before visiting fetish markets and Vodou practitioners, and to consider if their actions are supporting damaging – as well as illegal – practices. You may not be coming home with a gorilla hand in your suitcase, but perhaps that photo of it is making just as great a contribution to the poaching of these apes.

*Source: Essay by Leslie Desmangles, a Haitian professor, in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, 1996

**Source: Ilse Truter in the South Africa Pharmaceutical Journal, 2007
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dominik Schwarz] [What is voodoo?: Grete Howard] [Fetish market: Dominik Schwarz] [Leopards: Mitchell Fitzsimmons] [Animals: Ralf Steinberger]