A view to voodoo

There is plenty more to voodoo than bizarre dolls. Photo by Getty Images.
There is plenty more to voodoo than bizarre dolls. Photo by Getty Images.
Travellers to Africa are turning to voodoo to overcome problems with health and more besides. Chris Pritchard reports.

Need a love potion? Is your partner unfaithful? Has your boss bypassed you for promotion? Are you facing court next week?

Relax! You should take a holiday.

What's more, claim African voodoo practitioners, bizarre-sounding remedies may help.

Tourism officials say visitors to African countries are increasingly turning to voodoo - even if they sometimes won't admit it - as a way to beat problems they think Western-style experts cannot solve.

Some countries have even turned voodoo into a tourist attraction.

"Westerners are increasingly interested in voodoo," agrees Jacob Limikpo, president of the fetish market in Lome, capital of the West African nation of Togo.

"I think it's part of a growing fascination with the supernatural."

Lome's vast voodoo market is often called the world's biggest.

"Mind you," Limikpo shrugs.

"Hollywood has done us no favours. Voodoo in the movies is crazy and scary - with wild-eyed priests doing weird dances and engaging in shocking forms of sorcery.

"Real voodoo is much more gentle and caring - it's a religion. But, of course, it can include the casting of spells."

The dim shop where we sit is filled with the skins, skulls and bones of monkeys, crocodiles and other wild creatures.

Many organs or other body parts are ground into powders or preserved as liquid potions.

Dozens of nearby stalls are crammed to the rafters with similar supposedly curative products.

Limikpo acknowledges, "tourists have always visited us. But in the past year or two things have changed dramatically. More of them are no longer content only to look".

"They want help. They want spells, curses on their enemies. Perhaps there's someone at the office they can't stand. They've heard about sticking pins in doll-like effigies of someone they hate - and that technique is very real.

"But it's totally worthless unless done in conjunction with a voodoo priest.

"After the curse, the target may fall ill with a mysterious disease.

"I'll help people in this respect if they sound sincere and are genuinely victims of wrongful behaviour.

"But you don't just go putting a curse on a human being if you don't feel confident about the circumstances.

"While some foreign visitors want wealth or cures from diseases, most ask for something bad to befall their enemies."

Across the border from Togo is Benin, regarded as the heartland of voodoo.

Of the seven million Beninois, two out of every three people believe in voodoo.

What's more, voodoo - formerly banned - is now one of the country's recognised religions.

The annual National Voodoo Day is a public holiday, with colourful processions luring tourists from other countries.

Benin's biggest celebrations are in a town called Ouidah, notorious as a place from where slaves were shipped to America.

Other nearby countries where voodoo is widespread include Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon.

However, in different forms, it is popular throughout the continent.

It is most commonly called voodoo.

Other names include juju (mostly in west Africa), and fetishism.

In eastern, central and southern Africa, "traditional healers" and "African doctors" are more commonly used descriptions - and the emphasis is placed on herbal treatments.

However, some sorcery also flourishes.

In South Africa, the sangoma - traditional healer - is a respected resident of many communities both in rural areas and big cities.

According to Richard Moyane, a sangoma in South Africa's sprawling Soweto township: "Foreigners mostly just come to see what it's all about - but those who want treatment often confide they are dying from, say, Aids or cancer.

"The trusted practitioner will say, 'Look, I can't treat that'. But, as with any job, there are some crooks."

Increasingly, tourists visiting South Africa's townships make stops at traditional healers' premises.

Bus tours stopping to visit sangomas in the townships are common in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and elsewhere - as well as in nearby countries such as Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.

In the small Malawian village of Njobvu, I meet William Mtembo (21), who credits his father and grandfather with teaching him his healing skills.

Among his patients' most common demands are herbal treatments for menstrual difficulties, painful urination, diarrhoea and fevers linked to malaria or other ills.

For back pain, cuts are made in the sufferer's back into which a mix of powders (from roots and animal parts) is rubbed.

Another herbal remedy is said to be successful in treating infertility.

"Childless couples often visit me," he says.

How many of the villagers believe in his treatments?

"Perhaps half," Mtembo sighs.

"The others prefer the clinic offering Western medicine."

More controversial treatments involve spells - and related potions that reputedly make them work.

For instance, a small pellet of crushed herbs can be carried in the pocket to ensure promotion at work.

The cost is the equivalent of about $20 - the patient pays half in advance and, if it works, returns to pay the balance.

Another spell has the relative of an arrested person (guilty or not) rinsing his or her face in a potion so that an investigating officer will mysteriously release an alleged offender - or a magistrate will return a non-guilty verdict.

Male and female aphrodisiacs are often requested - and, maintains Mtembo, "definitely work".

There's "love potion" that can be added to the food of a potentially unfaithful male partner - who consequently loses interest in chasing other women.

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