Thursday, February 9, 2012

Voodoo Part One

Peace Corps volunteers aim to better facilitate development work by integrating into the culture of their host countries. While spending Christmas in the States, I realized that despite being able to answer the many questions my friends and family had for me I still had yet to fully understand one very important part of the local culture: voodoo. This religion influences social interactions and work life, and knowing more about it may lead to understanding why villagers adopt or do not adopt certain behaviors. Also, voodoo is very interesting to me because it is completely different from any other belief system I’ve seen before coming to Togo. So, I’ve began to ask questions.

Tenants to voodoo believe that there exist many other-world beings, among them spirits, ancestors, and gods. Spirits are global and can be found everywhere. There are good spirits, and there are bad spirits. Ancestors are more localized to a village and include great-grand parents who have died but whose spirits continue to exert an influence on daily events. Lastly, there are gods for many natural elements such as water and air as well as for animals like scorpions.

Each villager who practices voodoo has their own personal legba. A legba is a small mud statue with oval mouth and eye holes. Occasionally cowry shells, which were used as currency in Togo in the times before money, are used for the eyes. The statue has a small indentation in the top which is filled with earth. Adherents use this indentation to make offering to their legba, such as sodabi, animal blood, or corn flour mixed with water, which is absorbed into the indentation and strengthens the protective powers of the legba. Chicken and goat blood can be given to the legba, but not pig blood (which is reserved for voodoo sorcerers). These statues are often found in a line outside family houses and compounds, with a larger legba for the father and smaller ones for the mother and each of the children. They always face outward and they stop evil spirits or kill people invaded by them before the spirits can enter the home.

Monsieur Yawovi standing beside the Appelli that guards his house

Compounds and groups of houses are also protected by appelli, which sit within the walls of the compound and face the house. Their structure is similar to the legba, but they are bigger and have an iron ‘pivot’ planted in the ground in front that helps them protect a family. There are at least 8 other types of statues which serve various purposes in my community, and statues probably vary from village to village along with changes in local beliefs.

Various types of fetishes sold at the market in Vogan: skulls of local reptiles and canines, horsehair brooms that are waved about during dances, and the preserved remains of (hopefully not too endangered) birds.

These legba and appelli statues are different from fetishes, which are objects enabling spirits to help the owner of the fetish. Fetishes include a variety of objects, from goat horns and dead birds to objects piled into bottles and snake skins stretched out on boards. Small wooden statues are used to represent the ancestors in ceremonies, and villagers will make offerings to the fetishes and ancestors just as with the legba. Occasionally they may even put a cigarette in the ancestor’s mouth to smoke! The wooden statues are meant to symbolize the continued presence of an ancestor in the world, and women who have lost a child after having twins will have a statue made to replace it and protect the remaining child.

Wood carver in the nearby village of Adokowoe beside ancestor statues

Each cluster of houses has its own shrine where villagers perform ceremonies and hold fetes. The shrines vary widely in structure, but they are usually the size of a small room with a door in the middle of one side. On each side of the door is a cement ledge for seating. There are two rectangular holes on each side of the door. Next to these holes, offerings are hung to please the gods: the bones and meat of animals, crops such as corn, cassava, peanuts, and beans from the recent harvest, etc. The front of shrines is always painted white.

Shrines can be covered by a tree planted in their centers or by metal / palm thatch roofing. Within the interior, there is a second cement ledge holding back a mound of earth. Cola nuts from previous ceremonies cover the ledge, and various iron tools are planted in the ground in front of it. Cola nuts are considered the food of the devil, and villagers eat them throughout the fetes. The devil leaves the tools behind after he visits. I got very confused trying to find out whether the devil was a good or evil deity. I was told that these tools protect a villager and that when a mean person tries to attack them these tools will make the attacker fall to the ground so they can’t get up and the villager can escape. There also exists an overseeing ‘God,’ different from those designated for natural elements and animals, and I’m not sure whether he is considered good or bad either.

A small voodoo shrine next to the local azeto’s house

Villagers who have sickness in the family can come pray to deities at the shrine to make them better. There are also certain days of the week when people are not allowed to enter the shrine. While visiting a friend in a nearby village, he enthusiastically showed me the local shrine and then, eyes downcast, told me to come back the next day because entrance isn’t permitted on Mondays.

Voodoo fetes go all night, driven by the energizing power of cola nuts and sodabi. People dance, sing, and drink, sometimes for days on end. These ceremonies are often held at the end of the harvest in October and November, before the start of the dry season when villagers are most wealthy. At one that I attended last year, half the village gathered under a Neem tree near the center of town. They formed a circle around a group of priestesses dancing in a line around the tree, and men sat grouped on benches to one side fervently playing drums. The priestesses formed a double line, with the oldest coming first and the youngest, the children, in the back. When each pair arrived in front of the drums, they would do our local ‘chicken’ dance and then continue circling around. Each woman was painted with red powder and they had long cowry shell necklaces hanging across their bodies. Every once in a while, these priestesses would walk off followed by other villagers playing instruments to do a tour of the village. This fete went on for three days, nonstop.

Each fete is presided over by an azeto, aze meaning ‘magic’ and to meaning ‘one who.’ He is a sorcerer who has magical powers, among them the power to change people into animals. The azeto also presides over funerals, sells fetishes, and gives horoscope readings. For my next blog post I am going to interview the local voodoo sorcerer to delve deeper into this very important aspect of Ewe culture.

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