West Africa's magic

20:17, Mar 13 2014
voodoo ceremony
ANCIENT ARTS: Nigerian Yaruba Voodoo Spirits perform during a Voodoo ceremony.

Ancient and mysterious arts survive in a land racked by turmoil. But visitors are now returning to visit the mysterious dark continent.

''You will travel far and the spirits will guide you safely through many perils,'' Anthony whispers into his hands cupping the tiny object.

And with that short and sweet blessing, he inserts a tiny wooden pin into the little shaft and presents me with my travelling talisman.

Anthony, not his real name I'm certain, looks at me with the satisfaction that reminds me of a triumphant used car salesman.

In his tiny, darkened back room, Dr David Conrad (a PhD in African studies) and I survey the bizarre assortment of fetish idols arranged on the little table.

''You won't find these legba (vodun idols) out in the market,'' he says to me through barely moving lips, ''these are the real deal.''


David accepts one of the idols with all the solemnity of a holy treasure, only this macabre, roughly carved figure about the size of a premature foetus has none of the beauty associated with divine objects.

Its blank gnarly body is covered in coarse dust, cobwebs and lumpy red stains that need no further description. He inspects it briefly and raises his thick wiry eyebrows in my direction.

''This one.''

For about $20, I have a genuine West African voodoo doll and a couple of sundry talisman in the bargain.

Here in Togo's Akodessewa Fetish Market, a small contingent of our tour group have ventured inside the compound to examine the piles of desiccated animal remains, withered heads and amputated parts of animals on sale.

Like in any African market, hopeful young hucksters will bound up to you with trinkets and baubles to thrust in your face.

Only here in the capital, Lome, these souvenirs and forget-me-nots are tiny figurines impaled with nails or incomprehensible amalgams of animal parts. 

Despite centuries of Christian influence in the Gulf of Guinea from Nigeria to Ghana, the art of vodun is practised in both the cities and villages. When West African slaves were transported in their thousands from these shores to the Caribbean and Americas, it became ''voodoo'' - and something else again. 

The poignant slave history is the other predominant cultural experience available to us at the many sites, now UNESCO recognised, in Ghana, Gambia and Senegal. The slave trade itself extended almost the entire length of the African west coast and well inland, and almost certainly exists in some shape or form to this day.

In neighbouring Ghana, tourists visit the underground holding cells at the now UNESCO World Heritage listed Cape Coast Castle.

Here our heartbeats quicken and our skin tingles at the realisation that over the centuries, thousands of miserable souls shuffled through these rank corridors.

Further along the coast is the similarly imposing Elmina Castle, a massive whitewashed coastal fortification. Its earliest portions date back to 1482, making it the oldest European structure in world south of the Sahara.

The sovereign divisions in West Africa we see today is largely the result of European influence. Nineteenth-century and 20th-century borders were drawn to please colonial masters with little regard for traditional homelands or tribal territories. 

Now, in the 21st century, with much of the colonial bickering over, tourism is growing gradually as unrest subsides. But West Africa is still imperilled by the greed of former colonial masters through corporate proxies like oil drillers, gas pipers and mineral miners.

Peter Baxter, historian, author and inveterate African field guide, reminds us that Africa is not just for the curious, rubber-necked voyeur. It is a land facing a multitude of environmental and humanitarian challenges.

''Apart from the obvious revenue benefits, well-managed tourism maintains the viability of local culture, providing an incentive for it to remain alive and vibrant, but also a framework for it to continue evolving, bearing in mind that culture is fundamentally organic,'' Baxter tells me. 

''A lack of formats such as ours for local cultural display will obviously result in many stagnating and ultimately disappearing under the weight of modern influences.''

When it came time to go our separate ways in the bustling former French colony of Senegal, it was with a suitcase full of scary carvings and a clinging sense of optimism.

An optimism that, if the unifying force of well-managed tourism was allowed to pervade these once sullen lands, Africa would be a better place.

Right now, it's at a crossroad and the once desperate march of manacled slaves is being replaced with lines of khaki-clad travellers hoping to make a difference.