Glutton Onboard: A Voodoo Ceremony in Togo

A depiction of a ceremony on the wall

The Atlantic Ocean between Namibia to Senegal is generally considered a hotspot for pirates. These pirates usually target cargo ships, as they are low to the water and slow-moving, but they have been known to try to board a cruise ship or two. As a result, we have been doing passenger drills in the off chance that pirates will attack our ship.

These drills involve basically fleeing to our suites and shutting the blinds when the captain says something that sounds like “Alert Yellow Papa”. When he says “Alert Orange Papa”, it basically means that we are to stay in our rooms, but to be more concerned about it. “Alert Red Papa” is when we are supposed to go out into the corridors and lay down in front of our doors as the captain attempts evasive maneuvers. The fleeing into the corridor is an attempt to convince invaders that no one is there, but it seems like a hard thing to ask when it’s an enormous cruise ship with hundreds of rooms.

In preparation for pirates, other guests who have been on the world cruise before have been regaling us with tips on what the boat will do when or if they attack. Some of these things have ended up being true (pouring hot oil down the sides of the ship so that pirates will have a hard time clambering aboard) and very not true (playing “Toxic” by Britney Spears because that is supposed to distress pirates’ delicate music sensibilities). However, if all else fails, we also have mercenaries on board who stick out like a sore thumb because they are 1.) extremely ripped and 2.) pretty young. One even has an eye patch! And is a fan of the lunch buffet.

I have to say that, although it has been eye-opening, all the preparations have been worth it, because we have experienced our very first visits to West Africa (for our family at least). It’s not the first place that travelers think of to visit — indeed, North Korea has had more visitors than Togo — but honestly worth it in the most traditional spirit of travel: to actually learn stuff.

Which is how we found ourselves in a fairly old bus with the windows open on our way to a small village in Togo, an hour away from our pier. We were on our way to a “voodoo” ceremony there, where we would be shown how practitioners channel spirits in ways that prove useful to their own lives: for health reasons, to foretell their fortunes, to help make connections. This particular ceremony we would be witnessing would be to assist villagers on an upcoming hunt.

On the way, we passed much greenery and lots of goats, and also much poverty, even though Togo is very rich in natural resources (this is a theme that has echoed itself throughout much of the continent. Why is there so much oil and gold and diamonds but many people are still living hand to mouth? Food for thought). Finally, we reached a street lined with street vendors selling bread and barbecued meat on skewers, which led us to a sort of sandy parking lot in front of a space bordered by concrete walls. 

On one end of the lot, a concrete wall bore a drawn-on symbol, with a doorway leading to a forest behind it. We were told by our guide, Nicole, that this was a sacred forest, where priests meditate before a ceremony and where people are taken when they need to collect themselves. We were not of their religion, so of course we couldn’t enter. The other side of the lot bore a drawing of an actual voodoo ceremony, behind what appeared to be a shrine centered by a small statue.

In front of the sacred forest

Music was already playing when we arrived, but we still had to wait outside because the priests were not ready for us yet. We were under the mistaken impression that voodoo practitioners were under the influence of some sort of drink, but that is actually not true: the practitioners themselves are completely sober, but have the ability to allow their gods or spirits to possess them. Indeed, they go into training for months or even years in order to hone this ability. The head priest, who guides the practice, readies himself for a ceremony days in advance with preparations like not lying with his wife, or eating food cooked by his wife if she is menstruating. This is in order to stay “pure” (why women are considered unpure even though they are the way life is brought into the world is another subject entirely, and is a question that extends to Buddhism as well). 

When we were finally allowed to enter the ceremony grounds, we filed into an open space centered by a large network of cacti draped with other vegetation, enclosed by a line of stones. Some visitors were obviously on their phones, recording the whole setup as we arrived, so I found it amusing that a few of the villagers were doing the same thing to us, recording a mostly septuagenarian horde clad in faded baseball caps and Regent Cruise windbreakers. To the plant circle’s left was a wooden statue loosely resembling a human form with a hat and a painted-on face, which practitioners appeared to be greeting with a shake of their heads and a loose shake of their mouth that we in yoga call “horsey lips”. When we do this in practice, it is to get rid of tension after a series of difficult asanas. I can’t say whether that is the case here, but I would totally understand it. Imagine performing religious rituals sacred to you which a crowd of onlookers would likely not understand and misconstrue?

Luckily, we had Nicole. The practitioners, mostly men but a couple of women, had colored powder on their faces and in their hair. They were already in their trances and dancing, as Nicole explained, in ways that their gods were telling them to dance, spinning and occasionally standing stock still, or shaking hands with onlookers. Off to the far end, a band was playing, beating out a loud rhythm, and villagers who were just there to have fun were dancing and drinking plum wine. Most people wore colorful cloths tied around their waists, including the practitioners. It seemed like a fun party for the most part, with the actual practitioners mostly dancing on their own. A couple of villagers wended through the crowd, offering beer and soft drinks.

The plant circle and statue

But one man broke away to rummage through the garbage, ending up with a green glass beer bottle that he broke over his head. Blood started to pour out of his forehead, and other practitioners raced over to him to restrain his body and pour white powder onto his cut. As he stiffened and finally stopped resisting, they carried him over to the sacred forest so that he could calm down. “He did something wrong in his preparations,” explained Nicole. “So his god punished him.” Meanwhile, the other practitioners and band carried on as villagers picked up the glass pieces, which would be brutal on their bare feet.

Then another practitioner began throwing hands and getting into what looked like an altercation with a different man. A female villager ran up, I assumed to stop what looked like a wrestling match, only to snatch the brightly colored cloth away from the fighting practitioner to reveal regular basketball shorts underneath (I guess she was worried it would get dirty?) Eventually overpowered by several people, he, too, was carried away. The ceremony continued as if nothing had happened.

This is where it became confusing for yours truly, because I am essentially Thai and loud noises and what looks like altercations are scary to me. The spontaneity of everything, the unpredictability, made me mentally exhausted. How is it that one minute, a smiling man would walk over to the plants, breathe in the scent and lay a hand over his heart as if well contented, and then a few minutes later pick up a heavy wooden chair, stalking his way towards the partygoers and band? In wresting the chair from him, a woman gets punched in the face and another man behind him gets a sharp elbow. It seems hard to maintain order at a ceremony, especially as no one knows what other people’s gods are telling them.

But then the man who had originally cut his forehead with a bottle appeared, completely cleaned of powder and blood-free. Some of the other pracitioners who had been ushered into the forest had also returned, dancing and whirling, including the man in the basketball shorts. He drew a circle with white powder into the ground, and then a white cross. He then piled more white powder into the center of the circle before setting a vase with the bottom broken off over the mound. From somewhere, another person brought water, which he then poured slowly into the vase, bit by small bit. It was well over 10 minutes before the water started spilling from the bottom of the vase, obscuring one side of the circle.

Drawing the circle

“You must leave now,” bellowed one of our tour guides from a megaphone, and as we still stood, slow to turn around, he says it again: “YOU. MUST. LEAVE. NOW.” The reason why we will never know, but we finally turn and leave, still processing what we’d seen (I am still processing it even now).

As I head to the lot, a couple of women pass me on the way back, and I recognize them as the women who were caked in powder and whirling earlier. One of them doubles back to proudly stand next to the symbol on the wall to the sacred forest, posing for photographers. The ceremony had been performed, some people had been punished for indiscretions, and it was all over now. It was time to get back to regular life, leaving me as the only person unable to draw a line under things and move on.


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8 responses to “Glutton Onboard: A Voodoo Ceremony in Togo

  1. So much of this has me fascinated and I hope I can ask you questions about it this fall in BKK. “Go into the corridors and lie down in front of the door” seems peculiar, like playing dead when attacked by a grizzly? And the mercenaries sound quite romantic! Were you told “You. Must. Leave. Now.” because of the ship’s schedule or because the ceremony became something outsiders couldn’t witness? So many questions. I’d actually take a cruise if it meant I could spend time in Togo. (By the way, what I really am curious about is how it felt to have one day as a tourist in your own city?)

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