Travelling Spirits

Blinded by the bright sunlight, I can barely discern the contours of a person sitting on the floor when I enter the dark, narrow room. Slowly my eyes get used to the darkness and I see an old, thin man with bare chest and naked feet, smiling friendly and, with a gesture of his hand, inviting me to sit down on a little stool in front of him. The only furniture in the room are a bed, taking up almost half of the space, a table and, next to the man, a curtain covering the corner to his left.

We sit down, exchange greetings and I place my offerings – a small bottle of Akpeteshie (a home-brewed alcoholic spirit made from palm wine or sugar cane), a pack of cigarettes and ten Cedis – on the floor. Approvingly, the man nods his head and smiles.

After having offered my gifts, I am allowed to have a glance at the holy of holies: The voodoo master lifts the curtain and reveals a small, black figure made from clay leaning in the corner, surrounded by a curious collection of things that seem random at first: two knives, a pile of little white shells and coins, a whistle made from wood and three smaller clay figures, all in different sizes and shapes.

Inhabited by Voodoo Spirits

The clay figures, the voodoo master starts to explain, are inhabited by spirits which only he can see and communicate with. Following his command, the spirits travel to far off places or to the past to carry out tasks and make inquiries. The voodoo master has inherited this gift as well as the clay figures (also called fetishes) from his great-grandfather and practices the old rituals to help people – in the evenings, after his tiring work, and without taking money for his services (as many other voodoo masters do).

His voodoo spirits, the master continues, don’t do any harm. His clients usually visit him when they are sick or to receive help with finding a marriage partner or a job. However, there are bad spirits too who can even kill a person.

After this introduction the voodoo master starts the ritual: Mumbling words in this Native language Ewe, he pours the alcohol I offered on the four clay figures. Then he lights a cigarette and puts it into the mouth of the biggest clay figure leaning upright against the wall – and surprisingly, the spirit seems to like smoking: The cigarette continues burning for the next fifteen minutes until it is finished.

Prepared like this – the liquor and the cigarette are meant to give the voodoo spirits strength for the long journey ahead of them, the knives are weapons to defend themselves in case they encounter hostile spirits on their way – we can  send one of the voodoo spirits off, to investigate my past : The voodoo master chooses one of the smaller clay figures and blows the whistle, the sign for the spirit to go on the journey.

Elaborate System of Faith

Voodoo, meaning spirit in Ewe, is a collective term designating traditional religions in coastal West Africa. Among others, it is practiced in Ghana, Benin, Togo and Nigeria, all of which follow their own characteristic rituals, patterns of worship and practices. Voodoo also served as source for religions among the African Diaspora in the New World and has produced a rich variety of syncretized beliefs in countries such as Haiti, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Brazil and Suriname.

Often wrongly reduced to the cliché of the “voodoo doll” used to manipulate the human being it represents, voodoo is an elaborate system of faith based on the belief in spirits that govern the Earth. These spirits, arranged in a hierarchy, include major deities governing natural forces, spirits of individual trees, streams and rocks as well as ethnic spirits representing a certain tribe, ethnic group or nation. It is also believed that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the living, thus ancestor worship plays a major role.

Besides the diversity of spirits, voodoo also recognizes one single divine creator or god, an androgynous being representing simultaneously the female and the male aspect, also associated with the moon (female) and the sun (male). As all creation is considered divine and thus contains divine power, herbal remedies as well as mundane objects are believed to be powerful tools to heal illnesses or solve problems when used in religious ritual. However, to carry out the rituals, it needs a voodoo master in possession of the innate gift.

The Traveller Returns

While we’re waiting, the voodoo master throws some of the white shells on the floor to check on the spirit. When he’s finally satisfied with the result, he blows the whistle – and the obedient traveller returns.

But before he reveals his findings, the voodoo spirit has some questions himself: It’s interested to know where I am coming from – and why I haven’t removed my shoes as it is common when visiting a voodoo master. When the spirit learns that I am a foreigner, he accepts my faux-pas, I can leave them on. My friend, however, a Ghanaian, should have known better – he has to take his slippers off.

It follows a lively conversation between master and spirit, and I am surprised how well the spirit is informed – some of his statements hit the mark. After almost an hour in the voodoo master’s dark room, all of us, him, me and the spirit, are exhausted, but the spirit is the one to end the session. He’s tired now, he lets me know, we can continue our chat next time.

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