Someone jostled me and I put my hand in the pile of vulture heads. I yelped like a schoolgirl and jumped back and almost knocked over the pyramid of died snakes. I was not feeling sexy.
The voudun medicine man looked at me thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said. “You want something for your pants.”
“No I don’t,” I said.
“No, not the pants,” he agreed. “For what’s inside the pants.”
His assistants chuckled in French. No, I was not feeling sexy at all.
I was in Lomé, Togo. Let me be clear about my feelings about Togo: Togo is a terrible place. The ministries of tourism in Afghanistan and North Korea should hand out pamphlets of Togo at their airports with the slogan: “At least you’re not there”. Visiting Togo is a bit like having all your teeth extracted by a bloke using the claw part of a ball-and-claw hammer: it’s not very pleasant, but at least you know it won’t ever happen again.
And in all the flyblown, heat-soaked, sweat-shrivelled, tapeworm-trammelled hellhole that is Togo, the very worst part, even worse than the bathroom in my hotel, is the Akondessewa fetish market.
Togolese go to the fetish market to buy ingredients for their animist medicines and potions: there are stalls of horse skulls and vulture beaks, buckets of monkey heads, mouldering half-crocodiles, porcupines turned inside out, wooden bowls of paws. The only shade came from the clouds of circling flies.
I was about to leave when I was approached by the medicine man. “I don’t want anything,” I told him. “I’m just looking around.”
That’s when he suggested that perhaps I might be interested in a little something to assist in the love department.
“I don’t need any help, thank you,” I said.
“Ah, we all need help sometimes, Monsieur,” he said.
He produced a twig.
It didn’t look like much, he said, but a knuckle-sized portion soaked in alcohol would create a mighty elixir of love, and not just for me – for both of us.
“Both of us?” That sounded like something I could invest in.
“Oh yes, monsieur! You put the stick in the drink, then you drink the drink together, then – ooh-la-la!”
I hefted the twig. That ooh-la-la was very persuasive. “How much?”
“I don’t want any money,” he said, and I cheered up.
“But,” he continued thoughtfully, “we must ask the spirits how much they want.”
“Tell the spirits I’m South African,” I said. “We have rands, not dollars.”
“The spirits know everything,” he assured me.
He closed his eyes and listened closely to the spirits. Then he looked at me sympathetically.
“They say you need a lot of help. It may cost a lot.”
I glared in the general direction of the spirits. What have I ever done to those guys?
“Maybe I should speak to them,” I said. “I’m sure I can explain things.”
“They only speak with me,” he said regretfully. It was like trying to argue with the guy down at the SARS office.
Once I was back home, before I’d even unpacked, I whipped out the twig with a flourish. She frowned at it.
“How much did you pay?”
I tried to explain that the spirits drive a hard bargain.
“This had better be one hell of a twig,” she said.
We dropped it into some gin. I was hoping for some kind of impressive fizz or bubbling, but it just looked like a twig floating in a glass of gin.
Finally we couldn’t stand watching the twig float any longer so we took it out and added some tonic and sipped thoughtfully.
“Do you feel anything?”
“No, do you?”
I lowered my voice like Barry White with a head-cold. I made my eyebrows move sexily. “Well, you know, baby,” I rumbled, “We don’t need a voodoo potion. We only need you and m–“
“Oh my god,” she said suddenly.
“What? Can you feel something?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes!”
Do you think this story has a happy ending? I did too, until she jumped up and clutched her belly, then ran to the bathroom and locked the door. For the rest of the evening there came a series of terrible, terrifying sounds. Then she would shout horrible words at me, and promise to kill me when she got out of there. Then the sounds would start again.
And all that was actually a little bit funny, until I started feeling it too.
Somewhere in Togo there is a voudun medicine man who still laughs when he thinks about me. He knows I’m never, ever going back to Togo to demand my money back. Even if I did, I have a feeling the spirits don’t give refunds. Darrel Bristow-Bovey
is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer and aspirant retiree. Follow him on Twitter @dbbovey