I’m far from superstitious, but couldn’t pass up a visit to the local voodoo psychic. I had been living in Benin, the supposed birthplace of voodoo. Two alleys over, I was told, lived a big, unsightly woman with a knack for seeing into the future—and this, usually shirtless. Great. My buddy concurred. We set off in search of the future.
We walked along a dirt trail and into a narrow back alley, hoping for some sort of guidance from wandering goats. Not that easy to find, I reckoned. Perhaps I expected bright neon signs or a colourful tent. We soon found a rundown building with an open door that led into a sort of waiting area. The smell, of what I’m not sure, was intense. Four people were sitting on a long wooden bench. We sat quietly, avoiding those long stares that foreigners get when trying to do something local.
The wait was long. It may have been a couple of hours. The bench was hard. We strained our ears for clues about what was going on beyond the dirty curtain hanging in the doorway, but to no avail. Curious anticipation was at its peak.
Everyone that had gone in also came out, which was reassuring. I was next…
I drew back the curtain and walked into what seemed like a perfectly ordinary, small African living room. Ordinary, that is, save for the big, unsightly woman sitting—sure enough, shirtless—on the couch.
Jojo, for lack of a better name, was plump, to say the least. She had thick bright makeup smeared all over her face, what seemed like a two-inch gap between her two front teeth, and more necklaces than Busty Betty at Mardi Gras. We spoke briefly. She was rather nice, but without question a bit weird.
In front of her, was a collection of freaky little statues, a few long candles and a cup of scented oil. The air hung thick in the room.
“OK.” We were ready to go. She took my hand, smeared it with oil, and held up a candle. Her eyes commuted back and forth between my palm and my eyes. I tried to stay focused, which was surprisingly difficult. What did she see? What vibes was she picking up?
In broken French (I think), she described who I was, with about 60 percent accuracy. Not bad. At times creepy. Among her big revelations: I will travel extensively. I hope she’s right. For about thirty minutes, Jojo rambled on about my future family, career and health. (A long life for me!) She spent a lot of time talking about money—a disproportionate amount of time. Money, she hinted, was not going to be a worry—I would have enough (my buddy, I later found out, would not get such a rosy outlook). We could forgive her for harping on money issues; for most of her clientele, money, and getting by, is often a huge issue.
It also turned out that Jojo was a master marketer—queen of the up-sell. During his session, my buddy was told that he was at risk of drowning. But, Jojo could do a special ritual to the spirits of the sea, and protect him from any water-related dangers. This, for the low price of about $50. A small price to pay for life. He regretfully declined her ‘protection’.
My buddy wasn’t the only one to receive an offer of special protection. This was seemingly Jojo’s modus operendi: a cheap, basic psychic consultation (she’ll get you in at about $2 a pop), followed by heavy up-sell for additional special protection against the realization of something bad. For me, it was the risk of catching a sexually transmitted disease, something I was told was likely, and soon. Lucky for me, like for my friend, Jojo could provide special protection. This time, a kind of “spiritual condom” to ward me off of the risk of STDs. This, for a modest price of about 20 times the cost of the consultation. I also declined.
In Benin, where the majority of the population believes in voodoo, gri gri and other forms of animism, people will and often do pay for ‘special protection’, or believe in its powers. This also happens elsewhere in Africa, and other parts of the world. Not to knock Jojo’s particular brand of voodoo, but it is bad news when someone pays for special protection from something like STDs and then throws caution into the wind. The spread of AIDS in Africa is bad enough as it is. These kinds of spiritual practices and beliefs can be major barriers to education, changes in behaviour, and development in general—particularly in remote areas, where local beliefs are often unchallenged by modern day wisdom and realities.
I’ve even heard stories of fetishes in rural villages where the dead bodies of young children are sacrificed to the spirits for the protection of the villages. The human sacrifice, I understand, is what makes the fetish effective. Though often unreported, this sadly still goes on today.
In reality, Jojo’s psychic practice may be more geared to revenue generation than communicating with the spirits. She is, after all, running a business. And a seemingly great job of this she is doing, judging by the line-up of clientele outside her curtain. But the danger remains when people hold her interpretations as truth and special protections as fail-safe.
Whether my visit to Jojo’s living room was an authentic voodoo ‘séance’ or not, I don’t really know. I never did figure out what those little statues were for. In any case, the experience was eye opening—culturally, if nothing else. I just pray (to whom or what I’m no longer sure) that I won’t regret not having paid for her special protection.
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Marc-André Roy is an international consultant-cum-travel writer. He is currently living in Abuja, Nigeria.