One year ago, you noticed that your left hand felt stiff and tender. Over months, the pain worsened and would not go away. A doctor at the hospital diagnosed you with chronic arthritis – an incurable disease – and so you’ve come here: the fetish market in the Akodessewa suburb of Lomé, Togo’s capital city. Like a third of Togolese, you are a follower of voodoo; where conventional medicine fails, it may succeed.
The smell of decaying flesh greets you as you enter. Stacks of monkey skulls and leopard heads grimace from wooden shelves; Akodessewa is famous for the range and quality of its stock, and devotees come here from as far away as Congo to find solutions for a range of problems: infertility, malaria, AIDS, heartbreak, financial trouble. You join some of them outside a voodoo priestess’s hut, queueing for an appointment, her diagnosis, and a prescription.
After waiting for over two hours, your turn comes. You remove your shoes as a mark of respect, and walk in. As the priestess enters, you clap four times, and when she sits, you clap once, bow and place payment for the consultation into a bowl on her lap. She listens to your problem, retreats to a backroom to consult the loa, the spirits, then returns to hand you a small piece of paper with a list of ingredients. Back at the stalls, you shop for the objects, each of which you believe has a soul. A dead tortoise costs you CFA12,000 (US$24), you pay CFA65,000 ($129) for a baboon complete with skin and eyes, and a whole elephant’s foot sets you back CFA150,000 ($300). The effects of many of the ingredients dictated by the loa are secret, but some active principles are widely known: monkeys improve memory; gorillas give strength; chameleons ensure good business.
You bring the materials back to the priestess and she grinds parts of them up with herbs, then sets them over a fire until they burn away to a black powder. She makes three incisions in your back and rubs the powder into the wounds. You pay an extra fee. As you walk away, your left hand already feels more relaxed. People leaving Akodessewa market rarely know why what they’ve bought will work, but they want to believe it will.
Baseball rubbing mud
Rubbing shoe polish on a baseball makes it easier for a pitcher to grip, but damages it. Mud discovered in 1938 by Lena Blackburne in New Jersey, USA, causes no damage, and was swiftly adopted by major US baseball teams. The mud’s exact source remains secret.
In 1886, the US Lambert Pharmacal Company bought the right to make Listerine liquid antiseptic from Dr. Joseph Lawrence in exchange for royalties on sales. In the USA, trade secrets are licensed forever: Listerine’s recipe was revealed in 1931, but the manufacturer still pays royalties today.
The original recipe for the KFC restaurant chain’s fried-chicken coating is kept in Louisville, Kentucky, USA inside a 350-kilogram safe encased in 60 centimeters of concrete, guarded by motion detectors. Separate companies make different parts of the mixture so that none knows the complete recipe.
US soldiers encountered Chinese Yunnan Baiyao medicine during the Vietnam War, when North Vietnamese soldiers carried it to stop wounds from bleeding. The ingredients were a Chinese state secret, but in 2010 they were revealed on a US government website, to comply with US drug regulations.
From the pages of COLORS #85 - Going to Market.