Getting out of my skull in the den of the ju-ju man

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The Independent Online
The other day I drank firewater from a human skull and made a wish. After an hour with the witchdoctor it seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

Before drinking, I repeated an incantation intoned by my host: "I swear I have drunk with Death. My death will not come from the hand of a human being. My death will come from the good God who put me on to this earth".

I drained the schnapps (pounds 2.50 a bottle from the witchdoctor's wife) as he waived his ju-ju stick above my head. The drink produced a curious tingling sensation in my lips but no ill-effects. I was assured it would protect me from evil.

Alphonse, the fetishist to whose suburban Lagos home I'd been invited, had knocked back a skull-full a little earlier. I sat with my friend, Rasaki, in the gloom of a low-ceilinged shack, listening to the witchdoctor explaining his art. Inside his den, the hot afternoon air was heavy with the smell of incense.

"People come to me for all sorts of reasons", he explained as he crouched on the floor, half a dozen necklaces and charms dangling against his bare chest: "Sometimes they're looking for jobs, other times they're sick or having nightmares.

"If people dream of cats", said Alphonse, pointing to a white cat on the bench beside me, "that is a very bad sign. If the cats attack you in your dream then you are seriously sick and need treatment.

"Sometimes men bring their wives if they can't become pregnant", he continued. "It could be that evil people are stopping her from conceiving. I can lift the curse".

At this point Alphonse went into a long rigmarole about the spirits of the sea. I presumed he was talking metaphorically, but in fact he takes the husband and barren wife to the beach, where an offering of fruit or meat is made to the spirit of the sea.

"If someone is about to die", he says, pointing at a disgusting bowl of gunk on an altar, "I anoint him with this potion. It's a secret medicine made with the heads of a vulture, a stork and a crow. It also contains sand and 41 different kinds of herbs".

Alphonse Hounkpe comes from a long line of fetishists in neighbouring Benin. Once known as the Slave Coast and more recently as Dahomey, it is the birthplace of voodoo. He moved to Lagos 16 years ago with his wife and children. His younger son, Valentin, sits on the bench beside me. At one point he does a little sprinkling routine with firewater, though he's not old enough to imbibe.

"If someone has been robbed", explains Alphonse, brandishing a crocodile head with a large bone in its teeth, "this will catch the culprit".

The bone, it transpires, is a human femur. I don't ask where Alphonse got it. His den is littered with what look like human remains. Congealed blood covers the altars and ju-jus. Rasaki later tells me Alphonse uses human-body parts for his magic, which he buys at a special place in a local market.

"Now, if someone has done you harm", continues Alphonse, "I use this African gun. It's made of a human thigh bone with bottles containing ju- ju soil attached to it. I put the name of the bad person in the bone. Even if he is very far away in Europe he will get a terrible pain in his side".

Alphonse has ju-jus for a huge array of ills and inconveniences . Should you be charged with murder, Alphonse will, for a small fee, take up his duck and lizard heads, which have been bound in pieces of cloth from dead people. His spell will ensure the charge is dropped.

The den is an Aladdin's cave of trinkets. Dolls, pictures, feathers, horse tails, animal skulls, bottles, beads and statues cover every surface. In the corner is a child's coffin, which squeaks when the lid is opened. I try to see if Alphonse has a squeaky toy in his hand but it's hard to tell.

"I'm not a Christian", says Alphonse, "I don't follow any particular religion. I believe in ju-ju and in nature".

Before I leave, Alphonse gives me a magic parrot feather (he has a cage full of parrots outside, along with some repulsive-looking rodents). Next time I come to Lagos, he says, I should bring a ring. This he will feed to a chameleon which he will lock up in the parrot's cage. When the chameleon dies, he will be opened up and the ring, by now bearing magic properties, will be extracted and put on my finger.

On the way home, Rasaki, a Muslim, says most Nigerians take ju-ju seriously. Soldiers, policemen and politicians seek the fetishists' help. Rasaki believes God's power is best but that men like Alphonse are powerful and it's best not to upset them. Needless to say, I'm keeping my parrot feather charm in a safe place.