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


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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power