From love potions to chimpanzee hands, if you seek Voodoo magic, bring your wallet

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Each month, NewsWorks presents a story from the First Person Arts podcast. This time, Jarret Beaudoin is studying abroad in western Africa, where he visits a Voodoo fetish market to look for the perfect magical object.

As part of a monthly series of stories from the First Person Arts podcast, NewsWorks presents this story from Jarett Beaudoin, a medical case manager for Philadelphia’s immigrant and refugee communities. Here he tells the story of a visit to a Voodoo fetish market in Togo, in western Africa, to look for the perfect magical object while studying abroad in western Africa.

Stories are chosen from FPA story slams, where storytellers are challenged to deliver a true five-minute tale about their lives, based on a theme, in front of a live audience, and without notes. This story was originally performed live as part of story slam on Jan. 13. The theme of the night was “superstitious.” 

Click the audio button above to hear his story. A transcription follows. [Audio production by Kimberly Haas.]

One of the biggest pulls for travel for me is this idea that you’re going to stumble across something really magical. So, like, the idea that you’ll be walking through the Himalayas, and all of a sudden you’ll see, like, a yeti. And you’ll make eye contact, and you’ll be like, “Yes. We understand each other.” And then he’ll walk off. Also the idea that you’ll walk into a rain forest and a fairy will come up to you and turn you into a really small person. And you’ll hang out with a bat named Robin Williams, and you’ll fight for the protection of the rainforest.

But actually for me it’s a little more selfish — like, I’m hoping that I’ll find some sort of magical superpower that’ll help me. Like a little necklace that will make me be able to breathe under water. In that case, I can swim — because I’m a terrible swimmer.

So this kind of followed me while I was studying abroad in Ghana during college. For those of you who are geographically challenged, Ghana is in western Africa. It’s about the size of Colorado. More importantly, it is right next to a country called Togo. You can remember Togo, because it sounds like “pogo,” and Togo kind of looks like pogo stick. It’s right next to Benin. And the two countries make up kind of like the Voodoo capital of the world.

So this is like the number one place for me to find my magical item. And so of course me and my friends decide we’re going to go there over the weekend, and so we take a bus over there. And we get in a cab from our hostel and take it over there. And the number-one place that I want to go is the fetish market.

[Laughter]

Perverts. Come on — it’s not a sexual fetish. A fetish is an object that is desired for its magical power. So this is like my number-one thing. And the fetish market will definitely have it. I mean they probably store like horcruxes and sets of seven. You know like — this is the place to be.

So we get out of the cab, and there’s this really big gate. And this guy comes up to the gate. And there’s a sign that says “Voodoo marché,” and you’re just like — Yes! This is the place! I’m gonna find something here!

So the guy comes up, with the most unintimidating voice ever. He’s like, “Hello. Welcome to the Voodoo market. It’s going to be 5,000 francs to get in per person, and then 10,000 francs for the tour guide, and then 10,000 francs for each camera that comes in.”

And so my heart immediately sinks, because the number-one biggest killer of everything magic is capitalism. It’s terrible. It’s simple supply and demand, folks. The demands is so high, and the supply is so low. It’s awful.

And plus — you don’t even pay for magical things, anyway. You do a somersault through some rotating blades, find out “Jehovah” is spelled with an I, and walk across a little camouflaged pathway, and kill a little templar, and then you’re good. You get the thing.

We go in, and there’s this kind of like desert warehouse-ish area. No roof or anything. And there’s these shacks around, and there’s these huge tables. And on these tables there are these huge skins, like animal skins, and hooves of things, and antlers and heads, shrunken heads of monkeys, and things like that. And it’s terrifying.

So we’re going around, and now the tour guide, who’s not the tour guide, because we didn’t pay for him, he’s now the salesman, he’s like: “Oh, over here is the chimpanzee hand. And the chimpanzee hand will make you — you know, if you’re a goalie, a soccer goalie, then it will make you better.”

And I’m like — Pfft! We don’t have … soccer … in America.

And then over here, he’s like: “Oh, we have the porcupine with quills. And you can get that, and it will cure your asthma.”

I’m like: Pfft! Who cares about porcupines? There’s no porcupines in Africa.

So we get through that, and I’m like — I can’t even get anything through customs, anyway. This is ridiculous. This is all, like, live animal stuff. I’m, like, feeding into like poacher heaven.

So finally we get to the end, and there’s this shack, and he’s like: “Do you what to see the Voodoo priest?”

And I was like: “Yes. Of course!”

And he’s like: “Ok.”

And I’m like — Ah! Ok. He’s not going to charge me for it. Capitalism, I’m beating you.

So we go into this shack, and the Voodoo priest comes out. He’s got this, like, cowboy hat on, “Crocodile Dundee” hat — I’m like: Yes! — and our tour guide that’s not our tour guide is now our interpreter, and he’s talking to us. And they pull out these little items. One item is like this little thing where you whisper your travel location and put it up and it makes it good luck while traveling. And another thing is, like, a love potion, which is so exciting. All these little items!

And we’re like — Yeah these are so cool. How much?

And he’s like: “Oh, we must ask the gods.”

So he rolls these cowry shells, and he’s like: “Oh, this one is 500,000.” And I’m like — what? no!

And so we get up. We don’t buy them. We go to leave. I’m kind of regretting — man, I really want a magical item! And right as were leaving, the Voodoo priest, he kind of grabs my hand, and I turn around, and he has this little sparkle in his eyes, magical sparkle — I’m like: Yes! — and in his, like, five words of English, he hands me this Voodoo priest business card and he’s like: “Please tell your friends.”

Jaret may have left the fetish market empty handed — except for that business card and the indelible image of skins, horns and dried-up monkey heads — but it’s funny the places you can find magic in life. We connected with him recently to find out more about his experience. Here’s a brief Q&A: 

What were you studying in Ghana?

I was studying abroad through my university. I was a Global Studies major and I took classes about African history and political science.

Of all the items you saw at the Voodoo marché, what did you want most?

Most of the stuff was some form of dead animal, but there was one love potion that was a combination of Chanel No. 5 and dried up chameleon that I wanted just because it was so funny.

What did you do with the business card?

I still have it! I keep it in a box at home to bring out and show guests. (It’s probably the closest thing to a magical item that I got the whole trip!)

Harry Potter or Indiana Jones? and why?

Definitely Indiana Jones (except the fourth one), because it’s closer to reality and fedoras are much cooler than robes. That, and I’m still really bitter about turning 11 and not getting a letter from Hogwarts.

What magical items have you collected from other places?

My parents are amateur geologists, so I have some pretty cool fossilized coral. That sounds really lame, but it looks really magical.

Jarrett Beaudoin is a case manager at Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee in global politics and economics. Jarett recently moved to Philadelphia from Knoxville. He will be applying to Medical School in the fall, and would love to continue his work with refugee communities throughout his career.

This story was his first time ever participating in a First Person Arts story slam.

To find out more about story slams, visit www.firstpersonarts.org.

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