I Was a Fetish Priestess
As told to “Awake!” correspondent in Dahomey
MY PARENTS called me Agbodémakou when I was born more than fifty years ago in Porto-Novo, capital of Dahomey, West Africa. We were of the family of “Hazoumé,” which means “king’s servants.” The gods we worshiped were represented by fetishes.
Do you know what a fetish is? This term comes from a Portuguese word feitiço, meaning “made by art.” The term has come to be applied to a material object in which a god or spirit is believed to dwell, giving it a sort of magical power. Many fetishes are made with human features, requiring a skillful artisan; but others may be merely rocks, mounds of earth or some similar thing in its natural state.
My family worshiped two gods, Sinuloko (protector of children) and Avesan (owner of the town). The fetish for Sinuloko was a mud heap covered with the leaves of the sacred tree that we call Deslé in our Gun dialect. The fetish of Avesan was a forged-iron “asen,” which looks like a miniature umbrella on the end of an iron pole, but without the cloth.
Of the two gods, Avesan was considered more powerful. Even before I was born, my mother would go regularly to the temple devoted to his service to make offerings of yams, chickens and sometimes even goats in order to assure my safe arrival and future.
An “Omen” Directs My Life
Fetish religion is very superstitious. It seemed significant, therefore, when one day my mother found a python in her room. We have a saying that the python never visits without leaving a message. Therefore my parents consulted an “oracle priest” about this.
He explained that the python appearing in our house was an omen that meant that I should serve Avesan as a fetish priestess. But I did not do that right away.
My Decision to Become a Fetish Priestess
When I grew up I married a priest of Avesan. My parents strongly disapproved of our marriage and did everything in their power to break it up. Difficulties increased when we continued childless.
In an effort to reverse my ill fortune, I obtained many charms, objects that supposedly repel evil. But these did not help me. It seemed certain that my parents would succeed in breaking up our marriage. I became desperate, for I truly loved my husband. Then it occurred to me that perhaps all these trials were coming upon me because I had not become a fetish priestess in fulfillment of the oracle.
After consulting with my husband and obtaining his encouragement, I began training as a fetish priestess.
Training in a “Convent”
Training to become a fetish priest or priestess takes place in a “convent” and lasts about seven months. During our schooling our group was confined to the “convent,” where we were not allowed to have visitors. Our family and friends, including my husband, brought gifts of food, which were presented to the “Douté” (the chief priest or director). This food would not reach us until the priest had taken his share.
Throughout the entire training period we wore exactly the same clothes and we neither washed them nor bathed ourselves. We would simply use a rag to wipe off the dust and perspiration. And we certainly did perspire from vigorous activity while learning to sing and dance in honor of our god.
During this time we also learned to weave raffia, a fiber from a type of palm tree, into costumes that we would use after graduation. These costumes included multicolored skirts, a halter top and pointed red hats. We also made for ourselves copper anklets and necklaces of red beads. For the finishing touch, each of us women had a white wrap-around cloth tied with a colored sash to go over the raffia skirt.
As our graduation drew near, we received special marks on our bodies identifying us as priestesses of Avesan. If you take a close look at me, you will notice two half-moons on either side of my face next to my eyes, and a single half-moon on each of my cheeks. On the upper part of my body there are fine pockmarks. All of these were made by the chief priest with a small, sharp knife. Ground charcoal was rubbed into the wounds to assure that they would fester and leave clearly defined marks. The chief priests make these incisions on each candidate accompanied by the beating of tom-toms, to drown out the victim’s screams.
My Faith in Fetishism Weakens
One of the duties of a fetish priestess relates to charms that are supposed to protect or relieve a village from some impending calamity, such as a fire, a flood or an epidemic. The charms are made by the chief priests and placed in locations unknown to the populace. Fetish priests and priestesses must go out amidst much singing, dancing and beating of drums to look for these charms. When located, they are carried in a large pirogue, or dugout canoe, to the middle of a lagoon, where they are dumped. Supposedly this frees the village from evil influence.
It was while performing such a rite that my faith in fetishism began to weaken. I realized that these charms were only man-made objects of clay, wood or iron that easily fell apart when I touched them. I wondered: “How can these lifeless objects protect anyone?” But the deathblow to my faith in fetishism was yet to come.
This happened when my husband, himself a fetish priest, suddenly became ill and died. In fact, the very day that he died he had performed a service to Avesan by painting his temple. How could Avesan allow his priest to die like that? Why did the fetish not serve to heal and protect my husband? Then and there my faith in fetish worship died. I buried my newly made and seldom-worn fetish garments with my husband.
Learning About the True God
I moved from Porto-Novo to Cotonou with the determination to search for a new religion. Shortly after my arriving at Cotonou, Jehovah’s witnesses called on me. Using the Bible, they told me of an entirely new system of things that will soon spread throughout the earth. Among the scriptures that they read to me that day was Revelation 21:3, 4, which says: “God . . . will wipe out every tear from [mankind’s] eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”
How sweet that sounded to me! At last I saw a hope for my dead husband. I stormed the Witnesses with questions, listening attentively to their logical Bible-based answers. I had never heard anything like this before. When these people left they gave me a copy of the booklet “This Good News of the Kingdom,” and promised to return in a week. The booklet could not help me, however, as I was unable to read and write.
Not content to wait a full week for the Witnesses to return, I went looking for them after only two days. With love and patience they began to teach me to read and write. Within just a few months I could understand enough in my own copy of the Bible in Gun to verify the scriptures that had meant so much to me on my first contact with Jehovah’s witnesses.
The Witnesses returned time and again. Once they even brought along a woman who had the same marks on her face and body as I had. She, too, had at one time been a fetish priestess. However, when she got to know the true God through a study of the Bible, this woman gave up the worship of man-made idols that can neither see, nor feel, nor speak. I determined to do the same.—Ps. 115:4-8.
My progress in true worship was not without obstacles. I soon learned that Jehovah God has a chief adversary, Satan the Devil, who tries to prevent people from serving Jehovah. (1 Pet. 5:8) I experienced opposition from my parents and former associates in fetish worship.
A God Mightier than Fetishes
Fetish worshipers prepared a number of jujus against me. These are fetishes that are sometimes used to destroy people through black magic. This procedure has been known to result in someone’s death within just a few days. But in my case it did not work.
The fetish worshipers would send eyewitnesses to determine whether I was still alive. Whenever they would see me, I was in good health, whereas some who had tried to murder me with the aid of fetishes became ill, and one of them, the director of the fetish “convent,” died. This amazed many who knew me and opened up opportunities for me to tell them of the true God, Jehovah. He is mightier than the gods who attach themselves to fetishes and who are actually wicked spirit creatures, or demons, under the control of Satan, the ruler of the demons. (Eph. 6:12) I pointed out what is written at Proverbs 18:10: “The name of Jehovah is a strong tower. Into it the righteous runs and is given protection.”
In 1959 I symbolized by water baptism my dedication to serve Jehovah God, and by God’s undeserved kindness I have been able to devote my full time during the past nine years to sharing with others the Bible truths that have filled my life with so much joy. In this way I have helped a number of others to break free from enslavement to false worship. How happy I am no longer to be a fetish priestess to a false god, but to be a willing slave of the true God, Jehovah!—Rom. 12:11.