GLIDJI-KPODJI, Togo: Bare-chested and with leaves wrapped around their necks, a small group of voodoo worshippers emerges from a dense forest in southern Togo.
The oldest among them, a man in his sixties with decorative beads around his neck, carefully holds up a blue stone and closes his eyes.
“We started the ceremonies six months ago,” says Nii Mantche, the high priest of the sacred forest, from his position on a wooden stool.
“Today is the climax — the release of the sacred stone. I am the only person to take out this stone from the depths of this forest.”
Voodoo has a special place in the life of the people of Togo.
The nature-based belief system emerged at the end of the 16th century in the town of Tado on the Mono river, which separates the country from Benin to the east.
Followers worship a single deity, the Mahu or Segbo-Lissa, through more than 200 deities who are represented mostly by clods of earth.
The tiny West African nation may have only seven million people but 51 per cent practise voodoo, which has multiple forms — more than those who follow Christianity and Islam combined.
In the south, voodoo shrines dot the countryside where most Togolese live, guarded by high priests and priestesses.
In Lome, the fetish market is renowned across West Africa and is home to traditional healers using objects from skulls and dried animal skins to bones, features and statues to treat ailments.
For the Guin people of Aneho, Togo’s second city some 50 kilometres east of the capital, Lome, the annual Epe-Ekpe or Ekpessosso festival in September marks the start of the new year.
The traditional “taking of the sacred stone” ceremony was started in 1663 by settlers from the former Gold Coast — modern-day Ghana — and has now taken place 353 times.
It includes a major rite in all voodoo places of worship to beg the deities for forgiveness.
The colour of the sacred stone is believed to indicate what the future holds for the coming 12 months.
Last year, the stone was white, which with blue indicates good fortune. Red signals danger, according to followers.
About 100 metres (yards) away from the high priest of the sacred forest, thousands of pilgrims gathered in the public square to sing, dance and recite incantations.
“Helu-lo, helu-lo,” they sang in the local Mina language — “misfortune to bad spirits”.
In the centre of the circle, high priestesses turned westwards, raised their arms and cried in turn: “Obe, abeba, obe abeba (all the deities join us).”
Some followers, wearing cloth wrappers up to their chests and long multi-coloured beads around their necks and arms, began dancing joyfully.
“We are invoking all the divinities of the Guin people so they protect our sacred stone that has just come out from the forest,” explained one voodoo priestess.
The mystical stone was passed around the public square under the watchful gaze of voodoo elders and about a dozen police officers.
Female followers fell into a trance as the singing and dancing erupted around them.
“The stone is turquoise blue,” a dignitary declared into a microphone.
But he warned: “The deities are angry with the priests and traditional Guin chiefs. They are calling for unity and reconciliation.”
In the run-up to the ceremony, Guin priests were unable to agree on how the ceremonies would proceed and the Togolese authorities had to step in to mediate.
“The message announced by the stone is clear,” said Guin elder Togbe Kombete.
“We have offended our ancestors with our little squabbles. We must sit down quickly around a table and talk so we no longer have these small problems.”
The Epe-Ekpe festival attracts pilgrims from across Togo to worship, sing, offer sacrifices and seek blessings.
Increasingly, followers from Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria come to worship, and it has become a tourist attraction for many Western visitors.
“Every year our brothers and sisters have to respond to the call of the deities,” said Lankpan Vaudoussoto Agbografo, a high priestess.
“We pray and make offerings. I’ve been to this ceremony for the last 28 years and my wishes are always granted,” she added.
Aya Ayayi Freeman, from Nigeria, has come to Glidji-Kpodji since he was a boy.
“It’s the tradition that our ancestors left us and I will never abandon it. This sacred stone is my spirit.”