Monday, December 6, 2010

I Put A Spell On You

I was walking down the road to the beach the other day, when a man on a motorbike crashed into a goat not 10 feet in front of me.

It was a simple matter of the goat and the guy swerving in the same direction at the same time, and somehow he managed to tip his bike and trap the goat in between the front wheel and the body.
Fortunately, the goat- a big, black specimen appropriately enough- wriggled out from under the bike and ran away without so much as a limp, and the man and his moto seemed to be fine. However, it took less than a minute for one of the onlookers to start screaming,  "The goat's a witch!"

Adjusting to African superstition has gone hand in hand with adjusting to African religion. Even the most devout Christians believe in juju and are wary of it, although they believe they are completely safe from it as long as they call on the name of Jesus and have a strong prayer life.
My host mother, for example, is a dedicated Christian, but when one of my friends wanted to visit me from Keta, she told me in no uncertain terms that he could not come to our house and I should tell him not to call me anymore, because there's no guarantee that he wouldn't try to put some juju spells on me. Of course I think the real threat in her eyes was that he was a black man and a stranger because she didn't start saying any of that until she had determined that he was male and not a yevu...
But still- from an African perspective, an active and often dangerous spirit world is not a myth but a reality.
I have not met a Ghanaian yet who has not had at least one personal experience with ghosts or spells or possession- and usually they've had multiple experiences with all three.

It's easy to scoff at. And certainly I approach the issue with no small amount of skepticism.
When I visited the voodoo market in Lome, for instance, I got to experience juju up close and personal...but all I saw was a bunch of fascinating rituals and some very adept conmen.
And yet...being here makes me wonder if perhaps there are invisible forces, both good and evil, that interact with our tangible world. It's a belief so basic to African culture that it's difficult to be part of this place and reject the idea completely.
I should explain that better though, because, as a Christian, I have already believed my whole life in a "spiritual world", if you will. But Western religion tends to portray a somewhat watered down version of that world. I know many Christians who even shy away from the idea of there being a Devil, and no one who would openly talk about being tempted by a demon. Even if that's what they really meant, they're not likely to say it in those terms because to us, that sounds a little bit nutty.
Can't even tell you how many times I've heard phrases like that here though.
Perhaps the further a country develops, the more antiquated the idea of God becomes as we ourselves rise to that status, so the Western world has learned to ignore that intangible reality. Then again, perhaps this type of raw superstition simply appeals to Africans because it aligns with their traditional beliefs - it certainly wouldn't be the first time Christianity has cross-bred with native religions, in any case.
I don't have an answer myself, I guess I'm mostly just musing.

I was there when Esther, my friend the social worker at Good Shepherd, gathered the other children together to speak to them after Nyamekye's funeral.
I expected her to finally give them the details about why and how she died.
And I suppose, from Esther's perspective, she did.
She told them how Nyamekye had been having dreams every night about witches coming to take her spirit away and offering her rice and fruits and blood to eat. According to what Nyamekye told Esther just a few hours before she died, that previous night she had accepted the food and blood from the witches, who stole her heart after she had eaten. An angel came and fought them, but wasn't able to get her heart back.
Chilling, isn't it?
But no less scary than the fact that not a word was said about Nyamekye's sickle cell anemia, or about how
taking her to the hospital several days earlier may easily have saved her life. That was all secondary to the fact that from that moment, Nyamekye had been spiritually dead, and therefore physical death couldn't be long in coming too.

I consider myself very open-minded about juju and the role of a spirit world, but I can't accept witchcraft as a replacement for what was obviously medical negligence on the orphanage's part. However that's a bitter tangent I'll avoid going into further.

When bad things happen, such as Nyamekye's death, the first response many Ghanaians will give you is "It was God's will; it was supposed to happen that way." In other words- get over it and don't question the Big Man.
But I can't help wondering if that response comes out of deep faith and a genuine belief in the truth of their words...or if it is more of a knee-jerk coping mechanism.
Misfortune is a little bit easier to swallow when you can blame the goat witch.


  1. Hi Katherine,
    Your posts are really great to read!
    Who is Nyamekye?

  2. Thanks! Nyamekye was one of my students who died about a month ago.