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Antiwitchcraft Shrines among the Akan, Part 1

Fri, Oct 17, 2008

Research, Traditional Afrikan

This is an interesting article about how “witches” are handled among modern Obosom worshippers in the Akan tradition of Ghana. I can’t verify how much of the views that are expressed are traditional, but it’s certainly food for thought. What I do know is that there is a priesthood commissioned to identify and punish those that hurt others using spiritual means, but I can’t say that these individuals would have any solidarity with Christian or Islamic clergy that seem to target women, elderly, children and the poor almost at random purely for practicing any form of traditiona

Ghana

Ghana

l African religion. The article will be presented over a series of weeks in three parts. This is part one.

Antiwitchcraft Shrines among the Akan: Possession and the Gathering of Knowledge

Introduction
In recent anthropological writing, the association of African witchcraft discourses with primitive thought, tradition, and superstition has been supplanted by the view that witchcraft practices are dynamic and wide-ranging and that they crystallize the experiences of the modern world (Comaroff & Comaroff 1993, 1999; Geschiere & Meyer 1998; Moore & Sanders 2001). Witchcraft has become an authoritative symbol of the experiences of modernity and the effects of an “invariable source, globalization” (Englund 1996:259). It is seen as a critical comment on, for example, the accumulation of “good” and “bad” wealth (Meyer 1998), international migration and smuggling (Masquelier 2000), immoral consumption (Parish 2000), and illicit production and accumulation (Sanders 1999; Shaw 1997:2001). In this way, witchcraft invokes an imagery of new forms of modernity, reflecting the dialectic between the modern and tradition in a modernizing nation-state and expressing social conflicts within the postcolonial economy (Geschiere 1998; Geschiere & Fisiy 1994).

While global witchcraft complexes in Africa provide a medium for exploring the new images and objects of modernity associated with overseas wage labor, remittances, and flows of value, the specialist body of esoteric knowledge communicated through witchfinders also articulates and dramatizes the contradictions of a changing economy, as in the case of the Atinga cult of southwest Nigeria during the 1950s (Apter 1993). Increasingly, in the postcolonial economy, possessors of sacred, secret knowledge are also international salesmen and women responding to the anxieties of modernity and employing the symbolism of commoditization and the free market (Ashforth 1996; Sanders 2001). Auslander (1993), for example, examines the symbolic politics of Ngoni witchcleansing in Zambia and the ways in which it employs modern imagery of the state and market (for example, passports) to invoke the reality of the postcolonial landscape.

Yet in spite of the association of popular Ghanaian witchcraft commentaries with all things new and contemporary, Akan anti-witchcraft shrines, often located in remote rural villages, have remained something of an anachronism. They have become a metaphor for a backward, diabolicalized religious tradition, particularly in the eyes of African intellectuals, Pentecostals, and aristocratic elites (Meyer 1995; Parish 2001). At these shrines the ritual knowledge possessed by shrine-priests is often envisaged as made up of unchanging elements within what is seen as a tightly bounded epistemological framework of the real/unreal, visible/invisible, and natural/ supernatural ( see, for example, Fink 1990; Rattray 1927; Ward 1956). Paradoxically, however, these shrines remain popular among young men and women who seek their help (Parish 2000). This of course leads us to ask how it is that Akan shrine spirits, as arbitrators of secret ritual and “true” knowledge, engage with aspects of contemporary globalization.

The focus of this article is the inherent fluidity (and indeed, homespun cosmopolitanism) of ritual knowledge and witchcraft discourses in anti-witchcraft shrines. Addressed is the nature (whether certain or ambiguous) of the transcendental knowledge mediated by shrine gods as they attempt to address the insecurities, as reflected by witchcraft innuendo and speculation, of everyday life (Ashforth 1996, 2001; Werbner 2001; Whyte 1997). To this end, the article examines the efficacy of shrines and the way in which witchcraft allows shrine priests to bring a model of knowledge and uncertainty to bear on the experiences and dynamics of globalization.
Akan Anti-witchcraft Shrines
Although the spatial organizations of Akan anti-witchcraft shrines are embedded in specific communities, such shrines are now characterized by a movement away from a sacred center, as particular gods move toward a wider inclusive macrocosm (Werbner 1989:2). Among the Akan, as Werbner (1989) notes, anti-witchcraft shrines have repeatedly embraced the unfamiliar, with their objects imported from beyond Akan society, whether from the Northern Territories or a more intangible “liminal” zone, the bush ( see also McLeod 1965, 1975). Writing about anti-witchcraft cults in nineteenth-century Asante society, McCaskie explains that the power of the shrine gods and priests stemmed from their associations with the “unfamiliar” and uncertain, as shrine-cults were imported from the “bush” outside the confines of “normal” society. The bush, a dangerous, ” hot,” marginal zone, invokes a reference to the spiritual mediation of the priest as go-between, a mediator between the wild evil of what is beyond human habitat and the calm of the town (McLeod 1981; McCaskie 1986, 1989, 1992; Werbner 1973).
Significantly, we can see how Akan anti-witchcraft shrines in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries tried to manage the contingency and anxiety that came with the pursuit of new forms of wealth and entrepreneurship, economic ventures seen as both alluring and fraught with danger (McCaskie 1981; Parish 1999). In Ghana, powerful fetishes (asumari) offered at shrines give protection against evil magic and curses and financial protection against bankruptcy, not only to the impoverished villager, but also to the “big” man (McLeod 1975). Goody (1957) records how anti-witchcraft cults tended to spring up often and then disappear. This process reached its height during the colonial domination of West Africa. The 1940s and 1950s saw an increase in the number of shrines as individual accumulation grew at the expense of kinship obligations and witchcraft accusations escalated (Field 1937; Fortes 1948; Goody 1975; Meyer 1995; Ward 1956).

Whether witchcraft accusations (and anxiety) reached their climax in the last century, or whether there are more witches at large today than there were fifty years ago, discourses about witchcraft illustrate how an apparently fixed knowledge is adapted to a changing world (Comaroff & Comaroff 1993). To understand the inherent fluidity of ritual knowledge among witch captors at the end of the twentieth century, I provide in the next section a preliminary outline of the relationship between a shrine god and its shrine priest. I examine how the transcendental knowledge of the gods, which is used to solve the most contemporary anxieties of shrine clients, is derived from one of the most spiritually confusing locations, the bush.

Anti-witchcraft Shrines in Dormaa-Ahenkro District
This research is based on fieldwork carried out in the Dormaa district, an agricultural area located in the Brong-Ahafo region in the west of Ghana, bordering Ivory Coast. Dormaa-Ahenkro is the capital of the district and a major crossroads for the movement of people both within the district and between Dormaa-Ahenkro and the large cities of Sunyani, Kumase, and Accra. A bus travels twice a week between Dormaa and Abidjani.1

The shrines in the Dormaa district can be divided into two main groups (Fink 1990; Parish 1999). The first group consists of the abosomerafo, or witch-catching shrines. Their gods (abosonv, sing, obosom) are discovered in the forest and in water and stones and may be owned individually (okomfo-abosom) or, as is true in the majority of cases, family-owned (abusuaabosom). In 1981 Fink recorded twelve witch-catching shrines (abosomerafowuram/nsuo/oboo). In 9 1999 1 there were ten active shrines in the district. The abosomerafo may be subdivided into a second group of shrines, the abosomerafo-mmoatia, whose gods are named after the forest-dwelling dwarfs. There were thirteen active shrines of this type in 1991, compared to twelve in 1981. Eleven of these were individually owned.
In order to learn to communicate with his or her god, each priest (okomfo) spends a considerable length of time in the bush, outside of the confines of everyday life, in a liminal zone. The bush is the dwelling place of a variety of feared monsters and animals such as the sasabonsam, an evil fire-breathing creature that hangs from the branches of trees. The knowledge that shrine priests possess is learned in the bush under the instruction of a practicing diviner. During this time, the apprentice priests are given special herbs, which are squeezed into their eyes and ears so that they may see and hear things that an ordinary person cannot. Upon leaving the bush, each priest returns to his or her village and compound and sets aside a room to house the shrine god. Also present at any shrine are a number of attendants and a shrine linguist, often a descendent of a particular lineage chosen to perform this role, who translates and remembers the words of the priest when the priest is possessed. Each shrine consists of a small altar, usually several feet high, constructed of several copper pots and pans, in one of which the god is believed to be living. According to one priest,

The shrine… everyone can see is here. Everyone knows that the shrine is here in my compound in this particular room…. The pots and pans, which I have welded together, are where the god lives…. he is camouflaged by twigs and stones-you see? The power of the obosom is here and stretches beyond the walls and throughout the village of Kosan…. Obosom Ogyafour can travel anywhere he wants, but he rarely today leaves the shrine for more than a few hours and he does not go far…. he communicates by ringing a bell if he is leaving. It is also my job to keep my eyes open for danger…. If people have problems they must come here to the shrine.

Shrines usually are open for business every day, although this often depends on the whim of the priest.
Clients come from a wide variety of backgrounds but invariably are young men and women in their twenties and thirties. They may live or work in the surrounding villages or they may have traveled from all over the Brong-Ahafo region to visit a particular shrine (Parish 2000). They can be divided into two groups, which suggest the complex, self-reflexive contextualizations involved with witchcraft (obayi), wealth, global consumption, and esteem. First there are the young people who are likely to attend one of the orthodox churches as well; they visit a shrine because they want a quick fix to their problems. They have been caught in the glare of the witch (obayifo), who is often believed to be a woman who is jealous of their social popularity and material prosperity. The second group is made up of international businessmen who believe themselves the victims of witchcraft. Their conspicuous consumption, they worry, has attracted unwarranted attention from witches at home and abroad who siphon off their wealth and ravage their credit card accounts (Parish 2000). Any client is welcome to visit a shrine as long as he brings along a fowl and bottle of liquor. The bird is presented to the shrine linguist, who then slits its throat and throws it into the air. Depending on how the bird lands, the priest will or will not see the client. If permission is granted, the linguist offers a libation to the god by pouring several drops of alcohol onto the ground. The client is asked to provide details of the case and these are noted, although names are never mentioned or asked for. The client then decides whether to purchase a talisman as protection against misfortune or to buy medicines, which similarly can protect against evil. The client then pays a fee and is asked to return after the priest has become possessed by the god and can reveal the cause of the client’s misfortune.
Possession is the dominant feature of divination at anti-witchcraft shrines and occurs, on average, once a week, lasting for about two hours. In the case of the witch-catching shrines, the god is symbolized by a brass pan that is carried on the head of the male priest in order to communicate with the god. The gods of the forest-dwelling dwarfs are symbolized by small clay pots and small brass basins and pots. Prayer, rattles, and the stirring of water aid spirit possession (Parish 2000).

During possession, the priest, who appears to be in a trance, wears a grass skirt [doso] to which are pinned many protective charms [asuman]. Running around the courtyard while throwing white chalk dust in the air, the priest summons the presence of Nyame, the Supreme Being, and shouts orders and messages in response to the questions the clients had posed the preceding week. Then the clients are invited to return, present a fowl for sacrifice to the god, pay a fee, and have a private audience with the god. The god repeats, through the priest, what is known about the case from the shrine priest’s explanation, makes a final judgment, and reassures the client that the suffering will end because the “perpetrator” of the misfortune, whether a witch or a person practicing “bad” magic, has been caught and punished. At the completion of each case, the priest collapses, only to re-emerge from the shrine several minutes later when the whole sequence is repeated with another client.

The production of knowledge between a god and the possessed priest passes through several dense layers of mediation. In the next section, I begin to unravel this, starting with an analysis of how ” secret” knowledge derived from time spent in the bush is retrieved by the priest at the shrine and how this knowledge is updated, so to speak, to keep pace with economic and social change as the god and priest search for solutions to the problems of shrine clients in the postcolonial economy.

Knowledge, Mediation, and Possession
In the bush, contacting the god and receiving information involve a chain of people, for a priest-in-training simply becomes the mouthpiece for the god. The priest has no recollection of this voice. Nor is the priest able to listen to this voice and interpret its meaning immediately. This is problematic, since each priest receives all relevant knowledge from the god. Often, therefore, it is only the more experienced priest who can translate the commands of the god in retrospect, after the trancelike state has ended. Within familiar surroundings, each okomfo remembers not the voice but rather the “images” of the god that have been glimpsed, for instance, in a pool of water. For example, one okomfo told me how three abosom had, during her possession, instructed her to fetch them from a river. At the riverside an old priest who tended to the spirit (sunsum) of the river gave her an image of the abosom.

In the old times all the sacred rivers were policed by priests. They lived in small caves, which were found on the riverbank. They were built to house the abosom of the river…. Often people would come to the river…. Perhaps one person heard voices. When I was in the bush… the leaves that I placed on my ears [allowed me to] … hear the abosom calling me. They told me to go to the river…. I went immediately and met an old man who was an okomfo. he helped train me. he had also heard voices crying…. He… found two large rocks which were not of the type usually found here…. he pulled one from the river,.. put it in a small hut in a pot, and covered the pot in leaves and twigs…. The sunsum of the rock communicated with the old man again. The sunsum… was the obosom…. When I arrived I repeated what I heard. he gave me the two small pots,… the home of the abosom. I remember nothing more…. [I] woke up after what seemed like several days, holding in my right hand a leaf and a stone. I placed these in the pots besides me…. These are the abosom… [and] they remain near… to me.

I asked Ogyefuo Kosane, priest to a god in the village of Kosan, if he saw many different “images” of the obosom Ogyafour or simply one:

When I look into the water of the pot in my shrine I see Ogyafour. He appears as ripples in the water. It is as if I have thrown a stone in the water. I see words. They appear on the surface…. These are his commands. In the water, Ogyafour can see everything. he can travel anywhere. Distance does not matter. he might be in Dormaa or Accra but I can see him in the water…. Before possession I become dizzy and faint…. I see bright lights and stars. Sometimes I see a flashing light. This is also Ogyafour. It means he is close….

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