Antiwitchcraft Shrines among the Akan, Part 2

Tue, Oct 21, 2008

Culture, 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



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 Part 2

The movement between mere fleeting glances of a god and a more prolonged sighting is reached only during possession. It involves an interchanging of identities, with the god dominating the proceedings. It is only during possession that the god is held to be present, both spatially and temporally, at a shrine.

All the priests I interviewed stressed the crystalline “image” that only they could see of their abosom during possession. This particular image is constructed from an infusion of wide-ranging points, plays, and elements that are consciously and unconsciously woven by the okomfo and linguists into a bricolage, which hints at discovery to others but remains veiled. The okomfo, however, will throw out clues to onlookers so as to differentiate and give shape to each obosom. One okomfo described how he could ” see the imperceptible.” There are many different images, though they are unseen by the ordinary eye, which detects only a few leaves and twigs in a pot. However, the okomfo can see the shape of the god in the water. This shape, I was told, glows in the dark and is like the Christian Holy Ghost or an angel. When possessed, the okomfo holds a mirror in the air and can see a shadow behind him. It is white and big. If the priest puts the mirror down he can see another figure in front of him “dressed as you or I. This is also the obosom.” It is this last image that is always described to clients. The other images seen by the okomfo are simply preliminary indications that the obosom is present but not yet ready to appear completely. It is like a drawing, which is not finished, commented the okomfo. Until the final touches are made, the picture is not whole.

In readiness for the appearance of the “last image,” the okomfo, dressed in the skirt and charms, stumbles along the edge of the shrine carrying a small, wooden-framed hand mirror in which the image of the god can be seen. The okomfo cannot look directly at the god because his being is too powerful and causes immediate blindness. Behind closed doors, the god shouts instructions through the mouthpiece of the priest. This occurs in a piecemeal and scattered form as linguists interpret instructions. The knowledge that the priest receives is thus threaded through a number of different agents and different interpretations. It is passed from the god through the mouthpiece of the okomfo to the linguist and back to the okomfo. In this manner of transmission, however, with multiple agents, multiple voices, and multiple understandings, there is always a body of knowledge that remains untouched, beyond translatability. These are “the secrets that only the abosom know” as one okomfo whispered to me.

It is in this context that distinctive differences are evident between one priest and the next. According to my observations, those who are not surrounded by large entourages of helpers and attendants are unable to bounce information back and forth and therefore are hampered in their ability to analyze and find patterns in the knowledge they receive. By contrast, some akomfo in the district are able to accumulate, through their linguists and attendants, layer upon layer of knowledge, and slowly collect the information that forms around the “empty secret” belonging to the god alone.

How is the ” secret” and timeless dimension of Akan specialized knowledge woven into the African postcolonial landscape? Often priests compare the quickness of flight of the knowledge of their gods to that of a witch who travels very quickly between continents. A popular story circulates among shrine priests of a witch who visits her son in Germany, arriving on a plane that travels between Ghana and Europe in a matter of minutes. Other priests tell of how their gods “fly” to large European cities to hunt down witches who try to conceal their identities abroad: “Wherever the witch is… he will find her…. She lives in Amsterdam in a large apartment…. he sees her in her kitchen and notes the apartment number…. She does not escape and he watches her like a policeman must watch suspected criminals…. At night he strikes her and she falls ill and she must come to the shrine to recover.” This is a knowledge that combines the old and the new: Old knowledge is placed in a new container that allows for the tracking down of a witch in a European city or an aircraft flying at the speed of sound.

Likewise the gods’ helpers, the dwarfs, also possess great speed. Dwarfs collect at rocky places and communicate with priests by means of a highpitched whistle. They may be male or female, I was told, are usually between two and three inches high, wear their hair long, dress in tiny skirts, and have feet that point backwards, allowing them to keep their balance only if they keep moving. The element of speed and movement is very important to their activities. all dwarfs have the capacity to commit both good and evil, though the dark-skinned dwarfs are generally more troublesome than the red- and yellow-skinned ones ( see Fink 1990). What the dark-skinned dwarfs have above all is speed-they ride about on litde Yamaha motorbikes and cannot be caught. Speed is therefore a key element in confounding misfortune and driving it out of shrine-clients’ lives. The faster that specialized knowledge is able to travel, the more “modern” it is as well, able to cross every obstacle and wrestle with any kind of trouble, whether it consists of local problems, or anxieties caused by people living abroad, or even misfortune that appears to have no particular source at all. One young priest compared this knowledge to news bulletins, such as those announcing the results of football matches, which everyone hears, or news about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who people in Dormaa know about “even if she has never come to our home.”

Speed is also an essential feature of the specialized knowledge possessed by the okomfo. Speed enables a priest to look in many directions at once, as people are able to do, explained one priest, when driving in a big Mercedes Benz. Knowledge also creates its own routes, thereby dividing and joining different localities as it moves around. Priests move very quickly, too, and their specialized knowledge likewise embodies a restless transformation, resisting identification and stasis. Knowledge is not fixed, in other words, but is a fluid structure of possibilities mobilized in order to defer and expel evil. The interaction between a priest and a god is complex, entailing a darting back-and-forth movement that accommodates incremental change and incorporates it into new forms of knowledge that are both fixed and generative.

For some shrine priests traveling also represents a search for modern knowledge, a kind of conceptual vision that allows for a perspective that was previously missing. Interestingly, their experiences “abroad” are viewed by some priests as crucial factors in their having been picked for possession by their god. One priest told me that he had traveled throughout Ghana and Nigeria and thought that his experiences in different cultures allowed him to have the perspective of an “outsider,” a vital requirement, he thought, if local disagreements are to be understood by him fully. Another priest believed that his ability to read and write set him apart from other, mostly illiterate, priests: “I went to university before I was possessed…. I read many different things…. You read the English newspapers…. So do I…. I know about Nelson Mandela and the Gulf War…. I listen to the radio…. This allows me to understand with intelligence the problems of all of the people who want help.” Other priests bragged that their gods knew all about world affairs, and they often competed with each other over how many countries their gods had visited. One priest said, “I am possessed by a god who speaks many languages including French and German. He has been to these countries and flew like a jet,… an army plane…. He flies around the world and has been to London many times…. Ask me questions about London…. he will know the directions to your home…. ” According to another, “The god visits many different places…. He is very rarely at home…. he may be in Holland or America. I ring a bell here and he will come to the shrine immediately. he spies things everywhere …. he sees a lot in different countries…. In London he tells me it rains with cats and dogs” (laughter). The priests must have a vision that moves and stretches inside, outside, and above the shrine, collecting details about the interactions among all relevant actors, some of whom, despite living in other countries, have an influence over affairs in Dormaa: “She [the god] didn’t always be here… at the shrine…. The witches fly everywhere …. She hunts them down,.. so she has to go away often…. She returns quickly. There is a new road which links Dormaa to Sunyani…. The god has also found new routes to quicken her journey…. She spies on Dormaa… from Sunyani and sees different episodes.”

While many of the shrines described in this article are found in remote locations, often in isolated villages scattered throughout the district, priests are very well-informed about local affairs. One of the most powerful priests in the district spent much of his day in the local lorry park talking to people throughout the town and picking up interesting news from friends and passersby. This enabled the priest to piece together the background to the ailments that clients brought to the shrine. Yet it is possible to identify another, far less casual, manner by which the shrine priest achieves his superior knowledge of events. This is through a knowledge of witchcraft, which allows the shrine-priest to learn about and experience evil and misfortune first-hand, without learning about these through the mouthpiece of the god.

Witchcraft and Shrine-Knowledge
All of the priests I interviewed saw witchcraft as an intrinsic evil of the post-colonial economy. One shrine-priest repeated on several occasions that the British were responsible for a proliferation of witches because people no longer obey the laws of the shrines. Another spoke of how the ever-present witches have multiplied in Ghana because everyone, though women especially, have become more and more selfish, a trait he associated with twentieth-century materialism. Yet another spoke of the rising crime and violence among young people today and how witches were materially greedy women who thrive in a climate in which individuals seek riches at every turn. For many, witchcraft has become the byword for the problems of modern Ghanaian life, and priests love to talk about it to large audiences. Witches are valuable informants, for a priest hears the full confession of a witch directly, without this knowledge passing through the god, and often the priest prompts the witch to provide as much detail as possible. I was often told by priests that witches usually identify their victims in advance of an attack, but they also can change their mind quickly and switch victims from one day to the next. The witch attacks at night under the cover of darkness. She assumes the form of an animal and has a bright light glowing from her forehead to light the way across the night sky. She meets up with her fellow conspirators around a pot into which the victims’ souls are thrown to be boiled and then eaten. A god catches a witch in the act-when she is eating the soul of the victim, or, more often, when she returns to the pot with the soul.

The most powerful witches possess many witchcraft spirits. The more spirits (abayf) a witch has, the more difficult it is for a god to attack her. One priest spoke of how his god dressed in an armor that made it impossible for witches to harm him. The god swoops down on the witch and hits her sharply with a stick, fires a catapult at her, or shoots her with a gun. The witch immediately falls ill and can recover only if she confesses fully to her witchcraft at the shrine of the god. However, some of the older shrine-priests say that witchcraft is rife because witches no longer come to the shrine to confess their sins. The presence of many Christians in Ghana adds to this problem significantly. As the priest to one of the oldest gods in the district said, “If I punish people who break their promises to the gods, I must kill all the Christians. I cannot do this so I stay at home!”

The god informs the priest of the witch’s identity before she comes to the shrine. However, the priest is not allowed to disclose this information to anyone and must remain silent until the witch has come to the shrine of her own free will. It is also possible, though, if the god permits, for the priest to be able to “spy” on a witch with his own eyes. Herbs rubbed on the priest’s eyes allow him to see the witch’s true colors. While to the ordinary eye the witch is indistinguishable from those around her, to the priest she appears to be somersaulting through the air and turning cartwheels. Or else a bright aura shines around her and her eyes are bloodshot. On one occasion, while I was interviewing at a shrine in the district, the priest stopped the interview because a supposed witch had walked past among a crowd of people. he told me that very soon she would have to come to the shrine or run the risk of becoming very ill as his god had struck her with a wooden club and if she did not make a full confession he would kill her.
While shrine-priests are reluctant to disclose the names of witches before they confess to their deeds, news still often manages to filter out when a god has caught a witch. At this juncture matters become confusing; I never understood fully whether a witch knows the identity of the god who “caught” her and therefore confesses at that god’s shrine, or whether she goes to a shrine of her choosing where, subsequently, the god claims credit for her capture and knowledge of her plan to arrive there. I put this dilemma to a priest whom I had met for a drink one evening in a large town. he replied: “Only one god catches the witch. The witch knows who he is and will come to the shrine quickly because she has fallen ill…. She will dream of her capture and this will trouble her… The god tells me to watch out for her…. I know she is coming…. She cannot escape…. I am fully prepared for her….” Another priest told me that “the gods have already spoken to her…. She has met the god who has caught her and he has displayed his anger…. he does not want to speak to her again.” Yet another shrine-priest revealed that the behavior of the witch can be unpredictable, so the god hides in a secret place to attack her later, very suddenly, if she does not decide to reveal her evil deeds.

At the shrine, the priest pounces very quickly on “caught” witches. For instance, Mrs. Amoah came to the shrine complaining of backache and was accused by the shrine-priest of being a witch. Unbeknownst to her, the god had heard her relatives complaining about her overly frugal nature, and the priest reported all sorts of criticisms that had been circulating among her fellow townspeople about many aspects of her moral conduct. Eventually, under extreme pressure from the priest, she confessed. She told him that events had occurred very quickly. She was out flying one night with her co-conspirators when the witch guarding the pot containing the victims’ souls had shouted that a god was in the vicinity. To guard the pot is the most important task assigned to a witch, because if the pot falls into the hands of a god, all of the members of that particular coven will fall ill. At that moment, her attention diverted, Mrs. Amoah felt a terrible pain in her shoulder and looked around to see a large wooden ax coming down with force upon her back. She was unable to see who was holding it. Later, without realizing why, she was drawn to this shrine. With hindsight, she thought that it was the god at this shrine who had captured her. She confessed the names of her witchcraft spirits to the priest, and her witchcraft then left her body through her vagina in the form of a snake. Revealing the names of the spirits constitutes a full confession to the priest and god and signals the end of the woman’s ordeal. In the absence of a confession, the woman’s illness would have continued, she would have been caught by the god again, and she would have died.

Very often, witches are seen in clusters by a group of people. One evening in late November, as the bread sellers meandered their way from the local hospital, where they had been selling sugar bread to patients and their relatives, to the town where they set up their evening stores, they stopped by the side of the road to tell passersby about a young nurse who had recently moved to the district. Allegedly a god had caught her attacking her brother-in-law in the middle of the night and she had confessed her witchcraft at a nearby shrine. News of this confession spread and by nightfall, as the bread and rice sellers lit candles to illuminate their stalls, a small panic ensued at the hospital, where patients refused to eat their food because they believed that the young nurse might have been secretly trying to pass her witchcraft to them. Others cried that the witch had also attacked diem and that the reason their symptoms persisted was that no medical doctor could cure them. Instead of being hospitalized, they claimed, they needed to visit a shrine.

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Nana Kwame Says:

    And you believe these attacks against women in a growing competive society?

  2. admin Says:

    I don’t understand your question.

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