Curiosity #23: Mmoetia

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In the Ashanti forest,  enchanted dwarfs dwell in the shadows of the trees. These creatures are called mmoetia, and are the sources of great power within Ghanaian society.

Very few Ghanaians witness the mmoetia in daily life, since most prefer invisibility; however many traditionalists assert that these spirits bear a physical form: small in appearance, with light skin and backwards feet. While the mmoetia primarily dwell among the trees, they acquire powers from native river deities who command them according to the needs of the people.

Upon gravely offending a spirit or human, Ghanaians must beware of the mmoetia. They attack in subtle blows:  with social, financial, and biological misfortunes that persist without mercy. Without spiritual devotion, these punishments never heal, and rather escalate with time.

For the decent and loyal, the mmoetia grant wishes of any kind. Financial wealth, professional success, and family prosperity are all within the grasp of the mmoetias’ tiny hands. To reap these fortunes, however, prayers and libations are essential and – at times – blood from the neck of an unfortunate animal.

Curiosity #21: Arbitrations at Antoa

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Following my first visit to the village, I returned to investigate the procedures surrounding curse retractions and river visitations. A former educator named Owusu led me into the chief linguist’s home (each nature deity has a linguist), and invited me to sit in a small benched area where deliberations were held. If people wished to retract curses through Antoa’s river spirit, local “judges” (such as Owusu) first had to listen to the various cases and develop logical solutions.

Throughout the course of one morning, I sat next to Owusu and listened to individuals who had been inflicted by the river spirit. The visitors filed in with solemnity, but – to my surprise – none admitted shame; nor did they seem suspicious of the disheveled white girl who attentively listened to their darkest confessions.

Flirtatious Mother: The mother of a newborn infant sat on the bench across from me. The woman’s husband told Owusu that his wife had been flirting with an enemy, and that he had thrown an egg into the river so his “promiscuous” wife would be punished. Meanwhile, the woman denied flirting with her husband’s enemy and peacefully continued nursing her child. Owusu warned the husband that if his wife was innocent, then the curse would backfire and wreak havoc upon his health.

Adulterous Affair: A woman stood up in the deliberation area, dressed innocently in a white dress-suit. Her husband relaxed on the bench beside her, and another older woman sat on his other side. The woman in white had suspected that her husband pursued an affair with the other woman, and so cursed the woman using the deity at Antoa. When the other woman fell ill, they traveled to the river to rectify the dilemma. The husband admitted to having an affair with the cursed woman, but refused to marry her. Owusu demanded that the man thereby give the cursed woman 30 cedis (the equivalent of 20 bucks), for the woman’s “sexual services.” The man and the two women were also required to visit the water and offer sacrifices to the spirit.

Swollen Leg: A young man in a Ghanaian soccer jersey was carefully carried into the deliberation area. His leg had doubled in size, and – from the way he winced – seemed to cause him great pain. He was a landlord in a nearby community. Recently, he had cursed a tenant who refused to submit payments. Because the man sought spiritual punishment before legal procedures, the curse backfired and inflicted the man rather than the tenant. Owusu advised the man to confront his problems logically before seeking spiritual revenge.

Family Concern: A family filed in from a nearby village, seeking deliverance from a curse that had killed one of its members. The river apparently has the power not only to wipe out guilty individuals, but also everyone within their households. To console the river deity, the family had to present money and a fowl as sacrifices.

Divorce Complications: An attractive young woman stood defiantly before Owusu, accounting the complications of her marriage. Her husband refused to provide money for her needs, which was why she chose at times to act disobediently. The husband, who was also present, listed the woman’s flaws as a wife: she neglected to cook, even for her two children, she initiated arguments, and she indulged in adulterous affairs. As a result, he cursed her. When the woman claimed the adulterous affair resulted from rape, the men recognized her desperation and scoffed. Due to the woman’s foul behavior, she was required to kneel before her husband before sending  further apologies to the river.

The Witch: After enjoying marriage with one woman for several years, a man decided to take a second wife. The second wife gave birth to a child named Regina, who grew into a devout Pentecostal Christian. Regina suffered from many illnesses in her youth, which forced her to spend all her income on medical aid. At last, when she was 28 years old, she called upon the spirit at Antoa to curse whoever perpetuated her illness. Several weeks later, her father’s first wife fell sick. The first wife admitted that she was a witch and that she had been causing Regina’s misfortunes all along. The family sought to cast the witch spirit from the woman’s body and thus restore peaceful family ties. When I inquired about Regina’s (seemingly faulty) faith in Christian prayer, she asserted that Antoa’s justice was the work of God.

Curiosity #20: Antoa

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Forty minutes from Kumasi is a village called Antoa, which hosts the Ashanti Region’s most powerful nature deity. The spirit of Antoa lives inside an ancient river that flows inside the local forest. Visitors travel from all regions of Ghana to consult this river spirit, requesting the infliction or retraction of curses against wrongdoers. The river– it is said—facilitates justice rather than evil, and only attacks individuals guilty of foul deeds.

I journeyed to Antoa with two young mothers and one translator. None of my guides had visited the river before, and so the details of our destination were left to mystery. In town, before our departure to the river, one of the Ghanaian mothers strapped her chubby baby to my back with a long strip of white cloth. The baby’s head bounced heavily against my back as I carried him 1.5 miles through the thick forest heat.

When we finally reached the river, we noticed a long line of visitors standing in front of a high wooden wall, which separated the public forest from the worship area. Two men stood at the opening of the wall like bouncers at a nightclub, admitting visitors in an orderly manner. When my translator clarified to the guards that I had only come to observe, the burly men allowed me to pass through the gate.

The shrine consisted of a large clearing containing a skinny body of water the color of a dirty wading pool. This clearing harnessed the tail end of the river and thus the spirit itself. Beside the river, the head priest – a skinny old man in a plaid shirt – oversaw the sacred procedures in the water. Upon my arrival, the priest shook my hand and welcomed me, although forbade me from taking notes and pictures. So I respectfully removed my shoes and watched.

The secondary priest stood at the center of the river, which only extended knee-deep. One by one, people in a long line waded into the water towards the secondary priest: most with tributes in hand (either crying chickens or packaged bottles of schnapps), and with concerns of justice upon their lips. The priest relayed the messages to the river spirit: pouring a cup of schnapps into the water at the conclusion of each prayer.

When visitors presented chickens, the priest sliced the necks open so blood spurted into the water. He then tossed the chickens (still kicking) into the river, where they flapped until life spilled from their necks. Often, multiple chickens fluttered in the water at once, creating the image of a muddy fountain. Once the chickens’ lives were spent, the priest retrieved them from the water, sliced the wings and legs from the body, and cut the belly directly through the middle. Some of the chicken was thrown into the nearby forest; the other portions were carried into the clearing and placed into a bloody pile beneath a plastic tarp.

Once the prayers and libations were administered, the visitors filed behind another wooden wall, where final (mysterious) rituals were performed. Before disappearing behind the wall, some men bathed in the river, washing each limb with vigor.

My translator overheard several of the visitors’ complaints, and relayed the following:

Baby Daddy: A young, skinny girl told the priest how her boyfriend impregnated her and then refused to take responsibility for the child. In indignation, the girl came to the river and cursed her boyfriend. The boyfriend, hoping to free himself of the curse, vowed to take responsibility for the child and returned to the river to remove the spiritual damage the girl had requested.

Dead Wife: After a woman cast a curse upon her husband, the wife died. Fearing for his life, the man sought to remove the spiritual bondage the wife arranged, and brought his wife’s sister to remedy the curse. Together, the bereaved man and his sister-in-law knelt on the far end of the river and tapped the water in countless vibrations.

Stolen Money: An angry older man announced the theft of his money and vehemently requested that the river spirit curse the person guilty of the theft. After crossing the river, the man threw off his shirt and eagerly drenched himself in the water: marinating in its power. Afterwards, he rumbled a cry of thanks to the spirit before disappearing behind the second wall.

When the tributes and prayers were complete, visitors emerged with clay marks on their bodies: the women with white circles on their foreheads; the men with large crosses on their chests and additional stripes on their shoulders and lower backs.

Next to me, on the bench, the two young mothers sat side by side with their breasts exposed, feeding their babies with milk and the scent of dead bird.

Curiosity #19: Lesson on Rainbows

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The following passage appears in a chapter of a textbook on Religious and Moral Education. The subject is required among all schoolchildren between the ages of 5 and 18.

“The Importance of the Rainbow:

It is the symbol of God’s promise to mankind.
It shows God’s purpose for the earth.
It is also a sign of God’s love for mankind.
It reminds people that God will not destroy the earth and water again.
It helps man to realize real existence of his creator.”

Collection #18: Volta Shrine

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In an enormous cement building with no windows,  a semicircle of young Ghanaians knelt with fowls hanging from their left hands. The birds struggled under the suffocating grips of their owners, who bowed their heads humbly towards the sculpted idols before them. Drums resounded from the center of the shrine, drilling entrancing vibrations into the finely swept concrete. Along the perimeters  of the ceremony, villagers observed with attentive stares, waiting for the feathered bodies to fall limp.

When the worshippers laid their sacrifices upon the ground, the drums rumbled to an end and the priest rose from his chair. The owners briefly placed their elbows and tongues to the ground. One by one, the fowls’ heads were ripped from their torsos and the bodies were carried — necks dripping — to the lips of each idol.

The drums began again, and the women rose from their benches to dance, shuffling into a cluster around the swaying priest. The women flapped their arms like the birds they sacrificed, simultaneously thrusting their hips in a unified movement.

When the music petered to a close, a new collection of Ghanaians formed a semi-circle around the idols. These worshippers knelt with bottles of schnaps placed before their knees. In their native Ewe language, the worshippers took turns announcing their requests to the priest and gods.

One of the worshippers propped her torso over her infant, who sat upright on the concrete. With one hand, she pulled a full breast out of her blouse and let it tumble into the mouth of her baby, who prepared to cry from hunger. As the baby sucked at the open breast, the mother quietly revealed her concerns to the attentive priest, who — like the other worshippers — overlooked the woman’s exposure. While most of the baby’s face was buried into his mother’s skin, the tears on his face were still visible: a facial accessory from when his mouth was empty.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the priest recorded the name and contact information of each worshipper who presented a sacrifice. When he closed his notebook, I noted that it was a flimsy school notebook from a street stand, and on its cover was one of Ghana’s most beloved heroes: Barack Obama.

On the stone idol figurines, the curved surfaces dripped with blood until long after sundown.