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.