Ghana travel blog


Doris the Medicine Woman

There is an African man at my feet; stricken with a cellulitis infection or a bad juju hit that has moved into his whole body. He has been writhing in pain, but now, thankfully, Kwaku has fallen asleep.

Recently he started a project at his place on the beach in the Western Region of Ghana. The sea had been eroding the place badly, wiping away the structure in which he operated his bar and restaurant. When I arrived the sea was once again raging--wildly tearing at beachside trees and homes. He began by building a sea wall out of huge rocks and cement before we reconstruct any buildings. While Kwaku was working with the crew, he injured his hand when a rock fell on it. Later, his hand was understandably swollen. Within days his opposite arm and foot were immobilized; then his thighs. A trip to the hospital—definitely a place to avoid--gave a diagnosis of cellulitis and a prescription for antibiotic and anti-inflammatory. I tried reiki, massage, reflexology and clearing the space with incense, but as Kwaku only deteriorated further, his family stepped in to find help through traditional medicine—“juju”.

He has been given herbal remedies and finally today he consulted with a medicine woman who says she will take care of the problems.

A few nights later, the medicine woman/fetish priestess came at about 11pm to the project site. I arrived when she was lying prostrate on the ground. It was dark, but some people had flashlights. While she was lying there she opened a hole in the sand under her and pulled out a hard ball of stuff with pins stuck into it. It looked like it was formed of earth with some other things mixed in. She said it was placed by someone when the first rock arrived for the project; someone who wished ill will on the project and Kwaku. The woman was at first afraid of me as she had never had a white person at one or her traditional African medicine experiences. But she became comfortable when she realized I wasn't going to give her any trouble. She actually put this thing in my hand. I think I heard a sound coming from it. She asked me to take a picture of it. She spoke no English to me except for 'Good Morning'. While I was away getting my camera an acquaintance of Kwaku’s, James, walked through the site and the woman said it was him that put the black medicine there. As she will be sending the medicine "back to sender" it will be interesting to see how James fares in the next few weeks. (Not the most positively karmic/Christian/loving choice, but that's the way it’s done). Afterward, the woman collected 200 cedis (about $150) from Kwaku--not bad!

The medicine woman assured Kwaku that none of these practices will affect me directly as I am from a different place and have a different spirit. That is a relief and I will do my best to believe it. I am here for a few months, returning to a place that I love, to unwind and avoid news coverage of the 2012 elections. I have themed my trip ‘Asylum from Excess’. Here in the beach village of Akwidaa buying a box of candles rather than one candle feels like box lot shopping. People here don’t have much and waste little. I long for something different than the American Dream Scheme; they long for something different then poverty.

Kwaku visited the Medicine Woman a few days later for another herbal treatment. One of the interventions last week was a long row of little nicks in the skin along his lower back with medicine put in each one--ouch! He continued to have pain, though gradually it decreased and he continued with a round of antibiotics as prescribed by the doc for cellulitis. It’s best to cover all the bases. I was skeptical about juju and many Ghanaians try to show that they are above these ‘uncivilized’ practices but when you are actively witnessing it denial becomes difficult.

A week later, I had the opportunity to meet the Medicine Woman and her family at their home. She was willing to discuss her background a bit with me, using her father, a retired schoolteacher, as a translator. Before our interview, she consulted with Kwaku about treatment while she continually caste six cowry shells and a stone on the floor. She consciously completed her connection with the spiritual world before returning to the material world to talk with me about her life.

Doris is her name and she is 42 years old. When she was about 15 years old and living with her grandmother while going to the farm one day she heard drums beating in her ears. This continued each day and her grandmother became concerned. Then a string of beads made from palm nuts appeared around Doris’s waist. Alarmed, Doris’s grandmother brought her to a fetish priest who consulted the oracle and was told that Doris would be a priestess. When I asked Doris and the family how they felt about this at the time, they replied that when something like this happens, you have no choice. You must accept the situation. There are stories of people and families who did not accept and someone would end up going mad. There are no other spiritual medicine practitioners in Doris’s family—it is not something that moves through bloodlines.

Doris was then put under the care of a fetish priest to perform rites to prove that she was a priestess in order to proceed with training. During one of the tests, a sheep was slaughtered, butchered and put into a pot to cook. Doris was instructed to reach into the boiling water and pull out the head of the sheep. She described that the spirit was on her and she was able to complete this feat unharmed.

A small God of a local big stream, Abuabo, possessed Doris. Most Gods are from the sea or stream or rock or tree. This God sits in the corner of Doris’s room and can be called at will. There was a cloth hanging over the corner, so I was not able to see Abuabo and was too shy and afraid to ask.

When I asked Doris what it was like for her as a child to have this experience she described that when she was taken by the Gods she felt heavy as if something bigger than her was in her body. She cannot see the entry of the spirit herself, but afterwards feels very weak. She says she has never been scared about it.

Doris trained with other priests for about eight years and now practices on her own. I observed at her place many people availing themselves of her services. Considering the hellish experience I had with Kwaku when we visited the hospital, I can understand that this would be a more palatable option. Doris’s father and husband assist her with her practice by delivering and administrating treatments.

I asked Doris what she would do if someone came to her with a request to harm someone. She replied unequivocally that she only uses her powers for healing. When I have inquired about ethical standards of traditional doctors other Ghanaian people say that all practitioners are different and that some will gladly lay down harmful curses for the right price. One person told me that the practitioner who practices this way will soon waste away, become sick and will be seen wandering around like a madman.

As I sat in Doris’s room with her parents, her husband and her God in the corner as well as Kwaku and his aunt, I experienced yet again the well-known Ghanaian hospitality and beyond that what I often have found is the eagerness of Ghanaians to teach a foreigner about their complex culture. This family is telling, without hesitation, a stranger from a different race and place a sincere recount of an unusual life experience. Their story could be condemned as heretical or at least chalked up as barbaric nonsense. When I see this forthcoming nature it indicates to me that there is strong pride in country and I am hopeful that this pride will discourage the incessant dreaming of gold-paved streets abroad; the same gold-paved streets from which I am trying to escape. This pride, I imagine and hope, will bring these people, this country and this continent forward into a new world economy which is able to profit from its vast traditions and its resources.

Mary Kingsley, in her book TRAVELS IN WEST AFRICA (1897), explains:

“neither ‘fetish’ or ‘ju-ju’ are native words. Fetish comes from the word the old Portuguese explorers used to designate the objects they thought the natives worshipped, and in which they were wise enough to recognize a certain similarity to their own little images and relics of Saints, ‘Feitico’. Ju-ju, on the other hand is French, and comes from the word for a toy or doll. It is held by some authorities to come from gru-gru, a Mandingo word for charm, but Ms. Kingsley questioned whether gru-gru had not come from ju-ju, the native approximation to the French joujou.”

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