I didn’t know anything about spirits and witches, or juju for that matter, when I moved to Ghana. One of the joys of my expat life there was having an African family living in our compound. Leah was our housekeeper. Her husband Jerome was a restaurant chef working in town and loved helping us out when we had dinner parties. They had a little girl, Emilia, who added love, fun and cheer to the household. Emilia’s favorite English phrase was: HowareyouI’mfinethankyouferrymuch! One morning, however, she wasn’t feeling so fine, and everyone was worried. Here’s the story:
Of Cockroaches, Spirits and Witches
We hear Emilia crying in the night and we wake up to a troubled lot this morning. Commotion in the garden, concerned voices. We see a strange woman by the servants’ quarters, her head covered with a scarf of market cloth in a way that is not familiar to me. She’s African, but not from around here.
As we’re eating breakfast, Jerome comes in, looking solemn. “Please, I want to trouble you small,” he says, and asks to use the phone. Emilia is not fine and did not sleep all night.
We ask what is wrong with her. Is she sick?
We suggest it was a bad dream, a nightmare.
Jerome frowns, unconvinced. “She no sleep!” he says. He explains that Emilia was awake, eyes open, seeing the cockroach that was not there.
Ilustration © Makarova Olga / Dreamstime.com
Leah comes in, carrying Emilia, her tired little head drooping on her mother’s shoulder. We say that a bad dream can cause fear after waking up because a child does not necessarily know dreaming from reality.
They’re not so sure about that. They worry about spirits and witches, they say. They want to take Emilia to a church so she can be prayed for.
They are not church goers, but they must have a church in mind; certainly there are many to choose from.
The air is alive with the sound of drumming
Religion is a national industry in Ghana and charismatic and evangelical churches sprout by the side of the road like paw paw trees. They have alluring names like Shower of Blessings Church, Mantel of Grace Prayer Center, Christ Victory Church, Miracle Temple. Every Sunday the air is alive with the sounds of drumming, shouting and psalm-singing. Sometimes on other days as well, and on occasion late into the night. Some Ghanaians consider this noise pollution as you can read here, but I digress.
Wise medicine woman
I ask them who the strange woman is still sitting in the driveway. Jerome says they had gone to fetch her in the middle of the night to assist with the problem. She made medicine with garlic and herbs. Originally she hails from Togo and she is very wise.
Emilia, in her mother’s arms, seems to feel fine now, not feverish or sick. I feel her forehead and it’s cool. We discuss the problem some more, saying surely Emilia will be fine tonight.
Jerome looks doubtful and puts his hand on his heart. “But my heart is not feeling easy,” he says.
“You are worried?” I ask, to show I know what he means.
“Yes, yes,” he says. And Emilia, he adds, is afraid of the bed and does not want to go near it even though she’s very tired and needs to sleep. They want to take her to a church, just to make sure. Is it all right for Leah to leave?
Like I’m going to say no. The breakfast dishes can wait. Witches and spirits possibly not. I say that praying is good, although I am not actually convinced of that since I am not sure what praying for a child bewitched and fearful of cockroaches will entail in a Ghanaian charismatic church. They might scare the kid silly and make the problem worse. But this is not my culture, my church or my place, so I do not voice my concern.
Prayer is powerful
Jerome calls the restaurant to explain the family crisis and that he may be a little late for work. Then the three of them depart, but not for long. Less than an hour later I hear Leah in the kitchen busy with the dishes. I push away from my computer and trek downstairs to inquire about Emilia.
“Oh, she is fine now,” says Leah, looking relieved. “They for say prayer in church.”
“Was she afraid in the church?” I ask, busybody that I am.
Leah laughs. “Oh, no, Madame,” she says. “She no afraid.”
I hear Emilia laughing outside. It’s a happy sound.
* * *
In the years I lived in Africa I had no personal experience with spirits, witches, or juju, but I’ve heard enough stories to not take the issues lightly. Have you ever had encounters of the supernatural or mysterious variety? I know some of you out there must have!
P.S No, I did not enjoy being called Madame, but there was no changing that local custom.