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?
Apparently in the night she was afraid of a big cockroach, which was not there, and she was crying and sweating, trying to shoo it away. There was no cockroach at all.
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.
I lived on the Caribbean island of Trinidad for seven years, and there were witchcraft, juju, shakers, blood drinking all kinds of African religions, voodoo, smack dab in the middle of protestant and Catholic churches, and the goings on was never done in front of expats. They keep those thinks private.
It is still very common here especially among the religious people to take their sicks to imams for prayer or to undo a bad spell. I think its like a placebo effect. if you believe it works.. Beautiful Story ..
I can definitely vouch for the ‘Madam’ thing – as an expat in Ghana there is no getting away from it.
Our cook is 60+, I am not yet 40 – yet he insists on calling me Madam. When I tried to ‘put my foot down’ on the issue, he looked down and exclaimed, “Yes Madam”. However nothing changed! 🙂 When in Rome I guess!!!
When visiting the Cooper Canyon region of Mexico, whenever I would approach the women selling in the street,they would cross themselves. At first I thought they were praying that I would buy something. It turns out that because of my very light green eyes (I have dark hair and skin), they believed I was a witch. So I guess I can say I have been accused of being a witch.
Thanks for the interesting post.
My friend’s father died in Ghana 15 years ago and at that time the family was not in a position to perform all the proper rites. 6 years ago the family’s financial situation was better. I was with them for a ceremony done by an auntie, who I would call a seer, she called up his spirit so he could speak through her to the family. I remember my friend saying that she hoped her dad (dad’s spirit) wouldn’t ask for a cow to be sacrificed as that would still be beyond their means I asked her what they would… Read more »
Fascinating. My grandmother and aunt were Catholics and once I had a dream about the Pope. They were sure this was of GREAT significance (I was only a child) and I was visited by many priests… This was in the north of England.
I like the way you tell stories! I don’t have any juji stories, but one time I was attacked by a huge cockroach. 🙁
I’ve always had a healthy respect for muti, as it is called here in Botswana but in February this year (after 20 years here) I got my first personal experience with it. We moved back to our home after my husband got a very lucky transfer. I was home alone and suddenly there was a python in my sitting room. I passed the place where it was many times and even heard it but kept looking aorund and couldn’t see it. Finally it was there standing tall ready to strike. I ran in the bedroom and my dogs killed it.… Read more »
When my daughter lived in Togo, she told me she had never met more spiritual people in her life. They are one with the earth. The Catholic priest there… not so much! Don’t get me started!! AAAH!!!! He was transferred there from Poland, apparently… I guess they figured the Togolese wouldn’t press charges!
The beauty of living the expat life… we hear all kind of local tales! Some are hilarious and some can be scary experience.
Btw, I always enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for sharing!
This is so interesting to me as I’m reading a book, “The possibility of Everything,” by Hope Edleman, a memoir about a woman in CA, who takes her daughter to Belize to heal her from her “imaginary” friend who takes over. Can you believe she went to Belize. We have that in common. Great post as usual.
What a little beauty Emilia is. And she and I have something in common: I am scared senseles of cockroaches and frequently see them where they do not exist. Wish I had someone to pray them away for me. It sounds suspect, but I have had many weird, mystical experiences that I cannot account for. So although I can smile at what Emilia’s parents did, I can understand it, to some extent. There are a lot of mysteries in this world. Who’s to say you can’t pray fears away? Boric acid powder for those roaches, though. If I were in… Read more »
@ Sylvia. You must have plenty of interesting stories to tell after 7 years in Trinidad! A very exotic place, I hear. @ Turquoise Diaries. I imagine the placebo effect is often at work, I’m sure. @ Pale Observer. Madame is even worse when the speaker is so much older, absolutely 😉 @ Maya, a good thing you live in this century! Being accused of being a witch was no joke a few hundred years ago 🙁 in the modern world anyway. @ Anonymous, what a great story! @ LadyFi. Even in the north of England. You poor thing! Thanks… Read more »
@ Jungle Mom, fascinating stories! I commented on your blog. Everybody, read them! @ Pale Observer, I loved your story, and having lived in Ghana, I could “see” it all happening in my mind. Juju is powerful stuff indeed, just the threat of it and bingo! Sure glad you got your bracelet back. @ Marigirl, I’m glad you survived your cockroach attack. It probably was not the embodiment of something more evil! @ Lauri K, what a scary tale! @ Middle Aged Women, I’m sure your daughter had amazing stories from her time in Togo. Did she ever visit the… Read more »