Spirit World: Introduction

One of the things I did not anticipate after the accident is how much the community around us noticed it. I am continually amazed how many random people in my life, like shop clerks, or someone along Suzanne’s walk to work, or people at the Kid’s school, or at the US Embassy, or in the market, how they will stop me and ask me “How is the arm?”

[Steve in Sling from January]

But what I notice now is that people are having trouble remembering which arm was injured, saying “How is the arm?” and looking left then right, to see which one was injured. And for good reason, the shoulder is healed mostly, but the hand, as they say here, “is coming.” “I’m Coming,” is what you say when you do not want people to know that you have not left for an appointment that you are already late for. That’s the way I feel about the damaged nerves in my right hand. “I’m coming,” they say. Every morning I try to extend all five fingers out straight, and every day they back “Please, I am coming!” Which if this were a real Ghanaian conversation, I would then ask, “Where are you now?” My nerves say: “Please, I am coming!” They are unwilling to say where they are as they regrow.

So I wait, and relive that day, that moment when everything changed. I am past trying to figure out what went wrong, but not to knowing what I can learn from it. In the weeks following the accident, many of our Ghanaian friends asked if I was trying the traditional medicines. Traditional medicine being a code word for a visit to the local shaman, the one who had ancestral ties to the other side, the family priests, diviners, sorcerers, witch doctors, fetish specialists, and spiritual healers. In the west we would call the spirits of that other world ghosts,(to distinguish them as the formerly living) but here they are called ancestors.

[sign board]

Our friend Scott had the same experience after his laptop and high-end video camera were stolen and the police, while sympathetic, had been absolutely no help. He says “everyone seemed to know of someone who had connections to the spirit world and for a few cedis, they would seek their ancestors to find my stuff.” I never heard if he consulted the ancestral detective agency, I only know his stuff is still here in Ghana…somewhere.

It has taken me all this time to appreciate the influence that the world of the spirits has over the culture of life here. When Eric talks about the stoplight beggars being witches, he is not kidding. [click here to read that story]. They frighten him, because he thinks they are real, these days I’m wondering if he might not be right.

“There are good spirits that you should honor,” I heard a pastor say once, “and evil ones to keep boozed up.” Like when you greet the chief, it is customary to offer a libation to his ancestors (meaning: pour out a bit of hard liquor on the ground – thus either honoring the good spirits or boozing up the evil ones) Of course these spirits are not my ancestors—they are all buried in Kansas—and to that end, I wonder if we obruni are at a great disadvantage here. We have no otherworldly connections.

When we first came to Ghana, I am sure I did not believe in their power. I knew demons existed–had seen their work—and evil, as they said in seminary, has its own ontology, but dead relatives, I was not so sure. Neither were the first Missionaries.

They came to bring Christ to the local people, and so learned their local languages. To help future missionaries, they codified them, and gave them a written structure. Today these early missionaries are credited with the preservation of many of the lesser known languages, ones that might have died off in this era of globalization. Its too bad they did not learn the local religions, not for preservation sake, but so they could have introduced Jesus and correctly named the common elements of their two religions; how Christianity understood those same things that brought so much suffering into life.

For example, the early missionaries told the stories of Jesus casting out demons, and in the local language, these demon or evil spirit were translated as evil breath or wind. But evil wind was not the name for demons they knew from the traditional view of their spirit world. Thus attempts to relate their spirit world to the spirit world of the Bible failed. One author writes “Biblical accounts about demons and their activities did not connect with the experiences of the {local people} in their daily world in which they deal with different spirit phenomena.”

So a parallel religious system of Christianity evolved alongside already the existing local one. My friend Scott puts it succinctly: “Its like Jesus is the Ace, but they kept a Jack and Queen in their back pocket, just in case.” The Jack and Queen being the local gods, who could trump the Ace if enough gathered. With parallel systems there were problems the Christian God can handle, and for all others, your ancestors must be consulted. Like when Emmanuel’s brother caught an STD, one that wouldn’t let his manhood go down, and he came calling to ask for money to visit the fetish priest. [click here to read that story]. Ask longer term missionaries, and you’ll find they have a story to tell like this one from Ju Jernigan, a doctor at Lake Bosumwte [click here to read their blog]:

[Lake Bosumtwe]

“Yaw is dead, doctor. He died while still in the boat, almost to the other side of the lake.”

Its last fall at Lake Bosumtwe, and the boat driver, who is a upstanding member of the local Methodist Church is scared.

“Did you bring the body back?” Juliana asks.

“Of course not, I would never cross the lake with a dead body on the boat, the god of the lake would not be happy,” the boatman explains. Everybody knows that.”

Yaw was seventeen and had sickle cell anemia, and combined with malaria and a few other complications, it was too much for him. When he died, instead of a 10 minute boat ride back to his village, Yaw’s family had to bring his body back by tro-tro, a one hour journey to his village.

Juliana explains: There are “Unwritten spiritual laws that have been engrained on children’s hearts, generation after generation.” These laws that teach fear of spirits rather than trust in the One that created the lake. Juliana was told that if the body had been brought across the lake, a cow would have had to be sacrificed to appease the spirits of the god of the Lake.”

To read the whole account [click here].

Other missionaries have told me, “Oh, they are very real,” and then go on to tell their frightening other worldly accounts, and the effects it had on their ministry, health, and family.

In my life, I wonder about the morning of my accident. We had all gone into the nearby village to see, what the brochure described as, a “typical, peaceful, fishing village,” and maybe walk across the long bridge, or arrange for a boat ride. As it happened, the rains came about the time we got to the bridge so we did not get to cross it. Driving to the village, we met up with an old woman walking alone, alongside the road.

Usually, if we have room in the car, I will offer rides to old women or people head-loading heavy objects. We usually have the space, and it adds a bit of adventure to our lives. Since there was a darkening sky, I thought we could save the old lady from the rains, so we offered her a ride.

[head loading things – this in NOT the old lady we gave a ride to]

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