Spirit World: Questions to Ask

My introduction to the spirit world came by David Glanzman, who cautioned me that sometimes people get so fixated on them that they see evil spirits everywhere. Here in Ghana I worry more about the ancestors.

[A nice place for a swim – stock photo]

This past Sunday we are at Novetel for a swim, a luxury we have only afforded ourselves once before. It was a delightful afternoon, until we ran into a waiter who was bent on cheating us. When there was a problem with the bill, he unleashed a string of profanity, which in one sentence contained more cuss words than I had heard in Ghana collectively over the past 21 months. As a people, Ghanaians do not use swear words much—at least not English ones—so his outburst surprised us. Because I’m working on this post, and reading the book “World of the Spirits,” I am high alert. I try to deal only with his superiors, and remain polite, but firm. I hate having to get into that whole Ugly American thing and don’t. The waiter keeps wanting to bring us change from the money he has already cheated us…but he doesn’t actually bring it. It’s not much at this point, far less than when he first started. Ghana is a culture of bargaining so we’ve learned to bargain down how much we will agree to be cheated, so the change we’re waiting for amounts to 15 cents. I’m walking away, but he chases after me, pleading for us to wait. Wait for what I think…a curse? So Eric isn’t the only one who fears the spirit world—David Glanzman is right…they are everywhere.

I do wonder what I might have learned had I consulted a traditional healer, as so many of our Ghanaian friends encouraged me to do. In an OxfamAmerica report, anthropologist Susan LeClerb Madlala, says that traditional healers, treat more than the “immediate illness or problem, but provide an explanation of the ultimate source of the problem itself, something a medical doctor can’t do.”

For example, she says:

“Let’s say you are hanging your wash on the line behind your house, and a snake bites you. Well, a medical doctor will treat the snakebite, but he can’t answer a lot of important questions: Why did the snake bite you? Why was it at your house? Who sent that snake?”

Her words relate well to a story I heard recently about a missionary who kept finding vipers in his bedroom at night, vipers that are not native to that region of Ghana. He had worked with the people of the village for years, trying to bring electricity, higher education, and development to break poverty’s grip on it. Though none of the vipers harmed him, it did eventually cause him to ask the larger questions, like: Why were there vipers in his house? Who sent the vipers? In bringing those questions out into the open, he learned of the gods that ruled that village, and the fetish priests that served them. Each had bound their god to oppose the things he was trying to bring to release its people from poverty. He also learned one of the symbols of the village gods was a viper. So when electricity was brought to the village, there were constant power outages. When development was brought to the village, the outside businesses failed and thus far no child had left the village to seek higher education.

[Hut from a village that does not have electricity]

I do not know the rest of this story, but knowing what he now knows, I have to think that the missionary will temper his approach to fighting poverty. Maybe it is not the spirits, gods, or ancestors that we have to fear as much as it is our ignorance of them. Ignorance that causes us to forget to pray, and call upon a higher power to deliver us from them. Ignorance, and arrogance, that cause us to forget to see what we’re doing through the eyes in the culture, of those who live in it.

When Anna and I visited the Butterfly Sanctuary we took a tour of the surrounding forest. Near the end, our guide showed us an unimpressive specimen of a tree. He said the local people of the village thought it to be a god with healing powers. Often in the mornings, he said, he would find gifts under it, like eggs, food or beads. He said people came in the night, presented their offerings and asked to be made well, or conceive child, or be married. “How exactly does that work?” I asked. “As for me,” he said, “I do not believe. It’s not for me to say.” If you will notice the signboard for the tree, it says its primary use is medicine, it just does not say how.

[tree god with our guide]

“In the everyday life of our African cultures we are constantly aware of various spiritual forces,” write the authors of African Traditional Religion and Christian Counseling. “These unseen powers are part of the world we see and are the ultimate cause of all that happens, especially of unusual or disturbing events. There is no clear dividing line between the physical and the spiritual, between animate and inanimate, between living and dead.”

In fact some anthropologists argue that even our western terminology for ancestor and living elder draws a line between the living and the dead that is not necessarily there. That when one passes from this life to the next, the authority and power remain constant, like changing offices. In fact “all objects are believed to have some degree of life force. Plants have more than rocks and man is near the top of the hierarchy. He is surpassed by only the unseen beings of the spirit world of which there are various kinds.”

[medicine rock used to grind traditional medicine]

Looking at the world that way, through the eyes of a culture where even rocks and plants might have a life force changes the questions to ask. No longer do I need wonder how a huge freak ocean wave happened to find me holding a boogie board that day. What I need to ask is who sent that wave, and why.

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