Ghana Life: The Warring Spirits of the Forest


Working on the campus of a university of science and technology in Africa one could be forgiven for assuming that one lives in a placid world in which the physical environment is ruled by the laws of Newton and human interactions are purely rational. Contained within a tranquil floral parkland it is easy to forget that in the surrounding dark tropical forests, a perpetual war rages between the forces of good and evil, and men’s lives are still afflicted by the spirits of streams, rocks, trees and animals. What follows is a true account of what happened when the war outside disturbed the peace of the campus, and Christianity and Fetishism competed to repair the damage.

Saidu was a technical officer employed at the Forest Products Research Institute (FPRI), a branch of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and in the early 1970s still located on the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi. Saidu’s work involved frequent journeys deep into the forest to record the growth and condition of trees selected for detailed study. It was a situation fraught with danger for a man of science innocent of the evil forces of nature.

One day Saidu returned to the campus in extreme distress; he had been struck dumb and could communicate only in writing. He was fortunate to encounter a visiting expatriate consultant who sat with him and patiently extracted his story by handwritten question and answer. Saidu had visited an area of forest that was new to him. Being unfamiliar with local custom he had gone to work on the da bone, the day of evil when work is forbidden, and after taking pepper with his evening meal he had lost the power of speech. He was convinced that he was taken captive by a tribe of mmoatia, small forest dwarfs with backward pointing feet.

Saidu had been told by the people living in the place of his affliction that his speech could be restored if he returned to make sacrifices to the local gods. So he petitioned his director for a salary advance to make the necessary purchases and for a vehicle to transport him back into the forest. The director refused the request. So the expatriate colleague, a self-confessed born-again Christian, began a search for an alternative solution. In answer to a written question, Saidu too, claimed to be a Christian.

After making extensive enquiries involving both Catholic and Protestant churches it was discovered that only the Pentecostal church involved itself in cases of possession by spirits and offered services of exorcism. Saidu was very reluctant to undergo this treatment but was at length persuaded to accompany his Good Samaritan to meet the pastor of the Pentecostal church in Ayigya, a village bordering the university campus. Waiting for the interview with the pastor Saidu grew more and more anxious, scribbling that the tribe of mmoatia holding him were at war with the tribe of mmoatia employed by the pastor. He fled from the church before the meeting could take place.

In an effort to learn more about Saidu’s plight, the expatriate colleague made enquiries among the faculty of the university and found an elderly Ghanaian professor who was reputed to be knowledgeable in this field. The venerable gentleman explained that the mmoatia are considered to be intermediaries between men and the spirits of the forest, often employed by fetish priests to protect people from curses or cast out evil demons. ‘Make no mistake,’ pronounced the guru, ‘these creatures exist. I have seen them with my own eyes in this very room.’

Next morning the FPRI yard was a scene of unusual activity. Saidu and some of his workmates were loading a Land Rover 4WD vehicle with yams and bunches of plantain, bowls of eggs and bottles of gin. Other helpers held restless goats or chased absconding chickens. Eventually all was stowed away and Saidu left to make his sacrifices. According to bystanders, the director had relented and authorised the loan. When Saidu returned on the following day, his speech had been restored.

Source by John Powell

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