We step into the fetish priestess’s yard and, improbably, there is a clap of thunder, a sudden gust of wind slams doors and windows, and knocks over several plastic chairs – and the lights go out. My guide, Boat, and I are shown to two seats in front of the priestess, sitting on her porch in the dark. We are each handed a small glass of schnapps, pour a few drops on the ground for our ancestors, then drain the rest. The lights come back on, and the priestess leads us across the courtyard to a door behind which, Boat explains, is a shrine to the lesser gods.
The shrine turns out to be a small room whose floor is covered in goat-skins. The walls are hung with striped cotton costumes on pegs – the lesser gods’ clothes, Boat says, which the priestess wears to signal which deity she is channeling. The little room is crammed with teetering piles of presents: schnapps bottles, fly whisks, necklaces, plastic yellow roses, two African statues, a gun, a spear, biscuits, and perhaps 30 containers of passion-fruit scented talcum powder. On a pile of sand in the center which I take to be a make-shift altar sits one empty bottle of schnapps, an empty packet of cigarettes and an empty bottle of Fanta. Also on the wall, I note, are three pictures of Jesus Christ.
I’m in the village of Kwahu-Tafo just southwest of Lake Volta in southern Ghana to learn about the country’s traditional tribes and their unusual efforts to modernize. My trip is personal too: 10 years ago, my Uncle Humphrey, from London, was enthroned – or rather “enstooled” – as development chief of Kwahu-Tafo. My uncle promptly formed an NGO, Friends of Tafo, which ever since has funneled money into schools, libraries, waterworks, and even an internet cafe. But it is the pragmatic adaptability shown by a traditional African tribe in adopting him that intrigues me, and which I mean to explore. And if I am to understand how the village is modernizing its traditions, I need to experience those customs for myself. Boat’s father, the village chief, has told me about the dwarves who live in the forest: rarely seen, sometimes friendly, sometimes not. Now Boat has suggested I meet the Kwahu-Tafo’s fetish priestess. He introduces me to a woman I can now see as in her mid 60s and wearing a velvet red dress. The priestess replies she considers my uncle family and I can ask her anything.
I start to speak and, again on cue, the lights go out once more, and a rainstorm beats the tin roof with such ferocity that I have to shout. I ask about her role in the village. The priestess explains she was first possessed more than half a century ago at the age of 13, and is a herbalist and a medium for the eight lesser gods that look after the village. “There is drumming and dancing, and then the gods comes to see us and she gets married – possessed – by their spirit,” adds Boat.
I’m curious how that feels, and I say so. There is another crack of thunder, the lights go out and the rain intensifies. “When you get possessed, you do not know anything until after the lesser god has gone,” the priestess replies. “The lesser god decides when and how they like to come and when they leave.”
And what do they say?
“The linguist will have to tell me afterwards which god came and what he said,” she replies. A man sitting in the corner, who earlier served the schnapps and who I now take to be the linguist, nods.
The priestess continues: “They are the guardians of the village. They say, ‘This one wants to do this, this one wants to do that, there is going to be rain, there is not going to be rain, if you want rain, you must do this ritual.” She adds: “You can disagree with the lesser god but if you say you don’t believe him, he will give you a demonstration so you do believe.”
We talk for almost an hour, until the thunder has stopped and the rainstorm is gone. The priestess tells me the village deities have as much relevance today as ever. So high is the demand for her services, she is training seven more young girls to be priestesses. (Luckily, the lesser gods can possess several priestesses at a time.) A key reason for their enduring popularity is flexibility. Just as Ghana’s tribes can admit foreigners, so the gods move with the times. They advise on harvests, but also schools, roads and waterworks. Nor are these jealous gods. The pictures of Jesus are there, says the priestess, simply because she likes him. There are striking parallels between her faith and Christianity, she notes. When I ask why she is only ever possessed by lesser gods and not the supreme being, she replies: “The lesser gods were created by God. They are like angels. God works through them.” A flexible religion that can modernize and admire other faiths? Being possessed, it turns out, can be a long way from crazy.