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Thinking with spirits

During my first visit to Ghana in 1998, I was involved in a research project that looked at possible co-operations between healers and psychiatric clinics. I stayed in the healing camp of Prophet Abbam II, who was known in the area to heal patients with mental health problems. My presence at his healing church attracted many visitors, who kindly brought food to help him host me. I preferred the roasted groundnuts and the fresh pineapples above everything else. I particularly liked to eat them together: first a few groundnuts, then a juicy slice of pineapple. “Dwarf food” the prophet commented, “you like dwarfs’ food”. I learned that dwarfs are spirits. When they manifest, they walk with their feet pointed backwards. If you find their footprints, you will always be wrong about the direction in which they are walking. They like to confuse and challenge you with their tricks and jokes. But they can also be of help, for instance if you are lost. They speak in a whistle language, and you need to be a spirited person to hear and understand them.

I became curious and asked whether I could meet one. The prophet exposed me on a bushy hill on my own for one whole day (dawn to evening) so that God would open my eyes. He assured me that this would include seeing and hearing dwarfs. I agreed, because you never know. But not much happened. I was not allowed to eat or drink anything and got tired and light headed. In the middle of the exercise I fell asleep (there was a lot of praying during the night time in the house of the prophet, so I lacked sleep). I had found a very nice place in the bushes next to a big tree where I felt protected and safe. When I woke up, I felt disoriented and was not sure what had woken me. A moment of panic overcame me. My right ankle was red and swollen where ants had bitten me. I was suddenly frightened of snakes, of the bush, of everything. The place did not look friendly anymore and I had no clue how to get out from the spot where I had been resting to the clearing where the prophet had left me. From which direction had I come? What time was it? It looked as if I was surrounded by an impenetrable thicket.

Then, suddenly, it was as if my eyes were seeing differently. Where I had first seen impenetrable thorny bush, I could now see single branches that could easily be bent aside. After I had made the first steps out of the little spot where I had been resting, I seemed to be totally surrounded by bush again. But I waited again for the same change in seeing to occur. And after some time, my eyes were directed again to spots where I could take two branches and bend them to the side to slide through.

It felt like an age until I made it back to the clearing. My legs and arms were scratched. I was thirsty. I had a headache. And I thought how stupid it had been of me to panic, because I could see the big tree where I had slept from the clearing. I had been very close the whole time. Before it got dark, I was released by the prophet, who climbed up the hill singing hymns. He brought nuts and water to break my fast, but did not speak to me until we were back in the village.

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Before staying with the prophet, I had done research in a psychiatric clinic. Doctor O. was transferred to the hospital as a psychiatrist during my research. He told me a long story about a dwarf. For his PhD research, he had assessed patients at traditional shrines in the Kumasi area. He wanted to find out how many of the patients were actually there for mental health issues. At that point in time there were only two psychiatric hospitals in the country and hardly any mental health units. As a result, most care of patients was done at home or at healing places like shrines or healing camps.

One shrine had a dwarf as its main spirit. When Doctor O. entered the shrine, the priest asked him to sit down. A bit later he heard a noise on the roof, as if something had landed on it. Then the priest called Doctor O. into the alter room to meet the dwarf. Doctor O. entered and said a polite and respectful greeting. He received a very naughty response in a male voice. He saw a little creature with dreadlocks, wearing a long smock (clothing worn in Northern Ghana), dancing and shaking his dreads so that you could not see his face. The smock was long and covered his feet, so that he could not check whether the feet were pointing backwards. Doctor O. looked carefully to assess the proportions of the little body. Could this be a human dwarf, somebody whose limbs had not grown proportionally because of a disturbance in his hormone level? No. The proportions were fine. He took notes and tried hard, in vain, to catch a glimpse of the feet.

He then went out and asked his research assistant to go in and to write down what he saw. The assistant followed his instructions, and later they compared notes. Both were sure they had seen a very small person, not a child, dancing with dreadlocks, saying naughty things in an adult voice. Doctor O. recalled Margaret Field, an anthropologist and psychiatrist who had worked for the colonial government in the 1920s. She had published a book entitled Search for Security, in which she also reported on stories about dwarfs. She had explained this through hyperglycaemia (very high blood sugar levels that can cause mental confusion), due to the starchy food that people eat. Doctor O. concluded: “We were either undergoing a rare case of shared hyperglycaemia or there was actually a dwarf in that shrine”.

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Ten years later, a signboard at the roadside in a suburb of Accra raised my curiosity. It showed a possession priest in a smock, and the writing on the board said that he could procure visas for clients who wanted to travel abroad. This time I was interested in the relationship between paperwork and spirits, due to my involvement in a research project on transnational migration. I had heard many people mentioning priests who could procure visas with the help of spirits, but had never met a priest who was actually doing this. I convinced Efua, a young Pentecostal Christian, to come with me and help with translation.

At the shrine we talked to the priest, a young man dressed in an elaborate pink cloth. We learned that he was from the north of the country, a migrant himself. One day, when he had gone fishing, he had caught something big in his net. It turned out to be an aportor yewa, a small pottery bowl used for blending and mashing vegetables. He took no further notice of it, but kept it because of its beautiful shape. Around the same time, people started to come to him, asking for his help in solving problems. It took him a while before he realised that he had been called by the spirits, who had their seats in the bowl. Through them, he could help the people coming to him.

Over the years, he gained more spirits and learned to serve them. When the spirits are with him, he speaks different languages: Ga, Hausa, Twi, Fante, Mossi and some foreign languages like French. I asked him about the advertisement on his board and how he can help people to get a visa. This is easy, he said. People bring their papers to him, and he works on them spiritually. The picture in the passport will then appear as different to the visa officer when he looks at the papers. He will see a person to whom he can grant a visa, and will stamp it.

To thank the priest for his time, I had brought a little bottle of perfume and some money. The priest enthusiastically accepted the perfume, and invited us to look at the altars inside the shrine. Efua was afraid of the spirits. In her Pentecostal practice, spirits have to be fought with the powers of the Holy Spirit, because they are considered to be part of evil. She had agreed to help me with translation, but was too scared to enter. Thus I found myself alone in a dark room, which was surprisingly cool compared with the heat outside. After my eyes got used to the dark, I could differentiate pots of clay in the corners with knives sticking out, covered with dried blood. The priest had mentioned that they had made an offering of a goat the day before.

As I was trying to differentiate more in the dark room, the priest opened another door and was waiting for me to join him in the adjacent room. Through the light from a little window, I could make out a beautiful altar covered with little delicate things. I could differentiate plastic flowers, porcelain plates with ornaments, pictures of Indian goddesses, tarot cards, little figurines, jewellery, lipsticks, perfume bottles, cans of soft drinks, three different Bibles and other books. As the priest confirmed later, this was an altar for Mami Wata, a marine spirit who loves perfume, and the priest wanted to offer my gift to her. He sprayed the air and the ceremonial clothes that were hanging on the wall. Suddenly he turned to me and invited me to sniff the perfume. When I leaned towards him to smell the fragrance, he gripped my hands and squeezed them, then moved one hand towards the place between my legs and, whispering in my ear, said something like “I want to make love to you” in Fante. I became confused. What was going on? Who was speaking to me? Was it the spirit or the priest? More perfume was sprayed and I was ushered out of the room. Outside, I sat down again next to Efua, who had been patiently waiting for us in the glaring sun.

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With spirits, you never know exactly whom you are talking to, when and whether they are there, or whom it is you are interacting with. Who was talking to me in front of the altar: was it the priest or Mami Wata? Was the priest making advances on me or was the spirit expressing the wish to connect? Whom did Doctor O. and his assistant see in the shrine? Were the dwarfs helping me to find my way out of the bush or was I simply disoriented from lack of food and water?

But spirits are not a ‘who’ that can be differentiated from their hosts. They are rather a-way-of-doing-things. They are called into being (Lambek 2010) through objects such as perfume, specific food and drinks such as nuts and pineapple, through music (drums, songs), movements and prayers (De Witte 2010; Banks 2011). When you are called to host a spirit, you must follow these ways-of-doing, otherwise you will get into trouble. You might become sick, for instance, and no doctor can cure you, because the sickness is of the spirits (Konadu 2007). By following the preferences of the spirits, you honour them and keep up the relationship. You keep the doors open and doors open up to you. Michael Lambek (2010) tells the story of a former spirit medium from Madagascar, who had stopped hosting spirits as a priest after her migration to France, though she still kept the food taboos of the spirits she had been serving by not eating chicken, because she could not make herself eat it. While spirits can be in our idiosyncratic tastes, and how we relate to things, they can also be in how things relate to us. Roasted groundnuts and sprayed perfume can become points of contact. Branches can become thick bush or they may open up. Money can flow easily or it may be blocked (Parish 2011).

Thinking spirit possession with dementia risks a pathologisation of rich and complex ritual practices. It also risks exoticising a condition that causes suffering and loss. But there are intriguing resonances: the (trickster) moments of not being sure who is in front of you when time horizons switch within seconds; the significance of mundane ways of doing things that can become points of contact or blockages – how they become part of the manifestation of a spirit and how they become obstacles or moments of pleasure with dementia (Driessen 2018).

What if dementia is a spirit?[1] How would we need to serve it? What would we need to do in order to avoid getting in trouble with this spirit? Could we befriend or socialise with it? If yes, perhaps it could do good things as well. Maybe it would just challenge us, and what we make of it is up to us. Perhaps we just need to find the ways to relate to it over and over again.


References

Banks, W.D. (2011). Spirit-possession rituals in southern Ghana: Priests, musicians, and ritual efficacy. Western Journal of Black Studies 35(1): 44-52.

De Witte, M. (2010). Religious media, mobile spirits: Publicity and secrecy in African Pentecostalism and traditional religion. In G. Hüwelmeier & K. Krause (Eds.). Traveling Spirits. Migrants, Markets, and Mobilities, pp. 83-100. New York: Routledge.

Driessen, A. (2018). Pleasure and dementia: On becoming an appreciating subject. Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, 36(1): 23-39.

Lambek, M. 2010. Traveling Spirits: Unconcealment and Undisplacement. In: Gertrud Hüwelmeier and Kristine Krause (ed.), Traveling Spirits. Migrants, markets and moralities (pp. 17-35). New York: Routledge.

Konadu, K. (2007). Indigenous medicine and knowledge in African society. New York, Routledge.

Parish, J. (2011). West African witchcraft, wealth and moral decay in New York City. Ethnography, 4(3): 136–151.

[1] This question was raised by Silke Hoppe in a letter to her grandmother about my stories.

Kristine Krause is Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include political subjectivity and health, citizenship and care. She has published on transnational therapy networks and the intersections of medicine and religion in global Pentecostalism. Currently she is working on a book covering these subjects as they pertain to the Ghanaian diaspora in London and is developing new research on care outsourcing to Eastern European countries.

This post is a contribution to ‘Daily life’ in the Somatosphere series ‘Thinking with dementia.’

Read the refraction of the theme here.


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