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Ghana Life: Fetish Beliefs Still Cast a Shadow

by John Powell

posted in Reference and Education

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In 1960, three years after Ghana achieved independence, a survey of religions found 38 percent of the population describing themselves as followers of traditional religions. A larger number claimed allegiance to a Christian denomination, mostly Protestant and Catholic, but only one percent said they belonged to an independent Pentecostal or Charismatic church. The religious revolution of the next half century saw a rapid rise in the strength of the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches and a corresponding decline in the membership of traditional religions, leading one to suspect that a coalescence was occurring. It appeared to the outside observer that many of the beliefs and practices of the old fetish religions were being absorbed by the newly-founded Christian churches. What was certain, was that belief in the spirit world, and its power to promote good or evil, was still widely held.
The Charismatic churches are well known for seeking to promote the material wellbeing of their members. Huge financial rewards are promised to the loyal and generous supporters of the church, and the pastors are renowned for their wealth displayed in big houses and expensive German cars. Belief in good fortune is accompanied by belief in bad fortune: fear of the power of curses imposed by enemies and of possession by evil spirits. So the new churches have long practiced exorcism, eventually forcing the long-established churches to follow suit in a bid to preserve their membership. Curses and possessions are imposed by fetish priests, calling upon the help of the hidden powers of nature, so in adopting exorcism the Christian churches are reinforcing traditional beliefs and helping to maintain their currency.
Whatever the religion professed, the fear of the curses of enemies is still strong in Ghanaian society. If the appropriate measures are not taken, the curse may result in serious illness and even death. Real or imaginary, the beliefs have a real and powerful effect on the mind of the accursed. The initiation of a curse is often associated with taking pepper and the death-stroke is often accomplished by the throwing of a dead crow. The method of release of a curse is specific to the fetish practices of the locality where the curse was imposed but invariably requires elaborate and expensive sacrifices, typically including money, liquor, goats, chickens, eggs and yams.
In traditional African religions, every natural feature: hills, streams, trees and rocks, has an associated spirit and the spirits of the ancestors swell the ranks of the hidden legions. This power may be recruited for purposes of good or evil. The power may be only in the human mind but what other power is there? Stories of Ghana, fact or fiction, could not be complete without the shadow cast on contemporary life by traditional fetish beliefs.
About the Author: John Powell
The story of one young man who dedicated his efforts to his country's economic development through the vicissitudes of life in Ghana in the latter half of the twentieth century is told in John Powell's two novels: The Colonial Gentleman's Son and Return to the Garden City.
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