Adventures with Spiritual Healers

15Jun10

Both men welcomed our mixed group of local and UK mental health practitioners into their domain warmly. Both lived in communities close to nature with curious children watching and wandering chickens. We sat on chairs and benches arranged in a circle that faced their own designated, elevated chair. Starting anti-clockwise, they shook our hands ensuring that none were approached with the back of theirs. Prayers to their inspirational source were said and praise given for our arrival. Although both had assistants, all eyes were on these charismatic individuals who commanded their communities through their aura and authority. Understandable, considering that both confirmed they could remove evil spirits through communication with a supernatural force. One was a traditional healer, the other a prayer camp pastor. For most with mental illnesses in Ghana, they are the choice available.

MAP students on foot to the fetish priest's shrine

To reach the traditional healer we parked outside a seemingly deserted community (the preferred term for a village) and walked down a bush track. After five minutes we came across a smaller number of dwellings, where a woman and child lay asleep under a tree. The area soon came to life and we were led into a basic compound-house enclosure and shrine for the community’s fetish priest. While word associations with perverted clergy are inevitable for Westerners, for this community there’s nothing frivolous about his role that’s no less than an amalgamation of king, priest and doctor. Although we would later learn that his assumption was partly accidental and followed his uncle’s (the previous priest’s) death, his legitimacy here is unquestioned. Nor is there doubt over his experience of being called by spirits to return home from his independent life, unaware of the then vacancy. For it was through interpretation of his uncle’s death rituals that the he was decreed ‘the natural successor’ and his healing powers were bestowed on him.

Dressed in a woven, white smock with sandals and without breaking sweat, his striking feature and physique could easily pass for a top musician or footballer. His confidence is assured as he pours out our gift of gin schnapps in a ritual performed for his ancestors. Then his initially formidable features gives way to a relaxed, genuine interest that I can imagine he shows to those who seek his help. Many, he said, have problems with their health or domestic life and thus over time he’s assessed and advised scores with mental illnesses. However, while psychiatry aims to follow a scientific, evidence-based approach, his practice is guided by communication with a deity that he consults on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Such shamanic assistance is necessary he said, because a number of those he treats are disturbed by evil spirits, often due to crimes they’ve committed or envy within families.

An audience with the fetish priest

Currently there were seven staying for here for six months or more. Three, he said, have serious mental illnesses; one that’s ‘wee’ (cannabis) related, another with an evil spirit, while the third had an evil spell cast during a land dispute. However, he explained they’re not visible now – its around 11AM – because they’re asleep after taking herbal preparations. The priest said that after ceasing all other medications, he consults with the deity to guide his selection from a range of formulas, though he may also use ‘trial and error’. Some of these are only to be taken at the shrine though when people leave, he may provide a month’s supply and also advice as necessary. Recently, he treated three ‘high achieving’ students who had a spell cast on them by jealous family members and afterwards, he provided them with some parting spiritual protection to combat the evil spirits; a traditional means perhaps of having a competitive healing practice. If people return, it may mean that things didn’t work as expected and he will look at other options, though if they don’t come back, he was confident that they were well. As to what’s in his remedies, that is a ‘trade secret’ and if we want to know more, then we’d have to see him specially with a bottle of schnapps, which makes us all laugh.

As with all healers, he has his own problems with resources; understandable when you live and practise without electricity and running water. In this remote community though, he said he often has to provide for all the needs of those he treats as by the time they arrive, they have no money and are too unwell to be turned away. Some in our group ask about a local concern of theirs, though one that’s not unique to low-income countries, that of families abandoning relatives because of the demands and stigma involved. The fetish priest confirmed that also happens here, to which he replied “so, its like a psychiatric hospital”.

Then we meet a young man, the one being treated for cannabis problems, who had just emerged from one of the enclosure’s rooms into the bright daylight. While he had the appearance of a late-rising adolescent, within minutes he joined us to comfortably answer questions in English. His problem was a universal one and began, he said, after smoking ‘wee’ with friends. Now aged 22, he was a veteran of two of Ghana’s three psychiatric hospitals, all of which are located ten hours away by road on the south coast. When asked how he heard about the shrine, he revealed that he and the priest were related, which was confirmed, though most likely in keeping with the Ghanaian context of tribal families. While many with mental illnesses will first visit a traditional healer or prayer camp before consulting psychiatry services, the man said his mother didn’t want him to come here as she feared their reported use of chains and whips. We never find out if that does happen though previous visited have reported seeing restraints. For the young man himself, he said his six month stay had been positive and better than hospital, where he was sleepy after taking Largactil, one of the few antipsychotics available here. Here he said, the priest’s herbal preparations also made him sleep and “pained” him. However, rather than being an unpleasant side effect, he believed this was beneficial and a necessary feature of effective treatment. Later some in our gruop will hear him express grandiose ideas about being a Christian prophet; themes that emphasise not only the likely chronic nature of his pathology but also the ambiguous nature of traditional and religious beliefs in Ghana.

Although we hadn’t probed the full nature of the priest’s practice, we leave with an impression of a concerned man with limited resources caring for those with even less. While his motivation towards us may have been influenced by previous visitors bearing gifts of money and schnapps, his approach wasn’t dogmatic or exclusive to others. Earlier he said that if, after consulting the deity, he felt a person’s difficulties were beyond his means, he would provide ‘first aid’ and arrange for transfer to a general hospital. The fetish priest appeared sincere towards the interests of those he treats.

By now we were running late for our next appointment with the pastor of a prayer camp. Here again a woman lay under a tree near the schoolhouse-like church before our arrival brought the seemingly sleepy grounds to life with people and children emerging, many times more than were at the shrine. The same Ghanaian welcome with palm-approaching hand shakes followed before we sat again in a circle under a shady tree for a somewhat different experience. The pastor was stockier, while his assistants stood more distantly in the background. Even without knowing Twi, his speech was assertive and punctuated by an unnerving ‘heh-hehhh!’ solo laugh. Although personal scepticism may have influenced my impressions, his answers to us were clearly more blunt due to the certainty of his beliefs.

An audience with the pastor

“His approach” our interpreter explained “is slightly different from the medical model.” That would be an understatement as the pastor informed us that through prayer, illness and evil spirits can be lifted from a person, like a kind of exorcism as described in the Bible. We would later see for ourselves how his methods involved some seemingly unChristian practices but first he presented his evidence. For this one of his assistants, a compliant man who had lived here for 15 years since being ‘cured’ of epilepsy, read to us from a large black book with gilded pages. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was preaching in Capernaum where a man was possessed by evil spirits. These spirits recognised him as the Son of God and pleaded “have you come to destroy us?”. Jesus in response, rebuked and exorcised them from the man, who was then cured. The pastor said that similar experiences have occurred here when people with evil spirits have refused to enter after realising this was holy ground. Thus, through belief and prayer, illnesses and evil spirits can be cured; which he receives referrals for from all over Ghana.

Did he think that epilepsy was caused by evil spirits? Yes, he said, God created man without illness so if you have an illlness, there is an evil spirit. Does his prayer always work? Yes, there are always positive outcomes for those who come here. Some have inoperable conditions and receive complete healing. Others have problems due to witchcraft or thinking too much. Sometimes though when people are brought to him, he will also use restraints. In time, he said, the person will understand that this was caused by their illness. If their problems were cannabis related then they will probably then stop taking them though he also admitted that preventing such relapses was hard.

Our request to see those he treats was agreed and we walked with his assistants down a path through tall crops to the back of the church grounds. There we saw a clearing where a corrugated metal roof was held up by two central wooden poles and open on all sides. On the ground beside the respective poles were two weary men in their thirties with their ankles held in iron shackles. One had been there for three days, the other was brought this morning by his family after he beat some of them and was held overnight by the police. Treatment consisted of being starved with limited water and but for the roof, exposure to the humid equatorial heat. No-one prayed or laughed. The men saw us but stared distantly; one sat with his legs straight, the new arrival flat on his back. Whether exhausted, traumatised or withdrawn due to mental illness, it was hard to say. The moment is mutually awkward and while we’d heard reports of such practice, it was still unexpected; particularly knowing our viewing was approved by the man overseeing their care.

We returned to the church in silence wondering what to do with what we’d just seen. Would confronting the pastor have influenced his practice? Unlikely, given the certainty of his beliefs. Should we alert the nearby police? They though were likely to know of similar churches and had probably agreed to the transfer between different forms of custody. Are we complicit in turning a blind eye in front of our local colleagues? What should they do when a line has been crossed? And where in Ghana is that line anyway? Somehow people’s awareness of it being time for lunch also ensured a swift departure from this holy place.

In effect though, through these visits we achieved what was intended, which was to appreciate the range and nature of people’s beliefs in Ghana and the treatments that many of those with mental illnesses will have received. In the meantime there are hopes that a proposed Mental Health Bill will provide formal legislation to protect and specify how they are treated and which will also apply to those receiving traditional and spiritual mental health care. These are early days in a part of the world where traditional beliefs in supernatural phenomena continue and often cross over. Churches and traditional healers are popular and widespread across Ghana. There are less than 15 psychiatrists here. For psychiatry to be more effective in reaching some of the most vulnerable people, then the views and methods of healers who are providing culturally acceptable explanations for mental illness have to be taken into account.

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