Interview with a Fetish Priest

10Oct11

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Traditional healer, Kofie Munufie, describes his beliefs and informal healing centre near Kokuma, Ghana – July 2010.

Background

In May 2010, I taught at the Kintampo Rural Health Training School in central Ghana as part of the recently established Kintampo Project that provides formal training in psychiatry to middle grade health workers (see Opening of the MAP blog). The students were a group of experienced Medical Assistants (MAs), former experienced nurses who had undertaken further training to perform a doctor-like role. While MAs now make a significant contribution towards Ghana’s health care, within psychiatry they are increasingly necessary as there are less than 15 psychiatrists in this country of 22 million people [1].

During our teaching programme, a field trip was arranged to visit a fetish priest and the ‘informal healing centre’ that he runs for people with mental illness. Typically a fetish priest serves a ‘Spirit’ that inhabits a shrine within their community. Through the performance of rituals, it is believed that the shrine’s Spirit can take possession of the priest, who then speaks on its behalf ‘in tongues’. As mental illness in Ghana is associated with being spiritually unwell, family members often approach these priests to treat their relative, as an alternative to seeking medical advice [2].

We thus visited Kofi Munufie at his remote, rural community, near the slightly larger community of Kokuma, to observe his approach and the conditions at the healing centre. To get there involved a 30 minute drive south from Kintampo, including 10 minutes along an uneven, unpaved road and then walked for a further 10 minutes. For over an hour, our host answered questions from the students, which were translated for the non-Twi speakers among us. During this time we also met with some of the ten or so patients, who may remain here for between six and 12 months at a time.

When I returned to Kintampo six weeks later to provide additional teaching, I was keen to speak to him for longer, along with my girlfriend, Wendy, who has a personal interest in shamanic healing. We thus arranged by mobile phone to visit on Saturday morning along with one of the MAP students, Ernestina Agyei Yobo, providing translation. This time, when we turned off the main road, there was a modern sign with his photograph and directions, with a similar sign displayed at Kokuma. As before, we then made our way on foot for the remaining distance, attracting a trail of local children along the way.

On arrival at Kofi Munufie’s community we were led to his reception area which consisted of a three-sided building that faced towards a central compound surrounded by other buildings. When he appeared wearing a white woven smock, dark knee-length shorts and sandals, this charismatic, athletic man in his 30s with short dreadlocks was claerly in charge. While he initially had a serious, formidable expression, this gradually eased and later, he was prone to smiling and laughing easily. Among his assistants included a subdued, thin, shaven-headed man, who I knew from my previous visit was his ‘linguist’ and whose role would be more fully explained.

After presenting the priest with our gift of gin schnapps and cash, we then sat on a bench to speak. On his own dedicated chair, Kofi Munufie, who like other fetish priests is referred to as ‘Nana’, sat nearest to. This was followed by the linguist, with other men and women from the community completing the semi-circle, while a number of children played and watched with curiosity from a distance.

The recording and transcript

Before we began, Nana agreed that the interview could be recorded. While this would not have been possible without Ernestina and to whom I am extremely grateful, as with any non-professional translation there were occasions when the dialogue didn’t always match the reply. Although many of our questions were answered directly, undoubtedly some conversation was ‘lost in translation’ and further reduced when transcribed amongst the intermittent drumming and other stirring background activity. Where possible I have tried to retain Ernestina’s descriptions, though I’ve added words to aid meaning and clarified when there may be uncertainty about who was being referred to.

Since the interview I have since communicated with Ursula Read [3], a London-based Occupational Therapist, who has extensively researched informal healing centres and attitudes towards mental illness around Kintampo. Her experience confirms that Nana Munufie’s practice is consistent with most Akan priests in Ghana’s Ashanti and Brong Ahafo regions. On reading the transcript, Ursula confirmed there is a specific Spirit, known as an obosom, that resides within the shrine at Kokuma. On occasions this Spirit was translated as ‘He’, which I have capitalised. Ernestina also refers to ‘Spirits’, known as abosom, which translates as ‘gods’ or ‘deities’, who inhabit objects like rocks, trees and rivers. Sometimes though the singular and plural forms appeared to have been used inconsistently and I have retained what I believe was said at the time.

Ursula also advises that in Ghana references to ‘Spirits’ are influenced by the terminology that Christian missionaries introduced and which continues within the popular Pentecostal churches. Although Christian leaders often denounce traditional practices, many Ghanaians still incorporate elements of both beliefs in their lives.

The Interview

As the recording starts Ernestina translates Nana’s reply to her own question.

Ernestina: I asked him, “How does he recognise illness and what is the way he diagnoses and treats it?” He says if somebody comes for healing, he will call the Spirits to come and they will tell him the type of illness the person has brought and the treatment he can give. Then he will either make a request to pacify the Spirits or they may advise him to give the patient some medications.

Greg: Can he say, how he feels physically and emotionally after he speaks with the Spirit?

E: He says, he doesn’t feel anything physically and emotionally. When the Spirit comes to him, he doesn’t see or know anything, so he doesn’t know whatever he says or [what he] is doing. After the Spirit goes, he doesn’t feel anything physically and he is able to recognise everyone around him.

Tomorrow will be a ‘special day’. People will come around and they will beat drums and they will call [for] Nana. Then the Spirit will come on him and he will be dancing! He will be talking! The language can be French or other languages but it will not be in the local dialect. The linguist understands any language that the Spirit talks through, so after the Spirit has gone, the linguist will say “When the Spirit came, he ordered you to do these things for the patient.”

G: Can you ask, “how long that lasts for?” and also does he communicate about a number of patients at once or one at a time?

E: It depends upon the number of patients who are there. He works on every patient individually and the Spirit says what brought the person to come for healing, their disease and the treatment. At times, maybe a group of people will come and he will give a treatment. At other times he will say he cannot come and that patient has to come back another time.

G: This area we are visiting now, is it only for the healing or do other people live here?

E: The community is for him. He is here with his relatives because he cannot work alone. And some people here are patients, who don’t want to leave even after healing. But there is nobody else [who] stays here.

The recording then picks up the shaking of a rattle, which it is explained, is used on the evenings before the ‘special days’. There is lots of laughter.

Wendy: (admiring the rattle) It’s very beautiful. Can you ask him does he have a few spirits he communicates with or could they be the spirits of the patient?

E: It’s not the same but the elder Spirit [presumably the obosom – see above] is always there. Also there are many spiritual assistants, so if you call, any of the Spirits can come.

W: OK. Can you ask him, “has he always been able to do this or did he work with a teacher before?”

E: He didn’t learn it and it’s not from him. The Spirits ‘called’ him to come. It was like a prophecy [that took place] in his uncle’s home. So after his uncle died, the Spirit called him to come and work. He didn’t learn it.

Some of the men then bring out a large framed portrait of Nana’s uncle, who was the previous priest at the shrine and had died recently. The portrait is of an older man seated in traditional robes but superimposed against a spotless hotel lobby.

E: That is the uncle he was speaking about. The first group (who visited from the school over a year ago) came to meet him before he died.

G: Can you ask, “why does it have a modern setting in the background?”

E: I think it’s a studio.

Further communication occurs between Ernestina and Nana.

E: The background is from Kumasi. The photo of the uncle was taken here but they placed him in the studio to ‘beautify’ it.

W: Can you ask, “in Europe and America, healers are training students like myself to be healers and we may ‘hear the call’, because we want to do it”. Does he think that this work can be passed on like that?

E: He says, it’s not possible because the Spirits calls whoever He wants. So if I say, “I want to be trained”, Nana can train me but the Spirits cannot, will not work with me. The Spirits choose who He wants to work with. Nana can train me but it’s not possible that the Spirits can work with me.

G: And has the linguist undergone a training or did the Spirits suggest that he should do this work?

E: The Spirits called the linguist too. It’s a call. Other healers also can come for a training, to make them stronger. If I am weak [as a healer], then I can come and undergo some training and my Spirits will become stronger.

G: Is there a special significance here? Does this place have a history or is it just where his uncle lived?

E: There’s nothing special here but it was the Spirits that directed the uncle that he should come and build this place.

G And how long have people been living here?

E: They came to settle here, even before the fetish priest was born. So it’s a long time.

G: Since we were last here, he now has a sign on the road. Has that made a difference to his work?

E: This place is difficult for people to know it’s here. Now the visitors are coming in numbers, so he has to show where he can be located.

W: Would you tell him about the tradition that I have been training in? I have a beehive for honeybees. As part of my training I sit and listen to what the bees tell me. In England there is an old tradition to ask the bees when you want help. You also tell them about births and deaths and they will listen. One day I sat in front of them and asked for help because I was coming to Ghana. Then one of them came out and stung me straight there (points under her eye). It was funny and also an answer for me.

As Ernestina translates there is laughter, which continues after Nana replies.

E: The bee sting! He says, “it’s a ‘go-ahead’”. You can come (to Ghana)… nothing will happen to you!

G: Does he ever believe that insects or animals have a special significance?

E: He believes in that and that’s what Wendy reminded him of. During war, fetish priests can command and call bees to come and fight their opponents, who will die. Some [can also] use snakes or other animals and insects. So they believe in that.

W: So they are helpers, the bees and the snakes.

G: Does he ever have any concerns about the treatments the patients receive and whether they may have a bad reaction?

E: He has no concerns about the reactions of the drugs as those who come want to come. He gives a little treatment at a time and then he will be ‘topping it up’ until he sees that the patient has calmed down. As for side effects and reactions, he hasn’t seen much. If the person is on a treatment for two or three days and is not making any improvements, then he calls [the Spirits] again and they direct him to make a change in medication.

G: When I came here before there was a young man who said that he felt some pain from the medication he was given but he believed it was helpful. (This man who spoke English also said that he preferred Nana’s care than when he had been a patient at two of Ghana’s psychiatric hospitals) Does Nana think that sometimes, patients will feel worse before they become better?

E: Some patient come taking orthodox drugs and he will give them an antidote before he starts his medications. But if he doesn’t know this and he gives his medication, then there may be a reaction.

G: Could you tell him, in England I specialise in care for mental illness and I have been in Ghana for nearly three months. Is there anything he would like to ask me?

E: (after laughter from the group) He says he will come with you and work in England!

G: He will come with me? I would be happy to show him!

E: He’s asking you, “How do you manage psychiatric patients?”

G: In England, many patients come asking for help or their families will suggest they come. If they’re really unwell, the police will bring them. Then I will ask questions like a doctor about their health and about what they think is the problem. Often I am interested to know is there something they think will help them.

E: Will it be acceptable that when he comes over he can use herbs to see the patients?

G: (hesitantly) If a patient asks for assistance and he wants to help them, we would call that consent. An agreement. Now the police might be interested as well… It’s a hard question!

E: He asks do you ever see mental patients healed completely?

G: In Europe and America we sometimes see mental illness as a life long condition that has times when its better and times it relapses.

E: Its true that they relapse, if the person has offended somebody and the person has cursed him in order that he should go mad. If the patient comes to the hospital, you will give psychotropic drugs and the patient will get well. Meanwhile what the patient did is still there, so that brings the relapse. But if a fetish priest sees what’s actually caused the problem and removes it, then it will not come up again.

G: Can you just add that sometimes I see people and I don’t think there is a mental illness and I will give advice. So sometimes my job is to say to people when I don’t think there is a mental illness.

E: He says that they also have the same thing. Some people come with psychological problems like a relationship or a marital problem. He will give advice and let the person go without medication. They also believe in that.

G: Can you ask him, “does he have any views on epilepsy?”, particularly in children and what are his thoughts on the cause of epilepsy?

E: He says, epilepsy is given to them by other people, especially when the person is born. The person who delivers the child can give it to the child and then it would be in someone else. If you don’t know the actual cause and where it came from, then you cannot treat it. So he believes epilepsy is given by other people.

G Yes. OK… (resignedly) alright. I have a colleague who will be coming here in a few months time. Would he be happy for her to visit and and is there anything he would like to be brought. Anything from the UK?

E: (after some laughter) He says, the only things he needs here is a lighting system!

Further communication from Nana follows.

E: If there are people that are difficult for you to treat, you can bring the patients here and you will see how they work.

G: He’s saying he would be happy to receive patients here? Could they be treated as a day patient or would they need to stay here several days?

E: He can treat people on an out-patient basis but difficult ones, he has to observe the patient before treating.

Sensing the interview was ending I asked whether he follows events that are happening in Ghana and the wider world, like the World Cup. Nana replied that they have a radio. Ernestina then asked how do people know that the Spirit comes on Sundays and Wednesdays? Does he make an announcement through the radio? His reply suggests that like any good tradesman, he relies on ‘word of mouth’.

E: He says, that after people come here, they will send a message. So if I’m not well and I come here and I get healed, then when I see someone who is sick, I will say, “go to this man”.

W: So if I wanted a healing myself would I have to come on a Sunday or a Wednesday?

E: He said [he works] all days but Sundays and Wednesdays are ‘special days’. They will beat drums and then dance and then call him and the Spirit comes.

G: Where does he do that here? Where does it happen here?

E: He would like to show you.

Touring the compound

Interview over, we’re then taken as a group to see Nana’s consulting area, which I hadn’t seen before. As we pass through the compound, there’s a cleared area with a single thatched hut on the far side behind wooden fencing. Its significance wasn’t explained, though later I learn this was the shrine where the Spirit resides, which only the priest and his assistants may enter.

Then we’re led down a straight cleared path further into the bush towards a small clearing with an altar-like table at the back that’s covered with a cloth. We’re not allowed to enter any further but this is likely to be where the patients are brought when Nana is possessed with the Spirit.

We walk back towards the path’s entrance and the clearing next to the shrine, where the children of the community are drumming underneath a shelter. We’re treated to a demonstration of how they will prepare this evening, ahead of tomorrow’s ‘special day’. Here an impromptu burst of dancing breaks out which Wendy and I take turns joining in with, resulting in much laughter among the community, which Nana observes approvingly. After catching our breaths, we return to the reception area where we have photographs taken with Nana before leaving with a feeling of accomplishment.

During both of my visits, it was clear that there were people with mental illness present, some of whom spoke to us freely. Whether there were others being treated out of view wasn’t clear but when I visited before, we were told that a number of patients were asleep at 10:00 a.m. after having been given herbal treatments.

While I did not see any maltreatment myself, there are concerns about the conditions at some informal healing centres, both those run by traditional healers and at Christian prayer camps. For example, some patients may be held in shackles and reliant on their relatives to ensure that they are fed and cared for, while other treatments may include enforced fasting and beatings. The issues involved are discussed in considerably more detail in an excellent paper by Ursula Read et al [2].

As can be gathered from Nana Munufie’s forthcoming replies, he clearly has a strong belief in his own ability and the causality of illness. While his recent contact with the school at Kintampo may suggest an appreciation of ‘hospital medicine’, he may also be seeking to demonstrate the superiority of his methods for treating conditions that ‘white-man’s medicine’ cannot cure. For instance, this may have been the motivation for his question about whether I have seen “mental patients healed completely” [4]. I can only wonder what Nana would think of Western approaches to mental illness if he ever did actually visit.

References

[1] Asare, J. Mental health profile of Ghana. International Psychiatry 2010; 7, 67-8.

[2] Read U, Adiibokah E, Nyame S. Local suffering and the global discourse of mental health and human rights: An ethnographic study of responses to mental illness in rural Ghana. Globalization and Health 5:13. 2009. [Accessed 10 October 2010].

[3] Personal correspondence

[4] Read, U. (in press) “I want the one that will heal me completely so it won’t come back again”: The limits of antipsychotic medication in rural Ghana. Transcultural Psychiatry.

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2 Responses to “Interview with a Fetish Priest”

  1. 1 Wendy Quelch

    Thank you Greg, very interesting and thorough.

  2. 2 David Lawson

    Hi Greg
    What a marvellous piece of work. Though unexpected, it appeared very intresting. Are these the only pictures you took? THANKS.
    david lawson


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