Monday, 28 October 2013

Libation, Libation, Libation. A Meeting with a Fetish Priest Called Eric.

Sunday 20th October 

A panorama of the Edwenase Shrine.

I woke unsurprisingly early after going to bed at 8:30 the previous night and went in search of my customary breakfast of omelet and coffee in a bustling Ejisu. It was market day and everyone an anyone was either dressed in their finery heading for church or perusing the hundreds of items on sale throughout the town. It seemed they were selling everything. Everything except omelets. I picked up a couple of Ghanaian doughnuts and some bananas before finding a shared taxi to Omwe. My destination was the small town of Edwenase which housed the Atia Kusia Kwame Shrine which I was keen to visit and possibly meet the Fetish Priest who lives there. It was a Sunday after all. The day of worship.

The entrance to the shrine.
From Omwe I walked the few kilometers along the lush dirt road to the town and quickly found the shrine, easily recognisable from the beautiful mural of a male and female figure with a crocodile above. I was standing admiring the mural when I was approached by an enthusiastic school teacher who said he could arrange for me to go inside. I was a little wary as the guide book makes a point of saying that most visits to shrines, especially when meeting the priest, are expensive and brief. However, it seemed I had very little choice as I was quickly ushered around to the back of the shrine and lead through a door into an area adjacent to the shrine itself which must act as the priest's living quarters. I was told to take a seat while they called to the priest to come as he had a visitor. We waited. A man burst through the door in front of us. Bliery eyed and throwing on a tattered green northern style top as he went. He was a skinny man dressed in slim jeans and his tattered top. His hair, what he had of it, was in short thinning dreadlocks with a heavily balding patch in the middle. Despite his hair loss he looked young though perhaps that was in due part to his eyes which were the first thing that you noticed. They were wild and restless darting relentlessly, as wide as their host could force them, all over the room as if he was looking for something the rest of us couldn't see. The rest of his face seemed completely unaware of his eyes. His smile was relaxed warm and welcoming although his teeth were in desperate need of dental work and possibly a brush. He moved fluidly across the room accentuated by his flowing top his eyes never ceasing their quest to keep their owner aware of any impending danger. He took a seat next to me and shook my hand in the traditional Ghanaian way, clicking as we parted.

"Welcome. I am the priest here. Eric"
"I'm Anthony"  
"Ok. Hmm. Anthony... Welcome."
The chair where I placed my offering.
He was friendly and calm as he took down my name, address and both my Ghanaian and UK phone numbers on a seemingly random piece of paper as he paced up and down the room. Each answer I gave was greeted with his increasingly familiar response of "Ok. Ok. Hmm". After a while he seemed satisfied that he knew everything about me he needed to about me he beckoned me to follow him as he marched through a small wooden door leaving the plain entrance courtyard behind and entering the shrine itself.
Eric speaks to the spirit.
 The shrine was light and airy. The building was obviously in good use and well maintained. Eric beconed me up to the shrine section of the building where I was instructed to leave 10 cedi on a chair so Schnapps could be purchased as libation for the spirit. After a brief kerfuffle over change I placed the appropriate offering on the chair for the spirit plus 5 for eggs, yam and any other things the spirit may need. The spirit obviously hasn't been shopping in a while. Then I was free to look around the shrine.

The drumming section.
The shrine setup was becoming familiar to me after my visits to a couple of disused ones the day before. It is arranged in a square courtyard set up with 3 alcoves; one for singers, one for drummers and one for the shrine itself which only the priest and his helpers are allowed to see. There was also a tree in the corner next to the shrine alcove. The walls were painted white except for the array of plaster decorations that adorn the walls each with its own specific meaning. I asked questions of Eric and took pictures while Eric went in to the corner of the alcove and spoke to the spirit, announcing my arrival. Pictures all taken and questions all asked I sat in the shrine alcove chatting with Eric waiting for my expensive and brief tour to come to an end.
The shrine section.
Suddenly the door to the village at the back of the shrine burst open and the school teacher entered the shrine along with 5 of his friends. His friends, all middle aged men in a variety of of dress that ranged from tribal robes to relaxed politician on holiday, took up positions behind the drums and started to play. Eric, annoyed, went over to remonstrate with them. His voice was calm but his eyes were wider than ever.

"You cannot play the drums. Ok? As I have not taugh you how to ok?" Which he proceeded to repeat several times over to increasingly deaf and drumming ears. The School teacher grabbed the near empty plate of white powder and started throwing it in the air around Eric to ward off any bad spirits in the shrine. Eric was still reluctant but eventually relented and started to dance and move with the music as the school teacher threw more white powder after replenishing the plate with a bottle of 'Ladies Choice' talcum powder (which explains Eric's youthful complexion). The drummers drummed faster and Eric danced faster with a series of balletic spins and graceful shuffles that ebbed and flowed with the pace of the music.

Eric starts to enter the trance.
The school teacher, acting as Eric's assistant was sent for liberal quantities of Striker Gin to act as libation for the ceremony. Eric libated himself and began to dance more and more (I find gin helps that too), his eyes relaxed and closed as he moved before springing back open wide as he stopped and looked in the corners of the room seeing what we mere mortals could not. Talc was thrown. Eric danced and listened to the spirit, the drummers matching his rhythm throughout. Each time he stopped to listen to the spirit the school teacher would hold up 2 fingers in a bunny ear pose behind his head for apparently important but completely mystifying reasons.

The ever willing school teacher kneels at Eric's feet.
Eggs and more libation for Eric and the drummers were called for. The school teacher scuttled around attending to Eric's every wish. The drumming quickened. The dancing became more frantic. Eric went deeper and deeper in to his trance. 
Eric breaks in to dance.
The noise had awakened the interest of the town and many of the villagers came to find out what he commotion was all about. One of whom crossed the courtyard and introduced himself as the son of the previous fetish priest (Eric had shown me the grave earlier before proceeding to throw an egg and spit striker all over it). He told me Eric was the Grandson of the previous priest before wishing me a pleasant stay and returning to the other side of the courtyard to chat with a couple of friends as nonchalantly as if he was at a coffee morning.
Eric stops to listen to the spirit.
Eric was now covered in talc, heavily libated (on his 4th striker at least) and deep in his trance. Eric suddenly disappeared, performing a lightening costume change swapping his tatty top for a spotless baggy white cloth which draped over his torso in seemingly awkward and random manner before continuing in his trance. The white cloth flowing from him as he moved. The school teacher, acting as Eric's constant helper, brushed the ground around Eric with an ornate wooden brush which Eric then threw an egg at before turning his attention to the tree which he spat a liberal mouthful of libation at before downing the rest of the sachet. Amazingly I was allowed to photograph and film the ceremony freely throughout. Though, annoyingly, my camera decided that this would be the moment it inexplicably chose to run out of battery.

"Sorry. What did you say?"
Suddenly the school teacher appeared next to me.

"What do you desire?"

I was flummoxed.

"What?" I ejaculated

"What do you desire?" the teacher repeated before seeing my obviously dumbfounded expression and  adding by way of explanation"of the spirit".

I hadn't expected this. My brain raced searching for anything in the corners of my subconscious that would answer his question. I stared blankly at him for a few seconds before blurting out the first thing that came in to my head. It's amazing how your brain works under pressure. How quickly it can drag the recesses of your mind and clearly come up with an answer. I had never even considered my answer before as a desire of mine, but the moment I said it it felt right.
The school teacher nodded his ascent before returning to a tranced up and dancing  Eric to give him the news. The school teacher kept consulting Eric before retuning to me with advice on how to achieve my goal from the spirit which apparently Eric had passed to him without once speaking. The teacher then repeated this advice 8 or 9 times before reminding me this was not his job and to remember to give him something at the end, which pretty much sums up the Ghanaian Education System, repetition followed by requests for more money.

After a while Eric stopped his dancing and came out of his trance and came to rest on the step next to me. I was told by the school teacher that I would now have some time alone with the priest followed by more repetition and reminders to give him money. In reality all of the drummers and the school teacher followed Eric and I back in to the living quarters where Eric argued with the school teacher about the advice he had given me before deciding he wasn't happy with one of the eggs and sending the teacher with his tail between his legs to buy another one.When he returned and the egg was deemed fit for purpose it was handed to me.

"Go in to that room there and speak all that you desire to the egg." Instructed the school teacher while Eric nodded.
Eric wrapped in his white sheet consults the spirit as the school teacher watches on.

I rose automatically and walked in to the the room, my hands clasped tightly around the egg which I raised to my mouth, facing the wall. I stood there dumbstruck. Unsure of what to do.

"SPEAK! SPEAK! Speak your desires to the egg." The school teacher shouted as if sensing my bafflement.

I spoke. I asked 4 things of the spirit/egg before returning to the main courtyards to present the unchanged egg to Eric, which he inspected before rising to his feet and announcing

"Come. We should now go to the river."

Before turning on his heel and marching out of the door and in to the town. We all followed as quick as we could in tow. We left the village and decended the hill to a fairly stagnant piece of water which forms part of the local river. The water was covered in algae. Weaver birds darted here and there diligently attending to their nests and calling to each other. After hours of drumming the serenity of the river was a welcome relief. 

Eric turned on his heels to face me.

"Throw the egg in to the river."

I instinctively did as commanded and launched the egg as far as I could in to the river where it broke the algae covered surface and sank in to the deep, barely making a ripple. I watched Eric who stood resolutely still watching the water. Nothing happened. The birds sang. We waited. Nothing happened. I'm not sure what I was expecting to happen. I'd just thrown an egg in to a river. There was the inevitable splash but what was going to happen after that? Hundreds of chickens burst out of the water? But at that moment my rational brain had left long ago. I was completely captivated the rhythm and mystery of the ceremony.

Suddenly Eric turned away from the river and marched back in to the town leaving us all, again, in his dusty wake. We all sat in silence for a while back in the shrine waiting for Eric to speak about the ceremony when the school teacher, unable to stop himself doing his near perfect impression of a broken tape player went back to his repetitive cycle of advice and reminders to pay him. It didn't help his gravitas that his bald forehead was now emblazoned with one of Eric's talcy hand prints.

Finally Eric snapped and turned to the school teacher.

"When did I say that?" The teacher looked chastised and babbled incoherently before falling silent under Eric's manic gaze. When the silence had settled Eric turned his attention to me.

"You told the egg your desires didn't you?" He asked calmly. His eyes returning to their normal business of  darting around the room.

"Yes sir." I replied

"Well then. It will be so. Ok? The spirit will help you...There is a river in London. Correct?"

"Yes sir." I couldn't help feeling like I was in the headmasters office.

"Good. Then the spirit will find a way to you. You threw the egg in the river here and it will find a way to help you. River here. River there. It's all connected. Ok?" As he finished Eric broke in to a wide and somehow comforting smile opening his hands wide to emphasise his point. As if what he said was the simplest and most strait forward thing in the world and I thanked him, genuinely. Spiritual or spurious the experience had been truly incredible. Eric acknowledged my thanks before turning away from me to begin remonstrating with the school teacher again in Twi, for some reason mentioning various London Bridges.

The ceremony had taken over 2 hours but was now finally at a close. I went and bought some Striker and  Apateche for Eric and the drummers as thanks for their time and effort which went down extremely well with all, except of course the school teacher who wanted money to buy food as well. There's no pleasing some people.

As I left the shrine and re-entered the village Eric said goodbye and assured me he had kept the 10 cedi safe and would be sure to spend it on a libation of Schnapps for the spirit. I walked off down the deserted dirt road, a sachet of Striker in hand libating myself and my mind reeling from the insanity of the events that had just happened.  

Maybe that's what life comes down to. I thought to myself. 

What would you ask the egg?

And I chuckled to myself, as I walked alone in the dust, in to the African afternoon.