wo years ago I packed up my comfortable life in New York and moved to the remote coast of Cape Three Points in western Ghana. I stayed for eight months, directing Trinity Yard School, a Vermont based NGO aimed at educating the youth of Cape Three Points and surrounding rural villages, where access to education is severely limited. It was a huge emotional and cultural shift for me, and I have never been so pushed, tested and inspired in equal measure. I still think of my students every single day. I remember, too, surfing the point at sunset, late night drumming circles around the bonfire, and exploring the dense jungle and chaotic cities alone. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think of moving back every single day.
The other day, while I was feeling particularly nostalgic for the empty coast and starry nights, I pulled out my journals to reflect on my time there. As I read, I relived the lessons I had learned, and the experiences I had. There was one question, I noticed, that kept coming up in the pages of my journal—something I still can’t quite consolidate in my mind. I found, as I read, that I constantly questioned the religious and cultural mashup of Christianity with the firm belief in juju, or voodoo. I constantly tried to understand this seemingly strange dichotomy while I lived there, but still felt like I fell short in my investigations into the relationship that my friends, colleagues and students had both with Jesus and the magic that coated the coast and dictated their lives. How could they coexist? I had to find out.
NEVER ACCEPT A GIFT FROM A MERMAID
I was first told about juju one night after walking the 20 minutes through the jungle and along the coast to Escape Three Points Lodge, my respite where I could find a beer, a solid meal and the occasional conversation with travelers who passed through. I went with a colleague, and we chatted away along the beach while the sun slowly dropped behind the horizon. I noticed, as we walked, a number of trees that were etched and crosshatched with marks, others with lengths of twine and small packages tied on to their limbs. I asked my friend what they were. He shrugged and simply said, “Juju.”
The next night my colleagues and I sat around our wooden table in the open air kitchen, the jungle night roaring with life. As we dealt out cards and boiled lemongrass tea, I decided to ask what exactly the deal was with this very vague and not oft discussed idea of juju. My colleagues shuffled in their seats.
“Say there is a beautiful woman,” one of my friends Akoeallah started, “you mustn’t receive a gift from her.”
“Why not?” I asked, leaning forward.
“Because!” he looked at the others and laughed. “She is not a woman at all, but a mermaid.”
“Yes. I have a friend,” he continued, “he received a gift from such a woman, and he would wake in the night drowning, far out to sea.”
When I laughed or showed any amount of disbelief, their reaction to my skepticism of juju was stronger than their reaction to my nonbelief in Jesus.
I didn’t know much about Ghana before I left. I wanted to teach, and perhaps more selfishly, I wanted an adventure in a far off part of the world. I had found myself in meaningless jobs in the city, I wasn’t taking the best care of myself, I wasn’t writing. So I left. Upon landing, I found that the overcrowded and trash lined streets of Accra were a far cry from the paradise I imagined, but I boarded a bus anyway, and started the long slog to the coast and Cape Three Points. I arrived at sunset, and was greeted by my colleagues. I was shown to my shack, tucked back into the jungle, and tried to sleep through the wailing cry of bush babies, almonds crashing down on my tin roof, the roaring crickets, and the voice in my head that questioned whether I had made the right move at all.
I woke early and stumbled down the dirt track to the beach. An incredible left hand point break peeled off from the ragged rocks that hugged the bay where I now lived. A thick carpet of jungle lay out in every direction, and I couldn’t see another man made structure but for the lighthouse that sat out on the point of Cape Three Points. The waves crashed down and salt sprayed my face. I knew then, that what I had been missing in NYC was here, on the western most point of Africa, on this strange isolated coast of Ghana.
Though I was there to teach, I learned many things as well. I learned not only to live with scorpions and snakes crossing my path, or how to pound fufu (a fermented and uncooked dough-like staple in the Ghanaian diet), but what it feels like to get Malaria, and the heart wrenching isolation and homesickness that comes with living on a remote coast, so far from home. I learned about Ghanaian culture, to the extent that I could, and tried to pick up a little Fanti and Twi, a mere two of at least 79 languages and dialects that are spoken in Ghana. I learned how to weave kenti cloth on an intricate loom, and make batik patterns with molten wax on fabric. I learned how to drum and dance. And, in time, I learned more and more about juju.
This stringent belief in juju was shocking to me as Ghana is the most religious country in the world. A 2010 census recorded that 71 percent of Ghanaians are Christian, the remaining 29 percent being made up of Pentecostal, Protestant and Catholic. It was evident driving through the streets and observing local businesses with names like “Jesus Love’s Kofi’s Bakery,” “Lord in Heaven Hairdressers” and “Thank You Jesus Hardware,” that Christianity had firmly planted itself in this West African nation. When a student was absent from class, I would receive a note that read:
“Sir, I am sorry I am sick. God willing, I should be better tomorrow, and in Jesus name I pray for forgiveness in missing this class.”
When my colleagues learned I was Jewish, there was a vague recognition that this too was an acceptable religion and so I was forgiven for my lack of belief in Jesus. Long bus rides were destroyed by preacher’s who would come aboard and preach the good word on the 8-hour journey from Accra to Takoradi. In Agona, the closest township to us, preachers would stand on the corner with a microphone and small speakers distorting their impassioned speeches. Posters adorned lampposts celebrating funerals, with big exclamations that the deceased were “on their way!” or “traveling!” and funerals themselves were riotous celebrations that lasted entire days. I had a student who missed one day of school because of his sister’s death. When I gave my consolations, he smiled and said, “It’s okay, sir. She is in heaven now.”
In Ghana, they prayed, and thanked god, and went to church every Saturday and Sunday. So, I was having a tough time seeing how the juju element of Ghanaian culture fit into their strictly Christian lives. Juju wasn’t just in obscure places; it was everywhere. In the jungle behind Escape Three Points lodge was a small hut. It was erected for the goddess who lived on the coast, a place where she could live before they started building the actual lodge. Every Black Mamba I spotted was not actually a snake, but in fact a spirit that lived there on the coast, and was considered a warning.
One day I noticed small scars etched into a student’s foot, hands and chest. I asked what they were and he told me the local spiritual man of the village had etched them into his skin to protect him from danger. He pointed to a circle of scars on his chest and told me that it was so that no knife could penetrate him. Another student showed me his scars, too. He said that once, when he was out at a bar (or “spot” as they were known) a man had hurled a bottle across the room at his head. It stopped in midair and fell to the floor. What was I to make of that in my analytical brain? Juju, I learned, had nothing to do with logic.
THE GHOST LIZARD
Perhaps the most intense exposure to juju that I witnessed was an incident involving a monitor lizard and my colleague Ago. A few weeks earlier, something had been terrorizing our chickens. Hen after hen was turning up maimed, until one day we found an enormous monitor lizard thrashing around in the henhouse. We ran down, armed with machetes, and I am ashamed to say I helped in killing that monitor lizard. Never in my life have I eaten something that was so recently alive. After pinning it in place with a long pole, we struck it with machete’s until it died. Moments later, we constructed a fire and threw the huge lizard onto it. Next thing, we had fried it up in chunks and ate it for dinner. None of us thought too much of it. It tasted, as most foreign meats tend to do, like chicken.
The next morning however, Ago arrived with enormous bags under his eyes. He was going to go to Accra to see his family, and more importantly his priest. He had woken up screaming during the night, due to the enormous monitor lizard that lay in bed beside him. Juju had descended down upon him, and he had to rid himself of it, before it consumed him entirely.
Juju was the why behind events that happen in Ghana. Why had a child drowned? Why was the cassava simply not growing? One colleague, Niifio, lamented that he had to pay his girlfriend who he impregnated all the money he earned in fear of juju. My colleagues laughed and shook their heads as to why Niifio could be so foolish as to sleep with the daughter of a priestess. When Ago left, I wondered how to consolidate these two systems of belief. How could Jesus and an enormous ghost monitor lizard reside in the same household? How could my students spend their weekends in church while scarring themselves to protect themselves against violence? How could priests and medicine men share a village?
The problem was that no one could really articulate the relationship between Christianity and juju. In a match between their Christian god and the goddess of the beach, who won? Did prayer combat curse? Could one wear a cross in addition to scarring themselves, or did they cancel each other out? I had seen the trickle down of colonialism and missionaries work very much still alive but not quite able to completely snub out a culture and practice. And how could it? While a Christian god could save my friends and students, they still had to protect themselves against the spirits that long preceded Jesus’s arrival.
However, juju, in many villages, was an unwelcome thing, and many “witch camps” were developed to evict spiritual priests from villages. Many of my student’s explained that their faith would protect them against juju. Pentecostal preachers (the one’s distorting the speakers) preached against the witches who practiced juju. In fact, many humanitarian efforts are now in place to protect those who have been sent to “witch camps” for practicing juju.
After much investigation I decided that Christianity and juju weren’t necessarily exclusive but rather worked in tandem with each other. My Ghanaian friends were Christian, and they believed in a Christian god. Juju was something that just simply was. It existed regardless of religion or belief. It went beyond any denomination, and was as real as the animals that resided in the jungle around us. There was the coast, the waves, the snakes and scorpions, the drum and dance. And there was juju. There was no academic reason for it, nor a simple way to articulate its relationship with Christianity. Logic would never solve this. I simply had to accept that it was there.
I suppose it is the western nature of thinking, trying to make sense of this dichotomy between Jesus and juju that I couldn’t quite make sense of. After learning to not intellectualize it too much, it became clear that Jesus and juju both shared the coast, and like an amicable divorce where both parents still have Christmas together for the sake of the kids, they gave each other room and let each other speak whenever it was necessary.
Now, going through my journals back home, I wonder if it is possible that I had juju consume me while I was there. I often recall, in the deepest throws of my malaria, as though I were drowning out to sea.