Thursday, November 21, 2019

AFRICAN CRIME FICTION IS UNIQUE

Today a hearty welcome to Kwei Quartey who is joining us as a regular blogger. Normally Kwei will be up every other Wednesday. He has two excellent series set in Ghana - one of police procedurals featuring Darko Dawson, a smart cop with issues and really tough cases to solve. Start with Wife of the Gods. His other series featuring PI Emma Djan kicks off in January. More on that later. Over to Kwei:


AFRICAN CRIME FICTION



Magic and murder in African crime fiction

African crime fiction can offer more than its counterparts elsewhere in the world by including
supernatural phenomena in the plot, the murder, and the revelation of the killer.

In 1945, a 10-year-old girl in the Ghanaian town of Elmina, was found dead on the beach after a ritual killing. Called the Bridge House Murder for the location at which it occurred, it gruesomely demonstrated the characteristics of a ritual murder, i.e. the removal of body parts such as the eyes, lips, or genitalia. In this case, the aim of the ritual murder was to “make medicine” in order to win a court case in a bitterly-fought chieftaincy dispute. The perpetrators of this horrific act carried it out under the full glare of Elmina Castle and were so brazen and cavalier about it, they were arrested within relatively short order and ultimately hanged to death. During the trial, British colonial investigators concentrated on the murder itself and little, if at all, on the “juju” aspect.  However, there is no doubt that beliefs in the supernatural were involved. 



The view from Elmina Castle. Bridge House was demolished in the late

1990s and replaced by a new building, the Coconut Grove Bridge House Hotel (arrow)
(Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Bridge House derives its name from its proximity to the bridge that spans the Benya Lagoon adjacent to Elmina Castle. Few people are aware that the modern Coconut Grove Bridge House Hotel was the site of a ritual murder. In my fertile writer's imagination, I like to think that it could be haunted by the little girl's ghost. I hope to stay there at least one night on my next visit to Ghana to find out for myself.

The Bridge House Murder is one example of the intersection of the tangible and supernatural in Ghana, where, unlike the West, these realms are not necessarily thought of as disconnected. If a hospital-dispensed medication is not working for someone who is physically ill, a Ghanaian might choose to go to a traditional healer ("witch doctor" is no longer a preferred term) for a consultation and/or indigenous herbal treatment.

 Traditional healer sign in Accra, Ghana (Photo: Kwei Quartey)                           

The importance of curses, the ancestors, and the gods in African daily life cannot be overstated. The words juju, voodoo, and witchcraft are among those that describe how things occur in the physical world as a result of the supernatural. An amulet is something you wear to ward off evil spirits, and a talisman is something that gives a person supernatural powers. Fetish objects are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers, and thus traditional priests are sometimes called fetish priests.

Ancient fetish (or juju) object (Photo: Shutterstock/ Fabian Plock)
Ghanaian investigative reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas brought to light the little-known practice in
northern Ghana of “spirit killings,” the murder of physically deformed children believed to be evil spirits. The exposure led to the banning of the practice by local chiefs. Westerners find it difficult to understand the interpretation of the physical world through the lens of the spiritual, or vice versa. How could a physical child be a “spirit?” Likewise, a witch is believed to have the ability to exert physical effects from an ethereal realm. They fly away from the physical body at night to join a coven of other witches, sometimes to eat a human victim. Hence a barren woman might be accused of being a witch who repeatedly consumes the baby trying to grow in her womb. But that isn’t literal. It occurs spiritually, and there again lies the difficulty of puzzling how the spiritual can occur in the physical world. We can't get our heads around it.

In the practice of sakawa in Ghanasupernatural abilities are granted to Internet swindlers via the powers of a fetish priest who makes the scammers perform certain bizarre tasks, such as obtaining body parts or fluids, especially sexually related, or having multiple episodes of sexual intercourse a day. “Sakawa boys” relate how these exercises and interactions with fetish priests radically increase their scamming skills, but also make their victim (called a mugu) more susceptible to being duped. For example, a fetish priest I met in Ghana showed me a chicken skull with a beak tied shut with string. After being buried in a cemetery, such an amulet will prevent the mugu from resisting the scammer’s demands, i.e. a tied beak can’t squawk and dead men don’t talk.

AFRICAN CRIME FICTION: Bird skull and beak as an amulet or talisman (Photo: Amtiko/Shutterstock)
Bird skull and beak as an amulet or talisman (Photo: Amtiko/Shutterstock)

African crime fiction v the reality 
In real-world Ghana, crimes based in spiritual beliefs, murder included, may occur in secret or in remote locations in the country, e.g. rural areas with poor or difficult road access. What that means in practice is that they may exist under the radar of the almost universally under-resourced Ghana Police Service (GPS). In his paper, Appiahene-Gyamfi writes, “. . . some of the difficulties and shortcomings facing the GPS include the inability to cover all parts of Ghana, particularly the remotest countryside; inadequate and obsolete equipment[s] and accoutrements; poor data collection and record keeping; slow and sloppy investigations; and political influence.” Ironically, this reality is fodder for fictional murder mysteries because it is a compelling background for a police detective or private investigator fighting for justice in a hamstrung, corrupt system that is, to boot, tangled up with spiritual beliefs.

Themes in African crime fiction
In an article called Post-Colonial Crime FictionLindsey Green-Sims discusses West African crime fiction by citing seven different novels set in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Liberia.
Tail Of The Bluebird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, a murder mystery set in a contemporary Ghanaian village, blends CSI with magical realism. It might be described as an attempt to insert forensic science into the middle of a heavily traditional Ghanaian village where men and women “commune with the spirits of their ancestors.” This conflict between the modern and traditional is tailor made for fiction but reality-rooted.

In her article African Crime Fiction: The world as it is, or the world as we would like it to be? Karen Ferreira-Meyers, who notes the relative recency of the African crime novel, writes: “While the reader often chooses a crime novel for its entertainment value, these novels [by African authors] also communicate specialized knowledge, condensed and standardized from several of the many spheres of human activity that can sometimes come across as ‘exotic’ to Western readers.” For example, Achille Ngoye combines the usual depictions of crime with less familiar accounts of human sacrifice and witchcraft rituals in his novel Sorcellierie à bout portant (“witchcraft at close range”). Ferreira-Meyers also draws attention to the reflections of Abasse Ndione, who states, “occultism plays an essential role” not only during the course of the investigation, but also in solving the mystery, as is the case in his novel La vie en spirale.

Brutality and “readability”—where to draw the line in African crime fiction
One of the prerequisites of a ritual murder is that the victim be alive during the removal of his or her organs. The Screaming Of The Innocent by Unity Dow includes a disturbing and graphic description of just such a murder of a 12-year-old girl in Botswana. The screaming of the victim is said to make the harvested flesh more potent when it is ultimately made into a medicine. The parts removed are often functionally related to the intended effect of the killing, for example, the Adam’s apple (the laryngeal prominence) to silence an opposing witness in court, or the breasts as a source of good “mother luck” that will bring good fortune as a potion. In my novels, I have used far milder descriptions of traditional “juju” ceremonies, but never a ritual murder. Although it is possible I might recount the aftermath of such a crime, a detailed account of the act itself is unlikely to appear in my stories, particularly if a child is involved. Every author has a “don’t-go-there” limit, and that is one of mine. Nevertheless, ritual murder as a phenomenon is a topic that needs to be faced if it is ever to be defeated. Crime fiction may never make it go away, but it’s a step in the right direction.

In conclusion, crime fiction out of Africa, a relatively new phenomenon, may contribute a new and complex aspect to the genre, i.e. the part spiritual or mystical beliefs can play in crime, more specifically murder. Perhaps it’s time to add a new sub-genre category: African.

11 comments:

  1. Great blog! Do conventional doctors accept the herbal aspects of the alternative treatment? Here, it's not uncommon for a patient with spiking blood pressure or mild hypertension to see a herbalist and then start on the amlodipine....

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    1. Thanks Caro!
      It probably varies from one individual to the next, but doctors in Ghana observe the same thing--patients don't admit to having already been to consult a practitioner of traditional medicine (TM). Attempts to formalize TM and effect a partnership between western and traditional medicine haven't been very successful as far as I know (see http://bit.ly/2OAHtuV). Nevertheless something like 80% of Ghanaians use/have used TM, so clearly it's a force to reckon with.

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  2. Kwei, Welcome HOME! You've started off with a post that raises the bar for the rest of us. Prescinding from the more horrific aspects of juju (or voodoo), and how African crime might writing might help expose and spur action against ritual murderers and maimers, I was fascinated by how Internet scammers turn to the at least bizarre (when not brutal) practices of "sakawa" in order to enhance their ability to defraud their targets. It's an eye-opening post. Again, welcome Kwei.

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    1. Thank you, Jeffrey
      I am also fascinated by that aspect--traditional beliefs with no scientific basis juxtaposed with high-tech Internet devices and schemes.

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  3. WELCOME, Kwei. You are among friends here. For one thing, there are three more of us, who have written crime novels that have African tribal medicine men as characters. We even sometimes get spammers writing in our comments about voodoo docs who can make your spouse love you again. :) :( What you will soon see though what an interested and interesting set of readers we have. I am so looking forward to having you as a regular member of this merry tribe.

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    1. Thank you for the welcome, Annamaria.
      "We even sometimes get spammers writing in our comments about voodoo docs who can make your spouse love you again." Really! That's amazing.
      You are right, as Michael mentions below the phenomenon of traditional medicine, rituals etc. have had a real presence in much of our writings about African crime fiction.

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  4. Very interesting that you identify the traditional belief aspect as an important distinguisher of African mysteries. Thinking about it, four of our six Botswana novels have it as an important theme.
    Thanks for joining us!

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  5. Thank you for inviting me! Yes, indeed--I've noticed very much how much your novels have included the presence of traditional beliefs, rituals, and so on.

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