Losing their shirts

Two women find that to see a fetish priest in Ghana, they have to bring a lot of money -- and take off their tops.


Tanya Shaffer
June 4, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

"You ladies have some small gift for the chief?"

I'd been preparing for this moment for the past eight months, ever since I'd read Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and learned the ceremonial role of the bitter kola nut in West African culture.

My English friend Katie and I were on our way to visit the Tongo Hills shrine, one of Ghana's few tourist attractions. We'd met as volunteers on a building project on the coast and discovered a mutual fascination with West African tradition. When we learned we'd need to offer gifts to a couple of local chiefs in order to gain permission to visit the famous shrine, I knew just the thing.

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We'd finally located the pyramids of glistening nuts hidden behind tiny red chili peppers at the chaotic marketplace in Bolgatanga. Carefully, we'd wrapped them in banana leaves, tying them with a slim rope of braided vines.

"Kola nuts," I now proclaimed, loosening the knot, and the leaf opened outward like a flower.

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We were in the village of Tongo, at the base of the hills. The walls of the chief's mud hut were lined with animal bones and skins. A framed photo of the chief shaking hands with Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings graced the wall behind the low bench where the chief sat, draped from head to toe in indigo fabric. Heavy tribal scarring marked his wizened, papery cheeks, and his lively eyes danced with mischief. Two little boys about 4 years old sat on either side of the bench, and the interpreter, dressed in Western clothes, perched beside them on a tiny wooden stool.

Now the boys snickered, hiding their mouths with their hands.

The chief's interpreter chuckled uneasily. "Nobody brings the chief kola nuts. Even Jerry Rawlings," he indicated the photo, "brought some small money for the chief. It is not the chief himself. It is the elders. They will expect the chief to buy some pito to share. Otherwise they will say he has been greedy, and kept all for himself."

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"American dollars are fine," he said very low. Then, glancing at Katie's pasty face and pressed bermuda shorts, "Or pounds sterling."

"How much in cedis?" I whispered.

He pursed his lips. "Whatever you want to give."

I pulled out a crumpled 500-cedi note and handed it to the interpreter, who smoothed it and presented it to the chief.

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The chief grumbled a few words, then laughed abruptly.

"The chief wishes you a safe journey."

Outside the hut, our guide -- an older man with rotten teeth and
ragged pants with a bright floral patch on the seat -- crouched in the
shade of the thatched roof. He wore a round straw hat with a tassel on top
and carried a walking stick.

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"We never agreed on a price with this guy," I muttered to Katie.

She shrugged, "We'll give him something at the end."

The heat pressed in on us like a blanket as we followed his bobbing
hat through the sleepy town, passing clusters of round mud huts. We
trudged through dry brown hills, prickly as giant porcupines. Occasional
piles of bleached stones blocked our path, like trail markers left by
overzealous girl scouts.

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Suddenly our guide turned to us.

"You dash me 2,000," he said.

"Two thousand!" said Katie.

"I am an old man. The sun is hot."

We stared at him.

"How much you want to pay?" he asked.

"A thousand," I said.

"Yes," he said instantly, and kept walking.

"I'm a jerk," I said. "What's 2,000? At home you'd drop
that for a sandwich."

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"He expected us to bargain," said Katie, dispensing with my Yankee
guilt in her usual brisk fashion. "If he didn't like it, he wouldn't have
agreed."

Hours later, we came to a dusty clearing where shriveled old men
leaned against equally ossified trees, shelling groundnuts and popping them
into their mouths. Their shirts were in shreds, strips of fabric hanging
on their bony frames. Their faces lit up when they saw us.

We had arrived at the mountain village that the famous shrine
protected. This village had a chief as well, but to my relief, he was away
on business. His nephew, a soft-spoken young man of about 18, dressed
in immaculately pressed Western clothes, offered to show us around the
family compound before we climbed up to the shrine. Villages in northern
Ghana were made up of several compounds -- miniature cities of three to
20 huts surrounded by a mud wall -- each of which housed an extended
family.

"You like to make snaps?" the nephew inquired politely, flashing us
a shy smile. "Snaps" is Ghanaian for photographs, which we foreigners
are always snapping. "You get a nice view of the shrine from here," he
added in carefully articulated English.

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We stood on the roof of a granary. Surrounded by the vast expanse
of scrub and hill, the compound was a teeming maze of narrow passages and
archways so short that people had to bend nearly double to enter them. Women sat in the low
doorways, weaving hats from dyed grass, rolling pepper on flat stones,
nursing babies. Children barreled down the slender corridors, chasing each
other.

"It is there," the young man said, pointing at an impossibly steep
cliff directly behind us. He smiled at the look of panic on our faces.

"Don't worry, we will help you," he said kindly. "You snap here first?
You snap with me?"

We took turns posing, our arms around the smiling young man.

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"You send me the snap?" He turned to us with disarming eagerness.

"Of course," said Katie. "Why don't you write down your address?"

"Sure you'll send it," I murmured in her ear.

"You give me a gift for the snaps." He extended his hand.

"How much?" I felt slightly stung, tricked by his apparent innocence.

"Please," he seemed surprised. "You give what you want."

I ungraciously forked over 200. He looked at Katie, and
she did the same.

"Myself and these men will accompany you to the shrine," the
chief's nephew announced. We were back in the clearing outside the
compound, and the old men were rousing themselves for the journey. Our
guide was sound asleep under a tree.

"The shrine belongs to the fetish," the nephew explained gravely.

"The fetish protects the village. People offer him fowl and then ask him
for something."

"Such as?" I asked.

"For example, if your daughter is sick with malaria, or if your
mother's feet have swollen up, then you can ask the fetish to cure them.
Unless it is their time to die. If it is their time the fetish can do
nothing." I pictured an elaborate carving, perhaps a giant totemic
mask, with froglike features and a head of wild, fleecy hair. My heart
sped up in anticipation.

"First you give us money for a fowl," the nephew continued in a
matter-of-fact tone. "Then when we arrive you may ask the fetish for
something."

"Oh, I don't think we'll do the fowl," I said.

"But you must sacrifice!" His eyes widened in alarm.

"We just want to look," I explained. "We aren't going to ask it
for anything."
"We don't want to watch a fowl being killed," Katie chimed in, with
a note of distaste.

"You don't want to watch?" The young man looked perplexed.

"We'll give some money instead," I said.

"Really," said Katie, "won't money be enough?"

After a half-hour or so, we came to a clearing that looked out on
an enormous valley. Panting and red-faced, Katie and I collapsed on the
rocks, while the old men chuckled.

"Here you remove shirt and shoes," said the chief's nephew.

"What?" we squeaked in unison.

The men began unbuttoning their frayed cotton shirts, hanging them
delicately over rocks.

"It is the custom," he said, smiling at our amazement. "To respect
the spirit and show that we are humble. All tourists do this," he reassured
us. "Many white ladies. No problem."

"Excuse us a moment," I said.

We turned our backs. "Breasts are desexualized here," I whispered
to Katie. "You've seen the women in the villages. Besides, if something
was gonna happen ..."

"What difference would it make. True."

I raised my eyebrows. She glanced around at the old men, then
shrugged.

"Carpe diem," I said, pulling my T-shirt over my head.

"How California," she said dryly.

"What about this?" asked the nephew, indicating our bras.

Katie stared at me.

"No way," I said.

This hung in the air a minute.

"As you wish," he said coldly, breaking the silence.

"What happened to 'Carpe diem'?" Katie whispered to me.

We scrambled upward, avoiding thistles and scree. Our toes clung
to the bare rocks. Soon it was so steep we were forced to use our hands.
I imagined the fetish looking down with amused tolerance on our band of
pilgrims: two white women in sensible brassieres, one handsome African
youth and a gaggle of ancient men.

"Is it much farther?" I gasped, pausing to stanch some blood
dripping from my knee.

"Shhh," said the nephew. "You must crouch here." He indicated
an overhanging rock that led into a deep cavern, gaping like the mouth of
some petrified beast. "He is there."

On hands and knees, we crawled below the lip of the rock, hovering
at the cave's rim. We blinked in the sudden shadow, trying to make out the
shapes. Then I saw him. An emaciated man, wearing only a loincloth,
crouched deep in the crevice like a bird jealously guarding its egg. Next
to him were piles of bones and feathers, higher than his head. His gaze
locked mine.

"Is that the fetish?" I whispered in alarm.

"No, no!" exclaimed the nephew. "The fetish is invisible, a spirit.
He is the fetish priest, the spirit's human contact."

"He's so thin!" I said.

"The spirit takes all his energy," said the nephew. "Anything he
eats, it takes most."

I gaped at the man. I'd expected artifice, ceremony -- a symbolic
connection to the spirits, not a literal one. Not a tiny, fragile human
being, staring at me with the ravaged gaze of a prisoner of war.

"Would you like to snap?" the nephew asked.

I was shocked. "He won't mind?"

"Please. You are our guests."

The little man winced at the blitz. Afterward he looked stunned,
shaken. His lips moved, and I feared for a moment he was cursing me.

"Please, some small money for the fetish priest," the nephew said.

Katie handed the nephew 500. He handed it to the man in
the cave, who rolled it and stuck it in the top of his loincloth, his lips
still moving.

When we reached the clearing, the men retrieved their shirts,
threadbare but neatly hung, while we picked the thorns out of ours, which
lay in a careless heap.

"Please, some small money for the elders," said the nephew sweetly.

"Oh, come on," I said.

"They climbed all this way to assist you. They must have money to
buy kola nuts, and --"

"Why, it just so happens that we have some kola nuts!" I was delighted.

"And tobacco. They must also buy tobacco."

But I was busy pulling the bundle from my day pack. A few nuts had
fallen out, and they rattled loosely in the bottom of the pack.

"Kola nuts," I
said, handing him the banana leaf. "And 200 cedis."

"You must give 1,000 cedis. You see we are many. You
didn't even bring a fowl." He looked genuinely annoyed.

I shook my head. "Look, if there's a fee you should just say so
right off, at the start. We aren't rich, you know. We're volunteers."

Disgruntled, they conferred briefly, in low tones. We waited
uneasily for the verdict.

"We go now." The nephew's face was blank.

"They keep springing it on you," I said to Katie, as we
descended. "It's not so much the amount ... because if you convert it ..."

"If you go converting things, your holiday will last a week instead
of a month," she said firmly.

"It ruins the human connection," I went on, "when all they care
about is getting their 'gifts.'"

Just then I stumbled over a rock, pitching forward.

One of the old men spun around with amazing agility, catching me in
his ropy arms.

"Sorry!" he exclaimed.

"Thanks," I mumbled gruffly.

Back at the compound, we woke our guide. The sun was dropping
fast, and we didn't want to miss the last transport back to Bolga.

"Safe journey," the nephew called after us as we left.

When we got to the public square in Tongo, I handed our guide the
1,000 cedis we'd agreed upon. His face lit up as though he'd witnessed
a miracle. I wondered if he'd thought we wouldn't pay him.

"God bless you. God bless you," he said.

"Thank you," I said stiffly. "We had a good time."

The sun hovered on the horizon as we watched our guide disappear
nimbly up the trail. In the square, a man sat at a table displaying three
packs of cigarettes and a few pieces of chewing gum and hard candy. A
woman fried triangular chunks of yam over a small fire. When we asked
about transport back to Bolgatanga, they shook their heads.

"Gone," they said.

"Well," I said to Katie. "What should we do?"

"We could try to spend the night here," she suggested doubtfully.

We looked around at the cluster of mud huts. Over the last six
months, I'd enjoyed Ghanaians' extraordinary hospitality countless times.
So many people had opened their homes to me unquestioningly, asking nothing
in return. Tourism had obviously changed the Tongo Hills area. The people
here wanted something in exchange for what they gave, and who could blame
them? We walked through their compounds snapping away with our expensive
cameras, taking home pieces of their lives.

I thought of the tiny man crouched in the cave, high over our
heads, watching us with those raw, tormented eyes. The accusation there
unnerved me, raising uncomfortable questions, and suddenly I wanted to get
as far as possible from that penetrating gaze.

"We could walk to Bolgatanga," I said.

Katie protested, "It's 19 kilometers."

"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger," I offered weakly.

"Unless it maims us," Katie said. "Carpe diem, clichi queen."

We started down the dirt road. The view looked just like the
African movies: scraggly trees silhouetted against an enormous red disc.

A tiny hard lump at the bottom of my day pack bounced against my
spine.

"Hungry?" I removed the shining globe. It glowed orange,
reflecting the dying light. I pulled out my Swiss army knife and split the
nut, revealing pinkish innards. I handed Katie half, and took a tiny
nibble. It was dry and bitter.

"Exquisite," I said.

"Yuck," said Katie. "I see why the chief prefers cash."


Tanya Shaffer

Tanya Shaffer is a writer and actress who lives in San Francisco. Her most recent solo show is "Let My Enemy Live Long!"

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