Photo essay: a trip to shrine

I take my first steps into the Atia Yaw shrine (in Mampong Akwapim) overly pre-occupied with protocol. I have visions of being asked to provide a sheep or fowl to be slaughtered for some breach of it. I am after all about to be dealing with Gods and Deities…the super-natural and one must over-all be careful not to offend. A woman rushes and sweeps first Nana B,(who has helped make this happen.) and then, me into a bear hug.

The disconnect between what I witnessed and what I expected to see somehow throws me off balance. While everything seemed strange it was all so familiar. For instance watching Kobina Dua, one of the Gods, dance was no different from any dance you would, say, see a knife bearing obrafo or ahen kwa do during a festival and yet this was Kobina Dua, manifested through, Ama, a woman.

This was just another animal slaughter; no different from the several that take place in many households every festive season. Except this one’s death had more ceremony and its blood more sacred purposes to serve.

This was me… same old me sitting with two women and one man and puffing on Rothman cigarettes and making small talk. Or was it? The only thing I can say with some surety is that we smoked cigarettes. For I was drunk on how surreal it all was and my smoking buddies weren’t quite themselves. Each of them possessed by a spirit. “Baffour”, gives up after a couple of puffs and gives away his cigarette. He curls up his lips in distaste and says “mi dieh min peh Kingsize oooh, kai! Tusker na mi peh!” I’m given an ashtray, which I offer to share when I notice that my new friends are ashing their cigarettes into their palms, except I am turned down. My ashes are to be kept separate. Theirs will be used at a later point as part of a ritual.

It turns out this isn’t just a cigarette break after all. Some of the Gods like their tobacco and their booze and it turns out that while several pipes and even more cigarettes are to be smoked that day, I’m the only one smoking “recreationally.”

The other day, on television I watched the presenter of a popular tele-magazine programme remark that Africa was no longer a “dark” continent. The statement offended me because in my opinion Africa never was… a dark continent that is. Only represented as such through colonial and racist depictions of it. Depictions we have read, studied, absorbed, internalized. That I have internalized, I think, as I realize that my preconceptions of exotic rites and traditional acts of worship couldn’t be more off centre. What I discover is a spiritual celebration so mundane and so familiar that I almost feel a sense of nostalgia for the dark exoticism I came expecting to find. At some point, having been formally welcomed I ask permission to start taking photographs. And as I pull out my camera I think to myself that I hope nothing I say or do earns their mistrust… reduces me to just another cargo pants and Birkenstock wearing, DSLR slinging “tourist”. Bound to misunderstand… to mislabel.

After I realize that it is not Akwapim the chief obosomfo is speaking but Fante I walk up and introduce myself. Properly this time… my name is Kweku Abaka, I am from Saltpond. He says he is from Anomabo… instantly we are friends. And soon our conversation is deeper, more familiar; more intimate even us he takes me on a tour. In Fante every thing means more. Nothing is lost in translation. Slammed under that ever so broad and inadequate description that is FETISH. This is much more…this is faith. Traditional Ghanaian Religion. Before I leave the Obosomfo ensures that I am fed past my fill, in his living room, where I flip through his photo albums while eating a sumptuous meal of yam and ntroba froyi, which I wash down with a cold beer. I insist on wanting to eat with everyone else but he in turn insists that I am a guest and he will accord me the proper protocol.

When night starts to fall and I beg leave of him, he thanks me, for coming, for caring even. He tells me of future plans for the shrine. A replacement shrine for Kobina Dua and perhaps some day a conference area where lectures can be given to tourists and pilgrims. With a smile, almost like he knew my initial quest for the exotic he says never mind that I didn’t witness much magic and other evidence of the supernatural That was not what today’s rites were about. And Tigare , one of head deities of this shrine would not have approved. There’s a grand durbar coming up soon. ‘meh sheda ato nsa afre wo… ehor na yeh beh dzi agor kakra a ma wayhu.” I laugh with him, clasp his hand in mine in a firm handshake and head off into the night.

By Seton Nicholas

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