Magic and murder in African crime fiction

African crime fiction can offer more than its counterpart from elsewhere in the world by including supernatural phenomena in the plot, the murder, and the revelation of the killer. Wife Of The Gods introduces the reader to a custom in Ghana’s Volta Region, girls and young women are sent into the service of traditional (also called “fetish”) priests to atone for a wrong committed in the family—sometimes generations ago. The women are called Trokosi, or “wives of the gods.” In fact, tro means “deity,” and kosi means “slave,” a much more accurate representative than “wife.” The priest, who gets his/her name from the fetish objects kept for supernatural work, acts as an intermediary between the physical and spirit worlds. In return for the indentured servitude of these women, he is supposed to protect the family from catastrophe inflicted either by the ancestors, the gods, or an erstwhile curse.


AFRICAN CRIME FICTION: Ancient West African fetish object (Photo: Fabian Plock/Shutterstock)

The Trokosi custom 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, he or she may go to a traditional priest for a consultation and/or indigenous herbal treatment. 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.

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.

In the practice of sakawa in Ghana, supernatural 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)