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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)

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

An amulet is something you wear to ward off evil spirits, and a talisman is something that gives a person supernatural powers.

While supernatural phenomena in Ghana’s daily life serve as a unique background for much of the crime fiction I set in that West African country, it can also be a challenge. For logistic reasons too complex to go into now, my novels are not distributed to a significant degree in Africa in general and Ghana in particular. Western readers, primarily those in the United States, are and will remain my main market for the foreseeable future. So how do I introduce these unfamiliar beliefs and concepts like juju to my readers? Very carefully. It should appear seamless, which is not as simple as it may sound. Whenever I describe or highlight a supernatural phenomenon in my novel, I follow some general rules.

  1. It should play an important part in the plot and not be tangential to the story.

  2. I avoid making it seem gratuitous.

  3. I avoid making it seem didactic.

  4. I leave criticisms or praise of the custom to characters in the novel, not the narrator.

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 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 Fiction, Lindsey 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 has 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 summary, crime fiction out of Africa, a relatively new phenomenon, may contribute a new 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.

Allison & Busby

On a different but related note, excellent news that UK publishers Allison & Busby will be publishing The Missing American and the second in the Emma Djan series, Sleep Well, Dear Lady, which is on the editing block right now. Take a sneak peak at their exciting cover!





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