Samuel Aniegye Ntewusu and Samuel N. Nkumbaan
The outbreak of Coronavirus (Covid-19) in Ghana since the second week of March 2020 has led to a natural state of concern and despair. A country still reeling behind in terms of adequate health facilities and health personnel with a ratio of several patients to one doctor certainly will make everyone worry, should the numbers extend beyond a particular threshold. Since the outbreak the President of the Republic of Ghana has addressed the nation several times, updating the citizenry on the virus and steps taken to handle the situation (Click here, here, and here). Such speeches, though calming, have still not led to a slowdown of infections and the spread of the virus. From an initial two confirmed cases on 12th March 2020 as at 22nd April there are 1,154 cases and by 7th May 2020 the number shot up to 3,091 with 18 deaths and 303 recoveries (source). Even though the Greater Accra region is still leading in the number of infections, several other regions have also recorded cases.
Earlier, Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu reported that in Ghana, there was a national Prayer Breakfast meeting hosted by the President Nana Akufo-Addo for Christian pastors at the Flagstaff House, the seat of government, for spiritual intervention (”Dealing with a Spiritual Virus: Whither the Prophetic?” on Religious Matters). A National Day of Prayer was also declared against the Coronavirus after which the cities of Accra and Kumasi were put under a “lockdown.” Security forces under “Operation Covid Safety” enforced the President’s directive regarding movement of persons amidst reports of excesses and abuses which the government is currently investigating.
On the 19th of April the President partially lifted the lockdown amidst jubilation from a section of the populace whilst others condemned his actions especially in the wake of the increasing number of infections. Concerns are also expressed about the number of persons that have no sustained income flow and whose survival is dependent on daily economic engagements such as petty trading, masonry, driving, farming among others. The possibility of an economic shut down and of starvation of several people was therefore a critical contributor to the partial lifting of the ban.
From reports of journalists and complaints of priests on social media, it was clear that the initial decision by the President not to invite traditional priests to intervene to stop the Coronavirus was a matter of concern. Examples of invitations extended to Christians and Muslims became an issue that was not taken lightly by traditionalist priests and some sections of the public. The comment of a dissatisfied priest in Ashanti was captured by a journalist as follows: “Don’t we have three main religions in Ghana? So why were Traditionalists who have direct access to Onyankopon (God) through smaller gods ignored for only Christians and Muslims? Meanwhile, during Independence Day celebration, Nananom are invited to pour libation together with Christians and Muslims’ prayers”, reports the journalist (link).
Another priest pointed out on social media that the invitation of the clergy and Christians to pray was out of place. His concern was that the pastors are too young and do not understand the history of epidemics and how ancestors dealt with such situations. He said: “Calling on the God of Israel is out of place because Coronavirus is also in Israel. When God was taking Israelites from Egypt to the promised land, Africans/Ghanaians were not part of that exodus. This shows that we need to find African solutions to African problems. Christianity was introduced to Ghana from the west, yet look at the kind of damage the virus has done there. Our ancestors fought to establish Ghana and it is they that we need to call upon during Covid-19.”
Weeks into activities of the priests and after series of complaints from traditional practitioners and selected members of the public, the government invited some selected priests from the Volta region, Greater Accra and other places to the Independence Square to offer libation (link). This square is a place in Osu, a suburb of Accra, the national capital of Ghana, where national parades take place, especially on 6th of March which is the day that Ghana gained its independence from the British. Libation at that venue was therefore very symbolic, it was an attempt to re-gain independence from Covid-19.
The invitation of traditional priests to the Independence Square to perform rituals on behalf of the nation and to block the continuous spread of the Covid-19 shows the severity of the problem regarding the Coronavirus. Indeed, many traditional priests already chose to “spiritually” attack the virus in their respective communities.
As noted, the intervention of traditional priests in such an epidemic is not new. Over the years they have dealt with epidemics at the community and national level. Priests indicate that the ancestors dealt with epidemics of this nature, including Influenza of the 1900s among others. Years ago, Chickenpox was also consigned to shrines and deities to handle when human interventions could not help. So, what kind of interventions have been made this time? To answer this question, one needs to look at the people who qualify to intervene, as well as at the objects and places that libations and other forms of supplications are made.
People and Objects
Traditionally the main persons responsible for interventions are priests and priestesses of the various shrines and deities, even though clan heads and “stool” elders also qualify to do so. There are also some cults in respective communities where their leaders are also mandated to intercede. But the power to intercede also requires in most instances a proper dress code to undertake such an activity.
Appearance is key in seeking the support of spirit beings to fight the Coronavirus. Priests and priestesses wear different colours, but the dominant colours are red, white or black. These are colours that carry a lot of meaning in the social and spiritual lives of Ghanaians in general. It is therefore not out of place that such colours find expression by intercessors during this crisis. In most cases red and black are colours for mourning, and therefore priests wearing those colours convey a message of grief to the spirits. People have already died and others are sick, the spirits and souls of human beings have been put in a state of sadness and there is a cloud of darkness due to the uncertainties surrounding the Coronavirus. The black dress that the priests put on before libation conveys all these sentiments of community members. Black also means thoughtfulness, and summarizes the thoughts of the community both physical and spiritual, with a general consensus that the deities and ancestors are the ones that have to intervene. The burden of the solution is therefore transferred from the community members to the spirits, thereby granting such communities some hope and some free mind that, as they go about their normal activities, the spirits are working against Corona day and night.
In some communities the priests wore white. White, in contrast to black, is for joy and a celebration of victory. In that case the priests that wore white during intersessions have already declared victory in the spirit over the Coronavirus. White colours also represent purity of heart. Approaching deities with such purity of heart is supposed to facilitate quick action from the deities since they have approached them without any blemish. Other priests put on the traditional smock fugu or batakari,which is also worn during war, thereby reproducing a state of war against the Coronavirus. Special cult groups such as the Alaga cult in the Volta Region wore leaves made from plants. Whereas the plantain or banana leaves form a core aspect of their dress code in critical situations such as driving away the Coronavirus, the addition of other leaves and grasses by tying them around their necks provides unique perspectives into the other aspect of the epidemic: the need to make a pledge to spirits. Usually, leaves are used for different purposes, but wearing them during rituals concerning the Coronavirus is meant to facilitate pardon from the deities since traditionalists consider the outbreak of the virus as a result of the sins and bad deeds of mankind.
In all places that traditional priests and priestesses intervened they did so through libation and sacrifices. Libation often demands some liquids to facilitate the process. The liquids could range from water to alcoholic drinks such as schnapps or the locally brewed alcoholic beverages like, akpeteshie, pito, or ŋmãda. During incantations, the priests pour the liquids on the ground or on the specific deities whilst requesting an immediate intervention in the Corona crisis, especially in preventing it from entering their community. Some communities go a step beyond and offer sacrifices of a black or red or white chicken, goat or sheep; the choice of colour conveys the same meaning as already discussed above. There are different sites where libations and sacrifices are made, because deities are located in specific land sites. In the Volta Region, different places were chosen for libation poured against the Coronavirus. For example, in Aflao, a town on the border between Ghana and Togo, libation was poured at three entry and exit points and a black goat sacrificed to seal the borders of the town and prevent the Coronavirus from entering Aflao (link). And in Nogokpo libation was poured by the banks of the Volta River by the priest.
The priest indicated that since the sickness was coming from abroad, one way to stop it was to perform the rites by the Volta river which has a direct link to the Atlantic Ocean and other water bodies. As a reporter indicates about the rituals by the Nogbokpo priest:
“The gods have commanded us to cast this virus to the deep waters [River Volta] because the Volta River is connected to almost all the major rivers in the country, which finally connects to the sea. And so far as everybody uses water in washing hands and washing their faces, the waters must be informed about the virus and thus, send the virus away by the waters” (source).
In Accra, the Nai Wolomo took the supplications of the Ga and the entire Greater Accra to the Korle Lagoon. Other principalities such as La, Teshie, Nungua, Osu had their Wolomei also perform rituals to prevent their respective communities from the virus.
In Oti and Northern Regions of Ghana, the Adele, Achode, Krachi Nchumburu and Nawuri reverted to deities such as Krachi Dente, Nana Brukum, Sonkor, Kankpe, Kpebu, Nana Esule (Grandfather Earth), Nana Ebuari (Grandfather God) among others, most of them located in groves for their intervention.
Besides these somewhat community or state based interventions, also individuals and families with personal protective spirits have activated them for the purpose of the Coronavirus. In the process some have manufactured amulets and charms to be worn on the waist, or arms including herbs. Some, especially in the Dagomba area, consider Corona to be similar to Yorgu,that is Anthrax, and so the traditional procedures regarding the prevention and processes of dealing with Yorgu have been deployed to fight the Coronavirus.
The female cult of Okule which originated as a result of epidemics has become a major attraction during the outbreak in the districts of Kpandai and Nkwanta located in Ghana’s Middle-Belt region. The patron deity of Okule is Chankpana, who it is believed to have originated as a result of Chickenpox. The outbreak of Chickenpox several centuries ago made Chankpana to intervene. The movement of Chankpana is similar to the nature and spread of the Coronavirus. Chankpana moves from one community to another. In some cases Chankpana even crosses boundaries. Chankpana originated from Nigeria and moved through Benin, Togo and into Ghana. As a deity that moved across political boundaries, it understands the inner workings of the Coronavirus which equally gets transmitted from one country to another and from community to community. The epidemiology of the Coronavirus is similar to the spread of Chankpana as narrated. Therefore, devotees feel that Chankpana understands and knows where the Coronavirus came from and that is why rituals are performed for Chankpana to block that path of transmission of Coronavirus. This means that there are deities that enshrine the memory of earlier pandemics, and these deities are now also mobilized, Chankpana being a specific example (see also Angelantonio Grossi on Sakpata).
The outbreak of Covid-19 in Ghana has led to the deployment of different strategies targeted at finding solutions to the spread of the disease. As a section of the Ghanaian population still professes the African Traditional Religion, oracles have been contacted and priests and priestess have performed several rites in order to bring the pandemic to a stop. Some Ghanaians, however, have expressed misgivings regarding the potency of the activities of the priest and priestesses to negate the effects of the virus. Some feel that once the priests express their ability to do things on social media, they have already negated their powers and compromised affairs in the spiritual realm. They stress that the ability to cure has nothing to do with a show on the media. One of such critics is popular Ghanaian musician Isaiah Kwadwo Ampong who felt that the frequency with which televisions stations are giving visibility to the traditional rituals on Coronavirus does not reflect in the abilities of the priests to stop Coronavirus (link). For him their activities indicate a quest for popularity and at best could be described as sensational rather than as intending to solve the Covid-19 problem. Others insist that such priests are serving idols, and should not be cherished for their spiritual powers.
Samuel Aniegye Ntewusu holds a PhD in History from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, and an Mphil in African Studies from the University of Ghana. Since August 2011, Ntewusu has worked as research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana. He was a recipient of the 2016 Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) Fellowship. He was selected by the African Subcommittee of the International Education Committee of the California State University, Long Beach, as the African Distinguished Speaker for the 2019 series. He is the Head of the History and Politics Section at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana and the coordinator for the Madina Project a sub-project under the Religious Matters in an Entangled World hosted by the University of Utrecht.
Samuel N. Nkumbaan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, University of Ghana, Legon. He holds a B.A degree in Archaeology with History, and Master and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Archaeology from the University of Ghana. He is an alumnus of the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars Fellowship (UMAPS – 2014-2015). He was a Visiting Assistant Professor to the University of Rochester, New York, (2018) teaching Early Civilizations in Africa, and Archaeology of West Africa: 500 B.C-AD 1950. He undertook a study tour of Danish Heritage Institutions, Museums and Archaeological sites in 2007 at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He has a number of publications to his credit and has attended and presented papers in seminars and conferences, both locally and internationally. His key research interests are in Indigenous Medicinal Practices, Cultural Resource Management, Material Expressions of Culture (Art), Cultural/Heritage Tourism, Applied/Development Archaeology, and the History of the Konkomba of Northern Ghana.
This blog is a part of ‘Dossier Corona’, introduced by Religious Matters in the spring of 2020.