The Ultimate Ritual to “Let It Go”
In Ghana there is a story that the name Jamaica is actually a bastardized version of the word Jaminica (from the Fon language), which means “let’s move on” or “let it go.” Why? Over 75 percent of Jamaica’s population is of African descent, people who were shipped to Jamaica during the height of the slave trade. Then and today, for Africans and their descendants, there remains a great deal of controversy and unease over the role that many tribes played in enslaving their own countrymen; many West Africans — the enslaved or the enslavers — would prefer to forget their past and move on. Nowhere in Ghana do you get a sense of “Jaminica” more than at a small, remote village on the Ghana-Togo border known as Gnani Witch Camp, where people are exiled after being accused of practicing witchcraft.
I went to Gnani with a group of my guests, as part of my own quest to reach out to some of the most off-the-beaten-track and contentious human settlements in West Africa. We wanted to gain a greater understanding of the line where voodoo ends and witchcraft begins. Voodoo — or Vodun, as it is known in West Africa — is an officially recognized religion and has a high priest whose position is akin to that of the Pope. Fortunately for my guests and me, our local guide through this region was Paul Akakpo, a cousin of the high priest. Paul is devoutly involved in the voodoo religion. He also has traveled outside this region and has an open mind to other religions and ways of living.
Mr. Akakpo told me that open-mindedness is a characteristic of Vodun. He explains, “The ‘church’ of voodoo does not mind if Vodun worshippers also practice other religions, such as Christianity; in fact, voodoo welcomes it.” On the other hand, like most religions, voodoo also governs morality and has very strict codes, particularly for women. For instance, the act of a wife’s cooking a meal for a man other than her husband is tantamount to adultery. Punishment begins with her head being shaved in a ritualistic fashion and can go as far as being banished from her household.
I explained to Akakpo that as a Westerner, the word voodoo conjures up images of driving pins into wooden dolls to cause the “enemy” pain or even death. As a result, voodoo has a connotation of evil-doing. Upon hearing this, Akakpo’s never-ending smile turned to a frown. He shook his head and said in a very solemn voice, “Voodoo is only for doing good, not evil, and using a voodoo doll [in that way] is witchcraft.”
The villagers of Gnani (almost 90 percent women and their children) were cast out from their villages, primarily on charges of witchcraft that resulted in the death of a neighbor’s child or husband. They are sent here to live out the rest of their lives in this destitute existence.
The Burden of Witches
As we listened to the villagers’ stories, it was clear by the pain on their faces that many struggled more with the idea that they were responsible for the death of another person than the fact that they had been banished to Gnani. I asked Akakpo to translate a question to the chief on my behalf. I wondered, without pondering an individual’s innocence or guilt, how a village of “witches and wizards” functions as a society. Was Gnani like the Australian penal colonies created by the British government, which left criminals to run rampant?
The reply from the chief was as staggering as the sadness on faces of many of the villagers. Slowly, the chief explained that when someone arrives in Gnani, in the spirit of Jaminica and without questioning the person’s reasons for being there, a voodoo purification ritual is held immediately so that this person is never again capable of using the powers of voodoo for witchcraft.
Then the person is welcomed into the community with open arms. At this the chief ’s face broke into a wide grin, and I looked around to see the smile now matched on many of the villagers’ faces. I found their solution both compelling and remarkable. In fact, Gnani Witch Camp is said to be without crime, and there is a massive spirit of cooperation and kinship. And while it is the power of voodoo that caused Gnani’s residents to be exiled from their home villages, the belief of redemption through voodoo in Gnani was greater than I saw anywhere else in West Africa — and it gave its villagers a reason to live.
Interestingly, most names of villages and places in Ghana have some connotation or meaning, but no one in Gnani seemed to know where the name “Gnani” originated. Maybe someday a story will surface, but in the meantime, it seems clear that for Gnani’s residents — and now for me — Gnani actually does have a meaning: hope.