Northern Gothic: Witches, Ghosts and Werewolves in the Savanna Hinterland of the Gold Coast, 1900s-1950s

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This article examines witchcraft, shape-shifting and other supernatural beliefs among the Talensi and neighbouring Gur-speaking peoples on the frontier of the Northern Territories Protectorate of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the first half of the twentieth century. Its starting point is the succession of religious movements dedicated to the eradication of witchcraft that swept through the southern forest region of the Gold Coast in the inter-war period. Most of these movements were animated by exotic deities originating in the savanna zone, a cross-cultural passage in part propelled by the ambivalence with which the Akan peoples of the forests viewed the so-called Gurunsi of the remote north. While the 'Gurunsi' were generally regarded as primitive barbarians, they were also seen to have an intimate relationship with the spiritual realm and therefore to be free from the ravages of malevolent witchcraft. This intimacy with dangerous spiritual forces was most clearly manifested in the widely reported ability of 'the grassland people' to transmogrify into animals. Evidence suggests, however, that far from being free from witchcraft, stateless savanna societies had their own problems with malevolent occult powers. Moreover, their reputation for shape-shifting was not simply a lurid, fantastic stereotype of northern brutishness on the part of the Akan. Animal metamorphosis- and especially the ubiquity of were-hyenas--was widely reported in the northern savanna, where it was imbricated with 'witchcraft' and with notions of personhood and collective identities.


Cet article examine la sorcellerie, la metamorphose et d'autres croyances surnaturelles chez les Talensis et les peuples voisins de langue gour a la frontiere du protectorat des Territoires du Nord de la Cote de l'Or (Ghana) dans la premiere moitie du vingtieme siecle. Il prend comme point de depart la succession de mouvements religieux consacres a l'eradication de la sorcellerie qui s'est propagee rapidement dans la region forestiere du sud de la Cote de l'Or pendant la periode d'entre deux guerres. La plupart de ces mouvements etaient animes par des deites exotiques originaires de la savane, un passage interculturel en partie pousse par l'ambivalence avec laquelle les peuples akans des forets consideraient ceux qu'ils appelaient les Gourounsis des regions reculees du nord. Si les "Gourounsis" etaient certes generalement consideres comme des barbares primitifs, on les croyait egalement intimement lies au royaume spirituel et par consequent a l'abri des ravages de la sorcellerie malveillante. Cette intimite avec des forces spirituelles dangereuses se manifestait le plus nettement dans la capacite souvent rapportee des "peuples des prairies " a se metamorphoser en animaux. Les faits suggerent, en revanche, que loin d'etre a l'abri de la sorcellerie, les societes apatrides de la savane avaient leurs propres problemes avec les pouvoirs occultes malveillants. De plus, la reputation qu'ils avaient de pouvoir se metamorphoser n'etait pas un simple stereotype de la bestialite du nord, fait de fantasme et d'epouvante, de la part des Akans. La metamorphose animale (notamment le pouvoir d'ubiquite de la hyene-garou) a souvent ete rapportee dans la savane du nord, ou on la melait a la "sorcellerie" et a des notions de personne et d'identites collectives.


   All things are always changing,
   But nothing dies. The spirit comes and goes,
   Is housed wherever it wills, shifts residence
   From beasts to men, from men to beasts, but always
   It keeps on living.

-- Ovid, Metamorphoses. (1)

In July 1939, government anthropologist Margaret Field composed a memorandum on the anti-witchcraft cults that over the past decade had repeatedly swept through the southern forest region of the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana). (2) Field's investigations into these movements had been focused on the Akan kingdoms of Akyem Abuakwa and Akyem Kotoku, but in 1939 her attention switched to the Anlo-Ewe region across the Volta River to the south-east, where the followers of a powerful new witch-finding deity named Kunde were believed tobe responsible for widespread extortion, murder and political disorder. …