(Sorry no photos from this day, as requested by our hosts)
This entry from parent and chaperone Chris Duschenes about our day yesterday:
Of spirituality, sacrifices and cellphones
Another day of incredible wonder, learning and startling contrasts. Many individual elements of this day will remain with me for a long time and many questions will remain unanswered. However, there are two feelings that will dominate my lasting impressions: genuineness and conviction. The remarkable events that we were privileged to have witnessed today obviously emanate from profound and sacred beliefs in a country that is seemingly overrun with westerner christian missionaries.
It was shrine day in Dagbamete – a day for Ghanaians from near and far to congregate in the village and commune with their gods; a time discuss and solve their problems, restore their health, clean their souls or pray for a brighter future. The Dagbamete Shrine is famous and attracts hundreds of worshipers a year, due to its reputation as a place of powerful healing and solutions. Today, there were about 200 souls of all ages, freely coming and going throughout the day and evening.
The Shrine is by far the biggest structure in the village. It is a huge concrete-block shell about the size of a small hockey arena with open sides on the ground floor, a huge open space in the middle and a wrap-around mezzanine balcony. One end of the open space houses the main place of worship where the village elders and spiritual leader congregate in a semi-circle around several effigies, referred to by the locals as ghosts, to provide council to worshipers and preside over a wide range of rituals.
At around 10:30 this morning, drummers summoned villagers and Baobabers to the Shrine. All dressed in wraps, shoes were removed and the men and women were ushered to benches on opposite sides of the large open space. Over the course of the next 10 hours, worshipers came to present and discuss their concerns in groups of 2 to 30 or so, each individual accompanied by a live chicken or goat, as an offering to the gods – chickens to address lesser needs, goats for greater.
The first pair of worshipers to be brought forward were women seeking cleansing, having recently witnessed a dead body. After lengthy discussions with the spiritual leader during which he repeatedly blessed the women by gently using their chickens like wands, the seemingly desperate animals were immediately calmed by simply lying them on their sides on the concrete floor. The pair returned to their places on the benches, chickens in hand and, following a brief interlude of drumming, were replaced at the alter with a second group to undergo the same type of exchange with the spiritual leader but seeking another type of help. Although it was not clear to me what type of more significant help was being sought, about a fifth of those seeking help brought goats. As with the chickens, the goats were treated with care and respect. The largest group to come forward were 30 or so individuals who were seeking “membership” in the shrine. A small fee and a chicken paves the way for you to benefit from the power of the Shrine for a year. The Shrine has over 8000 devotees.
After several groups of individuals seeking help had been catered to, all came together before the effigies and the animals were sacrificed. There was nothing violent, bloody or sensational. The animals were rendered unconscious before their blood was let and they did not struggle. Children removed the bodies from the Shrine and immediately plucked the chickens and roasted the goats. The meal was had by participants, the circle complete.
The rituals ended this evening with a healing circle where those who are sick are given the opportunity to cleanse themselves in sacred water, then oil and finally in a fire lit next to the main effigy. Men and women gathered tightly around the fire, passing parts of their bodies slowly through the flames, seemingly without pain.
I don’t want to leave the impression that witnessing the events of today was easy or that I am romanticizing the Ewe religion. A lot of the day was tough to watch and hear. I cannot imagine any outsider not being at least somewhat disturbed by the frantic squawking of the chickens and desperate bleating of very young and cute goats as they were led to the alter. However, that is not the image that persists and much of the day was a celebration of life. In the vast space of the Shrine floor, small children danced or played soccer a few yards from the rituals and on many occasions, the theme song from the Simpson’s could be heard in the background as one of the elders answered his cell phone. It was a true blending of the old and the new – a community coming together to address real, contemporary issues in a profound and ancient way – the same way their ancestors did and, it is hoped, the same way generations to come will.
I was so proud of the kids and their willingness to check out the Shrine day, as most of them did, and it was an optional event. Not all stayed all day but they came and went according to their own needs. In many cases, what they witnessed was much simpler and gentler than anything they imagined in their minds before coming. Kwasi gave a talk to us in the morning about what to expect, as well as a few hows and whys about it all in terms of its function in the village and their lives. As Christopher said, there are many questions left unanswered but we all agreed that it is OK to not have all the answers. One thing I particularly loved was watching the kids play the drums, rattles and do some dancing with members of the Shrine at the opening invocation of the day. Incidentally, when each group of chickens and goats are sacrificed, the drumming music is played to accompany their souls from this world to the next. Pretty moving. We had a great round circle talk about the experience last night before bed.
And now a couple of notes from the kids about the day at the Shrine (from our group journal):
“The sacrifice was so interesting to watch ! I didn’t see the goats though, only the chickens. Out back there is a sort of cylinder with all the skulls of the dead animals. It is so cool. I think it is OK because they kill the animals so humanely, make sure sure that they are unconscious when it happens, and the meat isn’t wasted because they eat it after. Also, I love SUGARCANE yum”
“The Shrine actually pretty cool. A bit sad , but cool. Love my shorts.”