Examining the religious practices of so-called West African ‘voodoo’ and ‘witch doctors’ what social and economic role do these seemingly esoteric figures play in one of the most up-to-date, cosmopolitan cities in the world, New York? Certainly, what is apparent among Ghanaian traditional religious practitioners in modern day New York City is a complex cosmological negotiation with the veneration bestowed by the American public upon rich and famous people. In response to their young clients who idolise celebrity and desire to “really know” the famous and become wealthy like the super-rich living in Manhattan, West African religious practitioners from the largest Ghanaian ethnic group, the Akan, known in Twi as okomfo, attempt a divinatory breakdown of celebrity and probe the alien concept of American fame and its qualities.
Yet, in the wider sense, why do individuals worship gods they know to be quite openly an illusion, writes David Graeber (2005)? While this question was first asked by a Protestant missionary in eighteenth-century Guinea concerning the snake cult of Ouidah, Roger Sansi (2011) writes that the “fetish” was essentially an index of an exceptional event that became a new being. Hence, he records, the reason in Guinea, when asked how many gods they had, people laughed saying they had as many as they wished (Sansi 2011:31). Although this explanation bypassed the Portuguese travellers of the time, today, it is an equally valid enquiry in present-day Manhattan, where a frenzy of fetishization is truly at home in SoHo, Greenwich Village, Midtown and Chelsea, where on its sidewalks people voyeuristically spot celebrities obsessively and the American public have an insatiable desire to find out about celebrity lives and gorge on their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages while also combing new social media and online news sites.
Figure 1 Paparazzi at the Tribeca Film Festival, New York by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons
Akan akomfo, sometimes transient, often undocumented migrants, are actors and rivals in an African imaginary of non-human subjects and spirited objects in New York, home to one of the largest Ghanaian communities outside of West Africa. Invariably possessed by gods known as abosom – intangible spirits whose spiritual essence (sunsum) is hidden in rocks, streams and stones in the central, southern and western regions of Ghana but, in New York, are concealed in soda cans, clocks and other mass-produced objects, possession is the dominant feature of divinatory processes with the akomfo acting as a mouthpiece to the spirit, as in the below picture taken during my initial fieldwork on Akan divination in Ghana.
Figure 2 An akomfo during possession by a god, picture by author.
When possessed, Akan akomfo attempt to create their own optics or lens to watch the American star, but this is fraught with difficulty: The famous draw us in because we cannot look away from the spectacular, but the very excess of visual stimulation, the spectacular nature of the image, means that we end up seeing everything and nothing (Ellis 1982). Moreover, the skilled revelatory trick of being celebrated in the United States is that, while the edifice of a celebrity is now there for all to see, there remains an authenticity enshrined in the construction of American stardom.
Akan spirits in New York City are afforded none of the freedom of analysis given to the American star. Probing forms of conjuring among shamans, sorcerers and witchdoctors in Latin America, magic, argues Michael Taussig (2016), begs for and at the same time resists explanation most when appearing to be explained. That “magic is efficacious not despite the trick but on account of its exposure” (Taussig 2016: 455). Yet, conversely, as Roger Sansi (2011) explains, if the trick of the African sorcerer is uncovered, there is no sorcery. Commonly accused of being religious charlatans and conmen by those who refuse to engage in discussion that they represent anything but the most primitive of thought, officially registered West African spiritualists and herbalists in New York denunciate ‘juju men’ as practising a politics of deceit and perpetuating a superstitious hoax which is intrinsically part of a perspective that often sees West African indigenous cosmology as largely an unchanging monolithic universe. Indeed Graeber (2005) describes how “an aura of fraud” (430) persists in relation to the construction of god-like spirits, making them subject to rigorous epistemological, scientific scrutiny where other worlds simply cannot be believable, nor really exist. But it is the American universe of stardom that remains too radically strange and mysterious for Akan spirits to fully reveal, and this marks the beginning of the end of a profitable business for Ghanaian practitioners.
Ellis, James. 1982. Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. London: Routledge.
Graeber, David. 2005. ‘Fetishism as social creativity or Fetishes are gods in the process of construction’. Anthropological Theory: 407-438.
Sansi, Roger. 2011. ‘Sorcery and Fetishism in the Modern Atlantic’. In Luis Nicolau Pares and Roger Sansi .eds. Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Taussig, Michael, 2016. ‘Viscerality, faith, and scepticism: Another theory of magic,’ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, no. 3: 453-483.
Jane Parish is an anthropologist whose research looks at the West African diaspora in Europe and the United States. Conducting fieldwork among Ghanaian immigrants in London, Liverpool, Paris, New York and Detroit, she looks at how conflicts about wealth, accumulation and identity, are negotiated through witchcraft discourses at Akan spirit shrines. Publishing extensively on these topics in peer reviewed journals, her most recent work is with Akan shrine priests in Brooklyn, Harlem and The Bronx and shows how shrines seek to reconcile the lavish consumption and extravagant lifestyles found in Manhattan with the failing American dream of their Black African and African American clients living in America’s rust belt.
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