My brush with black magic

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

“Do you believe in black magic?” asked Tinus, a well-educated Ghanaian who has travelled abroad and now worked as an accountant for one of the larger companies in Accra.

“What do you mean?” I was a little stumped by this non-sequitor.

“In Ghana, we have bad people who cast evil spells so they can take away all your money, or steal your wife or your job.”

Tinus professed to be a devout Christian and I had visited his church with him in Accra, where he is revered as an elder. We had been working together on a gold concession that had produced handsomely for several months, until the gold suddenly dried up. I accepted this as an inevitable fact of geology, but Tinus was trying to convince me that I had been cursed.

“A preacher friend of mine contacted me this week and told me he had a vision. He knew we were mining gold, and that the gold had suddenly stopped coming. He is a man I have trusted for a long time. He told me that ju-ju men are taking the soil on which you walk and using it to make black magic, so the gold disappears and then you give up and walk away from the site. Then they will come and continue mining, so they can collect the gold you leave behind.”

The conversation was getting stranger by the minute. “Who do you think is doing this?” I asked.

“Frank, your foreman.”

“Frank! Impossible. He saved us many times from doing stupid things. Look,” I said. “I judge people by their actions and their results. Frank is the best thing that has happened to us. I cannot accept what you are saying.”

This had turned into a bizarre and somewhat alarming discussion, the intended effect of which was to poison me against Frank. I was aware of the petty jealousies that can sometimes arise between colleagues and co-workers, but this was a stretch too far.

“What I want to do,” said Tinus, “is bring a pastor with experience in these matters to reverse the spell that has been cast on the site.”

“Do what you want,” I replied.

The feticheur’s curse

Years earlier in Congo, while prospecting for diamonds there, I fell seriously ill with malaria and typhoid, losing 10 kgs in two weeks. My Congolese colleagues were convinced that I had been cursed. They regaled me with horrifying stories of feticheurs as they called them (witchdoctors) raining death and misery on their targets.

As my colleague Dominique told it, one man had approached a feticheur to solve his money problems. He was told to dig a hole in a certain pre-determined spot, wherein he would find an abundance of diamonds. Apparently all this worked out as planned. But the hapless individual, now rich beyond his wildest dreams, was told he should never again sleep on a bed. He had to sleep on the floor. Years later, while in the capital Kinshasa, he got drunk and was carried by friends to his hotel room. He woke up in the morning and, realising he was in a bed, had a heart attack and died on the spot.

Fantastic stories such as this keep alive the lore and mystique of black magic across Africa. In Ghana, the artisanal gold miners (known as galamsey) often turn to ju-ju to tilt the tides of fortune in their favour, but you seldom meet a successful galamsey. Success, in my experience, is more likely to favour those who prospect. The interest in black magic is still very much alive, though not nearly as robust as it was 50 years ago.

There are, however, some cultural peculiarities which are hard to explain. Luba women in Congo’s Katanga province are renowned as particularly faithful. If they are unfaithful to their husbands, Luba culture dictates that they may not return under the same roof as the husband, or else terrible tragedy will be visited on her, the children or the husband. In Mbuji Mayi, in Katanga province, there is a quarter housing unfaithful women who have deserted their families for fear of bringing disaster to their former homes. They often survive by prostitution, as if to confirm their diminished social status. I spoke to many Luba people about this, and there was no doubt in their minds that this cultural edict was so powerful that tragedy was certain if a Luba woman was unfaithful.

My conversation with Tinus sat uncomfortably with me for a few days until I could bear it no longer. Frank, in addition to being our foreman, was my friend. I discussed the matter with my Russian partner. We had noticed a change in Tinus’ demeanour of late, a kind of demonic greed that incubates and breeds in people of unsound mind.

What was Tinus’ plan? Did he want to cleave Frank away from us and then steal our mining equipment? My mind swirled with dark imaginings.

We decided to come clean with Frank.

Frank was outraged. “If God put the gold there, how can a ju-ju man take it away? If there is no gold there, it is because God did not put it there in the first place.” This was the sanest reading of the situation I had heard in weeks.

To accuse someone of witchcraft in Ghana, or anywhere in Africa, is no laughing matter. Frank reported the accusations to the chief of the village, who immediately summoned Tinus to account for his behaviour.

The village court

Tinus arrived the next day with wife and pastors in tow. To refuse a summons from the chief is likewise a serious matter.

The charges were read out against Tinus, his head bowed in shame.

One of our workers, it turned out, had spread the rumour that Frank had been involved in black magic for many years, that he had built his house over the corpse of a dead man, that someone else had died in one of his mining pits, and that he had invoked ju-ju spells on our mining site.

The chief turned to the worker from whence the rumour sprang: “When you first came here, your words were sweet. Now they are so bitter. Why is that?”

The worker, let’s call him Kweku, sat in stunned silence at the charges levelled against him.

The chief continued: “I myself am an elder of the Pentecostal church here. It was I that blessed Frank’s house when he started to build. Where did you get this information about black magic?”

Kweku denied emphatically that he was the source of the information.

The chief fired back: “I have a witness standing outside that I can call that will say you started the rumour.”

Kweku, Tinus and his wife Abigail suddenly fell to their knees to beg Frank for forgiveness.

Begging for forgiveness in Ghana is an admission of guilt.

Frank asked the supplicants to rise from their knees and in ceremonial flourish, granted them forgiveness.

A little later it was reported to us by a security guard at the site that Tinus had despatched two pastors to conduct their rituals to undo the supposed curse.

“Now the gold will appear,” proclaimed the pastor.

Emboldened by the pastor’s divine assurance, Tinus immediately shipped a dredge to the site to claim the gold he was promised would appear.

Our relationship with Tinus had soured beyond repair, so we watched events from a distance.

The daily tally of gold recovery was reported to us by our security personnel: one gram, two grams, four grams. Barely enough to pay the diesel to operate the dredge or pay the workers.

“They have failed totally,” laughed Frank, as we sat one evening to discuss the episode. “I told them that if God did not put the gold there in the first place, then they will find nothing. And so it is.”

And so it is.

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.