Sunday, November 11, 2007

JUJU on U



I was getting ready for a fancy dinner out with visiting colleagues from Europe last weekend, when I decided I would wear my very special silver bracelet – which had been hand crafted as a gift to me from a friend who is an extremely talented jeweler, after my son passed away. It says “those we hold in our arms a little while, we hold in our hearts forever” and is engraved on the inside with his name. I lifted the black velvet box where I keep it and my heart sank. I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach – the box felt so light I knew instantly the bracelet was missing. I opened it anyway and peeked in at the empty cavity within. I talked myself through what I already knew – there was no chance of me having left it anywhere else. I am not a materialistic person by any description, nor very sentimental about most things, but this bracelet holds an indescribable meaning for me. I wasn’t prepared to face it being missing. I searched numbly around the bedroom, looking in places I knew it would not be and eventually allowing myself to face the facts. One of the staff had stolen it.

I immediately thought of all the recent happenings in the house. Eric the gardener’s diesel theft and his subsequent dismissal. Eric’s ominous letter warning me about Beatrice the maid, and Gilbert the cook’s worried comments about how he feared things could go missing with the house so volatile.

I came slowly out of the room and walked downstairs feeling dazed and highly upset. John saw me coming and knew something was up. I guess I had the look on my face. “What?! What is it??”, I explained. John’s first questions were the ones I expected, about whether I might have left it somewhere or in another box etc. Once we both realised it was gone from the room, there was that feeling of being violated and betrayed, but at the same time, not a huge surprise. Just disappointment.

John said the next morning he would fire everyone. I knew we were in for an interesting week. I didn’t know how very interesting…

We came downstairs the next morning, met Gilbert mopping the floor. “Gilbert, you can go home. Something very important is missing and no one can be in the house. Thanks and have a nice life.” Gilbert was bewildered to say the least. I almost felt bad. He asked and I tried to briefly explain what was missing. He said he didn’t have a clue what the thing was but John cut him short, retrieved his key and he stepped out alongside us on the way out. The door was locked. We met the gardener out front with his machete, slicing through the ever growing weeds. John gave him the same speech. He put down the huge knife, wiped his brow and shrugged. “Yes sir. Okay.” He walked out the gate. The only one left was Beatrice who actually lives out back in the staff quarters with her two twin grown daughters. She was already gone for the day to her other job for an Italian Diplomat as his maid. John said, no worry, we’ll see her in the evening.

We saw Bea briefly that night as she was bringing in the laundry. John told her what had happened and that everyone was to leave. She didn't need to work. She asked what was missing and where it had been and I showed her the space on the dresser where it had been. The next morning we met Gilbert at the gate. The security guard had barred him from entering so he had waited for us to drive out. He looked disheveled and his eyes were wild. I rolled down the window – he smelled. A stench barely achievable by human beings at the worst of times. Gilbert has always had a problem with body odour, and his last boss actually bought him deodorant and soap and made him shower regularly throughout the day! She also bought him a full body white servant’s outfit which she insisted he wear. We inherited the product – i.e. Gilbert made sure he was always smelling ok and looking clean when he came to work. That day he obviously had let all the composure out the window, with the prospect of losing his job.

“Madam, sir, please. I have not slept. I cannot steal. I do not know the thing you are speaking of. There is only one way to find the thief. We need to bring a traditional priest. A juju. That way we will know who has done it”.

I couldn’t help but pause at that moment to reflect on how bizarre it was. The fact that someone had just said that to me and was 100% serious. And how even more bizarre it is that I live in a country where the majority of people believe deep down that this IS the true way to catch a thief. I've even read a BBC article on how Witchcraft is alive and well in Africa

I’ve heard many stories from Ghanaians and Expats alike about how things were stolen and that these juju men, dressed in all white with frayed white cloth hats resembling doilies and always bare feet, were called in to set up a test to expose the guilty party. Sometimes there was a pot of boiling oil, sometimes there was a chicken to be killed and there are many other tests – all of these claim to reveal which person is guilty by the results. In all cases I’ve heard of, the guilty person is so fearful that at the last minute they confess. So powerful the human mind is!!! We agreed that Gilbert could find a neutral juju man. I was curious where all this would go.

That evening we were sitting in the lounge with a visitor and Beatrice poked her head in the door. I immediately wondered how she had gotten into the house. We just assumed we had forgotten to lock the door behind us on our way in. She asked if I had seen the bracelet. I said no. John told her that we had decided to call in a juju doctor to find out who took it. She jumped up off the chair. “What?! Why?? Noooooo, not me, I don’t want to be involved in those things. I am a church going woman! You don’t need those things, o!”. Very nervous reaction. Hmmmmm. She told me to take heart, and that she would come by on the weekend and help me look for it. She told me that she had no doubt we’d find it. I thought it was quite strange that she should be sure we’d find it.

When she left John smirked. She or her daughters took it. She’s snuck upstairs and brought it back. Go look, I bet it’s back. Quinci and I ran up the stairs to look. Nothing. I had thought it ridiculous and far too obvious and couldn’t believe it would be, but still I hoped. The bottom line was that I wanted the bracelet back.

We went off for yet another dinner out. This time all of us were out. We got back and I headed to the shower when John called me back. Holli, come and look. The bracelet is back.

I ran around the corner incredulous. There, in a second velvet box that held some of my earrings (that I hadn’t even noticed were missing), was my bracelet shoved in, with the earrings. It didn’t fit so it peeked out. The box where it belonged had been shoved to the back. It was just so obvious. But it meant she had a key! Or she was the witch Eric claimed…
Now it’s the weekend. Bea hasn’t come to help me look, because she knows the bracelet is back and that I’ve found it.

Only now it’s our turn to play mind tricks. Tomorrow she will be told that we have not found the bracelet and that she must leave the house.

Meanwhile the dishes are stacking up, the clothes have become a mountain in the laundry room and the floor has a full layer of dust. There’s been no servants for almost a week!

I called Gilbert today and he’ll be back tomorrow. Ah, I look forward to my glass of fresh squeezed orange juice and a clean house at the end of the day. I’m not spoiled am I?? This is a hardship post (according to most Western and European Embassies). Afterall, we are living among powerful spirits, witches and juju curses surround us.

The Guard and the Gardener



And just when I thought I’d preserved a small cocoon of modern civilization and a trustworthy crew around myself, the surprises of Africa knock me on the head again.

So this is what has been happening in my household over the past few weeks, while friends of mine in Canada are worrying about getting winter coats, and buying groceries, cleaning the house, kids getting a cold and the like, I am dealing with the dark corners of deceit and witchcraft in the heart of Africa.

A few weeks ago, while sitting among friends at Champs Sports Bar (a Canadian owned Mexican joint in Ghana), on Trivia night, surrounded by 20 tables of rowdy Expats, we received a frantic call from the house. It was Beatrice the ex-maid, (recently relegated to ironing only) – she warned John “Sir, please there is big trouble in the house!”. Expecting a fire or worse, we asked what it was. “It’s Eric (the gardener who has been with us for 6 years) – he’s been stealing the diesel! Even tonight, just now, he has taken two jerry cans of diesel, he and the guard” (A professional company has been hired to have one guard sitting on duty at our gate 24/7 to protect us and more importantly the expensive equipment for the company stored in our garages). Beatrice explained that Eric and the guard had been doing this for over a year on nights when we were out, bringing a taxi to the gate, filling the two cans, and then Eric jumping in the taxi, heading off somewhere into town to sell them. She also pointed out that Devon our oldest son had been returning from his friend’s place and had seen the taxi and Eric and the guard at the gate.

I shouldn’t have been, but I was shocked. Eric had always seemed a very loyal if not too intelligent guy. I paid him for numerous small jobs he would do for me, apart from his wages, and had always helped him out when he came with various sad stories over the years, of sick and needy relatives. We bought him a fridge and a TV and he lived for free in the quarters at the back of the house. By Ghanaian standards, for an illiterate guy with no gardening skills he was doing ok. As a gardener he was incompetent if not downright abusive! One day years ago when John had asked him to trim the palm fronds touching the windows, we came home in the evening to find the entire majestic tree pared down to a dead and pathetic stump. “It will grow back!”, he seemed so sure. It still stands, rotten and smelling out back…

But I digress… Now we had to deal with the situation at hand. There are two large drums of diesel sitting in the garage, to refill the generator (one of Eric’s jobs), as and when the electricity went through periods of long outages (very common in our dear Ghana).
We never kept track of the amount of diesel in the drums, it was a tedious job, not worth the time, and we basically trusted Eric. Well now we had to grill the guard, call in the management of the security company and fire Eric.

The guard denied any taxi having been there, denied any knowledge of Eric removing diesel and basically insisted on his innocence. After asking a few other people in the neighborhood, we discovered the same guard had his own diesel business passing out the back gate of the last place he was ‘guarding’! We called in his bosses who were only too happy to have him removed immediately. They were also very interested in what we would do with Eric. “Sir please – we would remove him for you. Throw his things in the road and not allow him through the gate again”. We were less into the dramatics. The truth is that he is a single guy, with few if any family in the city, and no money, skills or resources. We knew he had nowhere to go. John confronted him, he pleaded innocence, we gave him till the end of the month to go.

From that day, there was mayhem in the house. Every day when we left for work there was sneaking, and sneering and distrust and loud arguments and threats abounding. Gilbert the cook and cleaner confronted us one morning on our way out. “Please madam, sir, (I can’t get him to stop calling me this pretentious term which makes me feel old and elitist!). “The house is not fine. Sometimes Eric and Beatrice they fight. Sometimes I am upstairs and Eric could come in, he could take things. Bea too – she brings the laundry when I am not here. Please, the doors, I feel it is not safe to leave them open. Until Eric is gone and things are normal again”. We weren’t too concerned. The day came and went and Eric left. We paid him a few month’s services (as in common in Ghana – instead of putting a thief in jail, you pay them for a few months and see them on their way). And the security company was ready and happily put his things out. We followed up by sending a driver from the office to transport his things to wherever he wanted.

Just before Eric left, he handed me a hand written note. It was very difficult to read, but I pieced together what I could. It basically alleged that the reason Bea had made up these horrible stories against him was that he had confronted her for bringing too many men to the house. He claimed she was a witch and that she promised she would revenge him. This was how she had accomplished it, he claimed. Then he made an ominous statement that I was next on the witches list, as she perceived me to be the cause of her losing the main job in the house (as we had recently brought in the company’s official cook Gilbert). He claimed she would work her way to me next…


I put it down, we laughed a bit. Africa! Eric!!! I just thought to myself how bizarre my life was over here, even now, secluded in the Expat world of work, dinners, big airconditioned house with foreign satellite TV and a real supermarket to shop at (but that's another story!)…
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