Before I get into the story behind gaba charms, I probably have to explain what I mean by an “adulterous widow.” In Tony Naden’s Mampruli dictionary, he defines the unique Mampruli word gaba as “a widow who has sexual relations with another man before her late husband’s funeral.”
In Western cultures we usually hold funerals soon after the deceased passes so the idea of “cheating” on your unburied husband seems a bit absurd. However, the Mamprusi hold two funerals (or three, depending on how you count) for their deceased. The final funeral can occur months or even years after the deceased has been buried. That extended length of time makes a widow’s impatience a bit more understandable but it is, nonetheless, considered an immoral act by the Mamprusi. She must show her late husband honor by abstaining from sex until his final funeral has been performed.
If a woman commits this taboo (and is caught) she is labeled a gaba and considered to be so wicked that her mere gaze can cause harm. The most commonly held superstitious belief about a gaba is that if she looks at a sick person then he or she will die. That is terrifying considering that you never know who might actually be an adulterous widow.
But wait! There’s a cure!
It is believed that if one takes a scrap of cloth belonging to a gaba and ties it to his wrist or ankle when he is sick, then he will be protected from the evil gaze of an adulterous widow. This magical charm is also called a gaba.
This belief is seen in practice every day at the Baptist Medical Centre of Nalerigu, Ghana.
Look closely at patients’ wrists and ankles and you’re likely to see a scrap of cloth tied as a bracelet or anklet. Usually a relative brings the patient the gaba when they visit him or her in the wards.
I’ve asked around to find out how people get these in the first place. No one sells the scraps of cloth (seems like an untapped business opportunity if one were a gaba) but instead people have a habit of stealing cloth from known adulterous widows when they are washing their clothes or bathing. Those cloths are torn into scraps and shared among friends and family who hold onto them until the day comes when they are needed by a loved one who has fallen ill.