In a little nook on the north side of Nalerigu’s market sit two men – brothers – who are the town’s gbanzaba, or leatherworkers. Just twenty years ago there were a lot more leatherworkers and they had a lot more diverse work to do. Then the plastic bags, second-hand Western clothes and cheap Chinese products started pouring into West Africa.
Now I only ever see them working on four things: repairing sandals, making chieftaincy cushions, decorative knife sheaths and magical amulets. The latter is one that isn’t going away. In fact, they have a proverb referencing it:
Gbanzaba pɔ’a seaa ni ka kanni.
A literal translation would be “the leatherworker’s wife’s waist has no leather belt.” However, it’s basically the same idea as the old English adage “the shoemaker’s daughter goes barefoot.” The leather belt in question (kanni) is not just any belt, but a magical charm worn by a woman (especially pregnant women) for protection from evil spirits and/or bad luck. Other magical charms the leatherworkers make are amulets with Quranic verses inside and leather charms that bind up secret ingredients and give the wearer protection or supernatural powers.
I enjoy visiting with these guys every time I go to market. I like to jokingly ask what’s inside the magical amulets they are sowing all the while knowing the answer is asiiri (secret!). Once they offered to repair my dying sandals and even gave me a loaner pair to wear around the market until they were done. Now that’s great customer service!
Now that we are in the midst of the Christmas season, Christians are focusing on the first few chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke where the events surrounding Christ’s birth are detailed. In churches around the world, congregations sing beloved Christmas carols proclaiming the Savior’s birth and pastors wax poetic about that singular event’s eternal implications.
However, you don’t find many carols or sermons delivering the details of Jesus’s lineage. One hymn that I know of – “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” – briefly mentions that the Christ is “of Jesse’s lineage coming” but it doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as Matthew 1:1-17 or Luke 3:23-38.
The fact that Matthew opens his gospel with that genealogy is a big signal to the fact that this is very important information. In the cultures of that time, one’s heritage was very important. In contemporary Western cultures, we don’t put much stock in one’s pedigree. That’s probably a result of our history of deposing the aristocrats of old and embracing republican ideals.
However, just because West doesn’t care about genealogies doesn’t mean the rest of the world is over them too. And nor should they be. It’s important to know your history.
The Mamprusi, among whom I live, treasure the genealogy of their kings. The center piece of the annual Damba Festival is when the king’s praise singer and all the drummers sing through the current overlord’s genealogy. The process takes over an hour because it isn’t just listing the generations over several centuries. The singer praises each king with song stories and proverbs that describe the attributes and events of his rule.
Damba occurs around December every year and it always brings me back to the genealogies of Christ in the gospels. If you read over the names in Matthew 1, there is a story behind each one. Often you can head over to the Old Testament and read about the events. Some are exciting and others quite shocking (I’m looking at you, Tamar!).
Genealogies can remind us that God is in control and that our lives have purpose. God ordained the lives of every single ancestor of yours and guided events leading up to your own arrival in the world. He created you and put you here – at this time and in this place – for a reason.
Jesus’s genealogy is evidence that God had a plan from the very beginning of the Hebrew nation (Abraham, Matthew 1:2) and even the beginning of mankind (Adam, Luke 3:38) to send a Savior. And that Savior, to quote the aforementioned hymn was:
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us
And lightens every load
* UPDATE * My friend and church music genius Kenny Peters pointed out that the less-known Christmas carol “While Shepherds Watched” mentions that the Savior is “born of David’s line.”
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.
Another year, another Damba Festival! This year Heidi was able to attend the festival with me to see the main events. One of the coolest things however was that I was invited to attend the Na’akyimma Wa or Young Men’s Dance on the nights leading up to the festival.
Here is a slideshow of photos from the festival but you can head over to my Flickr gallery to browse all my 2017 Damba Festival images.
You and your friend get what’s sweet and you and your relation gets what’s bitter.
Below is the same aerial view taken in the rainy season. Notice that the white spots are missing?
So what do you think the spots are? Scroll down after the jump for the answer!Read More