WIFE OF THE GODS by Kwei J. Quartey
idea for Wife of the Gods was born late at night in a Paris hotel room.
While surfing television channels, I came across a riveting documentary
about a detective trying to solve a murder in rural Ivory Coast. He was
a brutal man who beat villagers up and exploited their superstitions to
get them to talk. It was raw television that made American “reality” TV
shows look like tea at Buckingham Palace. In a moment of epiphany that
trounced my jetlag, I decided to write a murder mystery set in rural
Africa. I would set it in Ghana, which is Ivory Coast’s neighbor to the
east along the West African coast.
As in the documentary, my story would center around a loutish, corrupt
village police superintendent. He would naturally need a moral force to
oppose him. Enter Darko “Dark” Dawson, the detective sent from the big
city to “solve the murder.” It doesn’t take long for Dawson to discover
that things run differently far from the city, nor is it long before he
butts heads with the superintendent.
I understood how Dawson would face indigenous superstitions in this
rural setting because I grew up in Ghana, where one often hears
references to ‘juju’, i.e., objects or practices that have evil magical
powers. Such superstitions are part of a wider belief system involving
witchcraft, curses, and the power of gods and ancestors.
Both my parents were university professors, my father Ghanaian and my
mother American, and neither of them professed to such beliefs. The
University of Ghana campus where I grew up was hardly a bastion of
witchcraft or juju, but I still heard stories. One rumor that stayed in
circulation for several weeks alleged that someone was using juju to
make men’s penises shrink. This tale, which I found highly amusing,
still resurfaces every so often.
Even if it is not universally accepted, belief in witchcraft as the
cause of any misfortune, from illness to a poor harvest, is strikingly
prevalent in Ghana. For my as yet unnamed book, I envisioned the
murderer using this specter of witchcraft as a foil for his own crime.
While writing and researching my plotline, I saw another television
program that was to contribute to the writing of the novel. 60 Minutes
did a segment describing the plight of a number of girls and young women
known as trokosi in southeastern Ghana. They are “given” as wives to
fetish priests to atone for a family crime, often committed generations
ago. They are referred to as “wives of the gods,” but another
translation of the word trokosi is “slave of the gods,” which may be
more appropriate in view of how these girls and women are treated.
Although the involved fetish priests deny the accusations, it seems
clear from many sources that they physically and sexually abuse their
slave wives in addition to ruthlessly working them to the bone.
I was astonished and angered by what the 60 Minutes piece had shown. One
of the trokosi was barely ten years old. Her vulnerability was
wrenching. I knew I had to write about this tradition, which I found so
unsettling, and I chose the name for the novel as a kind of dedication
to these girls and women: Wife of the Gods. As a physician, it was
impossible for me not to include related medical aspects of such a
story, in particular AIDS, and the tension between traditional healing
and “conventional” medicine. It took several rewrites to tie all these
aspects together, and although the ultimate raison d’ètre of a novel is
to entertain, it was important for me to embrace the questions Ghanaians
face in real life.
Writing has been a lifelong pursuit for me starting from at least the
age of eight, when I wrote three adventure/mystery novellas complete
with stapled-on dust jackets. The creation of different worlds that are
compelling and transporting has always been deeply satisfying to me.
So, now, I would like to formally introduce to you Detective Darko
Dawson. And please don’t call him “Dark.” Only his wife can do that.