As the world’s biggest single-event sporting competition, the World Cup provides the perfect stage for nations to gain international recognition. One such nation to have garnered the interest of the world is Ghana, having played impressively against Germany, Portugal, and the United States. The Black Stars, as the team is popularly known, faced a complicated group reasonably well and could have advanced, had their last game against Portugal gone differently. It was this game that people were anxiously awaiting, both because of the implications of the result for the group, but also because a fetish priest from Ghana predicted that Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t play in the game.
Practitioners of traditional religion in Ghana work with spiritually-based holistic understandings of illness. Often referred to as fetish priests, traditional priests, or traditional healers, they live and worship their gods in shrines, consult community members, perform complex rituals, and use herbal remedies and poultices to treat physical illnesses and spiritual evils. The implementation of Western medical practices throughout Africa, however, has encouraged a sustained attack on the relevance of traditional medical practices, particularly from Pentecostal African priests.
Nonetheless, a recent study on child-rearing practices in some Ghanaian communities emphasized the increasing importance of traditional practices and ethics. Although a vast 71.2 percent of Ghana’s 25 million inhabitants consider themselves Christians, compared to a meager 5.2 percent who say they believe in traditional religion, we should view these numbers cautiously. According to Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a professor of African Christianity at Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra, “when [African] people experience a crisis, they often put their Christian beliefs aside and consult traditional priests,” he said. “They won’t usually admit it, of course, because that destroys their Christian credibility,” he concluded. Indeed, while there are ongoing efforts to develop a comprehensive primary Western health care system in Ghana, the reality is that the traditional system remains the primary health care service for large amounts of citizens, particularly in rural northern areas.
Feared by many for his spiritual powers, Nana Kwaku Bonsam—whose name translates to Devil of Wednesday—is well known as a popularizer of African traditional medical practices. He is one of the first and best known fetish priests to use the media to promote traditional healing methods. In February, Bonsam predicated that Cristiano Ronaldo would be injured during the World Cup in an interview with the Kumasi-based Angel FM.
Ghana’s most influential traditional priest seemed confident in his prediction, quickly claiming responsibility for the knee injury that threatened to force the player many consider the best in the world out of the tournament.
Ronaldo missed some important games during the 2013/14 season due to injury, but recovered in time to play and win the UEFA Champion’s League Final with Real Madrid. Right before the beginning of the World Cup, however, the tendonitis in his left leg recurred. Ghana’s most influential traditional priest seemed confident in his prediction, quickly claiming responsibility for the knee injury that threatened to force the player many consider the best in the world out of the tournament.
“I know what Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury is about, I’m working on him… I said it months ago that I will work on Cristiano Ronaldo seriously and rule him out of the World up or at least prevent him from playing against Ghana and the best thing I can do is to keep him out through injury,” admitted Bonsam, who serves at the Kofioo Kofi Shrine.
“I am very serious about it. Last week, I went around looking for four dogs and I got them to be used in manufacturing a special spirit called Kahwiri Kapam,” he continued. “This injury can never be cured by any medic, they can never see what is causing the injury because it is spiritual. Today, it is his knee, tomorrow it is his thigh, next day it is something else,” Bonsam warned.
The doctor recommended two months of rest for the forward, a possibility which would have derailed any hope of World Cup success. For Bonsam, everything was going according to plan.
The renowned medicine man felt Ronaldo would be influential in stopping his beloved Ghana from qualifying out of its World Cup group. He decided to use his spiritual powers and abilities to inflict a serious injury that would stop Ronaldo from eliminating Ghana from the “group of death.” According to El Confidencial, Dr. Jose Carlos Noronha advised Ronaldo, after Portugal’s loss to Germany, to sit for the rest of the tournament and warned him that his career could be at risk should he continue to play. The doctor recommended two months of rest for the forward, a possibility which would have derailed any hope of World Cup success. For Bonsam, everything was going according to plan. But then things went wrong: Ronaldo ended up playing both against the U.S. and Ghana despite visible signs of fatigue. In fact, he managed to score his only goal of the competition against Ghana, sending them out of the World Cup. Did Bonsam’s spell fail? Was this a promotional hoax? Was Cristiano Ronaldo just too good? What does this mean for Bonsam? And perhaps more importantly, what does this episode mean for traditional Ghanaian religious and medical practices?
Maybe global exposure at an event like the World Cup prompted Bonsam to make bold predictions and claim responsibility for the injury of one of soccer’s most popular stars. But his willingness to intervene in an international competition also points to the strength of the spirituality he represents. Bonsam clearly understands these practices as global in significance, and he’s eager to use a variety of mediums to spread his message. Not only does this testify to the failure of Western medicine and religion to eliminate this sphere of religious practice, it shows these beliefs as in conversation with technology and science. The tools thought to reduce Bonsam’s influence only enhance it. So while Bonsam’s powers may not have kept Ghana in the competition, their appearance on this world stage speaks to the resilience and importance of a tradition far from forgotten.
Francisco Patiño is an immigrant, a first generation college graduate, and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. A proud alumnus of The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), Patiño is a Master of Theological Studies candidate with a self-designated area of study in Religion, Ethics, and Medicine with particular interests in folk healing, end-of-life care, and spirituality in healing and medicine. Upon graduating from HDS, Patiño will pursue a medical degree and eventually practice in his native McAllen, Texas, to serve his community. In his spare time, Patiño enjoys listening to music, going out with friends, and playing or watching football (or what most Americans know as soccer).
Ghana at the 2010 World Cup from Flickr via Jimmy Baikovicius