African Library: Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

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Wife of the Gods (2010)
Kwei Quartey

Kwei Quartey, a Ghanaian, works in the US (California) as a physician, but in his detective novels it is Ghanaian social, familial and professional life, and belief systems, that are investigated or used to contextualise his narratives. The phrase wife of the gods (which he used as the title of his first novel) alludes to a practice in the Volta region (where the Ewe language and culture predominate) of redeeming “family sins or crimes” by dedicating young girls (who are not themselves given any say in whether they want to be such an “offering”) to serve as “wives of the gods serving at a shrine [… and] often brought to the shrine as girls as young as nine […] [O]nce they reach puberty, the fetish priests begin to have sex with them” (72). The practice is known as trokosi and has been outlawed, but as often happens, persists in remoter regions where the laws on the books have less power than entrenched, locally validated practices. We are also informed that an organisation called AfriKulture, “dedicated to saving aspects of Ghanaian culture and tradition that it claims are under attack from the Western world”, campaigns to defend and perpetuate the practice (72–3), claiming that the young women who are affected by it are “privileged” and are taught “the ways of morality” (73). Nevertheless, the portrayal in the text of especially one such woman (and her daughter) casts an unfavourable light on trokosi and criticism is articulated by both the principal murder victim in the novel (a brilliant young woman called Gladys Mensa, a medical student and worker for an NGO spreading information about Aids in the region) and by Quartey’s investigator in all his novels, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson. The trokosi figure in this text, Efia, is one of several put-upon wives of the shrine priest Togbe Adzima in a tiny settlement, Bedome.

Detective Inspector Dawson is probably the main reason for the considerable success of Quartey’s novels. An appealing character, he is a loving husband to his teacher wife Christine and a caring father to his only child, Hosiah (6), who suffers from a heart ailment compromising his chances of survival to adulthood and requiring unaffordably expensive surgery. In his job Dawson is a middle-echelon officer with a rather erratic and demanding superior whose handsome nephew is Dawson’s junior. Dawson is a fierce prosecutor of crimes, especially against women, but he is no angel; although he never takes any alcohol, he is mildly addicted (if I might so put it) to the occasional marijuana joint, especially at the many moments of serious stress in his work, but of course risking arrest, demotion or loss of his job if his habit were to be exposed. Dawson is also a big, strong man, but with a vulnerable side; he sleeps badly and often has nightmares, particularly about his mother, who went inexplicably missing when he was a young boy. And he has a very difficult relationship with his mother-in-law. In a side story to the main narrative, Dawson’s investigations are interrupted when he hears that his son was injured (needing a lot of stitches to a head wound incurred when he fell) when his wife’s mother, in her worry about her only grandchild’s deteriorating health, had taken little Hosiah – without asking his parents’ permission – to be treated by her herbal doctor, where the terrified child had fallen in an attempt to run away from the “doctor”. Not only does the fiercely protective Dawson have a quarrel with his mother-in-law, but he dashes off in a fury to arrest the herbal doctor – a widely respected man with powerful connections, including Dawson’s superior officer! As a consequence of this maverick behaviour, Dawson is (towards the end of the narrative) temporarily suspended; his junior officer (his boss’s nephew) is then assigned to the murder investigation, but Dawson will continue to work on the case unofficially, and of course eventually solves it, despite a few wrong turns and false leads.

Dawson works in the CID and has his office at police headquarters in Accra. Quartey seems to enjoy describing the streets and sites in the city and the congested traffic conditions, an irritating feature of Dawson’s daily commute by motorcycle. The murder investigation is assigned to Dawson because of a special request that the detectives in the regional capital (Ho) should not be used to assist in the investigation, but instead someone from Accra; and Dawson is the obvious choice because he has a fine reputation as a detective and is fluent in the Ewe language (his mother tongue). Dawson even has family (his deceased mother’s sister and her husband and son) in the town nearest to where the murder victim was discovered by Efia (the trokosi mentioned earlier). What does not play a part in the job assignment, but is a point of interest mentioned by the narrator, is that Dawson has a special, “additional” faculty that assists him in his detective work: he “senses” people’s voices in a way that often reveals more than the speaker intends or their words declare:

Darko felt the silken quality and the musical lilt of Auntie’s voice. He had always had a peculiarly heightened sensitivity to speech. Not only did he hear it but he often perceived it as if physically touching it. He had on occasion told Cairo [his only and slightly older brother] or Mama that he could feel “bumps” in a person’s voice, or that it was prickly or wet. […] Darko could not explain it […]. (33)

Quartey also provides other details concerning Dawson’s family history: his brother Cairo, who had been a particularly bright and athletically gifted child, was tragically paralysed as a boy when a car knocked him down as he was crossing the street. Dawson deeply loves his brother and still feels terribly sad for his loss of natural mobility. We also learn that there is little warmth in Dawson’s relationship with his father, but that he developed a near-filial relationship with the detective who investigated his mother’s disappearance and chose his profession because of his love and admiration for this kindly man, a person of real integrity and strong intelligence who has remained his private mentor in detective work, long after the closure (with the mystery still unsolved) of the case concerning the disappearance of Dawson’s mother.

Darko is present at the autopsy performed on Gladys Mensa’s body. Everyone concerned had up to this point been puzzled by its seemingly uninjured state, but the forensic diagnosis confirms that she was murdered and that “the cause of death [was] asphyxiation by strangulation” (65). Darko arrives at Ketanu – where he had never visited since going there (to his aunt’s) with his mother and brother – and notices the “rusted roofs”, the tro-tros (minibus taxis) weaving through the busy traffic in the town and the names of the shops and kiosks, such as Prayer Electrical Goods and God is Great Hair Clinic – such “Christian” and Biblical names for commercial undertakings being characteristic of Ghanaian shopkeepers’ demonstrative piety.

Dawson gets a frosty reception when he arrives at the local police station where the commanding officer, Inspector Max Fiti, feels insulted not only by the fact that he had had no prior notification of this outsider’s assignment to the case he feels perfectly capable of investigating locally, but that the “usual” assistant(s) from police staff at the regional capital has been replaced by someone from faraway Accra. At bit nonplussed by this unfriendliness, Dawson also meets Timothy Sowah, the Director of the NGO Gladys had worked for as a volunteer (in the GHS Aids outreach programme). Sowah informs Darko that it was he who had requested the assignment of a crack detective from Accra and (in answer to Dawson’s question about possible enmity aroused by Gladys’s work) that Togbe Adzima, the shrine priest and polygynous husband of Efia (who had found the body) had hated Gladys because she was fiercely and volubly critical of the trokosi practice.

On being asked whether he agrees that the shrine priest is the prime suspect, Inspector Fiti replies that even though the priest had threatened Gladys with his gods’ vengeance, he “would trust them to destroy Gladys on their own power” and “not kill her himself”. He instead suspects a young local man, because “this boy, Samuel [Boateng] – he was constantly pestering Gladys to be his girlfriend” and according to information supplied by Charles Mensah, the victim’s brother, “some farmers saw him talking to her near the forest the last evening she was alive” (73). Fiti’s crude and prejudiced attitude is evident in his boast that once he has arrested and charged Samuel (who is unemployed and comes from a very poor family) the case will be as good as over. Fiti does mention that some people suspect Gladys’s Aunt Elizabeth (a prosperous businesswoman) since she had formerly been accused of witchcraft when her husband died at a relatively young age, in his sleep.

Typically of his more open-minded and meticulous investigative style, Darko asks to be taken to the site where the corpse was discovered, off a forest path connecting the town of Ketanu with the village of Bedome (where Togbe Adzima lives and has his shrine). After visiting the scene (where there is a pile of rocks said by Fiti to have some “juju” significance) they go to the Boatengs’ place to arrest Samuel. The youth (who is only 18 or 19) is terrified and tries to run away, but is soon apprehended and taken off to jail.

Darko later interviews Charles and Elizabeth, Gladys’s brother and aunt respectively. Elizabeth is a woman who impresses Darko with her confidence and mature beauty. She provides two important pieces of (further) information: that neither Gladys’s diary – in which she was known to write on a daily basis – nor the silver bracelet that never left her arm, has been found. In a somewhat clumsy plot move the narrative point of view moves into Darko’s Aunt Osewa’s mind and depicts the early years of her marriage, when her husband berated her for failing to conceive and took her for consultation to the revered but ancient traditional healer, Boniface Kutu, whose adult son Isaac was apprenticed to him so that he could eventually take over the practice. The elderly Kutu’s diagnosis was that Osewa had been bewitched, most likely by a jealous sister (she had two) who had “stolen” her womb. As a result Akua (the middle sister between Osewa and Darko’s mother Beatrice, the eldest), who had refused to come and be “tested”, was kidnapped and brought to Kutu’s place for a “trial”. Although she was eventually declared innocent, Akua never forgave Osewa or spoke to her again. Despite the sorrow this caused her, Osewa was glad that through the experience she had met Isaac, the Kutu son – now a married man with a number of children – who still lives in their vicinity and practises as a herbalist And Osewa herself conceived not long after the visit and has a deeply adored only child, Alifoe, a strapping, cheerful and vital young man who causes her no anxiety beyond her fear that he may soon be leaving their small farm in Ketanu for the brighter lights of Accra.

Darko is present at the interrogation of the wretched youth Samuel, who steadfastly protests his innocence despite the bullying questions and declarations made by Inspector Fiti. He tells them that he encountered Gladys on the forest path as she was returning to Ketanu from Bedome; that he then accompanied her with her permission, asked her about her work, and was given an Aids pamphlet and some condoms by her before Isaac Kutu came and chased him off for “bothering” Gladys, after which he returned to rejoin some farmers with whom he was working. So there is no admission of guilt, but Fiti remains convinced of the youngster’s guilt. He considers the condoms – found after a search at the Boatengs’ place – sure proof that Samuel had had lustful inclinations towards the murdered Gladys and had killed her for resisting his advances. “He will talk,” Fiti says ominously.

Not too long after this there is another viewpoint shift and the plot creaks a little bit when Efia the trokosi (herself unseen) discovers a couple blasphemously (from her perspective, since the forest is sacred ground) and adulterously (since both are married) coupling on the forest floor: Isaac Kutu and Osewa (Darko’s aunt). Darko, however, is not privy to this information, which a woman as shy as Efia would not divulge, especially not to a stranger.

In another somewhat obviously “plot-driven” move, Togbe Adzima’s eldest trokosi wife, Nunana, discovers a (but obviously the missing) silver bracelet among his secret things – the shrine priest had been one of the first on the scene after the body was found and before the arrival of the police to secure the crime scene.

When Darko interviews Isaac Kutu (the herbalist who had chased off young Samuel for “troubling” Gladys on the evening that she was killed) he suggests that it was a witch who had committed the murder – “Because a witch kills the way Gladys was killed. Without making any mark on the body” (134–5). And he nominates Gladys’s aunt Elizabeth as the likely culprit, on being asked by Darko whom he suspects of the murder.

As their next point of enquiry, Darko and Inspector Fiti go to the village on the other side of the forest:

Bedome was a village indeed. The ground was uneven and reddish in color. The houses were really huts made out of mud brick and covered with thatched roofs. […] A few children were playing with one another, running about and rolling around while goats munched placidly on whatever it was they ate and chickens pecked at invisible nourishment on the ground. […] All the women seemed to be doing something – sweeping or carrying water in large bowls on their heads – but there was a good supply of men sitting languidly around doing nothing in the “life is boring” kind of way, not the “life is good”. (143)

The police officers are here to interview the shrine priest, Togbe Adzima, but this happens to be the day for a ceremony celebrating the induction of yet another trokosi wife for the elderly priest – an adolescent girl, as Darko notices disgustedly.

Dawson gets nothing out of the priest by way of an incriminating admission. The priest freely admits that their relationship had been acrimonious and that he had threatened Gladys with the wrath of the gods, but this proves nothing against him; nevertheless, Darko’s detestation is evident in his comparison of the priest’s voice to “the warty, slimy surface of a toad’s back” (146).

A search of the priest’s hut also reveals nothing interesting; nor does Darko’s talk (necessarily secret, since the priest has forbidden it) with Efia, the trokosi who had discovered Gladys’s corpse. But soon afterwards Dawson discovers the priest beating up Efia for disobeying his orders against communicating with the detective (they had been spotted talking by an informant). Without thinking twice about it, and very unwisely in his professional capacity, Darko rushes to the woman’s defence and beats up and throttles Togbe Adzima, warning him never to harm Efia again. Of course, Inspector Fiti is appalled that this Accra detective has dared to beat up “the High Priest of Bedome” (163), which bodes ill for the outsider’s future. Unsurprisingly, his highly irregular arrest of the herbal doctor to whom his mother-in-law had taken his son, in combination with the assault on the priest, will earn Dawson a suspension (as previously mentioned). Nevertheless, at this stage investigations continue unabated as he has not yet been disciplined. Darko has little faith in Inspector Fiti’s plans because of his blatantly prejudiced conviction that Samuel Boateng murdered Gladys.

The next plot development follows from Darko’s visit to the university residence where Gladys had lodged. There he finds evidence that something had been stolen from her room – he believes it was her diary, which her aunt had mentioned. This trail leads him to Gladys’s NGO “employer”, Timothy Sowah, the director of the organisation. With a slick combination of meticulous investigation and clever questioning Darko establishes that Timothy had assumed a false identity to give him access to Gladys’s room in the residence and that, since the diary is not found at his home, he had hidden it in his office. The diary reveals incontrovertibly that Timothy (a married man with children) and Gladys had been having an affair and that Gladys had begun to chafe at the fact that their relationship was illicit and had wanted him to choose her openly, which he had resisted. She had even threatened Timothy with exposure, and they had agreed to meet on the very night she was murdered, and in that vicinity, to discuss their relationship. Dawson arrests Timothy, but Timothy denies having seen Gladys that night, since his car had broken down on the way and it had been too late to keep the appointment by the time the car had been repaired.

In a shift, the reader is returned to Ketanu town, where young Samuel Boateng is still languishing in jail. “Tell your son to eat,” Inspector Fiti’s more kindly second-in-command urges the young man’s father. “He’s not taking anything and that’s foolish. His bones are beginning to stick out even more than before.” When the boy’s father reaches the cell (under the policeman’s escort) he discovers that the cell in which Samuel lies “facing the wall, with his knees drawn up” stinks unpleasantly since it is so badly ventilated (201). Clearly, the young man is in a dangerously despairing frame of mind, though the visit from his father possibly helps a bit. When his father asks him whether he has revealed everything that happened, Samuel reiterates that he left Gladys after speaking to her, and that he “would never do anything to hurt her” (202). But in an unforeseen development, Osewa Gedze (Darko’s aunt) shows up at the police station to make a statement. In it, she says that after Samuel had left Gladys and after Gladys had spoken briefly to Isaac Kutu, she (Osewa) had seen Samuel come back out of the bush while she was collecting firewood nearby. She describes how Samuel had “tried to hold [Gladys’s] hand and put his arms around her, but she didn’t let him”. Osewa adds, “But after a while he went into the bush with her” (203).

With this all but damning confirmation of his (in any case) set belief that Samuel was the murderer, Fiti is determined to extract a confession from the youth at nearly any cost. Claiming that he is entitled to jail him indefinitely (when Darko has in fact just reminded him that keeping Samuel locked up for more than 48 hours without charging him is illegal), Fiti promises him release after a court hearing because he (Fiti) will supposedly instruct the judge accordingly – he knows that Samuel is too ignorant of the law to contest this false promise. But Samuel steadfastly refuses to sign an admission of guilt – so Fiti leaves the youngster alone with his most brutal police officer to be beaten mercilessly in order to “persuade” him to sign.

Fiti’s next move is to visit the Boatengs and “inform” them that someone saw Samuel going back into the forest with Gladys and that they should as parents persuade him to sign the admission of guilt statement [that he (Fiti) has already written out for him]. When the parents visit Samuel, the father now fully convinced of his son’s guilt, the youth “sank to his knees with his head bowed” (222). The ugly face of police injustice and abuse committed, instigated or countenanced by a big (police) fish in a small (village) pond, we see, happens as readily in Ghana as elsewhere.

When Dawson next goes to check on Samuel he finds that he is again being beaten; and by now very fearful and in such pain he “confesses” to the murder, if only orally – despite Dawson’s having put a stop to the beating by a clever trick that scares off the bullying policeman.

Fiti, however (again presiding), remains unrepentant when Darko threatens to report him and takes cell phone photos of Samuel’s bruised and bloodied back.

Darko then goes to visit his aunt, partly to question her in more detail about her surprising statement implicating Samuel. She shows Dawson the spot where she was gathering wood and refers again to seeing Samuel going into the bush with Gladys. But at this moment Dawson’s sensitivity to voice quality gives him a twinge. Is his aunt lying?

He then goes to speak to Gladys’s family, and in the course of their conversation Mrs Mensah states that the person who should be arrested for her daughter’s murder is Isaac Kutu, since he is the one who started all the rumours about Elizabeth (Gladys’s aunt) being a witch. She describes Samuel as a “harmless, useless boy” (235) who should be released as he is by no means a likely murderer.

The serious consequences (though they turn out to be engineered rather than spontaneous) of Elizabeth’s being accused as the “witch” who supposedly caused Gladys’s death emerge when, in the course of the funeral, she is violently attacked by a group of young thugs. Dawson manages to help chase some of them away and arrests some others, or rather, takes them to the police station to be locked up. But when he goes to Samuel’s cell to check on the youngster, he finds that he has hanged himself.

Darko is filled with a terrible sense of despair and guilt – he might and should have done more to save the youth from being bullied and assaulted to the point of suicide, he feels. This terrible, lonely and sad death as the consequence of misdeeds that one has sensed building up to this point gives a kind of jolt to the narrative; it is also indicates the harm done by embedded prejudices.

Dawson takes the terrible news to the Boatengs. He simply sits with them in silence for a long time after that, “until Samuel’s father asked him if he would tell them the whole story”.

He left them late that night. By then he knew for certain Samuel had not murdered Gladys Mensah. He had been a troubled boy, vulnerable even while trying to make a show of toughness. The time he had stolen a packet of chewing gum at the market, it had been on a dare from his friends. That was when he had been hanging around with the wrong crowd, but that had become history. Samuel had shunned them and had expressed his intention to go back to school. He had had a strong love for animals, particularly dogs, often sacrificing his meals to feed a stray. (259)

Dawson cannot sleep that night. He takes marijuana to help him cope with his painful emotions. At dawn he sees strange smoke puffs arising from the forest.

An important intervening development (an inappropriate term for what happens) is evoked not long after. It occurs at Togbe Adzima’s place, in his hut. Ama, his daughter by his wife Efia, has been sent to take her father his meal. It is a dark, rainy night and as he notices Ama’s blossoming beauty the drunken Adzima gets lustful ideas. He rapes Ama, who rushes out screaming to her mother. The women and other children dare not question this household tyrant’s behaviour; nevertheless, Efia and her secret ally, the eldest trokosi wife Nunana, manage to hide exactly what has happened from the others. Upon gently inspecting the girl’s genitals Nunana finds blood, “but no seed” (291). For the time being, Ama has escaped the worst consequences (not only will there be no pregnancy, but Ama will not be infected by Aids: Darko had warned Efia that Gladys suspected Adzima of carrying the virus).

Efia necessarily resolves that she and Ama need to leave this household forthwith. Efia does not leave, however, before exacting a fitting vengeance on the ghastly village priest. And in the neighbouring town the two women find help (through Darko’s assistance) that takes them away to a safe, secret destination, much further away from Bedome village than Ketanu.

Flummoxed in his investigation, Darko takes his wife’s advice (conveyed previously during a phone conversation) and goes to see his mentor, Daniel Armah, the now private investigator retired from the police service who had tried to solve the mystery of Darko’s mother’s disappearance long before. Armah lives in the historic city of Kumasi, further to the north.

On the road to Kumai, Dawson counted four serious accidents, the crushed carcases of vehicles lying on their sides or overturned completely. He drove with both care and assertion, staying clear of speeding drivers, tro-tros packed with people, and trucks top-heavy with merchandise. He made it to Kumasi in something over three hours. Alongside Kejetia, Ghana’s claim to the largest open-air market in West Africa, traffic crawled, rendering cars prey to kid traders hawking fruits, cold drinks, ice cream, and worthless trinkets. Dawson finally escaped the congestion and got to a quieter part of town, where he managed to find a parking spot between two rusting minivans. (265)

Discussing the case with Armah, Darko tells him: “I need to pin down Adzima and Kutu” (269) – these two are now his prime suspects. The breaking-down of Timothy Sowah’s car on the night of the murder has been proven, giving him an irrefutable alibi. Armah reminds Darko of a rule of thumb he had taught him long ago: that detection was “a matter of making a few of the connections and the rest will fall into place” (269). Armah comforts Darko concerning Samuel’s death; he also endorses Dawson’s decision to carry on with the investigation unofficially, despite his suspension.

In the profiles of texts provided in the African Library entries, fairly detailed information is usually provided concerning authors’ descriptive prowess and the narrative development and outcomes of the works discussed – even in the case of detective novels. Nevertheless, although several authorial hints and prompts to the reader (concerning the perpetrator of the crime being investigated) have in this case been conveyed all along (perhaps already giving away too much!), to provide any further revelations concerning what occurs in the final section of Wife of the Gods would spoil too much for interested readers. Readings of the profiles in the African Library column are in any case not intended to substitute for engagements with the actual texts, but to give prospective readers a sense of the quality and nature of the writing in these texts, and to whet readerly appetites. Suffice to say that the final revelations (concerning Gladys’s murder, but also another crime, equally heinous and strangely connected to it) prove to be satisfyingly interesting, plausible and surprising, plausibly and satisfactorily tying up the seemingly loose threads. Kwei Quartey skilfully combines an ultimately humane vision with sharp, fierce criticism of social ills and a strong awareness of human darkness and vulnerability – while placing his narrative in vividly evoked Ghanaian settings and circumstances.

This fine example of the detective genre is strongly recommended to readers – not only for its clever plot, but also for its richer insights.

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