Friday, March 4, 2016

Offended the gods? Give them your daughter

Kwei Quartey is an American physician whose father was Ghanaian and his mother black American. He was born in Accra and spent his childhood in Ghana. He attended medical
school at Howard University in Washington, DC, currently runs a wound care clinic in Pasadena, CA. He says that he was "your classic nerdy kid reading on a Saturday instead of our playing soccer." And, "Reading as voraciously as I did inspired me to write my own 'novels' when I was around eight to ten years old." He now writes virtually every morning before beginning his day at his clinic.

Wife of the Gods was Quartey's first mystery. It is set in Ghana, not a "Ghana-like African nation," which lends verisimilitude to the setting, actions and attitudes of the characters, and plot. The main character is Darko Dawson, an Accra homicide detective who is happily married. The couple has a young son who was born with a defective heart, a complication that plays a role in the novel.

Another complication is the custom of trokosi. A helpful author's note explains that "even the English translation of the word is debated (wife of the gods, slave of the gods, child of a divinity, and so on)." If a family member does something seriously bad, the gods may begin to punish the family: crops fail, mother has a stroke, cousin drowns. Who knows what's next?

The answer is to deliver a female child to serve at the village shrine where the High Priest, who is an intermediary between the physical and spiritual worlds, will teach her "moral ways." "This would restore good fortune to the family. As a trokosi, though, she officially belonged to the gods and was to bear their children through Togobe Adzima," the village priest, who already had three other trokosi. We're not in Pasadena any more.

A young woman is found dead in the forest. She's an outsider. A medical student from Accra who is working to reduce AIDs in this backwater town. She's already apparently had a fight with the local herbal medical practitioner (he thought she was trying to steal his cures). And she was seen going into the forest with a young man.

Because the death has political ramifications, Dawson is ordered to the town to investigate because  actually has relatives locally and he speaks the local language. (Apparently Ghana has nine government-sponsored languages.) The big city cop showing up in the small town does not sit well with the local police chief, a relationship that does not improve when Dawson establishes that the young woman's death was homicide, not an accident.

I know nothing about Ghanaian society and I had to focus to keep names straight (i.e., Efia, Boateng, Fiti, Chikata, Gyamfi, Kweku, Osewa, Akua, and more). Nevertheless, Wife of the Gods held my interest to the last page as Darko Dawson slowly unravels the mystery while dealing with local superstitions, small town gossip, and his own demons. And while the book is not written as a sociological study of village Ghanaian society, I came away with a fascinating picture of a traditional culture in the midst of change. Cell phones and witch doctors. Intriguing.

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