Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There are certain police procedures that are followed in just about every country (e.g. looking for physical evidence, talking to family members of victims, tracing financial information). But each country and culture is a little different. And, in each country, the police procedure reflects those differences. Let’s take a look at how that plays out today, and turn the spotlight on Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods, the first of his DI Darko Dawson novels.
One day, in the small Ghanaian town of Ketanu, a woman named Effa discovers the body of Gladys Mensah in a nearby wood. As it happens, Gladys’ brother Charles has just reported her missing, so Inspector Fiti of the local police was already aware that there was concern about her. When her body is discovered, the investigation begins.
The victim was a medical student who volunteered with Ghana’s Ministry of Health. So, the Minister of Health takes an interest in the case, and wants Ghana’s best to investigate the murder. That means sending someone from Accra CID to the site, and that someone ends up being DI Darko Dawson. He’s a skilled detective, but it also matters greatly that he speaks Ewe, the language of the Kitanu region of Ghana. So Darko takes leave of his wife, Christine, and son, Hosiah, and makes the trip.
For Dawon, the trip offers the opportunity to re-connect with his Auntie Osewa and Uncle Kweku, and their son, Alifoe, who live in Kitanu. He hasn’t seen them in many years, and he’s looking forward to doing so now. He doesn’t get much of a chance for a relaxing visit.
This particular murder promises to be complicated. For one thing, Gladys alienated the chief and High Priest of the village, Togbe Adzima, who’s seen as an intermediary between the physical world and the spirit world. With him live three trokosi, wives of the gods, who serve at the shrine, and bear the gods’ children through Adzima, so as to bring fortune to their families. Gladys saw this is a form of enslavement, and was trying to find a safe place for the trokosi to go, so they could leave the shrine. More about this custom shortly. For now, suffice it to say that Gladys’ views on this, and on sexual health and AIDS/HIV prevention, did not endear her to Adzima.
But there are other possibilities, too. More than one man was interested in Gladys. If she rejected one of them, and he resented it enough, anything could happen. And then there’s the fact that Gladys was trying to make condoms, AIDS/HIV prevention information, and other important health resources available to people in the village. Some people see that as immoral. And those activities might have angered someone enough to do something about it.
It takes a slow untangling of the various relationships in the area, and Dawson has to learn the histories some people had with Gladys. But in the end, he discovers who killed the victim. And, he uncovers truths about himself.
The novel takes place in modern Ghana (it was published in 2009). So, readers get to see how traditional beliefs and customs mix with modern science and medicine in that country. For instance, many people believe in witchcraft, or at least respect the possibility that it exists. And yet, they also go to clinics for antibiotics. Traditional healers and ancient remedies are used, but people also go to hospitals for operations. This duality is reflected in young Hosiah, who has a heart murmur. His parents are saving money for an operation, but his grandmother wants him to go to a traditional healer. It makes for a real debate, and Quartey presents both views.
Another way we see the mix of old and new is in the custom of the trokosi. Those opposed to it see it as a form of slavery. Those who follow the custom, or at least approve of it, say that the girls go to the shrine to help their families, and that slavery is not involved. Again, both sides of this debate are depicted in the novel. And I can say without spoiling the story that readers who are tired of cowed, helpless females, or the ‘woman as victim’ will appreciate that that doesn’t really happen here. There’s more empowerment than it may seem.
The Ghana setting is depicted clearly in other ways, too. Food, customs, sense of time, daily life, are all very distinctively Ghana. There is a little use of Ewe and a few other local languages as well. At least for me, it was a very straightforward matter to work out what the words mean from context, and there’s a glossary at the end to help. There’s also, by the way, a bit of explanation of a few cultural things that readers might not know.
This is a police procedural, so readers see how the local police are connected to other police, and to Accra. It’s not like cities such as Berlin, London or Melbourne, where there’s a strong police infrastructure. Different places have to cooperate, share resources, and so on. And the evidence has to be sent out to process. Still, the police (with the exception of a few characters – no spoilers) are skilled professionals who want to do their jobs the best they can. There is a bit of resentment at Darko’s presence (‘Why does Accra have to get involved? We can handle our own cases!’), but by and large, he’s accepted.
That is, until he runs afoul of some of the locals. Adzima, for instance, dislikes Darko from the start. And the feeling is mutual. That’s a strike against him right away. And it doesn’t help matters that Darko makes mistakes, as we all so. In fact, a few times he follows the wrong trail, and it gets him into big trouble. So does the fact that he doesn’t always control his temper as well as he should. That said, he’s not the all-too-common ‘maverick with demons who can’t work with anyone and can’t learn.’ And he faces consequences when he goes too far – consequences he understands and accepts, if not exactly likes.
It’s also worth noting here that Darko has a loving relationship with his wife, his son, and his brother Cairo. In that sense, he’s got a stable home life. He’s haunted by the loss of his mother twenty-five years earlier, and by other family-history matters, but he doesn’t wallow in that.
Wife of the Gods is the story of a small town in Ghana on the border between modern science and medicine and Western ways, and traditional life and ancient ways. It addresses several pressing issues, such as AIDS/HIV, and the choices young women have and do not have. And it features a detective who cares deeply about the job he does, and is determined to make things right, if I can put it that way. But what’s your view? Have you read Wife of the Gods? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 1 May/Tuesday, 2 May – Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley
Monday, 8 May/Tuesday, 9 May – Lonesome Point – Ian Vasquez
Monday, 15 May/Tuesday, 16 May – Sisters of Mercy – Caroline Overington