Blood Money, Big Men and Zombies

Understanding Africa’s Occult Narratives in the Context of Neoliberal Capitalism

by Carmela Garritano

Oxford Street AccraOxford Street in Accra © Carmela Garritano

The movies credited with launching the thriving, local commercial movie industries in Ghana and Nigeria center on men who engage in black magic to get rich quick. In the Ghanaian English-language movie Zinabu (1987), Kofi is a poor auto mechanic who exchanges what he refers to as “his manhood” for wealth. Zinabu, a wealthy and beautiful witch, offers Kofi unlimited riches on the condition that he swears, with his life, to abstain from all sexual relations, with her or any other woman. The almost instantaneously affluent Kofi, driving a new car and dressed to kill, attracts the attention and advances of many women, and eventually he finds the temptations too great. He succumbs to his sexual desire, and because he has “disobeyed” Zinabu’s interdiction, she performs a ritual and causes his death. The Nigerian movie Living in Bondage (1993) focuses on Andy, a man who joins a cult called “the millionaires club” because he cannot afford the flashy cars and trips abroad that his friends enjoy. To gain access to untold riches, Andy must sacrifice the person he “loves most,” his wife Merit. After Andy murders Merit, a devout Christian in life, she refuses to rest, and her ghost haunts Andy, appearing unexpectedly again and again until Andy goes mad. [1]

Didactic and melodramatic, occult movies from Ghana and Nigeria criticize desires that drive men to put the attainment of wealth before human life and to consume selfishly and excessively. Set within the everyday of urban Africa, where people’s lived experiences of scarcity collide with fantasies of affluence and new “imaginaires of consumption” (Mbembe 2002), these movies address anxieties about wealth’s mysterious sources in a global context where affluence seems disconnected from work and production. More than that, movies such as Blood Money (1997), Rituals (1997), Blood Billionaires (2003), Billionaires Club (2005), and Sika Mu Sakawa (2009) articulate strong critiques of neoliberal capitalism. Invoking African repertoires and the conventions of the Hollywood horror film, they expose the human violence, dismemberment, and death rationalized and effaced by the economic idioms of capitalist development.

Across Africa during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the deregulation of state-controlled media environments, a central component of economic liberalization, opened national borders to a multiplicity of global media flows, making available, at an unprecedented rate, an extraordinary array of media content. Concurrently, the emergence of new media transmission and distribution technologies, including the VHS standard, direct broadcast satellite, and cable television, significantly broadened citizens’ access (Dal Yong Jin 2007; Teer-Tomaselli, Wasserman, de Beer 2007). According to a 1999 UNESCO report, the number of television sets per one thousand inhabitants increased by thirteen percent in Africa between 1970 and 1997, and in recent years, an influx of inexpensive and portable media technologies, including VCD and DVD players, from China, Japan, and Singapore has further expanded and accelerated the spread of global media (Ugor 2009; Garritano forthcoming). In Ghana and Nigeria, it was from within the local networks erected to facilitate the circulation and viewing of this new media that the local production of feature-length movies on videotape emerged (Larkin 2008; Garritano 2007). With access to easy-to-use video technology, individuals detached from networks of state-sponsored and official cultural production, first pirated and distributed imported films and television programming, and, later, produced their own features. In Ghana, for example, the first video-movie makers had no professional training in film or video production. They were individuals connected to commercial film and video distribution and who had access to video equipment and possessed some knowledge of how it worked. Socrate Safo, a pioneer of Ghana’s movie industry, worked at a video center in Accra that charged a nominal fee for patrons to watch bootlegged copies of foreign TV programs and sporting events, which were played on a VCR connected to a small television, and he learned about videotaping when the owner of the center, Samuel Ankra, hired a video camera operator to record his child’s naming ceremony, which Safo attended. Shortly after, when he was only nineteen years old, Safo rented a home VHS camera to make his first movie, Unconditional Love (1989), and since then he has produced hundreds of local movies.

From these grassroots and amateur beginnings, two independent, prolific, and vast commercial movies industries have developed in West Africa.[2]The massive Nigerian movie industry has become, by some accounts, the third largest commercial movie industry in the world, releasing as many as 1500 movies each year (Barrot 2008). Commercial movie production in Nigeria includes Nollywood, the name used widely to refer to the English-language industry in southern Nigeria, a large number of movies made in Yoruba, and in northern Nigeria, a Hausa-language industry, which, for the most part, operates independent of southern circuits of production and distribution.[3The smaller Ghanaian movie industry, spread between two urban centers, Accra and Kumasi, and intertwined at various points with Nollywood, released approximately two hundred movies in 2010. English-language movies dominated the Ghanaian market until about 2006, when movies made in Akan, a Ghanaian language spoken widely across the country, became incredibly popular. In recent years, Ghana-Nigeria co-productions and a significant number of movies made transnationally have blurred boundaries between the industries, particularly in the case of English-language movies, which easily slip across national borders in the Anglophone West Africa region. In the twenty-first century, the occult genre is among a wide variety of locally–made African movies consumed by Africans, locally and transnationally. These include domestic dramas, crime thrillers, epic dramas, comedies, and a multiplicity of hybrid movies that creatively combine genres and styles.

Sika Mu Sakawa  Screenshot Sika Mu Sakawa  

Karin Barber (1987) noted long ago that African popular culture enthusiastically embraces foreign influences as sources of newness and singularity, and so it is not surprising that African popular movies display an inexhaustible capacity to recontextualize and localize forms and styles associated with global mass culture, including the Hollywood horror film, as Tobias Wendl (2007) has shown. Here, I want to build on Wendl’s survey of several types of African occult movies to concentrate particular attention on urban occult movies. These movies typically center on men who participate in blood-money rituals, known in Akan as sika aduro, to access wealth. Characters in these movies kill family members and strangers, or in some instances obtain blood or body parts, in exchange for affluence. Like many other local African discourses about witchcraft and prosperity, they explain and denounce wealth immorally obtained and selfishly accrued, and though they draw from older African archives, occult narratives should not been read as remnants of “traditional” or “primitive” beliefs, but as a dynamic, modern discourse that reflects and attempts to make sense of contemporary capitalist forces.[4What makes these movies particularly compelling, from my point-of-view, is their articulation of resistance to Africa’s “initiation into capitalism,” (Medley and Carroll 2011:283), a phrase I’ve taken from Joseph Medley and Lorrayne Carroll’s reading of Lawrence Chua’s “Gold by Inch,” a novel that brings into visibility the human suffering and bodily violence concealed by dominant narratives of global capitalism and development. According to these critics, Chua’s novel excavates the exploitation and dehumanization of laboring Thai and Malay bodies subjected to the disciplinary regimes of capitalism, and in so doing, represents “a challenging counter-imagery to the IMF rhetoric that unreservedly praises capital’s effects” (2011:284). Occult movies from Ghana and Nigeria, countries that also have been subjected to IMF and World Bank structural adjustment regimes, emerge from and address conditions of global marginalization and chronic scarcity, “where desired goods are known, that may sometimes be seen, that one wants to enjoy, but to which one will never have material access” (Mbembe 2002:271). They at once probe the sinister, secret sources of capital and express deep discontent with the unjust allocation of wealth under neoliberal capitalism. As argued by Brigit Meyer (1998), the movies give voice to a moral critique of power. Occult economies and melodrama align to distill complex material, economic processes onto linear narratives about personal, moral surrender to the enchantments of wealth. In ways similar to many Hollywood horror films, African occult movies adopt the perspective of the outsider who gradually becomes aware of and so must confront evil. The movies’ conflicts involve death and violence brought about by the protagonist’s immoral accumulation, and plots resolve in strong assertions of moral instruction. Protagonists typically die painful and gruesome deaths or are redeemed by prayer, though sometimes the state intervenes to arrest the murdering ritualists.

At least in part, the appeal of these local movies grows from their topicality and immediacy. Producers pick up on and address the most current scandal or gossip and quickly release a movie about it; sometimes movies are completed in only two weeks. Poaching stories from other sites of public culture the producers deploy what Angela Ndalianis has described in Hollywood films as “a logic of seriality” that emphasizes “the marketable aspects of stories rather than their ‘originality’” (2004:59). Much as other serial forms of screen media, occult movies participate in an elaborate narrative web that reaches beyond the text of the single movie to include previous occult movies, current news stories, and the rampant and sensational rumors about blood money rituals and other sinister dealings in the occult that circulate through Accra and Lagos. In Nigeria in 1996, the brutal murder of an eleven year old boy, Ikechukwu Okoronkwo at the Otokoto Hotel in Owerri, which was rumored to be an occult killing, animated several movies, including Blood Money and Rituals.[5The Ghanaian movie Nkrabea (1992) claims to tell the true story of the widely reported murder of a young boy called Kofi Kyinto, who was alleged to have been beheaded in a ritual murder. Accra Killings (2000) offers a fictionalized account of the thirty-one serial murders of women in Ghana, again rumored to have been carried out by occultists. Coincident with a surge of news reports, radio programs, and locally produced novels on sakawa, a type of internet fraud associated with witchcraft and magic, several very profitable movies on the same topic have appeared recently in Ghana.[6]

Urban occult movie speak out against the erosion of humanity and social relations brought about by wealth, reinventing tropes common to older African discourses about witchcraft and other forms of immoral accumulation. In his book Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (2006), anthropologist James Ferguson succinctly summaries this African vocabulary, describing two types of wealth and the metaphors used to describe them. Wealth is either "the kind that feeds the people” or “the kind that eats them” (2006:73). In other words, it contributes to the growth and health of a community or it brings about its demise. In urban occult movies, wealth is always destructive and dangerous, and once ensnared in its net, protagonists cannot break free. In Billionaires Club, Zed owns a small, poorly stocked kiosk, where he sells pills and other medical supplies. Newly married to Victoria and with a baby to care for, Zed takes a loan from his wife to expand his pharmacy business. When his business falters, he must ask his wealthy friend Don for help. Don invites him to join his “brotherhood,” warning him that he must “be brave.” Zed accepts Don’s invitation even though his wife warns him to be careful. The leader of the brotherhood, Damien Billion, or D.B., tells Zed that for his initiation, he must bring his new baby to the shrine. Realizing that he is being asked to kill his child, Zed is horrified and refuses. But when he returns home and finds the baby ill, he tells his wife that they must take the baby to the hospital. Instead, Zed brings his baby to the shrine, where, in a gruesome ritual, it is placed in a deep bowl and pounded, like yam, with a large pestle. When his wife demands to know what has happened to her baby, she, too, is killed.

As in many movies where men kill for wealth, in Blood Billionaires the ghosts of the dead return to torment their killer. Zed hears his baby crying and sees his wife when no one else does. His young and beautiful second wife, new mansion, many cars, and flashy wardrobe cannot quiet the ghosts of the murdered. Desperate, Zed seeks the council of his “brothers,” who laugh at his distress and remind him that they all must pay their “dues” for their luxurious lifestyles. D.B. removes the small hat he always to wears to reveal an open sore covered in maggots. Don says continues to be haunted by his apprentice, whom he killed many years ago. They tell Zed that if he is prepared to sacrifice a part of his body, the spirit of his dead wife will never bother him again. Reluctantly, Zed says he will give up his arm. That evening, black blotches appear on Zed’s arm, and in a few days, his arm is festering and bleeding. Soon, his entire body is covered in open wounds. His second wife takes him to his parents’ house in the village, where his mother prays for his dead wife to forgive her son and end his suffering, and finally, he dies.

Sakawa movies, unlike Blood Billionaires and several of the other occult movies discussed here, do not focus on middle-aged business men, but describe and criticize the dire material circumstances that push young, unemployed men into crime or immoral acts.[7Each movie devotes significant time to narrating the extreme economic hardships that drive young men to sakawa. These are boys who, in most movies, do not have fathers and who cannot look to the state for assistance. Frustrated by their inability to take care of themselves and to fulfill their obligations to their loved-ones, the boys reluctantly seek the aid of the occult. To become rich, each boy is required to survive an initial arduous ordeal and then to obey, without question or hesitation, the series of interdictions placed before them. These tasks are referred to as the “work” the young men do and require them to engage in extreme, anti-social acts that violate basic tenets of family and community. Indeed, their pursuit of wealth, even though their initial motives are justifiable, unravels all social ties in these movies. Sammy and Kobi, from Café BoysSika mu SakawaAgya Koo SakawaThe Dons in Sakawa,

Screenshot Sika Mu Sakawa

Screenshot Sika Mu Sakawa  

The movies appropriate the lexicon of the market to describe the immoral and exploitative acts that guarantee wealth. In Blood Billionaires, for example, cult members refer to their cult as “an investment conglomerate.” Body parts are bargained for and purchased as if they were market shares. One ritualist tells another of human heads offered for sacrifice, “…the prettier the faces, the better economy they will yield.” In Sakawa Boys, under the guise of assisting his old school friends, a wealthy occult member, someone known and trusted, denies his friends’ requests for money but offers to teach them his “line of work.” D.B., the head of the brotherhood in Billionaires Club, reminds Zed that “nothing good comes without sacrifice,” parodying cliché’s that celebrate the relentless pursuit of success and prosperity and neoliberal individualizing ideologies that champion strong will. In Blood Money, the cult leader, referred to as “Lord Spiritual” by his subordinate ritualists, tells the newest member Mike that their cult, called The Vultures, operates like a bank. “They take a little risk and make plenty of money.” Mike can join the cult only after “passing through” the body of a vulture for three days. Misty Bastian (2001) and John McCall (2002) have discussed the symbolic significance of the vulture in Nigerian popular culture, a figuration of “predatory capitalism” (McCall 2002, 91) that feeds off refuse, “the malodorous monuments to capitalist surplus” (McCall 2002:91).

In scenes of haunting violence, occult movies lay bare the rapacious and destructive desires of “Big Men,” the powerful and wealthy patriarchs who cannibalize vulnerable women and children to maintain their status. Through the figure of the zombie, the movies, again and again, reveal the connection between the ostentatious wealth of those in power and the exploitation and death of the poor and powerless. Human bodies, shorn of their human-ness, are needed to vomit or give birth to wealth. In many occult movies, the initiate must sacrifice a family member, who is transformed into a money zombie and lodged in a private shrine in the man’s home. In Sika Mu Sakawa, Ampong kills his sister and Frank his pregnant wife. The man covers the woman with a white cloth, which, in the shrine, morphs into a snake and then back into the shape of the woman, but now she is more zombie than human. She appears with sores and cuts on her arms and legs, and she does not speak or resist. On her hands and knees, she emits animal-groans and vomits money, or pushes money from her vagina as if she were giving birth to it. Her body, neither alive nor dead, has been transformed into a money-producing apparatus. In this grotesque allegory of capitalism, the movie enacts the extraction of wealth from human life.

Screenshot Sika Mu Sakawa

Screenshot Sika Mu Sakawa  

In the Nollywood movie Blood Money, Mike abducts a small boy by handing him a packet of magic power, which turns him into a fowl. Mike places the small bird in a bag and carries it to the shrine for sacrifice. Inside the shrine, the fowl is transformed back into a child, and when one of the other cult members recognizes the child as his very own son, he begs the priest to spare him. Here the movie emphasizes the boy’s human-ness, that he is unique, has a family, and is loved. But the priest says it is too late and instructs Mike to take the child home and lock him in his personal shrine, “a room into which no one else should enter.” The boy no longer speaks or moves, but exists as bare life and only to create money, which pools all around his small body. But one body is never enough, and the men must find other sacrifices to stave off poverty. Cultists prowl the city for disposable bodies, typically poor women who work as house cleaners, road-side merchants, or prostitutes, and they use their bodies in the rituals that produce their wealth. In Sika mu Sakawa, the camera watches Ampong sleep with these women, and after sex, wipe some part of their bodies with a white cloth. He then takes the cloth to his shrine, where he performs a ritual, chanting and rocking menacingly. The women become sick, their bodies slowly eaten by cankerous ulcers. One after another, he leaves the suffering women to die alone.

The shrine is a space of exchange and transformation, where human beings become vultures or zombies, or through their murder and sacrifice are exchanged for wealth. The shrine stands in for what Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff call “the experiential contradiction at the core of neoliberal capitalism” (2002:782). It functions as a metaphor for the mysteries that surround wealth. “The fact that [capitalism] appears to offer up vast, almost instantaneous riches to those who control its technologies, and simultaneously, to threaten the very livelihood of those who do not” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2002:782). It is a space of initiation, where an ordinary person is transformed into a cult member and given access to the mysteries of capitalism (wealth without work or production.) Birgit Meyer has described the camera’s look into this secret space as a divine vision that sees into what is usually hidden, “offering first hand views deep into hell” (2004:104). Producers exploit special effects to enhance the representation of the magical and mysterious. Viewers see men turn into vultures and ghostly figures appear from nowhere.

The movies recycle iconographies of evil common to many horror films and incorporate narrative conventions common to the demonic variant of the genre. Shrines are draped in black and red, and rituals involving blood, eerie chanting, and violence take place in remote, secret locations. Musical cues heighten suspense and terror, and shock cuts provoke bodily jolts in spectators. Most notably, occult movies place before the spectator images of violence and abjection, which are at once fascinating and repulsive. The bodies of victims are cut open and cut into pieces. Bloody body parts are pulled from bags, heads are severed from bodies, babies cut from wombs, and human blood poured into bowls. Victims develop open and oozing sores and writhe in pain. These images, as Barbara Creed explains, address “a desire not only for perverse pleasure (confronting sickening, horrific images, being filled with terror/desire for the undifferentiated) but also a desire, having taken pleasure in perversity, to throw up, throw out, eject the abject (from the safety of the spectator’s seat)” (1996:40). The films stage an encounter with the horrors that threaten the symbolic order, casting them out to affirm the stability of the symbolic.

Creed’s well-known psychoanalytical analysis of horror, which borrows from Julia Kristeva’s writing on the abject, understands the genre as a manifestation of psychic processes, and as such, it eclipses history and culture, collapsing specificity and materiality into the psychological. Blood money movies from Ghana and Nigeria resist such a reading. They address viewers as social subjects, and violence, rather than functioning as a projection of individual psychology, works as a public demonstration of power acting on bodies. Images of pain and suffering inflicted on victims and villains project fantasies of privately administered and controlled violence. Unattached from character point-of-view, the camera displays scenes of abjection, pulling the spectator into this theatre of pain. Spectacles of violence in occult movies work like the scenes of violence Mbembe (2001) describes as features of the African postcolony. Citing Foucault’s analysis of the torture of Damiens, Mbembe analyzes a small, intimate public punishment carried out against a misbehaving teacher in front of a church congregation. Mbembe calls this display of punishment “a social transaction” (115) that incorporates actors and observers as it “opens up a space for enjoyment at the very moment it makes room for death” (115). When occult movies end with the torture and death of the greedy capitalist, the point is that he gets what he deserves, and the audiences’ own desires for wealth or their own envy of the rich are contained by this public, moral resolution.

African occult movies investigate what Wendy Brown has referred to in another context as “the mystified nature of the production of value” (2010:102) under capitalism. In a provocative reading of Marx, Brown suggests that, for Marx, capitalism profanes the world “insofar as it destroys ineffable goods and quantities such as love, intelligence, beauty, bravery, and honesty by making them purchasable” (99). African occult movies act out this horrific transformation of human life into surplus value. They call attention to the human costs of prosperity, which is never achieved without the exploitation of another.

Screenshot Sika Mu Sakawa

Screenshot Sika Mu Sakawa  

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Accra Killings. 2000. Directed by George Arcton-Tetty. Ghana: In English. VHS.

Billionaires Club, two parts. 2003. Directed by Afam Okereke. Nigeria: Great Movies, Inc. In English. VCD.

Blood Billionaires, two parts. 2005. Directed by Mac Collins Chidebe. Nigeria: Chez International Production. In English VCD.

Blood Money. 1997. Directed by Chico Ejiro. Nigeria: Ojiofor Ezeanyaeche Production. In English.

Blood Money Part II. 1997. Directed by Abasseno Uko. Nigeria: Ojiofor Ezeanyaeche Production. In English.

Café Guys, two parts. 2002. Directed by Uriel Adjin-Tetty. Ghana: Creative Mindz Production. In Akan. VCD.

Dons in Sakawa. 2009. Directed by Moses Ebere. Ghana: Venus Film. In English. VCD.

Living in Bondage, two parts. Directed by Kenneth Nnebue. Nigeria: NEK Video Links. In Igbo with English subtitles. VCD.

Nkrabea. 1992. Directed by C.B. Baffoe Bommie. Ghana: Amahilbee Productions. In English. VHS.

Rituals. 1997. Directed by Kenneth Nnebue. Nigeria: NEK Video Links. In English. VCD.

Sakawa, two parts. 2010. Directed by Richmond Aframe. Big Joe Production. Ghana: In Akan. VCD.

Sakawa 419. 2009 Directed by Jones Agyemang. Miracle Films. In Akan and English. Ghana. VCD.

Sakawa Boys, four parts. 2009. Directed by Socrate Safo. Movie Africa Productions. Ghana. VCD

Sakawa Girls, two parts. 2009. Directed by Kafui Dzivenu. Ghana: Blema Production. VCD.

Sika Mu Sakawa. 2009. Directed by Evans Kumi Wademor. Ghana: Miracle Films. In English and Akan. DVD.

Time. 2000. Directed by Ifeanyi Onyeabor. Ghana: Miracle Films. In English. VHS.

Zinabu. 1999. (remake of 1987 original) Directed by William Akuffo. Accra, Ghana: World Wide Pictures. In English. VHS.

 

Quotation:

Garritano, Carmela (2012) Blood Money, Big Men and Zombies: Understanding Africas Occult Narratives in the Context of Neoliberal Capitalism, in: manycinemas, issue 3, 50-65.

online: http://manycinemas.org/Carmela_Garritano.html, [Accessed: 19/11/2017].

 

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Notes

1 The movie ends when a born-again woman, a former prostitute who remembered Andy, sees him eating garbage on the street and takes him to her church, where his soul and sanity are saved by a group of Christian prayer warriors.

2 Based on the West African model, commercial movies industries have appeared in Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, and Tanzania.

3 The study of Nollywood now supports a large body of scholarship. Important work has been done by Moradewun Adejunmobi (2002, 2007, 2010); Akin Adesokan (2004); Jonathan Haynes (1995, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2010); Brain Larkin (2008); and Onookome Okome (2000, 2007a, 2007b). Birgit Meyer (1998, 2004) has published significant research on Ghanaian videos.

4 The scholarship on witchcraft, the occult, and other modern magics in Africa is vast. Examples that I have found illuminating include Bastian (1993, 2001); Bayart (2009); Comaroff and Comaroff (2002); Geschiere (1997); Smith (2007); and Parish (1999, 2000).

5 See Daniel Jordan Smith (2007) for an analysis of the Owerri incident. I also want to thank Jon Haynes for calling my attention to the Nollywood movies linked to this incident.

6 The word sakawa derives from Hausa and translates into English as “to penetrate,” or “to get into.” It generally refers to a type of magic or juju used by internet scammers to penetrate the Internet through the computer and enable the success of their fraud schemes. Movies on sakawa include Café Guys (2002), the five part Sakawa Boys(2009), Sakawa Girls (2009), and Agya Koo Sakawa, I and II (2009). Venus Film produced The Dons in Sakawa, parts 1-4 (2009), and Big Joe Production’s made Sakawa (2010). Other Ghanaian titles include: Sika Mu Sakawa (2009) and Sakawa 419 (2009).

7 I have written in greater detail about sakawa movies from Ghana in my forthcoming book.