The Asylum as Shrine
Nana Osei Quarshie (University of Michigan)
Paper short abstract:
Petitions sent to colonial authorities in the 1930s & 1940s for the release of patients are understudied sources in the scholarship on psychiatry in Africa. Petitions reveal how people interacted with the Accra Asylum as they did with the "fetish shrines" that dotted the landscape of southern Ghana.
Paper long abstract:
Petitions written to colonial authorities requesting the release of patients from the Accra Asylum in the 1930s and 1940s display the perspectives of kin of suspected and confined lunatics in colonial Ghana. These sources have received little attention in previous anthropologies, histories, or sociologies of mental health in Africa. The petitions demonstrate that people interacted with the Accra Asylum much as they did with "fetish shrines" dotting the landscape of southern Ghana. Dozens of families (of different class and regional backgrounds) hoping to secure the release of their kin from the Asylum employed the same rhetorical strategy: appealing to what African petitioners and European authorities referred to as "native" or "fetish" treatment. In colonial Ghana, "fetishes" were containers for spirits and deities. They came in two forms: objects from the natural world (such as rocks and trees) or human-made ritual objects (usually composed of natural materials like bark, leaves, and hairs). The "fetishes" could be worn on the body—as amulets or "gris-gris." But the most powerful "fetishes" were kept in sacred groves or compounds glossed as "shrines." By reading petitions within the rhetorical frameworks of such Akan fetish invocations, it becomes clear that African subjects incorporated the Asylum into ritual repertoires regulating the movement of people in and out of the shrine spaces dedicated to mental healing and harming.