By Marleen de Witte
In the streets and homes of Accra, the impact of the global financial crisis appears slow. Analysts say this is due to the weak integration of the largely informal local economy with the global financial market. But this is not to say that people do not experience financial crisis.
They do. Many face a crisis of survival on a daily basis. People complain about the high cost of living, the escalating prices of food, fuel, and school fees. Without proper jobs or with salaries that are insufficient to pay for all living cost, many people struggle to get through the day. One real effect of the global crisis on ordinary Ghanaians’ lives is that remittances from relatives working abroad, who keep many families back home afloat, are coming down. But even so, there is nothing so new or extraordinary about this situation. This is not a ‘crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime,’ like Obama said about the crisis in America. As one Ghanaian web commentator put it: “As far as 80% of Ghanaians are concerned, there has been a credit crunch all their lives.”
The term “credit” traces its etymological roots to the Latin word credere, to trust, to entrust, or to believe. The credit crisis is also literally a crisis of trust, of belief. We have tended to trust the financial system of the neoliberalist economic order to the extent of taking it for granted as a self-regulating process. Now, with the collapse of banks like houses of cards, this taken-for-grantedness, this unquestioned belief in the value of money, has suddenly broken. In Ghana money has never been taken for granted, but instead is often highly mistrusted. People’s strong desire for wealth goes together with a deep-seated suspicion about the sources of wealth, especially if acquired suddenly and shown conspicuously. This suspicion of money finds many expressions, one of which is the urban legend of Sakawa that held the Ghanaian public in its grip when I was there last summer.
So-called ‘Sakawa Boys’ are a frequent appearance in the streets of Accra. Driving brand new luxurious cars that are far too expensive for their young age and donning flashy clothing styles that are obviously inspired by the American rap scene and its blingbling jewellery, they raise many a suspicious eyebrow. At night you see them hanging about in Internet cafes. How could such young boys lead such expensive lifestyles, especially without being engaged in any well-earning job, many people wonder.
The answer can be found in a wide range of media. Calendar-posters, tabloids, radio, television, video movies, and video documentaries expose in word, sound and image what happens in the darkness of the night and in the hidden shrines of juju men and mallams. These popular media sell like wildfire and Sakawa ‘news’ reporting has become a lucrative venture that blurs the boundaries between news and fiction.
Sakawa is a new term used to denote Internet fraud (also known as ‘419’) by young boys, mainly directed at white people overseas, and made successful with ‘occult’ rituals performed by indigenous shrine priests (popularly known as juju men) or Islamic mallams. These rituals range from sleeping in a coffin for several nights if not weeks, walking naked in a cemetery at night, or bringing hard-to-get-by offerings, such as menstrual blood or even human parts. The boys then receive a magical belt, which is in fact a snake, or a magical ring. Tapping the computer keyboard with the finger that wears such a ring sends the spiritual power right through the Internet connection to the email receiver overseas. The victim will then not be resistant to requests for sending large sums of money. Cash starts flowing, but not for long…
The video jacket of the video movie Sakawa Boys reads:
“In a quest to fulfil each other’s money problems, one old friend introduces them to a simple way to make quick cash. But forgetting the consequences behind this better shortcut, they live a very rich and prosperous life, until everything starts getting worse … “
Numerous cases have been reported in the media of Sakawa boys having turned deaf and dumb, gone mad, or, more dramatic, turned into snakes, dogs, vultures, or other creatures. Calendar-posters show their pictures, the eyes or other facial features of the boys photoshopped into the animals’ heads. “Don’t you see it’s really him”, people commented. Sakawa stories can easily be read as a critique on quick money. They express and also feed the suspicion that sudden and conspicuous wealth can be immoral, because it is acquired at the expense of others and also because it is used for individual pleasure instead of being socially distributed.
The stories confirm that such immoral wealth is ultimately unsustainable. In one scene in the film Sakawa Boys, one of the guys who has become rich through Sakawa ritual, opens the boot of his car to take out some money, only to find out that all the dollar bills he had packed in it have suddenly turned into blank, worthless paper. Baffled, he stares at the papers in his hands, unable to believe that what he had taken for granted as real money, and (relatively) hard currency too, turns out to be nothing at all. A bafflement that we have all seen on the faces of American bankers, stockbrokers, and other finance professionals. And that some of us have felt ourselves when we realized that our savings in Iceland or Wognum had suddenly evaporated.
Although there is no direct link between Sakawa and the global financial crisis and stories about ‘money magic’ date back much further, the parallels between the events in America, and elsewhere, and the current Sakawa hype in Ghana are not far-fetched. The central lesson of the credit crisis – that money, in whatever form, may not be what we believe it to be – has long been thematized in Ghanaian popular culture. Sakawa stories comment on the immorality and unsustainability of quick money, created by obscure or mysterious means – was it not the financial sector’s creation of virtual money that started the bubble that eventually burst? The stories also question the widespread dream of owning a big house and a hummer – also the middle-class American dream that lay at the basis of the current global crisis – and the evil that this dream can lead to.
Marleen de Witte is a postdoctoral researcher working at the department of social and cultural anthropology at the VU. She works on the NWO funded programme ‘ Heritage Dynamics’.