The Ju-Ju Magic of the Miners of Afosu

By Benjamin Zawalich

I took a trip out to the Eastern Region of Ghana in 2006 and again in 2009 to paint scenes from a small scale illegal gold and diamond mining complex in a town called New Abriem. These mines are formed by tracing the smaller mineral veins that run off of larger deposits, which are being extracted by foreign commercial mines. It’s also where 19th century mining methods combine with ancient West African black magic religions to create an atmosphere and a landscape both visually and psychologically interesting.

The miners that work in these conditions are called Galamsey. They work in either a landscape of snakelike trails that trace the gold veins through miles and miles of rainforest hills dotted with bottomless pits that serve as entrances to underground tunnel networks, or dense palm plantations that barely let sunlight in and look like moonscape expanses with mountains of yellow and silver earth. Between these bluffs are craters, which are flooded, drained, and sifted through for diamonds.

With the exception of a few steam shovels used to make the initial ground breaking and a jackhammer here and there, most of the mining is done the old-fashioned way with picks and shovels. There’s a constant risk of the tunnels collapses and underground fires. With no way of telling what one’s pick axe is going to strike next, there is also an ever-present fear of hitting water and flooding the whole mine.

The Galamsey live in a superstitious world. Ghana’s Eastern Region is known as one of the birthplaces of Ju-Ju black magic. It’s the kind of place where stories of exorcisms and haunted pottery make the front page of the local paper. Everyone has seen ghosts. For the most part, all this black magic is waved off to the realm of teenage girls cursing one another and the occasional incident of a jealous aunt paying a Ju-Ju Man to bring a rival to psychological ruin in a hail of demonic night visitations, but still it has a way of creeping into everything, including the mines.

When I asked the Galamsey about it they’d tell me they believe in only “God and themselves,” but after hearing that enough times I realized it wasn’t me they were trying to convince. There is something older there that hangs over them like an invisible fog and if crossed or conjured up has the ability to crawl into the mine with them. Whatever this crawling thing may be, it’s just as likely to leave them down there as it is to pull them out. Hopefully it crawled into these paintings.

Ben completed this series of paintings after two trips that took place between 2006 and 2009 to the village of Afosu in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Ben is a graduate of the Boston University's MFA Painting Program and BFA Printmaking Program. He is based out of Boston, but he will be moving to London in September to earn his master printmaking certification. 

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