A Quest to Find Monkey Heads

The past week has been crazy to say the least. When they tell you Peace Corps is a roller coaster, they definitely don’t lie. I’m sure I’ll write a book after Peace Corps, the past month itself is enough for a nice novel. Starting today all Ghana PCVs are restricted to our sites (well, except for me, but I’ve been moved to an office, while a new site is found for me). Friday, Ghana is having an election. No one is expecting any violence, but things will get contentious. So, in order to prepare for 5 days of sitting pretty, we went into town to buy food – amongst other things.

There is a show on Discovery Channel entitled Jungle Gold. It follows two really dumb real estate agents who got hit hard by the recession. They still live in giant houses and there wives don’t seem to work. They are deep in debt and somehow they believe coming to pan for gold in Ghana will solve all their debt problems. Because you know, buying expensive equipment and forking over lots of capital so you can dig around in the dirt in Ghana is a GREAT IDEA. I highly encourage everyone who is in debt to spend 2000 dollars on a plane ticket to pilfer Ghana’s land. You are all invited. Anyway, the show goes to Kumasi so the guys can buy parts. They stop by Central Market for some really great footage of one of the craziest markets in Ghana, probably West Africa. They find the juju section and for about 5 seconds show animal pelts and dead monkey heads. Dead monkey heads?! You can buy those?! Alright, my interest is peaked. If these buffoons can find monkey heads in Central Market – so can I. It is one of those things that once you say it aloud – ‘”let’s find monkey heads in the market” the thought grows and grows inside you, until you are determined to find the ridiculous, just to prove it to yourself. It becomes a quest. Jason searching for the Golden Fleece. Me searching for market monkey heads.

So we start our day going to buy veggies and meat. Food for the next 5 days. Sweet potatoes, which are incredibly hard to find and only available for a few weeks out of the year, are in season right now. So I buy a truckload of sweet potatoes. I’m going to make mashed sweet potatoes with fresh parsley and laughing cow. I’ll probably make baked sweet potatoes and sweet potato fries. After buying all of our veggies, we head to Opoku market – the white people grocery store in Kumasi. I got supplies for Mac and Cheese. It is going to be a good next few days. After a hearty and amazingly delicious vegetarian banku and groundnut soup (with kontomire and cabbage) meal, we headed to the cultural center.

The cultural center in Kumasi highlights the Ashanti traditional crafts – woodwork, beads, wax mold brass, pottery, and kente. It was fun looking around and seeing the unique items that Ghanaians have perfected over the centuries. The items are truly beautiful and inspiring. While perusing one shop, I got a call from my boss. It was the news I wanted to hear! They found me a new site and it was the one I was hoping for. I’m moving to an even bigger city and I will have access to Ghanaian “cake,” my bank in my own town, the best meat pies in Ghana, and meaningful, focused work. I’m excited. The good news helped me to enjoy the rest of my day even more.

We continued walking around the cultural center and we found the brass section. I found an amazing scorpion ring that is pretty big. I’m a Scorpio, so I identified with the little guy, he is pretty cute. So, history/cultural lesson. Back in the day, gold dust used to be a currency in Ghana. We are the Gold Coast, and as discussed above, we are sitting on a huge reserve of gold. And here is some info from a website:

Akan goldweights were used as a measuring system by the Akan people of West Africa, particularly for weighing gold dust which was currency until replaced by paper money and coins. They are referred to locally as mrammou and the weights are made of brass and not gold. Used to weigh gold and merchandise, at first glance the goldweights look like miniature models of everyday objects. Based on the Islamic ounce, each weight had a known measurement. This provided merchants with secure and fair-trade arrangements with one another. The status of a man increased significantly if he owned a complete set of weights. Complete small sets of weights were gifts to newly wedded men. This insured that he would be able to enter the merchant trade respectably and successfully. Beyond their practical application, the weights are miniature representations of West African culture items such as Adinkra symbols, plants, animals and people.

So, the scorpion resembles the gold weights and naturally it has a meaning too. The scorpion bites with its tail not its mouth, meaning enemies work in secret, and the thing which seems most threatening may not be the most dangerous after all. I think that’s a good thing to have sitting on my finger. I consider it protection from the last month.

After the cultural center we slowly made our way to Central Market. Which meant getting on a super slow tro going through the parking lot that is Kumasi just to go about a mile. Laziness always wins out though and we had already been walking all day. On this barely moving tro, we tried to steal another driver’s sunglasses, talked with street vendors about eating fufu, and came up with quick witted responses to the mates ridiculous questions. Highly entertaining.

After we got to Kejetia it was time for the dreaded walk into Central Market. Getting into central market is the hardest part. The entrance to the market is an incredibly crowded street and it is kinda like merging into 100mph traffic. You have to keep moving but you have to time it right to get into the other foot traffic flow going into the market. It is a pretty epic battle and quite crazy. Once you get in, you have to get off the main drag immediately because it is just as bad traffic wise. But once you are off the main path, it is quieter and the sun isn’t as bright. In fact, it becomes entertaining instead of incredibly stressful. The amount of people in central market at any given time is probably close to over 100,000. It is truly amazing.

We looked at the fabric section and then slowly made our way deeper and deeper into the market. The farther back you get the smellier it becomes. The dried fish section is a special treat for your nose. Imagine dead fish smoked and dried for hours lingering in the hot sun for hours, days even. You walk past stall after stall of fish in all sorts of awkward poses. The smell stays with you for well past your trip to the market. I can still smell the Accra fish market from over a year ago.

While delving deep into the market we came across pure shea butter. L’Occtaine sells 100% pure shea butter in 5oz tins for $40 on sephora. I bought a softball size ball for 1cd ($0.50). Something tells me that’s a good deal. Must be those math classes I had to take in school. You can use less than grain of salt size amount and it goes an incredibly long way. You can use it as lip balm, moisturizer, anti-aging skin cream, aloe vera substitute, and leave-in conditioner. Shea butter can also be added to food, such as chocolate instead of cocoa butter. It is much cheaper than cocoa butter actually. Shea fruit is grown in the north of Ghana and there are PCVs helping to develop shea in their communities. Anyway, so I got some of the best moisturizer on the planet for about the price of a can of Coke.

Onward we went into the market. Finally when we thought we had gone too far, we reach a place that starts having some juju items. We are on the right track! Literally, we were walking along old railroad tracks. Most people here are from the north and they didn’t understand a single word we said. On one table we found old coins from British times back when Ghana was the Gold Coast. On another table were dead chameleons. We walked further back into the market and found a stall selling animal pelts. When we took a closer look we discovered we had in fact found the jackpot. Hyena pelt, lion pelts, an entire leopard pelt, dead birds, a monkey skull, lion claws, elephant skin, and plenty of crocodile skins rolled up. It was pretty eerie and creepy. No monkey heads though.

Okay, I have to admit it was really fascinating looking at all these items. Yes, I came back from safari just two months ago. These animals are rare, beautiful, and incredible to witness in real life. I don’t support killing them for sport or anything else. Juju is a weird and magical art. It is a part of the culture here though, Ghanaians have been practicing traditional beliefs for centuries, maybe even longer. In fact you can find versions of juju throughout the continent. These traditional beliefs are a religion here. They hold cultural significance. While I don’t support killing these beautiful animals, I also can’t deny that their byproducts are a part of the culture here. Globalization is wiping out or blurring cultural identities and even though I don’t believe in juju, it is still an important aspect of how Ghana has evolved. I don’t think it should be squashed simply because it is outside our realm of normal. We should preserve culture, not shy away from it.

Okay back to the juju stall. We tell the man we are looking for monkey heads and he looks rather puzzled, he doesn’t speak English. Someone does and a man runs off to go bring us some. About 5 minutes later he plops down two definitely dead hairy monkey heads. The monkey eyes are closed and they still have teeth. The one has a extremely gross look on his face and he isn’t pretty. The other one just looks like a laughing dead monkey. I love him. He is kind of amazing in his happy, dead monkey state.

Monkeys in Ghana are annoying little creatures. They are eaten as bush meat. I know that this monkey was probably killed by a hunter, eaten, and his head was sold or given to the juju men. I feel sort of bad for supporting the dead monkey trade, but again monkeys are annoying. I asked the man what monkey head is used for, because they told us what lion claws are used for. Lions represent strength and power, they are used for good juju. They wouldn’t tell me what they used monkey heads for, but they offered to do it for me. I declined graciously. That must mean something bad. Really bad. Monkeys are mischievous thieves, something tells me their heads might help with that. 

They wrapped my monkey head up in a double plastic bag and I threw the sucker in my purse. His face kept hitting my thigh though, so I had to move him to the other side. Kinda disconcerting to have monkey head in your handbag. I started getting superstitious thinking “oh god, what is going to happen to me now that I bought a monkey head?! Is the sky going to open up and smite me?” We continued through the market and stumbled upon a man selling some more juju items, but hiding under his table was a cage. Inside the cage was a live chameleon. It was fun watching it change colors and climb around. They are bigger than I thought they would be. He was only 30cd, I kinda wanted him, but then realized dead monkey heads don’t eat. Live chameleons do.

We continued on, it was getting late so it was time to head home. On our way out of the market I bought 4 yards of a sawawa/piecey piecey/PCPC/patchwork. It is scraps of fabric sewn together to make two yards. The one I got is red, yellow, and blue – all the fabrics have the same colors. It is incredibly beautiful and now the painful part – deciding what to do with it. I did wrap it around me once I got back and ran around the house like a cape. That was highly entertaining. I picked up a gari dryer to use as a earring rack as well.

Emerging from the market was fun, I walked by a woman selling peppe and she grabbed onto my leg and held me tight. I think she wanted to feel my rock hard calves. Or maybe just my white skin. She let go once the ladies next to her started beating her. It was all in good fun. Then right when we were about to leave the market a man selling cane sugar stalks jumps out at me and scares the living shit out of me. I was laughing so hard, Ghanaians have an interesting sense of humor but I enjoy it.

We finally get on a tro heading back home, we switch tros and then realize my gari dryer was left on the old tro. So we hop off and go in search of the tro, but we couldn’t remember what color the old tro was and this station has tons of cars. We run around like mad women looking for this thing, but have to settle that it is in fact lost. Oh well. We get in another tro and continue home. I have a great conversation with the man sitting next to me and then we hop off to head home.

For the first time in over a year, I can admit I enjoyed spending time in Kumasi. Normally the city is so crazy, congested, and hectic that I can barely breathe. I’m glad I took the time to fully explore the central market, since it is a true icon of Ghanaian culture.

And for everyone wondering, I washed my hands for about 10 minutes then took a shower after taking the monkey head out of its bag and putting it in his new home. I named him Mr. Jackie Chan. The guards at the office were freaked out and it was hilarious watching grown men cower and make such amazing faces. What will we do with Mr. Jackie Chan? No clue, but for now he is watching over the house, protecting us from thieves and works as a great conversation starter.


And lastly, a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported me during this upheaval. I’ve been through every emotion possible in the past week and I’m so happy to have the support of my friends and family both in America, Ghana, and Germany. It means so much to me that my friends care so much and can still support me half a world away. It has truly helped me come to terms and accept all the changes happening. I have a new site now and hopefully I will be able to move there in the coming week. Fingers crossed! But know that I am safe and doing better. All thanks to your support. I love you all!


5 thoughts on “A Quest to Find Monkey Heads

  1. I’ve been reading your posts as you provide the links on facebook. You are a wonderful blog writer. Every time, I am amazed and often amused by your stories. You also help me to be grateful for the little things that I so often take for granted. Going without them seems like an amazing adventure when you write about it though 🙂 I’m glad you found a new position and hope your life will be better as a result. Thank you so much for sharing your stories.

  2. And way to go with the monkey head. I’m not sure I would have been able to buy it myself, but I certainly understand the desire to do so 🙂

  3. I’m so glad you got a new site where you will actually be able to work! Also, I love your description of Jungle Gold. It closely mirrors the conversation Shaun and I had about it the other day. lol

    Love you!

    By Chris Almvig

    About 35 years ago, my work took me to a part of Brooklyn where I stumbled upon an African Shop that was owned by a man originally from the Ivory Coast. He had marvelous relics that I had not seen in African Shops in Manhattan. In fact, he had masks and items that were exceedingly old and museum quality. Once a month for 7 years I would emerge from the Court Street-Borough Hall subway and before my scheduled meeting, I would take a quick look around the shop to see if I could find an affordable treasure. I worked as a trainer for the NYC Department for the Aging, so most of the items were out of my price range, but I would always set aside money to purchase something special for a friend’s birthday or more likely for myself.
    One of my favorite NYC activities was to take my sketch book to the Museum of Natural History and draw artifacts that would catch my eye. One such trip, I found myself in the Hall of African Peoples mesmerized by a boldly carved, black mask with raffia hanging from the base of the mask to the floor. Behind a glass showcase, the description said that the dancer was from the Sande Society and wore this regalia in the initiation of girls into womanhood. The description failed to mention that part of this initiation forced young girls to undergo a violent and unsanitary removal of their clitoris and part of the labia. If they survived the “surgery” most had lifelong complications. Ironically, in the pre-colonial era, the Sande Society generated female chiefs and war leaders.
    A few weeks later, there on a high shelf in the Brooklyn African shop, I spotted a mask like the one I had just sketched. With excitement, I shouted to the shop owner, “You have a mask from the Sande tribe”! Amazed that a young White girl knew about his prized possession, he asked if I wanted to hold the mask and was willing to get out his ladder when he saw my eagerness. While he wiped away years of dust, he told me that from time to time when making his annual buying trips, he would come across merchandise that was old, perhaps stolen from museums or whose worth was underestimated. This mask was such a discovery and he thought it might have originated from the late 1800’s or very early 1900’s. I told him what I had learned about the initiation ritual and we agreed that it must have been difficult for a young girl to actually dance with this weighty, dense, ebony mask that would fit over her entire head.
    The store had just opened for the day and I was the only customer and I needed to get to my meeting, but when the owner asked me if I wanted to see some interesting items in his back room, I jumped at the chance. For years, I would try and glimpse over a barricade that separated the main part of the shop from an area that was filled with boxes and cabinets and packing materials with postmarks from African countries. I just knew there were extraordinary items that were probably waiting for collectors. I felt a sense of privilege as I walked through the gate with him. He took me to a cabinet with a glass door containing many shelves. There were approximately 30 petrified monkey heads, still containing their teeth and some leathery skin and hair all lined up on the shelves. I’m sure my eyes were as big as saucers as I summoned memories of old black and white movies from the 1950’s that I watched as a kid, showing English explorers discovering an African tribe that worshiped monkeys. I remembered monkey heads adorning the chief’s throne; his staff with a monkey head on the top and monkey heads all around their village as well.
    The shop owner told me that he bought the monkey heads from a dealer living in Ghana who was known for selling illegal goods. The dealer assumed that they were from the early 1900’s or older because they were petrified by using the wintergreen oil method (which eliminated decomposition). He said this was a method used by tribes who once had monkey gods but that worship and process ended as Europeans and missionaries increased their influence.
    On the top shelf of this cabinet were small glass bottles with black screw-style caps that looked like medicine bottles from 40 years ago. The shop owner unscrewed one and rubbed a small amount of the thick, black substance on my hand. He told me it was a compound made of ground scorpions and that it would miraculously heal cuts and wounds. Since I am allergic to almost everything, I got nervous that I would be the one person to die from this amazing potion.
    It was difficult to pull myself away from the shop and his stories, but I told him I had to get to my meeting. Before I walked back through the gate, I heard him say, “Do you want one”? I wasn’t sure what he meant, but he said it again. “Do you want a monkey head”? Sure, I wanted a monkey head but on a social worker’s salary, I knew I couldn’t afford one. He took a head out of the cabinet and handed it to me and told me it was a gift. Even though it had been preserved with wintergreen and had so many years for its aroma to dissipate, I was disappointed that it had such a horrible, sour and stale smell. I had no idea what it cost or why he was giving it away until he told me that the shop wasn’t doing well and he was behind in his rent a few months. He said that a few weeks ago, four men wearing long leather coats and copious amounts of gold jewelry came into the shop and had rolls of one hundred dollar bills. They wanted to buy the monkey heads and other eccentric and valuable items. The shop owner was sure that they were drug dealers and wanted nothing to do with them but he also needed to pay his landlord. A deal was made and he agreed to pack everything up and ship it all to Miami. He said that they didn’t count the monkey heads and they were all high on drugs when the deal was made and they wouldn’t miss one. As he put it in a brown paper bag, I could feel my heart racing. I couldn’t believe that I was to own such a treasure, a piece of history and something so powerful. I asked the shop owner, what power he thought the monkey head possessed and he conversely asked me what I needed in my life. Living on a social worker’s salary in NYC meant that I was always broke, so I said, “Money!” “Then money it is, he declared”.
    Of course I was late for my meeting and retained nothing useful to take back to the office because in my head, I was replaying the turn of events that just transpired in the African Shop. While riding the subway back into the city with the monkey head in my backpack, I noticed that a few people seemed to be moving away from me and looked like they had just smelled something unpleasant. I realized that it was me…..the smell from the monkey head had permeated my backpack. It really did stink. Maybe this was a good thing that people didn’t want to be near me on the train. I would be able to get a seat and not have to stand all the way into Manhattan.
    My subway stop was Chambers Street and my office building was conveniently at the top of the stairs. As I reached the sidewalk, I saw a former colleague who excitedly exclaimed, “Chris, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you because I’m hoping that you can help my family. We can’t convince my Aunt that she needs to go into an assisted living facility, but I know you’re good at working in that capacity. I’ll pay you $500 to help with the process.”
    Within 3 hours of owning the monkey head, money did come to me! As a postscript I have not become a wealthy woman, but my life has been full and rich in other ways and now it is time to use the magic of eBay to send the monkey head on a new adventure with a new owner.

    • Wow Chris, your story is fascinating! It is so interesting to hear someone else’s monkey head story. Good luck selling your monkey head, I hope it brings good fortune to the next lucky adventurer!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s