The English philosopher and retired army officer, Major H C Charles, maintained that all living things aspire to be human, drawn upwards through the process of evolution rather than thrust up from below by natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Charles explained the phenomenon of fairies by saying that they were what was left over from the creation of a tree. In England, fairies are regarded, even by those who believe in them, as harmless, often benevolent creatures, bringing a small coin to children who have lost a milk tooth. But in Ghana the trees are more than twice the size of English trees, and the fairies, called mmoatia, are much more powerful, widely believed in and almost universally feared.
Charles’s theory is unlikely ever to become part of the conventional wisdom, but it does encompass a logic that might be better understood in Africa than in Europe or America. The fetish religions in Ghana recognise that spirits are associated with streams, rocks and trees. Compared to man, the tree manifests the phenomena of growth, strength and solidity, but what is left over is movement, the rational mind and self awareness. Fairies are mostly invisible, perhaps incorporeal, but they manifest human intelligence and the power of swift movement. These are exactly the qualities claimed for the Mmoatia.
Mmoatia are said to be forest creatures, less than 30 centimetres tall, coloured black, red or white and with backward pointing feet. They are very active and capable of moving quickly and silently over long distances. A Ghanaian on Facebook, who calls himself the King of the Mmoatia (Nana Mmoatia Hene), has taken the name: OboaNipa, he helps people, but most Ghanaians would not see the mmoatia as helping human beings. On the contrary, the mmoatia are believed to steal food and palm wine, and more terribly, to steal babies in order to produce more mmoatia.
The mmoatia are said to do the bidding of witches and fetish priests. In a case observed in Kumasi by the author, a man was struck dumb for working on the dabone, the day of evil, when work is forbidden. Communicating in writing, the victim claimed to be held captive by a tribe of mmoatia who were at war with another tribe which was helping an Evangelical or Charismatic priest. This might imply that there are friendly mmoatia as well as hostile ones, but in the case in question, the friendly tribe were prevented from helping. The victim’s speech was restored only after he travelled to where the offence had been committed and made sacrifices to the local gods.
The mmoatia are very real to many people in Ghana as they are associated with real events in their lives. They may not be familiar with Major Charles’s theory, but if they were, they might regret that the tropical climate breeds such massive trees and such powerful and malevolent fairies.