Thanksgiving Prompts Memories Of How Ghanaians Gave Thanks — And What Happened If They Didn't : Goats and Soda This Thanksgiving, George Mwinnyaa thinks back to his boyhood in Ghana — when a failure to give thanks was thought to have dire consequences.
NPR logo The Mystery And The Magic Of Giving Thanks

The Mystery And The Magic Of Giving Thanks

Malaka Gharib/NPR
Roosters floating in the celestial sky
Malaka Gharib/NPR

This Thanksgiving I will be thinking about turkey, of course.

But also about chickens and roosters.

I now live in the United States, but I grew up in Ghana, where there is no national holiday of Thanksgiving. But giving thanks is a very important part of my culture.

Almost every week my father would sacrifice chickens to the rivers, the mountains, the ancestors and the gods. It was his way of expressing thankfulness for his blessings: 7 wives, 32 children — and none of them had become blind, as was common in my village, or crippled, probably by polio, which was circulating in Ghana at that time.

We all believed that a failure to give thanks could have serious consequences.

During my last year in high school I was seriously sick with what I now think was mumps. I could not swallow water nor food, and I was sent home from my boarding school.

The next morning around 4 a.m. my uncle started the six-hour journey on his bicycle to visit an oracle in a neighboring village. He wanted to know why I was sick.

The oracle told him that the river god, my ancestors and the god of the land were all angry that they have been protecting my family for the past several years and that we had failed to give thanks for their blessings and protection — and that any delay to address this lack of thankfulness would cost my life.

In fact, the week before my sickness, two young people died in the village. Everyone said it was because of failing to give thanks.

In my village, we also believed that the failure to give thanks to the gods could result in poor rainfall leading to poor crop yield.

Today, I am not sure if all bad outcomes are the result of failing to give thanks to the gods.

I'm now a student in public health at Johns Hopkins University. With my present knowledge of diseases, I am certain that illness and death are not caused by angry gods or ancestors.

But there's a mystery I cannot explain. When I was growing up in Ghana, it seemed that whenever people made sacrifices as a way of giving thanks, the sick person would get better. And if families failed to offer a chicken sacrifice, the opposite would happen.

Some people may call this the placebo effect, as NPR wrote last year about a new study: "Placebos can make people feel better." In one study of asthma patients, some took an active drug; others had a placebo inhaler or a fake acupuncture treatment. The reporter wrote: "The reported improvements were better than in patients given no treatment at all."

As for me, I call this the thanks-giving chicken sacrifice effect. I believe that diseases may not be caused by gods or ancestors or spirits, but I do believe that there is healing, strength and protection to be found in the act of giving thanks.

For me and my probable case of the mumps, the remedy was to sacrifice three roosters — one for my ancestors, one for the river god and one for the god of land. After the sacrifice, a traditional herbalist provided me with concoctions and ashes from burned herbs mixed with shea butter to apply to my neck. Within three days I felt better and was able to return to school.

Since then I have never forgotten to give thanks, even in the worst of situations. So on Thursday, when I eat the turkey dinner with my American family and friends, I will be thankful. And I will also keep in mind that like the roosters and chickens in my homeland, the turkey made the ultimate sacrifice — for which everyone at the table is thankful!

George Mwinnyaa grew up in Ghana and now lives in Baltimore with his wife and 2-year-old son. He is pursuing a master's degree in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.