While Nigeria’s 419 scammers may have written the book on West African internet fraud, their shtick looks like Compuserve compared to what’s going on in Ghana. Unsatisfied with the meager winnings from emailing thousands of random Westerners in hopes of convincing one poor sap they’re the treasurer of the Ivory Coast, Ghana’s scammers decided to stack the odds in their favor the old-fashioned way: witchcraft.
Taking a page from cyberpunk, traditional West African Juju priests adapted their services to the needs of the information age and started leading down-on-their-luck internet scammers through strange and costly rituals designed to increase their powers of persuasion and make their emails irresistible to greedy Americans. And so “Sakawa” was born.
Now, as we discovered when we went to Ghana with our video cameras, not only is Sakawa the country’s most popular youth activity and one of its biggest underground economies, it’s a full-blown national phenomenon. Sakawa has its own tunes, clothing brands, Sakawasploitation flicks, and even a metastatic backlash from Christian preachers and the press. When we were in Accra over the summer it was impossible to walk more than ten feet without seeing the word Sakawa in blood-red Misfits letters on a poster or tabloid, often accompanied by bone-chilling horrors of the photoshopped variety.
The government is freaked out because Sakawa is threatening Ghana’s business reputation, the Christians are freaked out because they’re losing money to the Juju priests, the press is freaked out because being freaked out is what sells papers, and the public is freaked out because their government, preacher, and media are all telling them they should be. All the while the Sakawa boys are living the high life and racking up debts to the spirit world, just waiting for the axe to fall. — Thomas Morton