Rituals for Suspicion, Rituals for Fate

I must have seemed unhinged. I was in the midst of an extended period of fieldwork and appearing irrational, anxious, and paranoid to outsiders. Julien, a visiting Swiss vaccine researcher, joked that I might “go bush” if I was not careful. I was not losing my mind. Nor was I “going native,” a term describing ethnographers who adopt or over-identify with the culture they are studying. We laughed over dinner about such possibilities.

I later recognized that Julien was more serious than I imagined.

In the first months of living in Ghana, I felt I lived an emotional life parallel to, rather than entangled within, Nankani concerns. This soon changed.

While standing near a gathering of trees and a pile of rocks, one of few locations offering good phone reception, I explained to my family how I feared that people were trying to steal my data. I railed against imagined enemies sabotaging my relationships. I complained about being scooped or blocked by hidden researchers or journalists. These worries were upsetting. They were uncharacteristic. But they seemed normal. Such interpersonal trepidations, I thought, were expected.

We rarely consider how culture fosters unique modes of attention, interpretive lenses, and emotional attunements. Culture shapes what we invest with meaning and colors our responses. This process is difficult to see from within one’s own culture, but it can stand out when observing others. For example, among the Nankani, a person might scrutinize their social affairs with an intensity that, from the perspective of an outsider, appears excessive or even paranoid. They might question what others are doing and their intentions. Who is working against me? What does my neighbor have and how did he acquire it? How can I protect myself from, or gain an advantage over, others?

In cultures that stress social opacity, people perceive the intentions and identities of others as hidden or inscrutable. You can never know someone’s true motivations and thoughts. Individuals attune themselves to their interpersonal spaces with greater sensitivity, attend to subtle cues that might reveal the identity of the other, and establish a system of defenses against potential envy and animosity, which can manifest as spiritual attack. Some Nankani, for instance, during public gatherings such as funerals, might take measures to protect or fortify themselves by visiting clan shrines to ask their ancestors for protection to avert spiritual darts, invasive gazes, and other insults. Even local researchers and professionals use defensive and offensive practices, such as sorcery medicines, sacrifices, and visits to diviners and shrines, to gain control of uncertainty, guard one’s interests, counter theft, and contest suspicious or unequal resource allocations. Such practices are an expected part of the cultural system. Neighbors even speculate on what nefarious activities someone is using to gain wealth or an advantage. I observed a man at a diviner seeking to counter rumors and allegations he sold the soul of a relative to purchase a new roof. His neighbors knew he could not afford this display of wealth. “Where did he get the money?” they asked. His sons, employed in the south, sent him the money. But few people knew this or accepted the explanation. He was up to no good.

It is one thing to know these local idioms and heightened interpersonal attunements exist; it is something else to experience them as your own.

A friend assured I was immune from witchcraft and sorcery. “It won’t catch you,” she said. “It only affects those who believe in it.” I did not fear witchcraft, yet the underlying sentiments and relational dynamics that constitute the idioms of witchcraft and sorcery—suspicion, envy, jealousy, deviance, inequality, power—now percolated into my awareness. New worries arose. Was someone envious of my research and working against me? Was there something unseen holding back the approval for my data request? Did my interview questions anger people? I needed to monitor these suspicions.

This change conveniently happened around the time I took an interest in divination and observing diviners and their clients. In Northern Ghana, men communicate with their deceased ancestors through divination to decide, gain knowledge, seek the cause of misfortune, identify deviance, and probe what is concealed or mysterious.

In most forms of divination, the diviner interprets the meaning of the symbolic objects, trance states, or cast lots. The Nankani variation, however, involves the client reading the symbols, items such as bones, seeds, husks, shells, stones, coins, scraps of rope, and empty shotgun shells among an array of other household refuse. The diviner sometimes helps with the interpretation, but his primary role is to facilitate the connection to the client’s ancestors through his own divination ancestors. One diviner likened his role to a telephone operator.


A man with a question or something on his mind goes to a diviner’s compound early in the morning when the spirit world is at its closest. He greets the diviner and declares his intentions to divine by placing his offering of grain or money in a basket for the ancestors to accept. The session begins when the diviner calls upon his divining ancestors.

Most clients divine verbally, voicing their questions and speaking the ancestor’s responses in a dialogue-like manner. The words the client utters for his ancestor are seen as coming directly from the ancestor. Never is the client in an altered state. In the ritual’s most basic form, the client asks binary questions of the ancestors and they respond through directing a divination stick, called a bakoledoore, to strike one of two or more pieces of scrap metal representing choices. The ancestor also works through the bakoledoore to identify the symbolic objects to guide the divination session at critical points, provide answers, identify problems, or offer a solution.

Throughout the process, the diviner holds the top of the bakoledoore with one hand while shaking a rattle with the other. Occasionally he will hum, whistle, or cry out when the divination session becomes heated. The joint manipulation of the divination stick to channel ancestral responses feels like using a Ouija board planchette. It has a mind of its own. This uncanny sensation, attributed to the ancestors controlling the bakoledoore, adds to divination’s objectivity.

As the bakoledoore responds, the client interprets and narrates the ancestor’s reply in his own voice and then offers another question. For instance:

Client: “There is a problem. There is a problem in the house. Ancestor, who is causing the problem? Is it a stranger (the client touches the first metal object representing a choice), or someone within the house” (he touches a second metal choice)?

Ancestor: (The bakoledoore strikes the second choice). “It is a stranger.”

Client: Where is he from? Tell me ancestor! He is from Wojiengo (touches first metal object), or Natugnia (second metal object)?”

Ancestor: (The bakoledoore doesn’t respond. It lingers over the objects). “None of these. He is from somewhere else” (the bakoledoore points to the side away from the village).

Client: “Is he near, or far?”

Ancestor: “The man is hiding (the bakoledoore touches an enclosed seedpod). He is dangerous (touches a scrap of red cloth). It is about death” (touches a black stone).

The insights that the ancestors provide are often indirect or unclear. As the session proceeds, the client continues to probe his ancestors and the ancestors ideally offer insights. On the surface, it might seem that divination is just a matter of talking to oneself, since the client narrates both his own questions and the ancestral responses. However, a more complex internal process occurs. I like to think of divination as both a reflective and a constructive, meaning-making process structured by a system of culturally specific choices and meanings. Divination works by examining questions, uncertainties, and feelings that remain unclear. It organizes and directs the client’s attention, prompts explanations, and formulates experiences into language. The goal is to transform, assisted by the symbolic objects and chance, the unknown into full awareness and, eventually, an answer or account that inspires action and change.

When I began divining, I focused on the structure and procedure, trying to get it right, and less on the meanings and the issues under scrutiny. Superficiality ruled. Around the time my interpersonal concerns shifted, however, I found it helpful to use the oracle as a legitimate and meaningful way to address my dilemmas.

During one visit, I inquired about a stalled request to access data needed for my research. Despite my best efforts, something unseen was interfering. Over two months had passed and no decision was at hand. I figured it would not hurt to see if my ancestors knew what was wrong. Perhaps they might identify the problem or pull strings on my behalf.

I stooped to enter the diviner’s room. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. The mud hut was just large enough for two or three people. I sat cross-legged on the floor. Across from me, the diviner was perched on a small stool where he manages his domain and peeks outside to observe the household affairs through a porthole at eye level. The shrines and rattles to the diviner’s right were varnished with residue from libations, blood, feathers, and other sacrificial remains. The diviner emptied two goat-skinned bags, scattering the symbolic objects across the floor. A swath of light from his window cut between us illuminating a floating ribbon of dust and spotlighting the scattered bones, scraps of metal, and curious shells.

Adiv1 - Copy

The diviner began by calling down his ancestors who connected us to my grandfather. “If you are around, listen to what the man is saying,” he said. “My ancestor, come and listen to what he is saying. Protect from sickness, protect from poverty of the land. You should not bring about quarreling. Great ancestor you should come and listen!”

My first question was broad. Would I succeed in my research? As we manipulated the bakoledoore and cast two river stones like dice to pin down answers, it became clear that something was amiss. The bakoledoore identified coins and other assorted objects, a combination indicating wealth and success. The identification of a lock, however, was concerning. Someone was interfering. Who was blocking me? Why? I needed to probe further.

We continued the session, trying to narrow down the origin of the block and do something about it. “Is it from Sirigu?” I asked.

“No,” I voiced for my ancestor.

“Then point to the problem, ancestor. Show me with the stick.” The bakoledoore traced a wide oval. It was indecisive. I needed to be more specific. “Is it at the research center? If it is at the research center, knock here. If not, here.” I gestured to each of the two metal pieces.

The bakoledoore collided with the first choice. “The research center,” my ancestor replied.

I used a set of sticks I gathered from a fallen branch before entering the diviner’s room. I learned this trick a few weeks earlier. Using outside objects helps isolate choices or responsible parties and adds objectivity to the session because neither the diviner nor, if a third party chooses them, the client knows what they represent.

Each stick represented a suspect. The short twig was a spirit. Spirits were certain to interfere. They had the most to lose since I was exposing their malevolence in my research. My sister, who I identified as the longest stick, was a scientific control. If selected, I knew some outside force, presumably a spirit, was impeding the divination session. I would like to think that despite years of sibling torment, Jamie would never spite me. The two medium sized sticks of varying thickness represented Patrick and Isaac, people connected to my project through the research center.

We could now identify the responsible entity. The diviner resumed shaking the rattle, holding our ancestor’s attention, and, with his left hand clasping the top and mine at the bottom, the bakoledoore erratically probed among the objects. I scattered the four sticks into the heap. “Grandfather, who is it? Who is blocking my chances? Is it the short one?” The bakoledoore swung around. “Or is it the long one?” It nudged the short stick and hovered. “The short one, then? If it’s the short one, strike the metal here. If not, hit this one.”

The stick collided with the second piece of metal. “No, it’s not a spirit,” I said, speaking for my grandfather.

The bakoledoore perused the items on its own terms as the diviner whistled a tune with the rattle’s rhythm. Then it whacked the longest stick away from the others, sending it across the floor and out the door. “It’s not my sister.” The bakoledoore identified a twisted, medium length stick, nudged it away from the others, and repeatedly tapped it.

Div1“So, is it this one?” I asked. If it is, tap this metal here. If not, then here.”

The bakoledoore struck the first metal plate three times in the affirmative. I repeated, “It’s Isaac!” with each strike. The diviner helped me cast the stones to confirm. We continued the session to determine what my ancestors had in mind to rectify my situation and transform my fate.

Later that week, I entered the Sirigu market looking for the prescribed cowry shells and the bottle of schnapps for my libation. I was uncertain. What would the ritual accomplish? I walked from the market center toward the livestock section on its periphery. I passed boys selling kola nuts arranged in even rows according to size on pitted wood planks. Old men offered lengths of homemade rope swaying from stall support beams. Around a corner in a narrow passage, a Burkinabé man was crouched in the shade with a cloth spread before him. He was catering to people needing tools—objects to tempt fate or amend the future. Displayed were metal bracelets and crude rings, old coins, a hedgehog skin, and a small pile of cowry shells. Cowry shells have a rich history throughout West Africa as a currency and as a symbol of fertility and production. I selected a handful of shells, purchased a bottle of schnapps from a local bar, and went home.

At dawn, just before the sun pushed above the horizon, at that instant when the Nankani say the veil between the afterlife, spirits, and our world is at its thinnest, I grabbed the shells and schnapps. I was compelled to follow through. I walked toward the trees and rock pile. Home seemed more distant than the hereafter.

I now sensed why people felt the penumbra of the spirit world in these transitions. A settling occurs at sunset and sunrise. The overexposed sky or the omniscient blackness softens as its opposite overtakes. Hard edges, gravity, hunger, and discomfort weaken, if only for a moment. The sun rises and sets fast near the equator.

The guinea fowl descended from their roosts and began their litany. Smoldering cooking fires saturated the air, and women followed the nearby paths carrying their empty water pots. Rather than phoning my family from this spot, I called upon my deceased grandfathers. As the sun broke over the horizon and the dry season heat streamed down, I placed the cowry shells upon an altar-shaped rock and tipped several healthy schnapps libations over them while muttering thanks. Its volatile aroma climbed as the liquor trickled down. I thanked my ancestors for protecting me, and I asked them to keep a vigilant eye over my work. It was too early for me to partake, but I knew they would be grateful for the extra pour.

I stood for a moment before walking to my room.

With my ritual obligation complete, I was freed. Logically, I thought this would not influence my data request. And yet it eased tension. I did all I could. The rest was up to my ancestors.

Over the coming days, I greeted Isaac and others around the research center, and I was less paranoid about people trying to block or steal my work. I was more convivial. I made more of an effort to talk to people interested in my research. Ten days later, my data request was approved.

A Nankani diviner would say my ancestors interceded on my behalf. “This is the way it’s supposed to be,” an elder stated. “Our great ancestors look out for us. How else would we survive?”

There is also a possible ethnographic interpretation. The ritual altered how I framed and attended to my relationships. The divination session, which involved defining the problem, naming the suspects, identifying Isaac aloud, and clarifying how he could influence the outcome of my request, were interventions that “worked on” my social world, shifting how I interacted with him and others. Perhaps the most significant result was the development of a narrative that changed my behavior and rendered me more transparent. One might posit that divination plays a role within Nankani culture to clarify uncertainty and to manage, in part, the opacity of others and the very interpersonal concerns that the cultural system itself generates.

This interpretation is compelling. Still, I find greater solace in the Nankani understanding: The change in fortune was because my ancestors are vigilant and protective. And that for a few pours of schnapps and kind words of gratitude, they will intervene from behind the veil to bend fate and reshape my world.

Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children” here and my other essays here


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