The Koko: Truth, Reality, and a Chimera

“In my tradition,” Ayisoba said, “we pour a libation before things begin.”

It was the start of the dry season and early in my fieldwork with several Nankani communities in Northern Ghana. This was my first formal interview with Ayisoba,* although we had chatted several times before. The savanna air was comfortable. Families’ granaries were full of sorghum, groundnuts, and millet. It was time to rest.

“Okay, let’s do the libation,” I replied. Elijah, my friend and assistant, explained that Ayisoba wants to ask permission from the ancestors by offering them akpeteshie—a distilled palm wine. Ayisoba called toward his compound and a child came out with a bottle of the liquor. He found a cup and filled it to the rim.

Homemade akpeteshie served in an old “Pee Cola” bottle (really, Pee Cola). Note the ancestral shrine in the background.

“Ancestors,” Ayisoba said while splashing a small libation to the ground. “You should help Aaron working in Sirigu. You should bring him a woman, so he shouldn’t have to go back to his village, but stay here.” He drank the rest in two swallows and presented me a full cup. I accepted, dripped a portion on the earth for my ancestors, and gulped. My eyes widened and I gasped. Ayisoba pounded his fist against his chest, laughed, and blurted “Aaron!” in his raspy voice.

The morning was off to an epic start.

Ayisoba inhabited a dilapidated compound on the fringes of his community. It fit that such a persona lived on the boundary of domestic and wild spaces. He was a farmer, like everyone else, but he spent most of his time engaged in spiritual and entrepreneurial endeavors. He was a diviner, a “juju man” (or sorcerer), and families called on him as a concoction man to treat spirit children. If needed, he would conduct the ritual to return a spirit child to the bush. He was also an herbalist of medicinal and recreational substances. Early one morning, I ran into him and a neighbor stumbling out of a towering field of millet in a cloud of smoke all red eyed and snickering. He flashed me a grin before sending his friend down the path with a black bag tucked under his arm.

It wasn’t me.

People from the southern sections of Ghana would travel to get medicines from him and sacrifice to his shrines. Later I learned that he was a witch, having nini,[1] or “eyes,” necessary to see spiritual things. I never asked if he was a good witch, one who can perceive and confront nefarious witches. I assumed he was not. Elijah once confronted Ayisoba about causing an illness that nearly killed him. “We are related,” Elijah said. “You’re not right in the head. Why would you do this?” To attack a relative, even a distant clan member, is deviant. Ayisoba explained that he was testing Elijah to see if he could handle the power.

He used the same excuse two years later after admitting to causing my malaria and typhoid infections. I also confronted him after my latest illness, which hit suddenly the morning after eating at his home. It required 24 hours in the local hospital and a week of recovery. “It wasn’t me who caused it,” Ayisoba explained. “You angered the ancestors during your visit. You forgot to thank them and sacrifice something.”

IMG_1630“That’s why I brought the gin. It was to give to them!” Ancestors are too convenient to blame.

Ayisoba was a trickster and an opportunist. He had a unique ability to leverage any circumstance to his advantage. He was always attentive and suspicious, questioning appearances and the fissures between the apparent and unseen. Perhaps that is why we got along. He too challenged the construction of reality and understood there is always more happening than meets the eye. My interpretive lens conjured social structures, culture, symbols, and psychodynamic models. His implicated spirits, ancestors, power, and sickness. I like to think our conclusions were not so different.

Ayisoba poured another round of drinks because, he assured me, “the ancestors are thirsty.”

“Tell me about the spirits,” I asked about 30 minutes into the interview. “I want to learn more about the types.”

Ayisoba paused and glanced down. “The questions are becoming more difficult.” He then locked eyes with me. “I must prepare. Did you come prepared, Aaron? Did you prepare well for the questions?”

I hesitated. His face hardened. “Yes,” I said. He startled me. No one had questioned me so directly. Was I prepared? I was. I had over a year of preparation and a set of well-developed questions. But he was not referring to these.

Ayisoba poured more akpeteshie and talked about spirits. He described a few types I already knew about, walked into his compound, and returned with pictures and documents. He passed me a photo of him in his younger years posing with various medicines and shrines and presented his certificate as a licensed herbalist. We perused the other photos before he handed me an unfamiliar black and white image printed on cardstock. It was a picture of a cat or a rodent with the head of a white man. Ayisoba said nothing.


“This picture, what is it?” I asked.

“The photo is somebody who has died, been buried, has come back to life, and is now roaming on the Earth,” Ayisoba said. “If it touches you, there is no treatment for that. If the spirit of the koko is present and you see it, when it touches you, you will die.”

Elijah added, “When it touches you, you will be like Bertrand. They can’t treat you.” Bertrand was a friendly, loquacious alcoholic that roamed around the village.

This was the first time I had heard of the koko.[2] Ayisoba continued. “The koko comes into houses to disturb people. According to our fathers, you can be standing like that and as it passes by you will fall. It is not like the spirit child,” he said, offering me a familiar comparison. “If a spirit child is in the family, it will deceive you while looking for some way to attack you and kill the family. The koko is different. It will not deceive. You will fall sick and you will not be like a normal human being. Or you will die.”

DSCN2347 - CopyThe koko, and a related entity called the ken-ensigere, are former humans who have died and come back to life. The ken-ensigere is akin to a zombie or a reanimated corpse. The koko is a deceased witch who has come back to life as a chimera—often a cross between a small animal and a human. Older stories describe how the koko has shapeshifting powers. In a 1925 description from the nearby Catholic mission in Bolgatanga, Parker recounts how “The natives… fear these ghosts very much. If they touch the natives, they become all white and die.”[3]

The “good thing” about the koko, Ayisoba said, is that it cannot kill someone without the eyes. “If you can’t see it,” he said, “it will just throw sand at you and laugh as you fall.” Most spirit beings enjoy harassing people. They will throw things or shapeshift into other beings and fool you.

I was gaining a sense of what the koko was, but I fixated on the photo. It was old. An early photographer obviously manipulated it. It might have been part of a tall-tale postcard from the early 1900s.

Tall-tale image from 1937

“Ayisoba, that picture,” I asked, “where did it come from?”

“I caught it and had somebody photograph it.”

“What? I don’t understand. So, you saw the thing?”

“Yes,” Ayisoba replied.

I turned toward Elijah. “Do you think this is real?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “He saw it,” Elijah said. “It is a being that has wonderful powers.”

I considered the possibility they were joking with me; seeing if I would believe they had a photo of a koko.

Ayisoba continued. “I used guinea fowl in a trap. I set a trap and caught it. These things are hungry. They can eat three or four or more guinea fowl at once. I tied it with my soothsaying things at the place where it appeared, so it won’t be able to vanish.” Ayisoba’s divining bag’s various medicines confused the koko and enabled him to touch it. “My friend took a picture.” Ayisoba paused for a moment and added, “In the old times, when you are out following a dog, it will prevent the koko from coming near and touching you. When you see the dog running about, maybe they see the koko and are following it.”


“You know,” Elijah said, “it comes into the houses to disturb us. According to our fathers, you can sit like this and that thing, if it passes close by, you will fall immediately. You’ll collapse.”

“So there is no treatment?” I asked.

“There is nothing you can do,” Ayisoba said. “If I took it to the house, it will harm others. The women and children would have to run away and leave me alone with it.”

Ayisoba waited for my next question. I glanced at my notes. I did not know what to ask next, so I moved on to another topic.

Over the next year, other people offered similar accounts. Their descriptions of the koko matched Ayisoba’s photo.

When a witch dies and the undertaker removes their body for burial, the witch’s soul will stay behind, hiding in the rafters of the traditional women’s room. Asingiya, an elder I spoke with, described the process: “If you do not have a specialist undertaker with eyes, the spirit remains inside the room when the body is buried. If the children of the house are also witches, they will know the koko is there and feed it. As it grows, the koko takes on an animal-like appearance, forming two more legs and a tail. When it is grown, it leaves the house to roam around the bush. The specialist undertakers also have a medicine that protects people from the koko and can drive the koko from a house.”

Another man described the koko as a human that transforms into a tiger-like creature that roams about the land. “If it passes here, all of us will be weak. You won’t be able to do anything.”

My focus on the truth or reality of Ayisoba’s photo and account was misguided. That was a dead end. I was not prepared. In the moment, I needed to bracket my impulses and put them aside. Anthropologists often encounter fantastic or farfetched stories. If we are attempting to understand people’s lived experiences and lifeworlds, questions about the veracity of narratives are not always vital. At times, the reality we should prioritize is not our own.

I needed to move toward understanding what the koko meant to Ayisoba (and others), and consider why he showed me the photo at that moment. What does the koko represent? When people tell stories about it, how might it mediate their experiences and relationships? What reality are people speaking of or performing when they meet and talk about the koko? Perhaps the koko is a way for people to determine their truth for circumstances and processes that are unfamiliar or obscured by structures or cryptic forces (pathways to wealth, inequality, the origins of disease).

The most apparent explanation is that the koko describes an origin of mental illness.[4] The koko is also a warning about the consequences of witchcraft and antisociality. A caution that evil witches will never go to the ancestral world. They will roam as chimeras, stuck between bodies, trapped between the living and the spirits, wedged between the house and the bush. Then there are the references to whiteness—turning people white with fear and possessing the head of a white European. People sometimes depict spirits as white. But that is for another story.

The meanings of the koko are flexible. What it means depends on the speaker and their context. In some respects, the truth and reality it indexes are also a chimera. The koko not only comprises various parts, but also multiple meanings, imaginaries, and moral significances.[5] These are unstable. Like the koko, they can shapeshift or vanish at a moment’s notice. And they might leave you weak.

Why did Ayisoba show me it when he did? Maybe he wanted to establish his expertise. Perhaps he needed to assert that spirits are real and that his accounts are true. Westerners are skeptical and prize evidence. What he submitted was visible proof of a system imperceptible to me but obvious to him.

Empirically the koko does not exist. But we can work toward understanding how it inhabits other ways of being. I sometimes wonder what we miss when listening to others speak about even less fantastic phenomena. Too often we ensnare ourselves in the reality or truth of a proposition only to miss what people are saying, how they are saying it, and what they might mean.[6]

Part of being an ethnographer is to understand these layers of explanation and probe the shadowy and rutted boundaries between the imaginary and the real. Despite the richness of local explanations and interpretations, one part still nags at me. Maybe it’s my inner empiricist—a sensitivity fixed when I was young. I can’t get around it. I still want to know. Where did that photo come from?

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


*Many of you know this guy, but I changed his name anyway. 
[1] Singular: nifo.
[2] Plural: kogero.
[3] Parker, J. (2006). Northern gothic: Witches, ghosts and werewolves in the savanna hinterland of the Gold Coast, 1900s–1950s. Africa 76(3):352-380.
[4] What is interesting about such spiritual explanations is that they often shift the responsibility or blame from the person to the spirit. The koko is one of many explanations for mental illness.
[5] See my other writing on spirits and the moral imagination in a forthcoming publication (details to be posted).
[6] I am not referring to fake news here. Although one could take this in that direction.

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