Witchcraft, Language, Power

Elijah and I followed the path from Ayisoba’s compound, threading our way around the millet stubble from the recent harvest. We talked with Ayisoba that morning about spiritual matters while smoking the crumbling remains of last season’s tobacco. Elijah, my assistant, and Ayisoba, an herbalist, were becoming more comfortable with my questions. Yet, despite our growing familiarity, Elijah remained careful, tactfully dodging inquiries that probed too far or revealed too much.

“Do you think Ayisoba is a witch?” I asked as Elijah led the way home. “I think he is.”

He glanced back. “I don’t know.”

“Well, Ayisoba admitted he can see the koko,” I argued. “The koko is a dead witch. Only people with witchcraft powers have the eyes to see other witches and the koko. Right?”


“So…” I paused, waiting for Elijah to pick up on my logic, but missing how he just indirectly answered the question, “…if he can see, he must be a witch.”

“Hmm. Maybe. I don’t know.” His tone was flat. He had nothing more to say.

[okay, fine],” I said. We continued through the field and I changed the subject.

I was reckless to openly speculate, declare, and speak of someone this way. Witches are perceptive—they will soon learn you uncovered their secret, and they will find you. Words have power. Many Nankani people hesitate to speak with authority about events they have not lived, or engage in hypothetical discussions, even on topics of expertise. Occasionally, people concede that a particular event or circumstance they heard about is possible, but one can never be certain. And to know what is truly on (or in) someone’s mind is impossible and, I suspect, undesirable.

Bringing assumptions, hearsay, or one’s lived experiences into words is transformative. Language affirms and substantiates. Words create and can bring what they represent into power.

The nearby Kassena people have a proverb: “The words from the human mouth can kill the moon.”

One must talk with care. And when speaking of powerful Nankani witches, there’s nowhere to hide.

Check out my book “Spirit Children” and find more essays here

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