Witchcraft, Language, Power

E and I followed the path from Adongo’s compound, threading our way around the stubble from the millet harvest. We talked with Adongo that morning about spiritual beings while smoking the hand-rolled remains of last season’s tobacco. Adongo and E seemed to be growing more comfortable with my questions. Despite our familiarity, E remained careful, tactfully dodging inquiries that pushed too far.

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

He glanced back. “I don’t know.”

“Well, Adongo 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?”

“Yes.”

“So…” I paused, waiting for E to pick up on my impeccable logic, missing how he just indirectly answered my 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 find out you uncovered their secret and can come after you. And words have power. People hesitate to talk about events or subjects they have not directly experienced, or engage in hypothetical discussions, even on topics they know are true. Bringing assumptions, hearsay, or even one’s experiences into words transforms them. Language affirms and substantiates. Words can bring what they represent into power.

The nearby Kassena people have a proverb: “The words from the human mouth can kill the moon” (see Awedoba 2000). What we say has power to affect even the most significant of things.

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

It’s been a busy few months. This is just a short excerpt from an essay in progress. More to come.

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