Drinking the Water: Nankani Witchcraft and Ordeals

“Witches catch the soul of the person,” said Abanga. “They hide the soul somewhere and wait to see what the family members say, their reaction. If the victim is very hard, difficult, or strong, the witch will talk to other witches to get a better view of the family—to see what the family members are doing about it. If the family is powerful, maybe they went to a diviner or have juju to counteract the damage against their soul, they will communicate that.”

Abanga and I were discussing the power of witches (sɔa). People use witchcraft to injure, kill, or ruin family members through mystical means.

“If the witch is unable to kill the soul quickly, they will treat it poorly,” he continued. Witches hide the souls of those they capture before eating or sacrificing them. If the witch is mistreating the soul, the victim may suffer and fall ill. Incapacitation happens fast for weak victims, or if the witch is old and thus powerful.

“The victim will suffer. They will be sick all the time. The family will be treating the soul and having meetings to see what they can do to prevent death. Maybe there is someone powerful in the family who can help. If the family is unable, and the victim is not strong, the witch will kill their soul. If the victim is powerful, their soul will not die. But things will still happen to them. The witches will let them suffer before leaving them alone.”

“How does the family find the witch? Do they just visit a diviner?”

“Within three days from when the soul was caught, a family can bring in a soputo. They will gather all the family members and the soputo uses their power to identify the witch and release the captive soul.”

Matthew and I reviewed our translations and interviews conducted earlier in the week. “Hey Matthew,” I asked from across the desk, “the soputo, is that just someone who has a special ability to see witches?”

“They have special powers to see,” he replied. “Like a witch, they have the power to see other witches and see if they caught a soul. They see where the witch keeps the soul and they can release the soul from captivity.”

I wrote his definition on a notecard—underlining see. The ceiling fan threatened to scatter our notes. Empty water packets drifted across the floor as the wobbling fan sought flight. We often considered its whirling. Today was my turn to sit beneath it.

“Where do they get their powers? Is it god or some juju they got somewhere?”

“Some have juju,” Matthew said. “But they are witches. For them, they might have other juju they use as well.”

“So they’re witches that don’t do bad things.”

“Yeah, they don’t do that.”

“Got it. They find other witches and free captured souls.”

“When we were children, and we wanted to go outside at bedtime, or maybe you needed to go to the bathroom, adults told us we would see fire on those trees,” said Ayanobasiya while she looked to the horizon. “Or you’ll see a light flying around, going this way or that way. People would say those are witches flying and they will see you, so you should best go to sleep. When you see a light like that, turn your face and put your hands over it. You don’t want to look at them. Just go to sleep.”

Matthew, three decades younger than Ayanobasiya, added, “As children, we also feared we would run into witches at night.”

He recalled a story that adults told to warn children.

“A group of children went out to search for honey,” said Matthew. “They found a tree and used fire to smoke the bees out. Then they sat down by the fire and ate. A local witch, seeing light near the tree where witches meet, came to see what was happening.”

Witches navigate at night by using lanterns or balls of fire as they fly. They gather at designated trees to share information or eat the souls of their prey.

“One child took a fiery stick and burned the witch. He chased her off. The next day, the woman went around asking all the children what they did the night before. She didn’t want them to reveal her secret. Because of this story, we really feared the witches living here.”

Danger lurks at night. Deviant entities roam the darkened landscape. Adults recall bizarre lights and suspicious beings they saw as children. These incidents shaped their childhoods and still unsettle the lives of many. And it’s not only witches. Zombie-like beings (kin’ensigere)—the reanimated dead—claw from the earth draped in white cloth. People take these sightings seriously. The best advice? Greet them as if human, but don’t stop walking. Even the resident Peace Corps volunteer described shocking encounters on dark paths. I willed myopia to nighttime spectacles,  but I couldn’t ignore how the auditory landscape transformed at night—ambiguous drumming, bells, animal noises. Or was it people? Strange sounds that proved difficult to pinpoint. Night adheres to different rules.

“Why do people practice witchcraft?” I asked Ayanobasiya.

“It’s about envy,” she said. “Maybe you’re rich, and the other person is not. If you have children and they are richer than someone else—that person may want to kill you or cause harm so you won’t get anything. Sometimes you might quarrel with someone, and that person may find a way to catch you. Or if a woman is envious that you have a child, and she does not, she can catch you.”

Nankani witches can only catch people from their extended family. Non-kin are safe, but unrelated witches sometimes work together and attack their family for other witches.

In any small town or tight-knit community, people keep a close eye on family and neighbors. Gossip abounds. People notice who comes into wealth or good fortune, and rumors spread. For the Nankani, quick gains are unnatural, particularly if new prosperity coincides with family illness or distress. Asking “Who did he eat?” reflects the basis of witchcraft accusations. Whose soul did the witch prey upon? Who profited at another’s expense? To take advantage of kin, to deceive and attack the vulnerable, emanates from intrinsic, wicked tendencies.

Witchcraft accusations arise during times of disorder, misfortune, illness, and death. A perpetually sick relative has someone abusing or feasting on their soul. The Nankani recognize natural causes of disease, however, the root reason for illness involves the malice of intimate others.

Witchcraft idioms converge around eating, overconsumption, inequality, and failing to share or reciprocate. It lives in the belly, but the witch’s power stems from an ability to see—having an eye (nifo) or eyes (nini) to discern spiritual phenomena. The weight of a penetrating, aggressive stare is a common witchcraft motif across societies. Consider the ubiquity of the evil eye—a malevolent and invasive gaze—across Mediterranean, Latin American, and South and West Asian cultures.

The Nankani inherit their capacity for witchcraft from their mother. Whereas individuals learn or acquire divination and sorcery powers, witchcraft is innate.[i] “If you are a witch,” said Asorigiya, “they say it’s because of your mother. They don’t attribute it to the father. If you are one, they will definitely know your mother is too.”

Witches can be any gender, but families usually accuse women. Wives are outsiders, or foreigners, to the patrilineal, patriarchal, and polygynous extended family system. Family members are ambivalent toward new wives and their presence affords a vector for outside forces to disrupt the integrity of the house. Peter Geschiere describes witchcraft as “the dark side of kinship” that arises from the close intimacy of family systems.[ii]

Having a good friend is better than one full sibling, says a local proverb. Those closest to us can harm the most. Sibling rivalry plus a propensity for witchcraft fuels uncertainty, requiring vigilance not needed with a good friend, even when arguing.

Everyone knows witches if they are not one themselves. “What I have seen is there are more witches in this land than people who are not,” said an elder. “Some of them, they do not catch souls. They see the soul, but don’t catch. Sometimes people catch souls. They reason that if you hate somebody in the family, or you want to do something against them, that is when you capture their soul.” Many people have an innate propensity toward witchcraft, but few use it.

I asked Mamma Laadi what happens after a witch catches a soul.

She laughed. “Normally, they turn the soul into an animal and eat the meat. Some people may want a human soul to sacrifice for something, maybe to prosper. They take your soul, just like that, turn it into an animal and sacrifice to their gods. But after that, they still eat you as meat.”

This is soul cannibalism.

Robert Rattray, a Gold Coast colonial ethnographer, explained, “When such an animal is killed and eaten, the ‘black’ people [witches] know that they are eating a human being, but to ordinary people, the witches seem to be eating out of an empty plate. The person so eaten sickens and dies.”[iii]

A neophyte must offer a soul to share with the group. This reciprocation is essential, particularly if they incurred a soul debt from partaking in others’ meals. Witches can sacrifice souls for wealth, power, or material goods. A woman explained how a truly evil witch would not hesitate to catch and sell the souls of her children.

Kinship is like the chronic sore, Albert Awedoba writes. Its scar never disappears.[iv] The local proverb acknowledges how despite healing from family conflict, the wound’s vestige endures.

“This is a case that happened at our place some time ago,” said Asorigiya. “There was a child in the house that was very sick. The father went to the diviner and realized a witch caught the boy’s soul. So they went to a place in Burkina Faso and a soputo helped them.

When the soputo arrived, he just whistled to seek permission from the gods of the land, the ancestors, and all those things. He asked them to help find the culprit, the person who caught the soul. He said to the ancestors: ‘When we find them, we will give you a cow, a sheep, and a fowl!’

After divining, he told the people the child’s mother did it. She was planning to use his soul to pay a debt. The mother kept the soul in a room in her house. She kept it in a pot where there were some shea nuts.

‘I’m going there to rescue the soul,’ the soputo said.

When the soputo looked inside the pot, it looked like someone chewed on the nuts. So he brought the pot outside for everyone to see what the soul was eating. But the soul wasn’t there; the mother moved it to another house.

He went to several houses, but the soul was never there. He then followed her path to an ebony tree near one house. The tree talked. It was the same thing. The soul was elsewhere, but the tree said he should go to another tree nearby. The man did, and it was the same thing. The tree said a child’s soul was too small, it couldn’t keep such a soul, so he should look somewhere else. 

Because he was a soputo, he caught the soul’s scent wherever it was. He went to the oracle of the land (tingane)—those trees where they sacrifice to the smaller gods. When he arrived, the trees said if the mother took the soul to them, they would have killed her right away.

The man moved on to other trees and spoke with them. The trees said, ‘The woman brought the soul here for us to keep for her. But know that we did not capture the soul. You shouldn’t harm us.’

They were talking to the man like that while he was deciding what to do.

The soputo went inside an opening in a tree with a white cloth and he brought out the soul. He went to the child’s house and returned the soul. When he came out of the room, he said he would not collect what he promised to the ancestors. ‘I will wait some days,’ he said, ‘until the child is better. When there is an improvement, I will come for the animals.’

Within one week, the child’s sickness was gone.”

In 1956, Barbara Ward recorded an Ashanti elder saying how “there never used to be so many witches in the good old days.” Younger people said that witchcraft was a matter on which their elders were of little help, because of their limited expertise.[v] We think of witchcraft as “traditional,” a relic from the past. But throughout sub-Saharan Africa, witchcraft phenomena grew during the colonial period and post-colonial struggles. It’s less of a relic of tradition, says Geschiere, and more of an alternative source of power and response to modernity. I focus on people’s struggles, but another way to think about witchcraft is how it became a response, or challenge, to imposed laws and people’s desire for self-determination. Witchcraft is political. Scholars observe how people use ritual and witchcraft as modes of empowerment in a world where modernity and its spoils are unequally distributed.[vi]

“What does your family do if they suspect there is a witch in the house?” I asked Ayanobasiya.

“Do you mean if the family knows you are a witch, or if you are a witch and caught someone?”

“Tell me about both.”

“If they know you are a witch, and you do nothing, they won’t do anything. People will only talk and gossip outside [the house]. It’s only when you catch someone,” she said.

“It takes the person doing something to convince the whole family. If they know you have caught someone and they will die, the family goes to the diviner’s house. If they find out you are the one, that’s when the action can take place.”

Sometimes it takes years to determine if someone is a witch. A woman explained, “A death may occur, then consultation [with a diviner], then many years may pass before another death, then another consultation and witch accusation.”

If the family is proactive and believes it is witchcraft, they may use a soputo (sometimes sopeela, lit. “witch white”), “someone who can really see, but they don’t eat,” Ayanobasiya said. The soputo can also use medicines, such as smearing a blend of herbs and oil on the sick person, to counteract the witchcraft. “Sometimes the power of the medicine will allow the family to grab the person who has caught the soul.”

Families banish serious or repeat offenders—condemning them to a social death. Husbands return new wives to their father’s house. Others are killed. Some nearby communities send witches to special villages. Once taken into the witches’ village, most never come home. Witches who remain at home are monitored and subjected to sanctions, stigma, and reform. Family members remain vigilant over the ill. They encourage the witch to return the soul and task the accused with ensuring the person recovers.

“For us here,” Ayanobasiya continued, “the family might go drink the water.”

“You know about the water ritual?” I asked.

“I have even witnessed it. I actually saw someone that kept drinking the water—they couldn’t stop!”

“Wait. You did? Was it here or somewhere else?”

“This one was in my family” she said. “There was a woman that our family suspected. This is what happened. They brought all the family members to a place. They always bring two little children who don’t know the woman. The family brings two pots and the children fetch the water for the pots. The soputo comes and gives everyone some medicine and adds it to the water. After everyone takes the medicine, the children use a calabash to bring water to each person.”

Children are less biased and unlikely to act with malice.

“If you are innocent, you will only drink a small amount of the water,” she said, “and it will come right out. You’ll spit and vomit out the water and medicine. What they gave you, it will just come out, and you go sit down.

If you are guilty, when you drink the water you will drink it all. They will pour you another calabash and give it to you. You will drink it all. This will happen again and again until you have a full pot of water in you. Their entire body will be full of water. I have seen it.”

“What happens to the witch?”

“After they do that, the soputo now asks: ‘What do you have to say? You have drunk the whole thing. What do you have to say?’ This is when they confess. ‘I have done this, it’s I who killed that person and done this and that.’ Then they begin to step on you.

Step on you!

And the water will come out from your anus, mouth, everything. Then you will become a normal person. The family pays the soputo and everyone goes home.”

“For the woman you saw, what happened to her?”

“The woman I saw died.”[vii]

I remained curious about the water ordeal. I asked Asorigiya.

“For finding witches, can you tell me about going to drink the water?”

“You know,” he said, “you can’t just look at someone and say that fellow is a witch unless they are flying around at night and have a light. When someone is sick in the family, we will take the family to a place where there is water. It’s special water with some herbs. You go there and drink the water. The person the water catches will drink the water continuously. They will not stop, even when their stomach is full, they’ll continue to drink the water. As they drink, they shit everywhere.

When the fellow opens their mouth, they’ll say they are a witch, or that they have caught this person or that person. The family then must step on their stomach. But if you are not a witch, you will just take the water and spit it out. You cannot drink it. That is how you know.”

The water trial shows the link between uncontrolled consumption and witchcraft. The symbolism of the distended belly, a mark of excessive consumption, and the purging of its contents, impulses, and evil attachments are clear. For the guilty, the water cools the burning desire within. But like their lust for power or wealth, the witch’s satisfaction is fleeting.

I also rediscovered Rattary’s 1932 account of a similar ordeal among the Nankani. The family head summons a soputo and proclaims from the housetops:

‘Tomorrow, everyone must gather here at my house and I will give you all a drink out of a horn, because So-and-so is lying in a sick-mat and we have already told you to leave him alone, and you refuse.’

As the horn is handed to each one to drink he says: ‘My work in this section is to see that women bear children. Some people are trying to spoil this, so take the horn and drink, and those who are preventing this duty of mine, may our ancestor ask them (the cause).’[viii]

I wondered if the water ordeal occurred in this form before sustained European contact and the colonial period. Was it a response to British court proceedings and judicial processes? Colonial officers were overinvolved in family disputes and conflict and would subject family problems to court-like proceedings.

Similar ordeals for uncovering nefarious forces occur throughout West Africa. Historically, these involved stabbing oneself with a poison arrow or consuming a toxic substance to prove one’s virtue. The Ashanti, who live in the forest zone south of the Nankani, used the odom poison ordeal in judicial proceedings. With the family gathered at a sacred place in the forest, all swallowed copious amounts of water containing the dissolved poisonous bark of the odom tree (sasswood). Innocence is proven if vomiting results and the accused survives.[ix]

Forced water consumption and purging are common punishments and tortures used across societies and history. Consider waterboarding. In the northern conflict during the Philippine-American war (1899-1902), insurgents or revolutionary sympathizers were subjected to the “water cure.” Authorities held the suspect under a pump or funnel and pumped water down his throat. Elizabeth Schambelan described:

When his stomach was fully distended with water, his abdomen would be punched or stomped until the liquid came bursting out of his nose and mouth. In addition to inducing a terrifying sensation of drowning, the process was excruciatingly painful. It could also cause fatal internal injury.”[x]

Propelling water through bodily openings is poignant. Expelling water indexes confession and purification—the ejection of truth followed by the source of deviance. The officiant purges evil from the aberrant body ensuing absolution, even if death is at hand.

Adeline Masquelier’s research on witchcraft in Dogondoutchi, Niger emphasizes how, unlike the innocent, witches cannot regurgitate the water they consume during an ordeal. They drink to extinguish their predatory craving and burning greed, symptomized by an unquenchable thirst. Rather than spitting the test water, she said, the witch asks for more, affirming their identity.[xi]

The Nankani water ordeal and the “water cures” used across other cultures are punishments and methods to reform individuals who counter agendas of the powerful. While no one physically restrains the Nankani witch and forces them to drink, the imperative to consume is just as strong. The seemingly willing behavior of witches to incriminate themselves is difficult to comprehend. Why would someone guzzle the water? Why not spit like the innocent?

The need to obey does not stem from an immediate authority. Here individuals self-administer governance and punishment. The authority figures are internalized conceptions of vindictive ancestors. The ancestors see all. It is futile for someone to lie or deny their involvement with the occult because the ancestors will act against them (or their family).

People concede and drink the water because they actually are witches (see this earlier essay). Witchcraft and sorcery practices work for people. Some Nankani are involved in searching for new powers, looking to gain an advantage through spiritual means. Mamma Laadi explained how people are always seeking for new ways to “take care” of themselves, often because of poverty or disempowerment. “They believe they’ve really gone into it,” she said. “They agree that they are witches.”

“If someone says they are a witch,” Laadi added, “it’s because they are.”

Proof of guilt also manifests when people harbor bitterness and aggressive sentiments toward others. Even if they don’t recall capturing a soul, they likely did so unaware. They recognize the uncontrollable power of repressed animosity—a hidden driver acting without conscious knowledge or consent.

The Nankani acknowledge a shadow side of the psyche; a part outside of their control; an unfamiliar recess of the soul that acts on the fringes of awareness. Outsiders might call this the unconscious. A person might be unaware of the witch within, but its residues are palpable. It leaves traces of negativity, feelings of greed or desire, and twinges of envy, outrage, frustration, resentment, and ambivalence. Here is the evidence of witchcraft. It lives in the cracks between the conscious and unconscious, in the spaces between individuals and their social world.

If you have the right eyes, you’ll know where to look.

Whenever Donald Trump comes under scrutiny, he describes the ensuing investigation as a witch hunt. He simultaneously disavows the witch within, ignores its leavings, and projects his culpability onto others. He is blind to the world of souls he has caught, abused, and consumed for selfish gain. People told me these types of witches are the most malignant.

I want to ask the Nankani elders: From where you stand, how would this ordeal end?

Godfrey Lienhardt said people invoke witchcraft to remind everyone of the dangers in themselves. It reflects the monster within. “A man who easily thinks himself hated is one who easily hates,” he said. Aren’t our own shortcomings, when observed within others, the ones that frustrate us the most?

Mary Douglas, evoking Jean-Paul Sartre, distinguished between Western and African cultures. In the west, we find hell within ourselves, she said. But in witchcraft dominated societies, hell is other people.[xii]

Witchcraft epitomizes a set of stressors, vulnerabilities, and existential concerns shared by families everywhere. “Witches destroy families,” said a mother. It threatens the values that bind. Across cultures, those values and moral worlds differ. But the underlying patterns of witchcraft are shared. Witchcraft represents a struggle discerned in every human family, says Jackson. It tempers “the resentment and envy that arise whenever temperamentally incompatible individuals are obliged to cooperate in the interests of the family solidarity and common good.”[xiii]

Witchcraft signals friction in relationships. In the prototypical white Euro-American kinship system, for example, the ties between extended family members are flexible and fragile. Social interaction is lower and more irregular.[xiv] People can argue, fight, and ignore each other with relative ease. People may move when tensions rise. They can sever contact, and this disconnection becomes easier the further related they are. But tensions rarely peak because the bigoted uncle appears only on Thanksgiving.

In other kinship systems, people cannot escape. It becomes impossible to sever contact when obligations and residence patterns integrate extended family into daily life and wellbeing. A person cannot simply walk away when their identity and survival depend on their extended family. Giving someone the silent treatment is difficult if they live in the same compound and must coordinate the coming harvest. Identifying the witch, the difficult or deviant rival, is one way to assert the moral order, address impropriety through a vested system, and restore cohesion and normality.

Managing aggression and experiences of envy, disorder, outrage, and vulnerability is a shared human struggle. Then there is the hardship of living with irritating people and those who cherish our failure. Witchcraft embodies people’s appetites and competing desires which, if left ungoverned, can destroy the moral and relational foundation of their community.[xv]

Unbridled witchcraft unmakes the world.

Witchcraft garners varied interpretations. We can find diverse symbolism across forms of accusation, punishment, and retaliation. Yet a root burden persists across time and place. We face it daily. It amounts to our shared struggle to find amenable ways to live well, despite differences, with one another.

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

[i] African witchcraft systems are unrelated to Wicca and most popularized Western notions of witchcraft.
[ii] Peter Geschiere (1997). The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, p. 11.
[iii] Robert Rattray(1932). The Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 299.
[iv] Albert Awedoba (2000). An Introduction to Kasena Society and Culture through Their Proverbs. New York: University Press of America, p. 135.
[v] Barbara Ward (1956). Some Observations on Religious Cults in Ashanti. Africa 26(1), p. 47.
[vi] Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (1993). Introduction. In Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[vii] Nankani families still occasionally identify witches and sometimes cast them out. As far as I am aware, they no longer practice the water ordeal.[viii] ibid. p. 299.
[ix] Jean Allman and John Parker (2005). Tongnaab: The History of a West African God. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 26.
[x] Elizabeth Schambelan (2019). Special Journey to Our Bottom Line: On Hazing and Counterinsurgency. N+1, Issue 34.
[xi] Adeline Masquelier (2008). Witchcraft, Blood-Sucking Spirits, and the Demonization of Islam in Dogondoutchi, Niger. Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, p. 189-190.
[xii] Mary Douglas (1970). Introduction. In Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. London: Tavistock Publications, p. xxxv.
[xiii] Michael Jackson (2017). How Lifeworlds Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 69.
[xiv] ibid. p. xxxiii.
[xv] See also Godfrey Lienhardt (1951). Some Notions of Witchcraft among the Dinka. Africa 21(4), p. 317.

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