Witchcraft, Language, Power

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

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Anchoring the Unspeakable: Trauma in Younger Onset Dementia Narratives

“Before the dementia diagnosis, Marcel and I were at dinner with some Jewish friends from South Africa,” said Ruth, Marcel’s wife. I was interviewing Ruth about Marcel’s younger onset dementia. “Marcel started talking about things he never talked of before,” she said. “He told stories about himself during the Holocaust as a child. You know, …

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Passing the Flame: Narrative Trajectories of Trauma

This essay was destined to be a commentary on an article for a small journal I occasionally contribute to. However, my commentary was lost (likely buried in a chain of emails) and not published. To not be a complete loss, I am posting it here. While this version reads better when paired with the article …

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Contesting Identities: Historical Trauma, Loss, and Cultural Authenticity

“Where do the Coeur d’Alene people come from?” asked Richard. Richard, the Coeur d’Alene Nation's cultural resource manager, was interviewing me about my research proposal. It was 2001, and I was beginning an ethnographic project with a Coeur d’Alene family on intergenerational relations and identity. I was new to anthropology. Intimidated. I wondered why he …

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No One Wants to Be “That” Mother: Middle-Class Ideas of the Good Life

By Emma Jelstrup Balkin In this guest essay, Emma, a graduate student at Macquarie University, discusses her research on how neoliberal economic models impact middle-class parents in Australia. “It’s really tough… and no one really understands what I’m going through.” I’m interviewing Laura, a single mother of three children. Her six-year-old daughter Marnie has become …

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Winds and Wakayarum

From bellowing gusts to thin wafts of air, people across cultures implicate the wind for causing illness and misfortune. Avoid drafts American grandmothers advise. In Ethiopia, the wind induces joint and bone pain. Vigilant Nankani mothers in Ghana cover infants (particularly their faces) and sequester newborns inside. They need protection from dubious winds. Some cultures …

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Conversations with Ayanobasiya (Part Two: Polygamy)

“Why would a man have more than one wife?” I asked Ayanobasiya. “What? Do you want a war!” she replied. “I am not a man. You need to ask a man why.” “Your father even married six women,” I said. “What good is in it? I want your perspective.” Beyond the assumed sexual reasons, a …

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Conversations with Ayanobasiya (Part One)

Ayanobasiya was always ready to talk about heavy subjects.  “Can you describe what the next world is like when we die?” I asked unexpectedly. “What is the afterlife like?” She laughed. “Who do you think I am? I am not a koko (a witch returned from the dead). I have not died before!” Ayanobasiya looked …

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A Stolen Stone and the Origins of Inequality

“Can you speak about the creation of the world?” I asked Asingiya, a Nankani elder from Sirigu, Ghana. I expected a story about spirits, the first people, or how a child emerged from the earth. Yet Asingiya offered a more astute account. “Aaron, is it true that as the day is breaking here, in America …

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Against the Slavers: An Account of Resistance

In an earlier essay, I described how some Nankani families exchanged their children for food during times of need. This essay offers a perspective on how the Nankani experienced and resisted slave raids [1600 words]. “The Ashanti were coming here for us,” said Asingya, an elder that gave me Nankani history lessons. He was describing …

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Of House or Bush: The Cultural Psychodynamics of Infanticide in Northern Ghana

My latest article was accepted for publication in Current Anthropology. It has been a long ten years in the making. Infanticide, Oedipus, projection, family conflict, scapegoats, and narcissistic injury--all the makings of a good drama. I'll be posting a link to it after some final edits. For now, the abstract (summing up the 12,000 word behemoth) and …

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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 …

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A Brief Note: Bourdain and Anthropology

I rarely react to celebrity deaths. And I avoid the social media detritus strewn in their wake. I don’t identify with the famous. Perhaps what makes my sentiments around Bourdain’s passing different is that he was one of ours. We won’t admit it, but despite some quirks, many anthropologists envied him. His fieldwork. His voice. …

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On Personhood and its Subjunctivity

This post reflects on tentative and malleable forms of personhood--a construct we often consider to be given and fixed throughout life. This is an enhanced version of material originally appearing in Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. [1,300 words] Elijah and I sat chatting with three elder men outside a compound. Earlier we …

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A Brief Reflection on Learning and Doing Ethnography

I'm not big on business clichés and recycled quotes. However, I found an interesting statement by someone describing Bruce Lee's method. It's pointless in isolation, but when I applied it to thinking about ethnography, it made me consider the value of learning and doing "classic" ethnography (immersion and long-term participant observation). Doing so is a luxury. …

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Narrative Transformations: Reflections on Frey’s “Carry Forth the Stories”

My commentary on Rodney Frey's latest ethnography, Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition, was reciently published. It was an honor to be able to review and comment on his book. Rodney was my first mentor and MA advisor. Much of what he taught, and what his mentors showed him, shaped who I …

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On the “Reality” of Witchcraft

The following are some thoughts I shared with my Culture, Health, and Disease students on belief and reality.  “Why would anyone admit they are a sorcerer or a witch?” is a question that arises when I teach topics related to witchcraft, sorcery, and belief. This is a well-trod theme for anthropologists. However, it remains significant …

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An Introduction to Spirit Children: The Case of N’ma

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. The following ethnographic vignette introduces the spirit child phenomenon through the case of N’ma. [2,600 words] Outside his office one morning Joe was urgently awaiting my arrival. With a notebook and mobile phone in hand, he quickly …

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