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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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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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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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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Rituals for Suspicion, Rituals for Fate

I must have seemed unhinged. I was in the midst of an extended period of fieldwork and appearing irrational, anxious, and paranoid to outsiders. Julien, a visiting Swiss vaccine researcher, joked that I might "go bush" if I was not careful. I was not losing my mind. Nor was I "going native," a term describing …

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Spirit Children and Family Misfortune: The Case of Victor

The following is a second excerpt from my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. Within rural Northern Ghana, the Nankani people describe how disabled or ill children and those whose births coincide with tragic events are spirit children sent from the bush to cause misfortune and destroy the family. Upon identification, …

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Risk, Hope, and Help-Seeking: The Case of Leah

The following is an excerpt from my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. I present Leah and the challenges that her family had while caring for her. Experience-near, ethnographic accounts provide a much needed "human" and "lived" dimension to the oft-sterile health statistics and stereotypes that are used to inform …

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