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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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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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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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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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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Finding Empathy Through Troubling Stories

As I wrote about infanticide and the “spirit child” phenomenon in Northern Ghana, I became interested in how narratives of vulnerability and difficult human experiences can evoke powerful emotional and imaginative reactions in listeners and readers. Spirit children are, most often, disabled or ill children believed to be spirits sent to destroy the family. In …

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