Shhhh! There are Spirits Lurking …

Abstract geometric painting by Cecil Skotnes of two people, one listening in silence, the other speaking.
“Verbal Onslaught” by Cecil Skotnes.

In traditional West Africa, humans and spirits have always stood side-by-side, occasionally reaching over to tap one another on the shoulder, as if to remind each other of their mutual existence. Whatever tenuous line is drawn between them is porous; humans must hold their ground as spirits ― malicious, capricious and sometimes benevolent ― wander.

Tact and wisdom, discretion and restraint ― even, at times, utter silence ― are Africa’s way of toeing that barely perceptible line, of standing firm against a very tightly-juxtaposed and very densely-populated spirit world. Rites and rituals, totems and taboos have been culturally implanted, like resistant fence posts meant to dissuade, circumvent, and thwart more unearthly intrigues. While diviners and healers may be specialized in spiritualistic shoulder-tapping, the common man must perpetually be protected and prepared to avoid, at all costs, provoking these highly peevish and petulant beings. 

The Sound of Silence

There are spirits lurking, in the hollows of baobabs, in the shadows of the bush, in the Sahelian dust, in the stones, timber, and fibers of West Africa — and ultimately in the masks, sculptures, and amulets they help to create. There are spirits meandering, in the obscurity and silence of night.

No blow on a blacksmith‘s anvil, no strike on a grinder’s mortar, no rattling on a weaver‘s loom, not even the rustling of seeds against a mancala player’s board must pierce this precarious stillness. In a nocturnal world where even the whimsical act of whistling risks attracting the unasked for ― an unwitting call to spirits ― then, given the power of words in traditional West Africa, speech must be measured, modulated, metaphorized, or even altogether muted, especially after dark.

“A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string.”

― Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart​1​

Caught in the shadows of night, words become evasive, artful and euphemious. Past dusk, cijin boro — “person of the night” — becomes the Songhai circumlocution used to skirt the more ill-boding, danger-fraught word carkaw, or witch.​2​ Meanwhile, snakes, charcoal, and needles also fall into the realm of the unspeakable as the respective nighttimes of Bainuk-Gujaher and Bambara-speakers fall. Verbal evasions such as “the one that slithers”, “a rope on the ground”, “plenty of black things”, or “one sews with it” slip off of cautious tongues instead.

WordGujaher Daylight Term After Nightfall
needlesahraŋalufahal (“one sews with it”)
charcoalbaŋaɲbarahi (“plenty of black things”)
saltmuméermuntedahal (“thing one cooks with”)
snakeonoubooxuna (“the one that slithers”)
soapsaafunaaɲejaxël (“the enjoyable”)
WordBambara Daylight TermAfter Nightfall
charcoalkembofimaŋ (“the black one”)
needlemiselikaralelaŋ (“sewing instrument”)
saltkɔgɔnandialaŋ (“condiment”)
snakesaaduguma fɛ (“the one on the ground”)

[Source: Friederike Lüpke. Why African Languages​3​]

Off Tuareg tongues rolls the paraphrase wa itâttin ighäydän, or “he who eats goats”, to replace the unnameable, dreaded jackal, әggur or ebәggi. To speak by tәngal, by “allusion”, is the Tamasheq art of veiled speech; an ancient language skill meant to hold “the dangers posed by certain supernatural beings, called aljin (pl. aljinän)” at bay.​4​

Spirits may summon, by proper name, in the dead of night. “Is that me?” is the careful Igbo response to a voice, possibly not-of-this-world, calling out through the obscurity.​1​

“Speech is Silver, Silence is Golden”

In traditional West Africa, speech is aesthetic, aphoristic and allegorical, appeasing both mundane and ethereal worlds. “Let the day break,” kachibọọ in Igbo, stands, poetically, allusively, for goodnight. Among the Yoruba, one never utters the true name of diseases. The Tamberma have a literal ‘never-say-die’ euphemism: onitiloua, or “the person sleeps.” And for the Lebu, the exact number of offspring is never stated, lest evil spirits overhear:

“Do not count us, please, we are ‘God’s-Bits-of-Wood’, you would put us to death.”

― Senegalese writer, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, God’s Bits of Wood ​5​

This West African conception of subdued speech and the wisdom of silence is strikingly visible in the tightly pursed-lipped masks of the Mende of Sierra Leone, where taciturnity is exalted and “images of ideal, perfect silence permeate the society.”​6​

“Untitled” by Cecil Skotnes

If uttered words have the power “to cause to happen”, then silence, or at least the understated, has the power to prevent, protect, and placate in an ever-enigmatic world.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 1.
    Achebe C. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books; 1994.
  2. 2.
    Minkailou M. Exploring euphemism in standard Songhay. Recherches Africaines Annales de l’Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Bamako. 2016;16:31-39.
  3. 3.
    Lüpke F. Things You Can’t Say at Night. Why African Languages. Published February 17, 2019. Accessed May 20, 2019.
  4. 4.
    Casajus D. Parole retenue et parole dangereuse chez les Touaregs du Niger. jafr. 1987:97-107. doi:10.3406/jafr.1987.2164
  5. 5.
    Sembène O. Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu. Paris: Pocket; 2013.
  6. 6.
    Boone SA. Radiance from the Waters : Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1986.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments