Accepted Paper:

Dwelling on death in water: Interpreting the state(s) of drowning and undercurrents of power in Ghana  


Kirsty Wissing (CSIRO)

Paper short abstract:

This paper will dwell on water as death, not life, and unpack Akwamu interpretations of drowning in Ghana. By exploring rituals thought to move the victim and broader society from watery ambiguity to certainty on/in land, I will ask how death in water threatens and/or consolidates state(s) of power.

Paper long abstract:

What happens when water as the source of life inverts to become the cause of death? Can social stability and hierarchy as related through the prism of water as life be achieved, maintained, or threatened in the context of death by drowning?

In southern Ghana, where traditional Akwamu beliefs hold that a deity embeds each fresh water river, human drowning and other water-related mishaps can mean more than mere misfortune. Such incidents are interpreted as non-human spiritual valuations of human attitudes, behaviours and personhoods and highlight a hierarchy in Akwamu human-environment relationships. They may also, however, reflect undercurrents of power in human-human relationships.

Drawing on thirteen months of ethnographic research, I will unpack Akwamu interpretations of drowning in the Volta River, Ghana. After considering notions of 'natural' compared to 'unnatural' death, I will explore how traditional ritual practices are thought to move the drowning victim from watery ambiguity to certainty and finality on/in land. In doing so, these rituals are also thought to symbolically shift broader society from a state of uncertainty associated with unnatural death (back) to an understood, everyday social life. In this paper, I will dwell on the question of how death in water can threaten and/or consolidate traditional Akwamu state(s) of power.

Panel P021
Dwelling on water: mobilities, immobilities and metaphors