The anthropologist T.O. Beidelman recounts meeting a woman in Tanzania in 1957-1958 who had a ongoing dispute with her dead father. Her people, the Kaguru, believe that there exists a parallel world of ghosts, and that all souls cycle between our two worlds in an endless circle of rebirth. This belief, and the way it informs this woman’s quarrel with her late father, is highly gameable. Let’s take a look!
In the Kaguru conception, the country of ghosts (kusimu) is where you go when you die and where you come from when you’re born. People in the ghostland maintain villages and live much as people do in this world. But there, when a person is born, it is because someone on Earth just died. And when someone on Earth is born, someone in the ghostland dies so her soul can return to Earth. During an infant’s first few weeks of life, her friends and relatives in the ghostland may pull her back so they can still be together. Until she’s gotten settled here on Earth, she must be protected from jealous ghosts by the right rituals.
The unnamed Kaguru woman Beidelman spoke to was a mother whose many children all died in infancy. She blamed her late father. He wanted company in the ghostland, so as his relatives over there successively left to become her children, he drew them back. At your table, your PCs could easily encounter a despairing mother who begs the party to travel to the ghostland, talk to her dad, and get him to knock it off!
To enter the ghostland, the PCs must first be prepared for burial. In the Kaguru tradition, this means they have to find someone willing to wash them, shave them all over, and wrap them in black or white cloth. Because coming into contact with a corpse is spiritually polluting, normally people have to be paid to do this. It’s not clear whether preparing a non-corpse is polluting, so the PCs may have to haggle over whether compensation is appropriate, provided your players enjoy that sort of thing.
Some Kaguru stories have living heroes entering the ghostland through mountainside caves or through their reflections on still pools. The wicked cannot enter the ghostland: the ghosts of witches, evil men, and children born feet-first are consigned to the forest. Therefore, when your PCs pass through into the ghostland, they must pass a purity test appropriate to your fictional culture or be spat out. For example, Beidelman reports a strong Kaguru concern with symbolic incest, like a parent calling attention to her child’s nakedness. A fictional Kaguru purity test might involve standing naked in front of a vision of your parents while they point at your genitals and berate you. You have to somehow put a stop to the incest, maybe by finding something to cover yourself with or by proving that the vision isn’t really your parents.
Once the PCs have entered the ghostland, it’s a great opportunity to insert some trippy sequences drawn from their backstories (maybe encounters with dead relatives or visions of future lives).
The woman’s father is surrounded by the friends and family he drew back from Earth. If the PCs accost him, he rebukes their accusations. He’s not pulling people back out of selfishness! He’s sending a message the only way he can! There is a witch living among his daughter’s people, a situation both unacceptable and dangerous. The dead know more than the living, but not much more; he doesn’t know who the witch is.
In the Kaguru conception, witches (wahai) are inherently evil people and are not considered fully human. Some are born as witches. Others are merely born evil, and must learn witchcraft through incest and cannibalism. Witches hide in plain sight, posing as virtuous members of the community. They joyfully inflict misfortune, accidents, and sickness on those they should help, especially their family, neighbors, and in-laws. Witches cause natural disasters. They move at fantastic speed. They are friends with wild animals. They can spend the spirits of the evil dead – those unable to enter the ghostland – to possess the living. And they can bolster their own energy, strength, and intelligence by robbing it from their kin and from those nearby.
It’s worth pointing out that anxiety about witches is an almost universal human phenomenon. We in the U.S. were jailing people for supposed occult crimes as late as the 1990s. Kaguru beliefs are colorful (and therefore gameable), but not unique.
To find the witch, the party needs to leave the ghostland and consult a diviner. Diviners (muganga) cast stones and seeds, gaze into bowls of water, and poison chickens to watch how they flutter and die. From these signs, they can know much that is hidden. Generally, the farther you have to travel to meet a diviner, the more accurate the reading, since he’s less influenced by the evil forces behind your particular problem. You can tell he's a good diviner if he knows your problem without having to be told.
Since the PCs have to travel far to reach an untainted diviner, the witch has plenty of opportunities to attack them along the way. She could flood a river as they’re crossing it, send evil ghosts to make passers-by attack the PCs, or afflict them with diseases that will make the diviner want to avoid them. My personal favorite is that she could send giant pangolins or porcupines to attack the party. Both animals are associated with witches in the Kaguru conception, since they’re both unnatural: mammals with reptile scales and needles for fur, respectively.
The evil pangolin. Cute little guys, and highly endangered!
Image modified from the original by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
So who is the witch? It should be an NPC in the quest-giver’s village whom the PCs have interacted with before. Ideally, it will be someone they met the session before this one. It could be someone living in the bush, where she can practice her perversions in secret, or it could be someone important, like the mayor. It probably shouldn’t be the quest-giver – that’s just not a good twist.
As a final note, if you want to run an adventure in the ghostland but don’t want to change your campaign setting’s established afterlives, that’s fine. Just make it so that only the people of this region pass in and out of the ghostland in their cycle of rebirth. Everyone else still goes to the Nine Hells or Valhalla or wherever.
The Kaguru: A Matrilineal People of East Africa by T.O. Beidelman (1971)