Invisible Companions
Encounters with Imaginary Friends, Gods, Ancestors, and Angels
J. Bradley Wigger




“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”

HWAN, a boy six years old and full of sparkle, is running around the room; then he starts the camera rolling for his own interview. Hwan’s mother, a native of Korea, explains that he is always talking to someone while he plays, even though nobody is there. A mutual friend told her about the study and she thought we might like to talk with Hwan.

“Do you know why you’re here today?” Katrina asks the boy.

“So I can be the cameraman?”

“So you can be the cameraman!” Katrina laughs. “No, I want to talk to you about some of your friends.”

Anticipating where this was going Hwan responds, “Well, the invisible friend, Holy Spirit?”

Katrina, who had interviewed over a dozen children for the project at this point, freezes. She takes a deep breath, nods, and says “All right.” Then silence.

After a few more seconds Hwan offers, “You can continue.”

Hwan was never clear about who he was talking to in play, whether the Holy Spirit, another invisible friend, or himself. But he did explain that the Holy Spirit had arrived the previous Christmas and that they liked to read the Bible together and pray. When asked to illustrate his friend, Hwan drew a flame, a traditional Christian symbol for the Spirit taken from the biblical story of Pentecost in the book of Acts. Tongues of fire appeared and rested upon a gathering of followers of Jesus, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, the Scripture says, and began to speak in other languages. The story itself plays on an even older one: the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis, which tells how the one language of people became many. On Pentecost, the many languages of the world are spoken, but everyone hears their own native tongue and understands. For Hwan, who hears Korean at home and in church and uses English at school and among his friends, I can imagine how the juxtaposition of tongues and language with fire and Spirit must make for an intriguing story. Why not become friends with this Holy Spirit?

Hwan’s Invisible Friend

*   *   *

I felt as if Hwan were looking over my shoulder as I drafted and redrafted interview questions I would pose to children in this cross-cultural phase of research. I was soon headed for East Africa, to Kenya, where my son, David, and daughter-in-law, Amy, were working. I would go from there to Malawi, where a friend lives. This was a chance to compare children’s minds and imaginations across cultures. While the children in the Louisville study came from a variety of church denominations, nearly all were Christian. And with the exception of Hwan and two African American girls, the children were white Euro-Americans. A rich opportunity lay ahead. But time with children would be much more limited than it had been in the US, my questions and their answers would have to be translated, and I wasn’t sure of the best way to ask about imaginary friends in places where they may not even have them.

Perhaps IFs are a feature of places with lots of resources for children, of cultures that emphasize play and recreation, especially in childhood. David had warned me that a colleague there had told him, “Children in Kenya don’t have imaginary friends.” He wasn’t sure what that was based upon. The colleague who said this was from the US, had married a Kenyan man, and lived in the city. David’s theory of mind knew she might be working with a false belief on the matter. “But your Dad should ask about the ancestors,” she suggested, still encouraging the research. “They’re everywhere and very important.” She went on to say that they did not name their children for days after birth, not until an ancestor came in a dream to tell them what their names were.

Kenya is not unusual in this regard. Nearly every culture around the globe features invisible figures of one sort or another, from ghosts to gods. I thought if I found out Kenyan kids indeed do not have imaginary friends, that would be important information. And I could at least explore how children think about the minds of other types of invisible beings. For example, would the children tend to think ancestors know what ordinary mortals do not, much as the alux and the Sun did in the Mayan study? Whether or not children in Kenya or Malawi or other parts of the world have imaginary friends, I could still explore how they think about invisible minds.

So I was thinking about Hwan as I struggled to draft an interview protocol. He reminded me that the lines between an invisible friend and a religious figure are not always so clear. And once again the language we used to explore these questions would matter. To call the Holy Spirit an imaginary friend could be insulting to Hwan and his religious sensibilities, and I did not want to make the equivalent insult in another culture. Invisible friend, okay, but imaginary or pretend implies not real. Such a distinction was something the social scientist Antonia Mills discovered when she tried to determine whether children in India had “imaginary playmates,” as she called them. She asked a gathering of psychologists as well as parents and people more generally whether they knew of any children with imaginary playmates, and “the answer was universally, ‘no.’ The common explanation was that children were never alone and therefore had no need to invent an imaginary companion.” However, she eventually discovered children who did talk to figures that nobody else could see, and she determined that the issue was the term imaginary. These companions of children were believed to be beings from the spirit realm and/or from a previous life—real, not “imaginary.” They were simply invisible. So how to avoid the same mistake if possible? How to respect the cultural differences and make meaningful comparisons to the culture from which I come?

Beneath these questions were ancient philosophical paradoxes about the One and the Many, the Universal and the Particular. To study anything about human existence is to entertain these puzzles. How much of childhood—whether play, imaginary friends, or theory-of-mind development—is cultural, rooted in the social patterns of a particular time and place? How much is universal, rooted in the kinds of bodies and brains we are born with? Consider language. Children around the world generally begin to babble by eight months of age, making repetitive ba-ba-ba and ga-ga-ga noises, playing with sounds and their ability to create them. On a continuum from universal to cultural phenomena, babbling skews heavily towards the universal. However, during that second year of life, those babbling sounds begin to take cultural shape, becoming words in English or Swahili, for example. Yet nothing is simple. Even before they babble, by six months of age babies around the globe can differentiate the language of their home from other languages, favoring the one they normally hear. Then again, some children never speak. In severe autism, for instance, children may never learn to use any language because of the difficulty of engaging the social-cultural world. Humans are generally deeply cultural beings, yet to be deeply cultural demands capacities such as sharing attention, hearing, and the production of sounds that seem to transcend any particular culture, capacities that run deep in our species.

In the weeks ahead, I was about to hike a path where the cultural and universal meet, making even the simplest questions of childhood development complicated. Invisible friends and mind reading could be more like shared attention and babbling or they could be more like Swahili. Add to this trek the vast individual differences between people within relatively homogenous cultures. Some children in the same family have imaginary friends, others don’t; and some siblings share such a friend. Some imaginary friends are as shapeshifting as Proteus, others maintain stable shape. And so on.

The pressing pragmatic question remained: What do I ask children?

I finally landed on this approach: “Some children have friends that nobody else can see. Do you have any friends nobody else can see?” It is not a perfect question. It would miss the Winnie-the-Pooh or Calvin and Hobbes breed of imaginary friends rooted in a visible toy or doll. But it would bypass the imaginary-versus-real tension that Mills discovered in India and we found with Hwan’s friend the Holy Spirit.

Soon I would be posing the question to children in a small Luo village within sight of Lake Victoria, or Nam Lolwe in the Luo language. The Luo are only one of dozens of ethnic groups that compose what is now the nation of Kenya. But the Luo are also in neighboring countries, mostly around Lake Victoria (in Uganda and Tanzania, for example), having settled in the region about the time Columbus sailed to the Americas. In recent years, they have become best known as the ethnic group of Barack Obama Senior, the US president’s father. David and Amy were teaching in an Anglican school serving some of the poorest children in the region. Because of their teaching, they knew the families and children of the area well and could arrange interviews.

*   *   *

Before the interviews began, I had the opportunity to spend time with an expert in Luo culture, Professor Denis Oluoch-Oduor, who was teaching at a Catholic university outside Nairobi at the time and is Luo from the region near the city of Kisumu. A scholar of both Christian theology and Luo religion, he was able to introduce me to traditional Luo beliefs and practices as well as contemporary ones. He helped me identify other potential invisible figures that children would readily know about, in addition to God and possible imaginary friends. When I asked whether children had invisible friends, I did not get a clear answer. He, like David’s colleague, began talking about ancestors. The ancestors—that is, the spirits of family members who have died—are indeed important figures in the lives of the Luo, he confirmed. They are buried on the family homestead and are considered to be present and involved in the everyday affairs of the living. They are allies to the family, frequenting dreams to provide wisdom when they are honored. But they can cause trouble for those who would dishonor them or the homestead. The professor provided more context for the ancestors by describing the traditional Luo understanding of the cosmos, the world seen and unseen. Three spheres compose the world: an upper, or sky, region (where God lives); the middle sphere of the living (“where we are,” he said); and the underworld populated by the “living dead” (ancestors both recent and ancient). The spheres are interrelated, something those of us in the middle sphere may experience especially through dreams, in rituals, in prayer, and in the larger environment where trees and rain are so important. “When it rains, the underworld people are cooking,” and when the ancestors have not been cooking enough to sustain crops and wells, people traditionally pray to the ancestors and offer libations to encourage rain.

When he told me this, I wondered for a moment how many prayers for rain have been offered through time and space on this planet. On the continuum between religious universal and particular, I imagine praying for rain must fall as near to the universal end as anything. And yet in Kenya, as in many parts of the world, even when the prayers are successful, holding onto the water has become increasingly difficult. Wangari Maathai, Kenyan and winner of the Noble Peace Prize for her environmental Green Belt Movement, has helped make her home country, if not the world, aware of the importance of trees to this middle sphere of life. When the forests are diminished for construction and development, the land loses its ability to hold water and its fertile topsoil washes away. Maathai initiated a tree-planting movement in Kenya; its first seven trees in downtown Nairobi in 1975 have turned into over 50 million and counting. Based upon traditional religious beliefs she learned as a child, she sees the environment as sacred, the hand of God stretching towards us to help us live. We slap that hand away at our own peril. If modern world views have made traditional reverence for the spirits in trees and rocks and streams difficult, they have come at high costs.

As Dr. Oluoch-Oduor was sharing with me the importance of the natural world in traditional Luo religion, he described a ritual in which the Sun is prayed to in the morning, addressed as “the eye of God.” This caught my ear. The study by Nicola Knight among the Mayan children of the Yucatán had also asked children about the Sun, because there too, the Sun is a god. As is the case in many Mayan communities, the blending of Christianity and traditional religious practices and beliefs is quite common among the Luo. Which belief or practice is invoked often depends upon the circumstance.

As I listened to the professor describe God’s eye, I was struck again by the strange intermingling of visibility and invisibility, of seeing or not. The ancestors are remembered in bodily—visible—form and “seen” in some sense in a person’s dreams. Otherwise they are known in spirit form—invisible—after death, indirectly, by the help or troubles they instigate. On the other hand, the Sun itself is visible, but also a god. And the Sun’s light makes seeing possible in the first place, if not for people, then for God. In both the ancestors and the Sun, the visible form blends with invisible personalities—that is, with a theory of mind, if not their essence or soul. As we found with the children in Louisville, relationships can take deep and abiding form with the invisible.

In addition to asking children about invisible friends, I would ask them about ancestors and the Sun.


Children in India: Antonia A. Mills, “Are Children with Imaginary Playmates and Children Said to Remember Previous Lives Cross-culturally Comparable Categories?,” Transcultural Psychiatry 40 (2003): 67–90, quotes from 67. Babbling: Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl, The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind (New York: Harper, 1999), 110–11. See also Michael Tomasello, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 31ff. Luo culture: Denis Oluoch-Oduor, in discussion with the author, May 25, 2012. See also Nancy Schwartz, “Active Dead or Alive: Some Kenyan Views about the Agency of Luo and Luyia Women Pre- and Post-mortem,” Journal of Religion in Africa 30, no. 4 (2000): 433–67; and Parker Shipton, “Debts and Trespasses: Land, Mortgages, and the Ancestors in Western Kenya,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 62 no. 3 (1992): 357–88. Green Belt Movement: For more, see Environment as sacred: Wangari Maathai, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 143. Interviewed one hundred Luo children: A more detailed description of the IF portion of the interviews in the four non-US countries, along with the results can be found in Wigger, “Invisible Friends across Four Countries.”