Spirit Possession: a return to wholeness?

Sarkin Rafi during a Bori performance in Zaria. Source: (Okagbue, 2008)

This article continues the exploration of spirits in Hausa Animism which was shared in a previous article titled ‘Spirits (Bori/Iskoki) in Hausa Animism‘. In the previous article, we learned that the Hausas believe that spirits were at one point humans who were then condemned to live as spirits, in the unseen world, by god.

The god-made division between the spirit and human siblings had consequences, especially for the human siblings who have to spend much of their lives appeasing their spirit-siblings. The spirit-siblings, according to Sullivan (2005), have had to rely on two main mediums of expressions, “the language of malady, which expresses their displeasure at being ignored or defiled” and “the language of the adept’s body, in which [the] spirits can manifest their otherwise ethereal presence in corporeal form.” Sullivan (2005) argues that spirit possession, or Bori, is a reintegration between the long-separated siblings, which brings about a balance (wholeness) in the wellbeing of the humans who would otherwise be doomed to suffer afflictions.

This piece is an attempt to uncover if and how other belief systems across the continent are similar to Hausa Animism in the belief that humans need to foster relationships with spirits for the sake of their wellbeing and wholeness.

Ngoma: Swahili ( Tanzania)

In Tanzania, spirit possession ceremonies are called Ngoma but, beyond possession rites, they are avenues for the veneration and propitiation of spirits to obtain healing, protection and help to ward off the influence of evil spirits and witchcraft (Giles, 2018). The term Ngoma also refers to various “performance(s), drumming, dancing, celebration, and ritual therapy” (Janzen, 1992). A simple search of the term Ngoma will bring up many results, most of which fail to state that Ngoma is, in fact, first a healing/possession ceremony (Ngoma za kutibu) out of which emerged the now better known and purely entertaining form of the ceremony (Janzen, 1992).

As Janzen (1992) shows in great detail, Ngomas are often an avenue for healing. The typical scenario is this: an individual suffers an ailment of unknown causes, and after a series of consultations with traditional medicine people, it is determined that a specific spirit is responsible for the sickness. At this point, a ceremony holds to appease the spirit. In many cases, the individual becomes an initiate into the cult of the spirit responsible for their ailment.

Ngoma cults have been referred to as “cults of affliction” (Janzen, 1992), perhaps because most new adherents join after being healed from their afflictions. It is worth noting that not all members of these cults suffered ailments before they joined. Both Janzen (1992) and Giles (2018) go into detail about the differences in Ngoma cults across Tanzania. Each region has various spirits they recognize, and in many cases, these spirits are often categorized based on their location (e.g. land and water spirits), their origins (e.g. Kiarabu or spirits of Arab origins, and Kipemba spirits or native Swahili spirits), e.t.c.

So while Ngoma might, in the modern-day, be a form of entertainment, its origins emphasized the role of spirits who are responsible for afflictions from which humans sought healing.

Holle Hori: Songhay (Niger)

The belief in spirits is a central feature in the religious system of the Songhay in Niger. Similar to Swahili, they also have characterizations of spirits based on their origins and some times, race. The more contact they had with foreigners, the more their pantheon of spirits expanded. For instance, the Genji Kwari, or white spirits, were included as they interacted with the Tuareg, who at the time were Islamic dispute arbitrators. Similarly, Hausa spirits (of sickness and death), were included in the Songhay pantheon in the nineteenth century (Stoller, 2010).

The existence of these spirits necessitated a cult of worshippers and possession troupes which often included priests, mediums, singers, and instrumentalists who launched spirit possession ceremonies or Holle Hori and staged rites that allowed the interaction between spirits and humans (Stoller, 2010).

Like in Tanzania, initiates of a particular spirit cult are typically those who have suffered ailments believed to be caused and healed by the spirit a cult is dedicated to. Similarly, and in many cases, it is only after being initiated that the spirit grants reprieve from the afflictions and the new devotee can live in harmony with the spirit. New members into spirit cults are said to “devote a large part of their lives to their spirits; they wear clothes associated with them, make sacrifices to them, and attend possession ceremonies” dedicated to these spirits (Berliner, 2009).

Two Halves of a Whole

Across the spiritual traditions discussed here, we see that humans and spirits seem to have a symbiotic relationship—where the existence of one depends on the other. A thread that connects Bori, Ngoma, and Halle Hori is the belief that humans are each born with an accompanying spirit, who might inflict an affliction on individuals if and when neglected. Any form of healing or respite comes after the spirit has been sought out and appeased. In many cases, these offerings are also initiation rites for the afflicted individual who then becomes a part of the cult dedicated to the spirit that had caused their ailment.

Belief in spirits, as observed in these traditions, have broad implications including. One implication is the conviction that there are forces beyond what human senses can perceive, and that these forces have a locus of influence spanning across every aspect of existence on Earth. As expressed by the fact that most aspects of the natural world have governing spirits, from rain, ailments, trees, animals, rocks and mountains, etc.

In Bori, for instance, we see that totem animals and certain sites (rivers, mountains, hills, trees) are venerated and protected because of their spiritual significance to adherents. As a result of the value placed on these animals and sites, they are often not allowed to be hunted or killed, and the sites are protected because they are holy (Danfulani, 1999).

Another implication of the belief in spirits would be the need to preserve the natural environment while being mindful that the existence of other living things enriches human existence. As seen with Bori, certain animals were sacred because they were totemic spirits, while parts of nature were holy sites because spirits resided there (Danfulani, 1999). Likewise, in Tanzania, we see distinctions between land and water spirits (Janzen, 1992). As a result, it is safe to assume that the behaviour of any people who hold such beliefs would aim at maintaining a balanced relationship with their immediate natural environment because they believe that spirits can and often do, lash out when not propitiated.

Naturally, these implications lead to more questions like, what explanations can be we find in African belief systems for the current state of the world? How would they explain global warming, or the COVID-19 outbreak, or mental health crises, for that matter? Should we be looking to these systems for redemption?


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