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?


Dale, G. (1920). The Peoples of Zanzibar: Their Customs and Religious Beliefs. Universities’ Mission to Central Africa.

Danfulani, U. H. D. (1999). Factors Contributing to the Survival of The Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria. Numen, 46(4), 412–447. https://doi.org/10.1163/1568527991201437

Giles, L. L. (1999). Spirit Possession & the Symbolic Construction of Swahili Society. In H. Heike & U. Luig (Eds.),   Spirit Possession, Modernity, and Power in Africa  . The University of Wisconsin Press.

Giles, L. L. (2018). Translocal Interconnections within the Swahili Spirit World. In F. Declich (Ed.), Translocal Connections across the Indian Ocean Swahili Speaking Networks on the Move. Brill.

Janzen, J. M. (1992). Ngoma Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa. University of California Press. https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft3779n8vf&chunk.id=d0e440&toc.depth=100&toc.id=d0e440&brand=ucpress

Luig, U. (1999). Constructing Local Worlds: Spirit Possession in the Gwembe Valley, Zambia. In H. Behrend & U. Luig (Eds.), Spirit Possession, Modernity, and Power in Africa. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Okagbue, O. (2008). Deviants and Outcasts: Power and Politics in Hausa Bori Performances. New Theatre Quarterly, 24(3), 270–280. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0266464x08000328

Stoller, P. (2010). Fusion of the Worlds. University of Chicago Press.

Sullivan, J. (2005). Exploring Bori as a Site of Myth in Hausa Culture. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 17(2), 271–282. https://doi.org/10.1080/13696850500448378

Traditional African Religion and Social Resistance Movements

October 2020 will be remembered for a long time as a pivotal moment of change in the history of Nigeria. The fact that the country marked the 60th anniversary of its independence in the same month is perhaps a mere coincidence with the uprising that occurred days later. Though an intimation with the nature of colonial trauma, the inherited vestiges of disdain and disregard for African lives that police brutality and other malaise signify, instruct us that perhaps the 60th independence of Nigeria was in fact a catalyst for the uprising.

Whichever way you look at it though, no one could have anticipated that it was at this important point in the history of Nigeria that Nigerian youths would rise in unprecedented numbers to demand an end to years of police brutality, as well as accountability from leaders, and a truer and more creatively imagined independence from a colonial hierarchy of being.

The resistance in Nigeria is one of many that have occurred across the continent in the year 2020, even though the world had been brought to its knees by a pandemic. In South Africa alone, a total of 511 protests were recorded from 27 March to 31 July 2020. Namibians, particularly women, were also out on the streets in the same period as the Nigerian protests demanding an end to widespread gender-based violence. Meanwhile, in Mali, we saw thousands march in the street to demand an end to poor leadership.

The year 1960 is referred to as The Year of Africa because, in that year, at least 17 African nations became independent from their colonial rulers. These countries all have interesting stories about the movements, and in many cases, the resistances, that led to their independence and the fact that a wave of movements and resistances are being witnessed exactly 60 years later can seem to be more than a coincidence.  Social resistance is nothing new in Africa, however, the fact that we have better tools to organize, report, fundraise and support each other across borders and physical barriers, is perhaps what has made some of these movements as monumental as they have ever been.

In keeping with the theme of resistance, this piece takes a look at how elements of two African belief systems influenced two major social resistance movements in colonial Africa.

The Chimurenga Resistance (Zimbabwe, 1896-1897)

In any social movement, religion can either be a catalyst or an inhibitor. These roles are represented by Max Weber’s notion of a “proactive religion” which can lead to socio-economic transformation; and Karl Marx’s notion of a passive religion, where he famously describes it as the “opium of the people” and consequently incapable of bringing about any kind of social change within oppressive systems.

The story of the Chimurenga Resistance exemplifies how religion and religious elements can serve as catalysts for social change. Chimurenga is attributed to the Shona people and can be translated as “revolutionary struggle” or “uprising”.

Like many colonized countries on the continent, the colonization of Zimbabwe happened through a web of deceit and violence perpetrated by the British South African Company in the early 1890s. The British South African Company employed a specific method of divide and conquer, or indirect rule,  which has been attributed to Fredrick Lugard.

The indirect rule sought to outlaw spirit mediums and rely solely on traditional rulers to help establish colonial authority within colonies. The system employed local chiefs to serve as ‘mouthpieces’ and ‘right hands’ (Fields, 1985), on behalf of colonizers who sought to control the chiefs for the ultimate aim of controlling the people. However, the colonizers failed to consider the fact that across many African societies, there isn’t typically a separation between the political, social and religious aspects of life and this meant that spirit mediums, known as n’angas, were just as powerful and influential as traditional chiefs (Kaoma, 2016).

To establish the dominion of chiefs over their localities, the colonizers outlawed n’angas and this set the stage for the influential roles spirit mediums played during what is now known as the First Chimurenga. According to Kaoma (2016), the attempt to outlaw spirit mediums and to denounce witchcraft and superstitions also created a social crisis which resulted in an undermining of the authority of chiefs whom themselves depended on spirit mediums for their authority.

Expulsion from their ancestral lands and imposed taxes further compounded the grievances that the Shona and Ndebele had against their colonizers. So, between 1896 and 1897, the Shona and the Ndebele communities, through the help of n’angas, violently rebelled against the British South African Company.

The rebellion was led by spirit mediums who were adherents of the Mwari Deity or ancestral cult. The mediums who communicated with Mawri and channelled the deity’s messages to the community were mainly women and Kaoma (2016) emphasized the fact that Mwari’s voice was a woman to highlight the important role women played within the belief system as well as the resistance movement.

The deity Mawri is quoted as attributing various misfortunes including severe drought, a locust invasion, disease in cattle and violent deaths to the arrival of colonizers. The deity thus called for the Shona and Ndebele people to “go and kill these white people and drive them out of our father’s land and I Mwari will take away the cattle disease and the locusts and send you rain.” (Daneel 1970, as cited in Kaoma, 2016).

With that, the spiritual leader, known as Mlimo, led nearly 2,000 warriors to fight against the British. It is said that the power of the Ndebele warriors peaked during the full moon and with that knowledge, their first attack was carried out on the night of March 29, 1896, beneath a full moon.

Eventually, the leaders of the rebellion were conquered and sentenced to death by the British, however, they were evoked by nationalist leaders and adherents of the Mawri deity to mobilize support for the Second Chimurenga which eventually led to the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 (Kamao, 2016).

The Majimaji War (Tanzania, 1904-1908)

The Majimaji War saw Tanzanians rise in resistance against colonization by Germany. Leaving an estimated 100 to 300,000 southern Tanzanians dead, it has been described as one of the most catastrophic wars of colonial Africa (Rushohora, 2019). Like in Zimbabwe a decade earlier, the Majimaji resistance was initiated by a spirit medium named Kinjekitile Ngwale. The resistance was a result of frustration with years of German colonization which featured forced labor, torture, and unfair tax systems. 

Ngwale, described as being possessed by a snake spirit called Hongo, was able to mobilize various groups to take part in the uprising. He was a powerful medicine man who gained popularity in the years leading up to the war. As word spread about him, people began traveling to see him as it was widely believed that his medicine provided several benefits including good health and harvest. However, most notably, Nwgale was popular for claiming to have found a way to repel German bullets. His secret was healing water which he referred to as Majimaji, and could “give invulnerability, acting in such a way that enemy bullets would fall from their targets like raindrops from a greased body.”

A study analyzing the coordination of the Majimaji resistance emphasizes the role of “witchcraft” in coalescing various groups of people to struggle against a common enemy (Iliffe, 1967). According to John Iliffe (1967), the group of mediums led by Ngwale were most likely the religious counterparts of the mediums responsible for the Chimerunga Resistance years earlier. However, the mediums in Tanzania were adherents of a serpent deity and were referred to as the Kolelo cult and believed to have possessed supernatural elements including mediumship, possession, and command over death  (Iliffe, 1967).

Tanzanian warriors, armed only with arrows, spears, and Majimaji water, thus launched an offensive against the Germans, first attacking small outposts, before spreading throughout the colony. Eventually, the Majimaji War involved 20 different ethnic groups all fighting towards dispelling German colonizers.

The Role of Religion in Modern Resistance Movements

In a modern, increasingly globalized and multicultural world, what role can religion play in resistance movements such as the #EndSARS or #BlackLivesMatter movements?

Nepstad & Williams (2007) argue that religion provides important organizational resources including networks of members, meeting spaces, fund-raising capacities, leadership, and free spaces to promote the development of organizing skills, etc. However, beyond these, religious institutions can also offer theological and ideological critiques of existing social issues such as the wanton killings and brutalization of people by agents of the state. Even within multicultural societies where there might be an absence of a unifying ‘Cultural Religion’ (the overlap between cultural and religious elements (Nepstad & Williams, 2007), extant religious institutions can still render themselves useful to modern resistance movements.

However, whether or not existing religious institutions are willing to lend their voices to resistance movements is another area of inquiry entirely. If the response of religious institutions in Nigeria to the  #EndSARS movement is any indication, then it can safely be concluded that religious institutions, or at least those in Nigeria, cannot be expected to fully and outrightly support resistance movements. This conclusion is largely drawn from the loud silence that has emanated out of the pulpits of some of the world’s largest megachurches based in Nigeria.

Asides from mega-pastors and churches, other religious entities have also been largely mute during the #EndSARS movement. The Association of Nigerian Witches and Wizards, known to have declared its support in 2014 during the fight against Boko Haram, has largely been quiet. So has the Muslim religious body in Nigeria.

So What?

As seen with the Chimurenga and Majimaji movements, a shared cultural religion was pivotal in bringing together different groups which collectively participated in both movements. However, and perhaps, largely due to the suppression of African religions, we are likely never to see a similar uprising as either the Chimurenga or the Majimaji which were both entirely inspired and dependent on various aspects of the prevailing African belief systems.

Still, there are various concepts from African religions that can inspire modern resistance movements, after all, as John Mbiti has asserted, Africans’ belief in God has always engendered a moral response which has directed moral life and interaction long before the first European settlers came with their religions and philosophies.


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