Monthly Archives: June 2013

Possessed by the European Spirits

What is happening when people talk about the supernatural?  What does it mean to talk about ghosts, witches and spirits?  While these things seem otherworldly and strange—in fact, precisely because of their otherworldliness—they are often a good way of talking about real concerns.  They can provide people with a way of understanding traumatic pasts, as well as dealing with overwhelming tensions and transformations in their current lives.  The supernatural gives us a space, close by but very removed, in which to act out and explore forces which we don’t dare look at straight on.

The traumas and transformations that we understand through the supernatural may be personal, but the supernatural can also provide a way of confronting historical trauma or contemporary social changes.

One very clear example of this is the sudden manifestation of ‘European’ spirits within West African spirit cults during the colonial period.  The appearance, behaviour and histories of these ‘European’ spirits provided people with a means of imitating, interrogating and integrating the colonial powers.  The details of these spirits, known as Turawa, are given in Matthias Kring’s chapter, “On History and Language of the ‘European’ Bori Spirits,” in the book Spirit Possession: Modernity and Power in Africa.  Here, Kring focuses on the Turawa as they appear in Kano, Northern Nigeria (made famous by the attacks of Boko Haram).

When these European Turawa spirits possess (or ‘mount’) an adept of the bori cult, they mark themselves out from other spirits through their manner and their language.  These spirits are all military men, relate to one another through rank and chains of command.  When they manifest, they “transform the dance ground into a military drill ground,” sometimes roping spectators into the manoeuvres.  They are linked with sunglasses, cigarettes, booze, toy guns, whips and ball point pens.  Spirits speak their own languages—the Turawa’s sound a lot like gibberish French and English.  They speak the local language, Hausa, with sloppy grammar and nasal accents, peppering it with French and Pidgin English (à bon, I beg!).

These spirits first erupted in 1925 in Niger as the Hauka, startling military spirits whose appearance alarmed both traditional authorities and the French colonial forces.  With their European-style drilling and marching, they seemed like a potentially insurrectionary force.  The local district commissioner, Major Crochichia tried to crush the movement by seizing and imprisoning sixty Hauka adepts, forcing them to publicly admit that the spirits were not real.  Shortly after their release, a new spirit appeared: the ‘wicked commander’ named Krosisya.  The Hauka quickly spread throughout West Africa.  The ‘wicked commander’ reveals the potential for subversive mockery within the supernatural, as well as a process by which the oppressor’s force can be performed, claimed, and owned—for Krosisya has remained a prominent spirit, and one now often used in anti-witchcraft practice.

When Kring interviewed the spirits (through their ‘mounts’) about their history, they recounted dream-like versions of European history from a West African perspective, with particular focus on the First and Second World Wars.  For example, one spirit tells Kring, “At the time when you had trouble in your cities, when you hand your uproar, well, we took it (as if it were) our uproar.”  What’s striking here is that the ‘European’ spirit speaks from the perspective of the West Africans who were drafted into the colonisers’ armies.  The Nigerian possessed by a European spirit speaks as one of the many Nigerians who really were seized by European powers, or—more correctly—as a Nigerian who internalised British propaganda, who genuinely entered into British thinking: “we took it as our uproar.”  Within this, however, there is a demand for recognition of African service, or rather, historical agency and ownership: “we took it as our uproar.”  When the Nigerian is possessed by the European spirit, it enacts colonialism, but it is simultaneously an act by which the Nigerian claims, possesses and transforms those European powers.  There is a subtle negotiation of power at work here.

Since independence, the Turawa spirits have remained prominent, but they have undergone significant changes.  One spirit is known as Jamus-‘bata k’asa, ‘Germany—destroyer of land’, a line taken from British Second World War propaganda.  Recently, this spirit has become involved in road construction: as he explains, he must destroy the land with his bulldozers in order to build roads.  Indeed, the German presence in northern Nigeria is mostly as construction engineers, including those involved with roads.

There has been a deeper change in the Turawa since independence: most of them are no longer Europeans but Africans who have “adopted the military drill and ‘European’ customs in ‘European’ military barracks built on African soil.”  One spirit explained that he had begun as a cook in the European spirits’ barracks, where the Europeans gave him eggs and biscuits.  He was so taken with their ways that he decided to adopt them himself.  Although Kring does not provide us with enough detail to be sure of this, it seems entirely possible that this transformation could have provided a means for Nigerians to comment on the corrupt, violent and unpredictable role of the military within Nigerian society, both under the military dictatorship, but also under civilian rule.

The ‘foreign’ spirits are not limited to Europeans.  There are also Fulani spirits—although Kring does not mention this, these represent an earlier wave of conquest, in which during the 19th century the Islamic Fulani invaded and conquered the Hausa, establishing an empire (the Sokoto Caliphate) which was in turn co-opted and absorbed by the British Empire (the birth of the policy of ‘indirect rule,’ as developed by Lugard).  There are also ‘pagan’ spirits, presumably representing the indigenous religions which were displaced by the Islam brought by the Fulani.  In one story, a Fulani spirit ruler befriends a pagan spirit chief.  The Fulani is so delighted by his pagan friend’s life of drink and sex that he renounces Islam and becomes a pagan spirit instead.

The spirits, who live in their own city, speak their own languages, and have their own complex lineages and histories, are a parallel to the humans that they possess.  They perform power relations—conquests, conversions and colonisations—while also allowing a transformation of those relationships, at once shadowy and overt.  It allows for power plays which are open yet at least half-protected by their apparent removal from reality.  Also, perhaps, through possession (which, as we’ve seen, goes both ways), these powerful forces—whether Fulani, European or military—can be translated into powers, which can be summoned, channelled and harnessed.  Made less dangerous, made more comprehensible, made more useful.  Possessed.


Ian Khama Seeks “Tall, Slim and Beautiful” Wife

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a presidency and chieftancy must be in want of a wife—but not if she’s fat.  Such, at least, is the case with Sir Ian Khama, president of Botswana.  Unmarried at 57 and described by ABC News as “one of Africa’s most eligible bachelors,” Khama has announced that, although he is still too busy running Botswana to search for a wife, he will assign his presidential aides to find him a suitable match.  His main criteria, he said, was that she be “tall, slim and beautiful.” Ian Khama

Then, pointing at the Assistant Minister of Local Government, Botlhogile Tshreletso, he said, “I don’t want one like this one.  She may fail to pass through the door, breaking furniture with her heavy weight, and even break the vehicles shock absorbers.”

The assembled politicians, including Tshreletso, apparently laughed, although critics are now calling for Khama to apologise.  According to ABC, the remark is seen as particularly offensive “in a country known for short, heavy set women.”Bothogile Tshreletso

Seretse and Ruth

Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams with their children

If this is the case, then Khama’s insulting joke takes on an interesting historical dimension, recalling the international racial scandal that surrounded his parents’ marriage.  Ian’s father, Seretse Khama, was eventually elected the first president of Botswana—but only after he was barred from chieftaincy and exiled from what was then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland for marrying a white English woman, Ruth Williams.  Their marriage was opposed not only be the British but, far more strenuously, by the established forces of Motswana society, led by Seretse’s uncle, the chief regent Tshekedi Khama.  One of the reasons they gave for opposing Seretse’s marriage to a white woman was that their mixed race children would look down on their people as ‘kaffirs’.

Is it possible that we hear an echo of this fear in Ian Khama’s dismissive joke?  ABC’s reportage certainly writes racial element into the story.  For, while readers might be shocked by Khama’s crassness and his personal attack on a member of his government, they would not necessarily be surprised by his preference for “tall, slim” women.  The report, however, racialises these characteristics, reads them as code for “not a local woman, not a Motswana woman.”

Interestingly, Ian Khama’s grandfather, Sekgoma Khama, was also resistant to marriage and, like his son, fell in love with a woman of another race.  In Sekgoma’s case, this woman was Masarwa, also known as San or “Bushmen.”  The nomadic Masarwa, who are lighter skinned, were dispossessed and enslaved by the Motswana.  Sekgoma’s father, Khama the Great, forbade him from marrying his Masarwa lover, but rumours persisted that Seretse was half Masarwa (apparently you could tell because he had a big bottom).

Racism against the Masarwa was still an active and vicious element of Botswana society in the 1970s, as documented by the novelist Bessie Head.  Head, a South African refugee who lived in Botswana, was herself half black and half white, like the president Seretse Khama’s children.  Despite this, Head’s colour led people to identify her as a Masarwa—as “a Bushman dog.”  Head treats this racism in her novel Maru, which describes the marriage of a Batswana chief to a Masarwa teacher.

Head addresses it from another angle in her novel A Question of Power, which tells the story of a mixed-race refugee’s schizophrenic breakdown, during which she is tormented by hallucinatory visions exploring race, sex and politics.  This novel is a strongly autobiographical account of Head’s own schizophrenia, which involved obscene and frightening delusions about president Seretse Khama.  A crisis came when she publicly accused Khama of incest and murder.  Although Head obviously changed and adjusted her own delusions when writing A Question of Power—in part to protect herself from libel—it seems likely that Seretse’s role corresponds at least in part to the character Sello, a wealthy local leader who becomes, in her vision, an African nationalist in a brown suit (much like the one Seretse Khama wears on brown-inked banknotes and stamps).  In this evil Brown Suited incarnation, Sello marries Medusa, a woman who is remarkably “tall, slim and beautiful.”  Medusa is a poisonous racist, a xenophobic proponent of African Nationalism who marks the ‘coloured’ Elizabeth as hideously other—and yet, with her white mini-dress and long, flowing waist-length hair, Medusa herself is clearly not uncomplicatedly ‘local’.  Medusa attacks Elizabeth for not being black enough, for not being woman enough—and for being too fat.  Elizabeth is also marked out by not being married, and there is also a suggestion that she may be homosexual (as, indeed, a Huffington Post commenter suggested Ian Khama might be).

In Ian Khama’s crude joke, we can trace a whole tangle of historical and cultural threads.  There is the recurrent anxiety over a Khama’s failure to marry or marry appropriately.  And appropriateness here implies racial lines.  There is his grandfather marrying too late, courting a ‘bushman dog’.  His father, rumoured to be mixed race himself, marrying a white woman.  There are the worries that their children, including Ian Khama, would see themselves as racially superior—yet the same racial mix was widely regarded as being racially inferior, too like the Masarwa.  There may also be a whisper of homosexuality (or perhaps asexuality).  And all this, of course, doesn’t even begin to touch on fat politics, or on differing cultural standards of beauty and the ways in which these are complicated by globalisation.