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.