Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Sorcery and Rumor in Central African Society

In Search of Cannibals:

Sorcery and Rumor in Central African Society

By Sara Bruya (c) 2006

Note: This paper was written as the final exam for "Community and Alterity in Africa" at Harvard Divinity School, Spring 2006 - Prof. Michael Jackson


There are intriguing and uncanny similarities between accounts of sorcery in Sierra Leone, as described by Rosalind Shaw and the accounts I heard while living for two years in Gabon. In her research, Shaw highlights such Temne practices as witch guns (known in Gabon as fusils nocturnes); the state of having “four eyes” which gives the initiated person a special penetrative vision into the spiritual realm; and describes other practices such as the ritual consumption of victims (usually family members) by societies of witches, and other “invisible, nocturnal predations.” [1] In addition, Shaw’s study points to rumors of ritual killing and cannibalism among the political elites as a means of gaining and maintaining power—a belief shared by the subjects of her study and the people among whom I was living.

Though lacking anthropological field data of my own, and relying only on academic research and my own experience, I will examine the following questions in this paper: What might account for the similarities in these accounts of sorcery across cultures? While rumors and legends of cannibalistic practices abound, are these behaviors currently practiced to the extent that the legends claim? What are the historical foundations and present-day cultural functions of the rumors and legends themselves?

I will suggest that perhaps rumor and urban legend are the response to Shaw’s question about the ways in which ‘memory’ is conceived beyond the boundary of the individual (115) and that they play a significant, trans-regional role in transmitting certain of these beliefs and practices by providing a sense of meaning when situations do not permit clear understanding and control. This is particularly the case in the process of making sense of non-transparent political activities and power dynamics in modern African society. “Such accounts of ‘demonic’ supernatural consumption by or on behalf of those in power provide forceful images of the perversion of political morality and of dislocations in the moral economy. As Marshall observes of similar discourses in Nigeria, postcolonial political consciousness is constructed through understandings of power in which the supernatural is an extremely important idiom.” (Shaw, 252)

Thus, tales of sorcery and cannibalistic practices have been widespread in west and central Africa both pre- and post-colonization and continue to permeate the entire social and cultural spectrum. It is widely believed that these ambivalent practices can be effective in the individual and collective accumulation of wealth and the achievement of success, power and prestige as an alternative to or in the absence of existing economic and social opportunities. [2] Shaw explains that “the public recognition of personal possession of occult powers is an integral component in the evaluation of success and achievement…to the extent that the acquisition of wealth, achievement of high office and the possession of high status consumable goods cannot be conceived without them.”[3] Thus embedded in struggles for agency and power, acts of sorcery enable the practitioner to appropriate another’s vitality, productivity and/or reproductivity. Legends of cannibalism not only incorporate historical memories of traditional practices, but represent this appropriation symbolically, through the metaphor of eating or consuming the victim. (Bernault; Shaw, 254) As Brad Weiss explains, “In some African idioms, eating and being eaten are the quintessential acts of domination and appropriation, associated especially with political hierarchy and competition as well as sorcery and affliction.” [4] For the Haya people of Tanzania, the subjects of Weiss’ research, all food-related activities are infused with meaning, such that the processes of consumption, production and exchange of food as well as its preparation and presentation are imbued “with the moral order of their lives” (166). As such, eating can come to represent, symbolically, the moral order or disorder of a society’s current and/or historical circumstances.

Early stories of appropriation and consumption are available to us through the accounts of anthropologists and travelers such as Manuel Alvares[5], a Jesuit missionary in Sierra Leone in the 16th century, who gave the following account: “They entertain a malevolent and false belief about their illnesses and physical ailments, for they say…that God does not send death to them, rather it is their enemies and rivals who are eating them up.”[6] This particular belief about the cause of death is still prevalent in the traditions practiced today, nearly 500 years later, and not only in Sierra Leone, but in Gabon as well. In my experience among the Fang, Myene, and Bapounou peoples in Gabon, it is generally believed that there is no such thing as ‘natural’ death, but that all deaths are perpetrated against the victim by others through malevolent spiritual acts. When someone dies, tradition dictates that the responsible party be found and forced to pay retribution. Traditionally, the guilty party might have paid with their own life or the life of a family member. This practice may continue today, but it seems that now, financial retribution is a generally acceptable form of payment. We see again in Alvares’ account the metaphor of consumption—that death represents the power of the sorcerer to steal the very life force away from someone else.

In another account from the 19th century, Paul du Chaillu, [7] an anthropologist traveling in Gabon writes, “You would like to know, I dare say, what these Africans mean by a wizard or a witch? They believe that people have within themselves the power of killing any one who displeases them. They believe that no one dies unless some one has bewitched him.” From these two examples we see that the belief in sorcery as the ultimate cause of death is shared trans-regionally and cross-culturally from very early on. We also see that both symbolically and literally, the belief in the appropriation of one’s life force by another is construed as both a literal and spiritual consumption of the individual by a more powerful ‘other’.

Cannibalism has an historical, traditional basis among some ethnic groups, as seen in Chaillu’s observations of the Fang: “Those who live far in the interior practice unblushingly their horrid custom of eating human flesh. It appears they do not eat the dead of their own family, but sell the corpse to some other clan or make an agreement that when one of their number dies they will return the body in exchange…But you must not think that the Fans [Fang] are continually eating human flesh. They eat it when they can get it, but not every day. They kill no one on purpose to be eaten.” From this account, although highly subjective and questionably accurate, we can deduce, at least, that the actual practice of humans consuming humans was a part of Fang culture on some level. While Chaillu’s account does not mention the ritual aspects of such acts, modern Gabonese accounts highlight the more supernatural dimension of cannibalistic practices, and relegate the larger part of such practices to the domain of political elites, often in explanation of their inordinate, disproportionate power.

Both Bernault and Shaw describe this association of sorcery with political power as having been reinforced by colonial behaviors and the influence of the Atlantic slave trade. “At the turn of the century,” Bernault writes, “European rulers, helped by Christian missionaries, directly attacked and partly destroyed old beliefs, as well as the functions of religious leaders, traditional healers, and ritual specialists. However, as they monopolized the exercise of official authority, the Whites were perceived as the holders of new spiritual forces, characterized by secrecy, violence, and direct exploitation of Africans, hence involuntarily reinforcing local ideologies that connected power with the exercise of supernatural, hidden, and malevolent actions.”

The temporal power of politicians and the wealthy elite is equated in the contemporary Gabonese consciousness with the mastery of supernatural or spiritual power. Thus, it is almost universally presumed in Gabon, that anyone in a significant political position within society is involved in some kind of ritual cannibalism, or other forms of power-wielding through sorcery. In particular, it is believed that politicians are regularly involved in the ritual killings of individuals for the consumption of their blood, reproductive organs and other body parts, which are believed to enhance and guarantee power, influence and the accumulation of wealth.

Contemporary leaders seem to be adept at acquiring popular influence by creatively embodying this prevalent, indigenous belief in the link between temporal and supernatural spheres of power. The ability to manipulate at will such ambivalent powers gives them a relative advantage in the act of governing, and it could be said that African politicians have found successful ways of exploiting the public’s credulity—that is, manipulating, at a subconscious level, the belief in the forces of evil for the purpose of gaining and maintaining power. Politicians borrow from the stock of existing emblems of sacred power, and sometimes invent new ones, thereby reinforcing the belief that the world of material power is gained through the mastery of occult practices. (Bernault; Monga & Fleck, 1996) This, as it turns out, is an effective political strategy. As Kertzer has observed, “To understand the political process…it is necessary to understand how the symbolic enters into politics, how political actors consciously and unconsciously manipulate symbols, and how this symbolic dimension relates to the material bases of political power…Political reality is in good part created through symbolic means…Creating a symbol or, more commonly, identifying oneself with a popular symbol can be a potent means of gaining and keeping power, for the hallmark of power is the construction of reality.” [8]

Political actors exploit the belief in the supernatural for several reasons. First, it allows them to introduce the elements of fear and respect into the construction of their image. The collective imagination easily accepts the idea that power needs sorcery to solidify itself and affirm its superiority over its opponents, and that leaders need to shield themselves against the hatred, jealousy, and violence of evil spirits. In addition, mastery over occult forces seems to be an essential criterion of political popularity. No one wants a naive leader who could be easily weakened by the most insignificant sorcerer working for the opposition. To receive the confidence of the public, a leader must be solid, powerful, and able to vanquish any forces wishing to undermine his vitality. (Monga & Fleck) Thus, “…unscrupulous politicians are often rumored to have acquired their power through the use of ritual murder allegedly prescribed by diviners as a way of obtaining human body parts for ingredients of medicines that make them ‘shine’.” (Shaw, 132) According to Bernault, “Corpses and bodies play an important part in the symbolic and spiritual configuration of political territories. To eliminate or weaken a rival, political leaders use spiritual and physical mutilation, described in French by the verb “bomber” or “bombarder” (to bomb, bombard, or shell). This vocabulary betrays the importance of the material location of political and spiritual power, whether in territories, or in individual bodies.”

In light of the distinction between practices of sorcery and cannibalism, and the manipulation of the belief in such practices by political actors for the accumulation of power, the question becomes: To what extent are politicians participating in these practices and to what extent do these stories constitute what we might call urban legends which tap into the fears and anxieties extant in the communities in which they appear? Neither my research nor my experience in Gabon has yielded hard data about the actual cannibalistic practices of the modern-day political elite. However, rumors and legends concerning their behavior are prevalent in the 21st century, and it is this aspect—the role of rumor in cultural identity and collective memory—that we will now examine.

“Successive stories about human consumption in a particular locality do not simply arise sui generic, born again and again in different circumstances, disconnected from memories of earlier stories,” Shaw writes (226). Despite the depth and thoroughness of her anthropological research, Shaw’s study yields much the same result as my simple observations: That rumor seems to be the primary conduit for the transmission of such stories (or practices) of cannibalism, not only trans-regionally, but historically. “Most of these stories about…cannibalism seem to have been unelaborated but persistent and trans-regional, circulating in the West African interior, on the coast on slave ships, and even in the New World itself.”[9] Cannibal stories also entered the colonial record “as rumors and reports of suspicious killings.” (233) Today, critiques of the abuses of political power in Sierra Leone and Gabon are expressed indirectly, often in the form of songs, rumors, and nicknames. According to Shaw, “they thus become ‘public secrets’ that seek to expose what lies beneath the official rhetoric and surface appearances of those in power.” (255)

Rumors have been described by sociologists as public communications that are infused with private hypotheses about how the world works in the absence of verifiable information regarding uncertain circumstances; or more specifically, as ways of making sense to help people cope with their anxieties and uncertainties.[10] Research has shown that in order for rumors to persist, the subject matter must be important to those individuals within the transmitting group. In addition, as the uncertainty and anxiety levels increase, those group members who find importance in the subject matter are less able to critically analyze the rumor’s credibility and veracity.[11]

As the conduit of rumor, gossip plays a significant role in the transmission of cultural practices, beliefs and legends. It has been theorized that gossip played a fundamental role in the evolution of human intelligence and social life and that it continues to play an active role in cultural learning.[12] In recent research, sociologists have proposed that within groups, opinions, explanations and predictions are exchanged until “an acceptable interpretation emerges” regarding a rumor’s content and believability,[13]though when anxieties are intense,” according to Rosnow, “rumormongers are less likely to monitor the logic or plausibility of what they pass on to others.”

Accounts of cannibalism among political elites appear to have spread among the peoples of west and central Africa in the form of narrative rumors—what sociologists identify as urban legends. While legends tend to be more complex and story-like than rumors, both are transmitted with the intention of being believed, are told as being true, and are difficult to verify.[14] The primary distinction between rumor and urban legend is that legends tend to have a significantly longer presence in social memory. They typically reinforce social mores and norms and often see increased transmission within groups when conveying negative information.[15] As with rumors, through the course of transmitting legends, information may be changed. Once the central theme is accepted there will be a tendency to reorganize and to distort items so as to be consistent with the central theme. [16] With legends, the changes made are peripheral in nature, updating the time and location of the story, while the core message remains unchanged over time.[17] This fact helps contribute to the longevity of legends, and offers one possible explanation for the transmission of legends about ritual cannibalism and other forms of sorcery across regions, cultures and generations in African communities.

These rumors and legends, in reality, may not be so dissimilar from what we experience in the west as conspiracy theories, as anthropologist Harry West[18] who works among the Muedan people of Mozambique, explains in an interview with the BBC:

BBC: “So we shouldn’t be too smug in talking about this system (sorcery) because it very much resembles in many ways what one might call a straightforward conspiratorial theory of the universe which is entertained implicitly and often explicitly by so many people that one encounters now; that what really decides our fate is determined by people acting secretly in invisible places.”

Harry West: “That’s right. Sorcery beliefs are very similar to conspiracy theories in a number of ways. The ultimate question then becomes not whether or not power conspires but whether or not from a distance people can determine how it conspires and to what ends. I think Muedans themselves would admit that they’re not often able to do so.”

Drawing upon historically and culturally situated memories of sorcery and the ritualized killing and consumption of human beings, a strong legend of cannibalistic practices among those in positions of power and authority continues to be circulated among the general population in Gabon. As West indicates in his comment, and by the very nature of rumor explored above, it is clear that even the Gabonese themselves have no certainty about the veracity of the claims which they circulate about their political leaders. While they may have strong, historically based reasons for believing in the truth of such legends, and the sensational quality of the cannibal narrative helps to perpetuate their transmission, there remains a significant dearth of evidence. Remarkably, the legend itself serves the function attributed to cannibalistic practices—that of appropriating the vitality of the society by subduing the general population through anxiety and uncertainty. Whether Gabon’s politicians manipulate and perpetuate such legends to their advantage, or whether they are actually engaged in the sorcery practices which constitute the substance of such rumors, remains to be verified.

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