Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'Stalking the Stalker': A Chwezi Initiation into Spirit Possession and Experiential Structure./« Guetter le Guetteur » : Initiation a la Possession Par Les Esprits et Structure D'experience Chez Les Chwezi

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'Stalking the Stalker': A Chwezi Initiation into Spirit Possession and Experiential Structure./« Guetter le Guetteur » : Initiation a la Possession Par Les Esprits et Structure D'experience Chez Les Chwezi

Article excerpt

The Chwezi (1) tradition has largely been overlooked in the literature on spirit possession and healing. The reader will discover more than one reason why this initiatory complex from inter-lacustrine Africa deserves to stand next to well-studied spirit societies such as the Bori and Zar that are more wide spread on the continent. Besides enriching the ethnographic record, the Chwezi initiation, as it is performed today among Sukuma in northwest Tanzania, introduces newcomers of different backgrounds to the meaning of possession and this in a manner approved and perfected over centuries by experienced spirit mediums. The conclusions draw on two years of qualitative research among Sukuma agro-pastoral farmers and mediumistic healers, on initiation into the Chwezi cult in 1997, and on further participations in 2000 and 2003.

The strategic, the cathartic, and the spirit

If spirit possession seems destined for anthropological research, in its attention to otherness and its respect for the integrity of that otherness, it never was anthropology's crown subject. The first theoretical frameworks came from psychology and sociology, objectifying mediumistic practice in terms of abnormal mental or social conditions (e.g. Bourguignon 1973; Lewis 2003 [1971]; Metraux 1972 [1959]). Critique of such objectivism, and a concomitant crisis of representation, marked our discipline from the 1970s. From it grew interpretative approaches, of possession, among others, which elicited the symbolic system from a culture-specific perspective (Lambek 1981: 5). Most of these, in turn, ignored the broader socio-political conditions from which any medical practice arises (Good 1994: 56). Bourdieu's concept of the habitus soon appealed for an explicit combination of these socio-political conditions with culture-specific dispositions (1980: 51-87).

The interest in this combination was to place a once badly served subject at the forefront of anthropological debate. Possession practices appeared to exemplify both the political and the culture-specific strand while providing new insight into classic texts. Cults of mediumship were approached as local strategies of power and resistance, for example against postcolonial subordination (Comaroff 1985; Giles 1987; Kapferer 1997; Sharp 1999; Werbner 1989)--if more actively strategic than the protest against confinement which Lewis (2003 [1971]: 91) recognized in Sudanese women's possessions. The second paradigm dominating the 1990s was that of embodiment, against objectivism (Boddy 1989; Csordas 1995; Devisch 1993; Fernandez 1991). The student of possession appeared ideally placed to discuss the healing, cathartic dimension of culture-specific embodiments, as prefigured by Victor Turner's and much earlier Van Gennep's famous dialectic of ritual.

The literature's favourite paradigms, power and healing, are not irrelevant to the way in which Chwezi mediums tend to structure their often puzzling experiences. As for healing, the spirits are spoken of as previously initiated ancestors who want the tradition to be continued. Until compliance, the descendant will suffer from infertility, inexplicable tiredness, chronic pains, lack of zest for living, frightening dreams, hearing voices, insomnia, autistic or uncontrolled behaviour. A second concern of the participants is strategic. They transfer three goats and money to the cult's regional leaders (bakingi) and lower-ranked district chiefs (batemi), who divide the proceeds among the membership. One of the teachers receives a cow and becomes the novice's 'parent'. As is true of the many associations in Sukumaland, an internal hierarchy and solidarity exists by means of which one climbs ranks through gifts and thus increases one's personal sense of power.

A contradiction surfaces, however. In explaining possession in terms of strategic and therapeutic effects, we attribute to it the purposive action that, as Crapanzano warned, 'may very well be precluded by the spirit idiom itself' (1977: 29). …

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