Academic journal article Ethnology

Permitted and Prohibited Wealth: Commodity-Possessing Spirits, Economic Morals, and the Goddess Mami Wata in West Africa

Academic journal article Ethnology

Permitted and Prohibited Wealth: Commodity-Possessing Spirits, Economic Morals, and the Goddess Mami Wata in West Africa

Article excerpt

A widespread West African belief holds that individual wealth is gained through a criminal pact with spirits to whom human beings must be given as compensation.(2) It appears that this belief has become more frequent since a modern cash economy has created substantial differences in income and wealth.

For Cameroon, the links between religious beliefs and types of economy and economic morals, and the changes in belief systems with economic, social, and political change have been analyzed by Ardener (1970), Fisiy and Geschiere (1991), Geschiere (1994), and Rowlands and Warnier (1988) in relation to witchcraft and sorcery beliefs held there. These authors show that attitudes about personal achievement change with economic development and this is reflected in altered witchcraft beliefs and accusations. Whereas some case studies focus on changes in morals (e.g., Ardener 1970), others such as Shipton's (1989), which examines "forbidden commodities" among the Luo of East Africa, reveal the perseverance of economic morals under changing conditions. Certain objects, among them land, have a value that is not primarily commercial, and therefore money obtained through their sale is considered "bitter" or evil, like that obtained through outright crime. Money gained in such a manner must not be used for purposes of one's lineage, like bridewealth and livestock transactions, because offended ancestral spirits will ensure that this "comes to no good" (Shipton 1989:31). Only after ritual purification can such money be transferred from the sphere of individual profit to other purposes. Parry and Bloch's (1989:1) synopsis of studies of the morality of exchange discusses the "moral evaluation of monetary and commercial exchanges as against exchanges of other kinds" and, parallel to Shipton (1989), observes that many cultures distinguish between two kinds of exchange, differentiated by their moral evaluation. These are long-term economic transactions serving the interests of a perpetuating group, and short-term exchanges conducted for the goals of an individual.

This article focuses on a parallel distinction, the evaluation of different forms of wealth acquisition expressed in a belief concerning permitted and prohibited approaches to wealth-owning spirits. Unlike other case studies that are concerned with exchange, the Ron of central Nigeria show how subsistence production forms the basis for the moral evaluation of different forms of economic success.(3)

According to the belief of the Ron and their neighbors, the Kulere, water spirits own crops and are therefore very important. Yet these spirits are not focal to any "central morality cult" (Lewis 1970:294) since they are concerned with their own property and not with the conduct of humans. Nonetheless, I will show that Ron moral conceptions find expression in their ideas about human relationships with these beings. How humans acquire the wealth of the spirits is a leitmotif in Ron beliefs about them. It is in no way dangerous, but rather good, to take some of the spirits' possessions as a group effort during a public ceremony, but to attempt the same as an individual, in secret, is bad and dangerous. Anyone who does so is believed destined to soon perish.

In West Africa, spirits who confer wealth normally are marginal to religious conceptions, in contrast to their importance among the Ron and Kulere.(4) This article concentrates on the Ron and refers to beliefs of other West Africans only to put Ron concepts into a wider context. In another section of this article, I discuss the wealth-owning goddess Mami Wata, belief in whom has spread over a vast area of West Africa during recent decades. Aspects of the goddess are compared with the Ron spirits in order to demonstrate that this new deity embodies a changed attitude toward individual gain and consumption in modern West Africa.


The Ron live on the southwestern part of the Jos Plateau. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.