Africa Today 48.3 (2001) 159-161
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Though postmodernism has its critics, it reminds us that the modernist conceit that we have moved beyond enchantment to secular rationality is surely false. Everyday life, whether in Ohio or Cameroon, involves both pragmatic and performative aspects, the literal and allusive, the double-digit bookkeeping of the market and magical thinking, often at the same time.
This collection of essays explores the complexity of these responses to modernity across sub-Saharan Africa. It focuses on spirit possession, but looks at a variety of practices in an array of local contexts. Still, the editors do not claim to consider all regions equally. Of the ten substantive essays, four are from West Africa, three from the east and two from the south, with only one from Central Africa.
The essays and the introduction by Behrend and Luig consider a range of topical themes. The collection is in four sections: spirit possession and modernity, complexities and proliferation of spirit possession, spirit possession and gender, and spirit possession as performative ethnography and history "from below."
The strength of this collection is its breadth, both geographically and thematically, as well as the rich ethnographic detail provided by many of the authors. Were we in doubt, these essays would convince us just how complex spirit possession can be. To take one pivotal example, the spirits can accept, reject or come to some accommodation with the forces of modernism at times in the same society. In one of the most sophisticated contributions, Ute Luig shows how different spirits and their mediums take diverse stances on social change in the Gwembe Valley, Zambia: masabe religious leaders accommodate the new changes to their own advantage while basangu mediums attempt to limit changes. Both attempt to construct local identities in the face of modernity but do so in radically different ways.
In an equally intriguing essay on southern Niger, Adeline Masquelier shows how conceptions of the local and "tradition" can become contested terrain. While bori healers are thought of as "traditional" in opposition to Islam, they engage ironically in commercialized healing. Dodo practitioners, by contrast, reject this incursion of modernity, a rejection that (again, ironically) can align them more closely with Islam.
Taken as a whole, the essays focus more directly on topical issues than on theoretical ones. Yet they are united in their rejection of functionalist approaches to spirit possession—most often seen in their critique of Ecstatic Religion by I.M. Lewis—namely that possession provides a [End Page 159] therapeutic outlet for marginal groups in society to acquire prestige and redress psychological frustrations. Along with many of the contributors, Linda Giles rejects this explanation in favor of a cultural account, that possession generates symbolic texts that try to make sense of contradictory experiences in Swahili society.
Other contributors critique Lewis's deprivation theory from a number of vantage points. Jean-Paul Colleyn shows how Nya possession is made up of high-ranking men in Bamana (Mali) society, rather than marginal women. For the Bijagós Islanders, Alexandra O. de Sousa argues that women do participate, but they acquire great control over the religious system, and spirit possession has no therapeutic dimension. Likewise, Susan M. Kenyon looks at zar in Sudan as an "alternative" way of viewing the world, rather than as "peripheral." Far from representing only the marginal in Sudanese society, participants come from all socioeconomic positions. For Tobias Wendl, Tchamba possession among the Mina of Togo represents almost the antithesis of Lewis's deprivation theory, namely the spirits of dead slaves possess the descendants of their masters. Wendl argues that this refers to a "repressed" aspect of Mina history that "cannot permanently be repressed and so returns periodically" (1999:120). Without belaboring my critique, Wendl offers no evidence for this version of Freudianism, nor apparently sees its similarities to Lewis's psychological functionalism.
Beyond their common rejection of deprivation theory, these essays share other themes. Virtually all of the authors focus more on the...