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  • Ambivalent Power: Anti-Sorcery and Occult Subjugation in Late Colonial Gabon
  • John M. Cinnamon


In 1955, five years prior to Gabonese independence, a powerful anti-sorcery movement swept through the villages of the northeastern Ogooué-Ivindo region. A man named Emane Boncoeur (alias Emane Nyangone; Nzang-Mvile) had come from Souanké in northern Moyen-Congo with two powerful spirits or medicines, Mimbare and Mademoiselle. He claimed to have received Mimbare and Mademoiselle (usually a white woman) from a European in order to stamp out sorcery. Emane toured the countryside, performing ceremonies in which he identified sorcerers (pl. beyemin the Fang language) and compelled villagers to turn over their occult objects: medicines, fétiches, and remaining ancestor relics. Individuals who refused or who chose to measure their own power against that of Mimbare and Mademoiselle found themselves “seized” at night and struck down—reduced to insanity, illness, or death.

During his travels, Emane visited the three largest cultural-linguistic groups in the multiethnic Ogooué-Ivindo region: Kwele, Fang, and Kota. Emane stopped in the Kwele-speaking villages on the left bank of the Ivindo River, and traveled through Fang-speaking villages as far as Mintoum, 80 kilometers west of Makokou. Initiates carried Emane’s spirits and techniques toward Ndjolé and Libreville to the west, Oyem to the north, and into southern Gabon as well. On his return to Moyen-Congo, he passed through Mékambo and Kota-speaking villages to the east of Makokou (see map). Today healers continue to use the spirits to diagnose and combat “witchcraft” and “sorcery.” 1

The memory of Emane’s visit remains firmly anchored in popular consciousness, but the legacy of his allegedly triumphant anti-witchcraft campaign is far more ambivalent than one might assume. In order to appreciate this ambivalence it is first necessary to recognize the fundamental ambiguity and interrelatedness of ivu(“witchcraft”) and anti- ivu. Emane killed sorcerers and subdued the villages he visited, leaving people in a weakened though not necessarily purified state. Only devout Christians have sought to portray the drama of Mademoiselle as a Manichean morality play. 2Most accounts of his visit express respect and awe for his power but describe the event as a power struggle rather than victory of good against evil. Auslander (1993:171) writes of a Ngoni witchfinder who led an anti-witchcraft campaign across rural Zambia in 1988. This witchfinder “was spoken of as an unstoppable force making its way across the landscape, bringing a temporary reign of terror and social disruption until moving on to another village.” Emane Boncoeur was also seen as an “unstoppable force” who in addition to temporary terror, left weakness and devastation in his wake.

A second source of ambivalence stems from the political circumstances surrounding Emane’s voyage and how these circumstances continue to inform political consciousness in postcolonial northeastern Gabon. The 1950s were a transitional period in which mission-educated Gabonese elites began to assume a greater but still subordinate role in Gabonese political affairs. During this time, however, colonial administration and business interests nonetheless sought to maintain a firm grip on the reigns of the political liberalization process. Emane was invited to Ogooué-Ivindo by an elected Kwélé territorial councilor from the region, but his visit was also sanctioned by the colonial administration, which signed his authorization. At the very moment of postwar political liberalization, an anti-sorcery movement intimately concerned with culturally embedded understandings of power paradoxically served to reinforce colonial power. Even people who generally approve of Emane’s campaign recognize that his systematic removal of occult objects and medicines ( mebyangin Fang) deprived people of a crucial source of protection and power. Moreover, Emane frequently surrendered the medicines he seized to the administration, thereby enhancing colonial power while leaving people less prepared to hold their own in the political battles that raged over access to the nascent Gabonese state.

Map of Gabon

Although rich in timber and other natural resources, colonial Gabon was frequently neglected by the French colonial administration to the advantage of Moyen-Congo, site of Brazzaville, capital of French Equatorial Africa. Ogooué-Ivindo was a marginal region in an already marginalized colony. French anthropologist Georges Balandier...

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