Ethnographic Sorcery

Ethnographic Sorcery

by Harry G. West

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According to the people of the Mueda plateau in northern Mozambique, sorcerers remake the world by asserting the authority of their own imaginative visions of it. While conducting research among these Muedans, anthropologist Harry G. West made a revealing discovery—for many of them, West’s efforts to elaborate an ethnographic vision of their world was


According to the people of the Mueda plateau in northern Mozambique, sorcerers remake the world by asserting the authority of their own imaginative visions of it. While conducting research among these Muedans, anthropologist Harry G. West made a revealing discovery—for many of them, West’s efforts to elaborate an ethnographic vision of their world was itself a form of sorcery. In Ethnographic Sorcery, West explores the fascinating issues provoked by this equation.

A key theme of West’s research into sorcery is that one sorcerer’s claims can be challenged or reversed by other sorcerers. After West’s attempt to construct a metaphorical interpretation of Muedan assertions that the lions prowling their villages are fabricated by sorcerers is disputed by his Muedan research collaborators, West realized that ethnography and sorcery indeed have much in common. Rather than abandoning ethnography, West draws inspiration from this connection, arguing that anthropologists, along with the people they study, can scarcely avoid interpreting the world they inhabit, and that we are all, inescapably, ethnographic sorcerers.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Anthropological Research

"Many recent and current efforts challenge 'Western' . . . assumptions of 'transparency' in the practices of medico-ritual healing, often glossed as 'sorcery.' In this brief but rich ethnography that is also theoretically engaging, Harry West grapples with these challenges."—Susan Rasmussen, Journal of Anthropological Research

— Susan Rasmussen

Journal of Anthropological Research - Susan Rasmussen

"Many recent and current efforts challenge 'Western' . . . assumptions of 'transparency' in the practices of medico-ritual healing, often glossed as 'sorcery.' In this brief but rich ethnography that is also theoretically engaging, Harry West grapples with these challenges."

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Ethnographic Sorcery
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ISBN: 978-0-226-89397-6

Chapter One Misunderstanding

He lives by imagination and wit and what he sells are metaphors. " LANDEG WHITE, Magomero (1987: 250), in reference to Jagaja, a self-proclaimed "native doctor" selling remedies in the marketplace "

"Andiliki," he said, "I think you misunderstand." Years later, the words still ring in my ears. That he addressed me by my Shimakonde name? reminded everyone in the room just how close to them all I had become and, perhaps, just how much I did understand of the history and culture of the residents of the Mueda plateau in northern Mozambique, among whom I had been studying for nearly a year. Still, I had gotten it all wrong, he told me.

I had just finished giving a talk to an audience of some two dozen people assembled in the provincial office of the Cultural Heritage Archives (Arquivos do Patrimônio Cultural, or ARPAC) in Pemba. It was my third presentation in a series of three, given in late 1944 at the request of the archive's provincial director. As I had benefited greatly in my field research from the assistance of an ARPAC staff researcher, namely Eusébio Tissa Kairo, I had been asked to give something back to the institution. Although each and every one of ARPAC's half dozen staff researchers had far more ethnographic fieldwork experience than I, none had much formal training in anthropological theory or methodology. I was asked to read through several of their research reports and to address a few topics that I thought might be of interest to them in their continuing professional work.

The chosen topic for my third talk, a brief introduction to the subfield of symbolic anthropology by way of Victor Turner's essay "Symbols in Ndembu Ritual" (1967), was doubly motivated. While ARPAC researchers filled their reports with detailed ethnographic data, they hesitated, I noticed, to analyze or interpret what their informants told them. I wished to inspire them to move beyond the cataloguing of data and the verbatim quotation of informants that characterized their publications. Turner, I informed them, illustrated this through his analysis of the nkang'a (girls' puberty) ritual. Clearly, according to Turner, the sap of the mudyi (milk) tree at the ritual's center symbolized the milk of the initiate's ripening breasts; beyond this, Turner's informants told him that the tree symbolized unity-between the initiate and her mother, between the members of the initiate's matrilineage, and between all Ndembu more generally. Because, however, the ritual as Turner saw it actually produced and enacted tensions in each of these relationships-separating daughter from mother and pitting matrilineage against matrilineage and Ndembu women against Ndembu men-he concluded that, despite Ndembu exegesis (or lack thereof), the tree also symbolized the social tensions that the ritual mediated. I wondered what my audience would make of Turner's audacious conclusion that anthropologists such as he-and such as they-might see and interpret a ritual event unencumbered by the "interests" and "sentiments" that "impair [the native's] understanding of the total situation" (27).

The second motive for my chosen topic was my desire to present a piece of my own ethnographic work in progress. The ARPAC provincial director had opened my series of talks to a public audience in order to raise awareness in the provincial capital of the institution's work. Notwithstanding this, most in the audience had some degree of familiarity with the communities among whom I had worked-some, even, with my project itself. Many were government functionaries who worked in the provincial departments of education or culture and with whom I had previously consulted. Most had been born and raised on the Mueda plateau and maintained strong ties there. Situated as they were between Mueda and the larger world, they constituted an ideal group, I thought, with whom to undertake a bit of what Steven Feld has called "dialogical editing" (1987) of my emergent ethnography. Consequently, in the second part of my talk, I made use of Turner's ideas to engage with material collected in the course of my own research on the Mueda plateau.

I briefly summarized for my audience what most already knew: when a lion was seen in or around a plateau village, people often speculated that it was not an ordinary lion, not an ntumi wa ku mwitu (bush lion); rather, they often suggested, it was an ntumi wa nkaja (a settlement lion), meaning either that it was a sorcerer who had turned into a lion, in which case it might also be called an ntumi munu (lion-person), or that it was made by a sorcerer, in which case it might also be called an ntumi wa kumpika (a fabricated lion). Sorcery lions devoured the flesh of sorcerers' rivals, neighbors, and kin, sometimes through visible attacks and sometimes through invisible ones that produced chronic illness.

To deal with such a lion-most of my audience, again, already knew-a specialist was summoned to discern the lion's true nature and to prepare medicinal substances that rendered the beast vulnerable to hunters. At the same time, people continued to deliberate on the identity of the person associated with the lion and on the identity of the lion's intended victim. Employing Turner's theoretical framework, I suggested to my audience that, as Muedans examined who among them might be envious of whom-who sought to appropriate the wealth of others without honest work; who transgressed egalitarian norms by failing to share as they should; in short, who among them was "predator" and who was "prey"-their anger and distrust were infused with, and heightened by, their fear of the lion. In Turner's terms, the lion, as symbol, connected the ideological and sensory poles of their experience-not only of the hunt for the lion but also of the broader sociohistorical drama (sometimes including the lynching of those subsequently accused of sorcery).

I reminded my audience that there was more to the story than this, however. According to Turner, "the simplest property [of a ritual symbol] is that of condensation," meaning that a symbol may represent "many things and actions" at once (1967: 28). On the plateau, the lion not only symbolized social predation, I postulated, it also symbolized nobility and power. I reminded them that among the most respected and feared Makonde elders, historically, were vahumu (sing. humu). Beyond their duties as matrilineage councilors in the visible quotidian realm, these elders also monitored the hidden realm of uwavi (sorcery), bringing their power to bear on sorcerers whose acts threatened the well-being of the settlement. The ritual inductions that vahumu were required to undergo had them ingest obscure medicinal substances mixed with, among other things, lukulungu-the throat meat of a slain bush lion. While living, vahumu "spoke with the voices of lions," who "recognized them as brothers." Upon dying, the corpses of vahumu spawned lions that posed a threat to their makola (matrilineages) unless their bodies were appropriately treated by fellow vahumu.

None of my informants had ever explicitly told me what I was about to say, I now admitted to my audience, but-following Turner's mandate-I suggested that, for residents of the Mueda plateau, the lion not only symbolized both dangerous predator and regal protector but also symbolized a deep ambivalence about the workings of power in the social world. Simultaneously, the lion, as symbol, expressed the ideas that power was necessary to produce and secure the common good and that power constituted an ever-present threat to the community's many members.

With this Turnerian conclusion, I finished my talk and asked for questions and comments. A long silence was followed by several awkward interjections about minor ethnographic details, as most people in the room fidgeted nervously. Finally, Lazaro Mmala-a Muedan, a graduate of the elementary school at the Imbuho Catholic mission, a schoolteacher by training, a veteran of the Mozambican guerilla campaign for independence, and, now, an officer of the veterans association-cleared his throat and said, simply, "Andiliki, I think you misunderstand."

"How so?" I asked, trying to hide my anxiety.

"These lions that you talk about ..." He paused, looking at me with what seemed a mixture of embarrassment and amusement. He then proceeded once more, cautiously but confidently, "they aren't symbols-they're real."

A collective sigh enveloped the room. A lively discussion ensued to which nearly everyone present contributed accounts of incidents that they had experienced, or stories that they had heard, about lions stalking, attacking, and devouring people, as well as about the envious neighbors and kin who were to blame for these events. By the end of the session, I had collected nearly as much "data" about sorcery lions as I had gathered over the course of a year "in the field."

In Search of the Forward-Looking Peasant

When I first arrived in Mueda, I did not intend to make sorcery the focus of my research. I hoped, instead, to examine how Muedans envisioned the future. My research agenda was motivated by previous experience as a research assistant for a University of Wisconsin Land Tenure Center project assessing the breakup of the Mozambican state agricultural sector and the distribution of state farmland in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Myers and West 1993; West and Myers 1992, 1996).

Because state farms were strategically situated near waterways and transportation outlets, they were the focus of contentious claims when socialism collapsed in Mozambique. Former laborers/employees, as well as overseers/managers, of colonial plantations and/or the state farms that had displaced them staked claims to lands they had previously worked and, sometimes, even inhabited. People who had been evicted from these lands when colonial farmers initially occupied them-or their descendants-also asserted claims on the basis of ancestral domain. Further complicating the picture, refugees displaced by the sixteen-year-long Mozambican civil war had in some cases been "temporarily relocated" on these lands, and many expressed a desire to remain.

Once the war had ended, however, many in government sought to use these lands to attract postwar investment to Mozambique. Officials at various levels stood to benefit enormously from brokering such arrangements. To fend off claims to these lands made by ordinary Mozambicans, commercial interests and sympathetic state officials painted a portrait of "backward-looking" peasants-mired in traditional ways, disinterested in innovation or progress-who would underexploit these valuable resources. Based on Land Tenure Center research indicating that ordinary Mozambicans were inclined not only to produce for the marketplace but also to do so more efficiently, in many cases, than large commercial firms, we argued (pace Cramer and Pontara 1998) that these lands afforded opportunities for large numbers of Mozambicans to sustain themselves-opportunities not available to them elsewhere in the war-torn economy.

In subsequently elaborating an agenda for my dissertation research on the Mueda plateau, I sought directly to challenge the stereotype of the "backward-looking peasant" prevalent in Mozambique and elsewhere. In my research proposal, I posed the following question: How do rural Mozambicans envision their futures? I proposed to examine the practical and discursive strategies deployed by rural Mozambicans in their efforts to embrace, transform, or contest the official visions of the future with which they had been presented historically-whether under the rubric of colonial-era "community development," postindependence "socialist modernization," or postsocialist "liberalization" of the Mozambican polity and economy. I endeavored to examine not only how rural Mozambicans' strategies drew upon, and derived force from, local "tradition" but also how they constituted alternative designs for social transformation-how, in their own right, they articulated visions of the future.

In my quest to discover the "forward-looking Mozambican peasant," it made little sense, I thought, to examine beliefs and practices that were dismissed by many as superstition and that were often produced as evidence that rural Mozambicans stood outside the currents of modernity. Over the course of the preceding twenty years or so, anthropologists had largely turned away from such topics of research, asserting that the study of them generally exoticized the subjects of anthropological inquiry, rendering these people less comprehensible to, and thus disempowering them vis-à-vis, a Western audience. While I remained wary of the contempt for others' ways of seeing the world manifest in such critiques, I failed to see how the study of sorcery could do anything but undermine my research objectives.

During my first weeks on the Mueda plateau, I carried with me Martin Buber's Paths in Utopia (1949) and Lewis Mumford's The Story of Utopias (1992). Reading them at night, before I laid out my agenda for the next day of fieldwork, I cultivated my interest in understanding how people imagined a world not-yet-experienced. I asked myself, what resources did they draw upon to imagine a future? By what processes did they construct a future without merely reproducing or inverting the world that they knew and lived within? I reassured myself that rural Mozambicans sustained and articulated visions of the future as clearly and as forcefully as the Italian Futurists of whom I read.

By day, however, I grew frustrated in my attempts to tap the vein of Muedan futurism. When I asked those with whom I worked how they saw the future, they stared blankly at me. I took to asking how, when younger, they had envisioned the future, as well as how the present, in which they now lived, differed from that which they had once hoped for. Answers to my questions-when people understood them at all-were lifeless. Respondents merely compared their lives in the past to their lives in the present, pronouncing certain aspects better and others worse.

Finally, an elder named Lucas Ng'avanga responded directly to my search for the forward-looking peasant.

"I never thought of such things," he told me when I asked him how he imagined his life would be, in the future, when as a young man he joined the revolutionary nationalist movement. "I lived my life from day to day. I didn't think about what was happening. I just did what I had to do. I didn't consider the future."

He may as well have added, "I am a backward-looking peasant!" And this from an active participant in the Mozambican revolution!

I sustained hope that the answers to my questions were not confirmation that Muedans looked only backward, but that they were, instead, evidence of methodological impasse. I wondered whether anyone could answer the questions that I posed, torn as they were from the context of life. I wondered to what extent visions of the future were, inevitably, intertwined with the present and the past-relatively minor, even insignificant, reworkings of the way one understood the world, simply, to be.

At the same time, I sought to find one or more "key informants" who, for whatever reason, possessed a rare capacity for reflection upon life as Muedans knew it. It was within this context that I first asked my Muedan research collaborators to identify curandeiros (Portuguese for "healers") with whom I might speak. The first nkulaula (Shimakonde for "healer") to whom I was introduced was an elderly man in the village of Matambalale named Kalamatatu. Mozambican socialism had been tolerant of neither anthropologists nor healers, casting the former as agents of a "colonial science" and the latter as purveyors of "obscurantism." As Mozambican socialism lingered forcefully in early "postsocialist" Mueda (a place long celebrated as the "cradle of the revolution"), I feared that any encounter between anthropologist and healer would be saturated with suspicion. I therefore tread lightly when introduced to Kalamatatu. He, however, spoke confidently and candidly. It was, in fact, he who broached the topic of sorcery, telling me that lion attacks were among the "misfortunes" that he treated, and explaining to me how he handled them: "When a lion is seen in the bush nearby, I prepare a pumpkin gourd with ntela [the generic term for any medicinal substance]. Then I go to the place where the lion was seen and I set fire to the bush. The fire will burn to where the lion is hiding. People follow the fire, discover the lion there, and kill it. The ntela prevents the lion from harming anyone." Kalamatatu also told me how he performed autopsies on slain lions, confirming that they were sorcery lions by finding shidudu (ground cassava leaves, eaten by Muedans as a relish) in their guts.


Excerpted from Ethnographic Sorcery by HARRY G. WEST Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Harry G. West is lecturer in social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and the author of Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mueda, Mozambique, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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