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Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger

Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger

4.5 2
by Adeline Masquelier

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Bori, in the Mawri society of Niger, are mischievous and invisible beings that populate the bush. Bori is also the practice of taming these wild forces in the context of possession ceremonies. In Prayer Has Spoiled Everything Adeline Masquelier offers an account of how this phenomenon intervenes—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically—in human


Bori, in the Mawri society of Niger, are mischievous and invisible beings that populate the bush. Bori is also the practice of taming these wild forces in the context of possession ceremonies. In Prayer Has Spoiled Everything Adeline Masquelier offers an account of how this phenomenon intervenes—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically—in human lives, providing a constantly renewed source of meaning for Mawri peasants confronted with cultural contradictions and socio-economic marginalization.
To explore the role of bori possession in local definitions of history, power, and identity, Masquelier spent a total of two years in Niger, focusing on the diverse ways in which spirit mediums share, transform, and contest a rapidly changing reality, threatened by Muslim hegemony and financial hardship. She explains how the spread of Islam has provoked irreversible change in the area and how prayer—a conspicuous element of daily life that has become virtually synonymous with Islamic practice in this region of west Africa—has thus become equated with the loss of tradition. By focusing on some of the creative and complex ways that bori at once competes with and borrows from Islam, Masquelier reveals how possession nonetheless remains deeply embedded in Mawri culture, representing more than simple resistance to Islam, patriarchy, or the state. Despite a widening gap between former ways of life and the contradictions of the present, it maintains its place as a feature of daily life in which villagers participate with varying degrees of enthusiasm and approval.
Specialists in African studies, in the anthropology of religion, and in the historical transformations of colonial and postcolonial societies will welcome this study.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Masquelier locates cultural production at precise moments of colonial and postcolonial relations. The result is both an intimate, densely textured portrait of bori spirits and an exciting demonstration of how people attempt to formulate and appropriate the forces that have undermined their community.”— Michael Lambek, author of Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery, and Spirit Possession

“With its rich primary data about bori, its creativity and freshness, Prayer Has Spoiled Everything will be of enormous interest to Africanists and to religion scholars of many types.”—Karen McCarthy Brown, author of Mama Lola: A Voodou Priestess in Brooklyn

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Duke University Press
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Prayer Has Spoiled Everything

By Adeline Masquelier


Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2633-5

Chapter One

Bori, Power, and Identity in Dogondoutchi

The traffic in spirits is almost as widespread and intensive as the teaching of Islam.-I. M. Lewis, Religion in Context

In one of her praise songs for the spirits, the nationally known Mawri singer Tagimba declares that "those who say they have no spirits are liars." There is much truth in the griotte's (praise singer) statement for Dogondoutchi residents who take the presence of spirits in people's existence to be a self-evident fact of life. There are spirits in many-some would say, all-Mawri households who attend to the needs of their human counterparts or who, conversely, inflict endless torments on them. The powers of these superhuman forces are sometimes denied by the very people in whose lives they interfere for better or for worse. Yet even those Muslims who most vehemently castigate bori devotees for their "sinful" practices cannot deny ever witnessing in their childhood a grandfather or father's sacrificial offering to the tutelary spirits. While such memories may have become part of the dead stuff of gargajiya (tradition) for those who have opted to follow the teachings of the Koran, theyremain an important source of meaning for bori mediums who have chosen to serve the spirits. As these mediums eventually age and die, spirits must look for other suitable, yet equally transient, vessels to possess. That these spirits may find no adequate hosts in whose body to incarnate themselves, or that they make no immediate demands on the descendants of their former devotees, rarely means that they are gone forever, as some, who today profess skepticism or indifference, may find out sooner or later. Spirits come and go, but as bori devotees like to forcefully remind their Muslim foes, they are always nearby, waiting perhaps for the right occasion to reinsert themselves in a human frame.

Besides pointing to the inescapable contiguity between the world of humans and the world of spirits, Tagimba's ironic statement also highlights the complex patterns of secrecy, complicity, and competition that characterize relations between members of the bori, who call themselves 'yan bori ("children of the bori," or devotees of the bori), and Muslims. In their eagerness to demarcate themselves from bori identity, most Muslims will confidently declare that they want nothing to do with fetishes, spirits, or sacrifices. Yet every one of them, bori devotees will tell you, has had recourse to the services of bori healers, and may have even sacrificed to a spirit to insure a son's academic success or a daughter's recovery from illness. In the cautionary message she delivers to her Hausa-speaking audience, Tagimba seems to imply that many Muslims are acting like hypocrites by choosing to ignore, and even disparage, the spirits when they no longer need them.

At another level, the singer's denunciation of Muslim shallowness and duplicity partly illustrates the extent to which Islamic and bori identities overlap despite concerted efforts, on both sides, to reaffirm distinctive forms of knowledge, practice, and morality. The interaction between Islamic and indigenous world views has been extensive and complex; when 'yan bori choose to go on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) or when Muslims turn up at possession ceremonies, the difficulties one faces in trying to pinpoint what distinguishes a follower of the Prophet from a spirit medium are further compounded.

The problem of analyzing bori in light of prevailing Muslim discourse is a complex one because bori has always maintained an ambiguous relationship with Islam: as will become clear, members of the bori tend to protest the hegemony of Islam while paradoxically borrowing from the Muslim repertoire of signifiers that they see as a reservoir of power ready to be tapped. In so doing, spirit devotees appear to revise the script of Islamic domination at the same time that they reassert the viability and centrality of indigenous values. The fact that those who seek the assistance of the spirits sometimes do so indirectly or secretly so as not to tarnish their Muslim identity only renders more problematic any attempt to locate bori within local networks of power relations, and to assess its continued influence in the lives of Dogondoutchi residents.

Bori is not a refuge from the inequities of modern life. It does not solely address the plight of divorced or childless women-as is mostly the case in the ethnographic realities described by Monfouga-Nicolas (1972) and Schmoll (1991); nor does it exclusively cater to the needs of those who identify themselves as devotees of the spirits. Bori, and this is where its strength resides, knows no boundaries and has no set territory because it often operates through the deployment of powerful tropes that touch the core of Mawri experience. In short, the strength of bori lies more in the grasp spirits have on the collective imagination than in the size of its visible membership. Through its broad concerns with the articulation of conflict-laden experience, bori speaks to a host of issues that transcend the confines of individual afflictions or personal crises to address the problems of entire communities variously confronted with such disruptive circumstances as the impact of colonial rule, the emergence of novel forms of production, or the raw reality of lightning-to cite some of the themes discussed at length in the following chapters.

Despite its centrality in the life of numerous communities, households, and families, in the last forty years bori has lost much ground to Islam on the visible terrain of religious practice. As more youths embrace Islam, and as bori devotees become increasingly pressured by local Muslim elites to abandon "traditional" rituals that, by official Islamic standards, are simply backward and sinful, it becomes relevant to ask whether bori will remain a significant force in Mawri history and society. Despite the fact that the recently adopted Charte nationale of Niger constitutionally guarantees the right of "Islam, animism, Christianity and all other forms of belief [to] coexist to answer the spiritual and social needs of Nigerien populations" (République du Niger 1987, 37), in Dogondoutchi and elsewhere bori is not awarded the same consideration as Islam.

In the face of Muslims' growing control over the nexus of trade, administration, and political leadership, some scholars have expressed the opinion that belief in spirits will fade over time as orthodox Islam becomes more firmly entrenched in rural communities. Guy Nicolas (1975) has suggested, for instance, that pre-Islamic signs and practices, which were intimately linked to a subsistence economy, have been weakened by the arrival of money and the shift to commercial agricultural production. Arguing that commodity capitalism and its socioeconomic impacts cannot be accounted for in the "traditional" system, he noted, for instance, the deleterious effects of the 1968-74 drought on bori: because they were not powerful enough to avert the climatic catastrophe, spirits have lost some of their prestige in the eyes of people. Such interpretation is contradicted by the studies of Échard (1992), who found that the massive hunger of the seventies provided renewed impetus for representing and acting upon historical forces via spirit possession: in the neighboring region of Ader, east of Dogondoutchi, a new female spirit associated with crickets made her appearance on the bori arena in 1973. She went by the name of Bobo, a term that refers to one of the twenty different species of crickets found in Ader. She had come from the west with the crickets, she said, to devastate the country. Other spirits of Zarma origin also appeared at that time to destroy Ader communities by throwing lightning. These dangerous figures symbolized Zarma political and economic domination: at independence, the numerically dominant Hausa-of which the Mawri are a subgroup-became politically controlled by the Zarma minority. Through their possession by violent and destructive spirits who caused hunger and harm, villagers expressed their sense that the famine was caused by the government's mismanagement of the national economy (Échard 1992).

I never heard of Bobo in Dogondoutchi but found numerous expressions of the bori's creative potential for mediating the shift to an increasingly monetarized economy. As will become apparent, bori provides a crucial medium for representing the unseen, interpreting the novel, and mediating the foreign. This ability to explain and act upon the puzzles, paradoxes, and disruptions of Mawri society by investing seemingly unambiguous media-the marketplace, a lightning bolt, or the sweetness of sugar-with newly relevant significations is what makes bori a productive, practical, and viable alternative to Islam for those who experience an increasing loss of control over the forces that give their lives meaning.

This book is an attempt to situate bori at the intersection of local experience and wider, encompassing processes in order to trace the transformations of Mawri symbols and values that, despite predictions of their impending obsoleteness in the face of Islamic expansion, have remained relevant and meaningful for many of those who seek to assert their own agency in contemporary Arewa. In my discussion of Mawri people's engagement with the spirit world, I treat possession as a dynamic force of history and analyze the idioms and tropes of bori as an expression of social consciousness. While bori often provides a lens through which to remember an idealized past, it also serves as an important arena in which to articulate the problems of contemporary life. Such capacity to simultaneously manage the forces of tradition and innovation is what enables bori to transform the experience of novel, ambiguous, or threatening realities into symbols of a shared consciousness. In drawing particular attention to the imaginative and agentive dimensions of possession, one may describe bori as a force in constant flux, whose representations remain perpetually shifting, often contested, and rarely totally articulated. It will be seen that the potency of bori in changing contexts of engagement between the local and the global is intimately tied to the historical circumstances in which its images and practices acquire their meanings.

Anthropological Approaches to Possession

Possession in its various cultural forms has long been an object of fascination for social scientists and psychiatrists attempting to interpret the nature of this profound religious drama. For early anthropologists intent upon classifying the alien and the exotic, possession was a theatrical form of hysteria, a disease that, as its name indicates (hystera means "womb" in Greek) prevailed among women. Following Plato ([1929],1981) who diagnosed trance as symptomatic of a distressed womb unable to generate children, researchers insisted on the pathological dimension of spirit possession. Frazer (Beattie and Middleton 1969, XXIV), for instance, wrote that in "savage" societies, possession was:

commonly invoked to explain all abnormal mental states, particularly insanity or conditions of mind bordering on it. So these persons more or less crazed in their wits, and particularly hysterical or epileptic patients, are for that very reason thought to be peculiarly favoured by the spirits and are therefore consulted as oracles, their wild and whirling words passing for the revelations of a higher power, whether a god or a ghost, who considerably screens his too dazzling light under a thick veil of dark sayings and mysterious ejaculations.

Several decades later, the association between madness and possession remained the operating paradigm. Devereux wrote that shamans should be seen as "suffering from serious neurosis, or even as a psychotic in a state of temporary remission" (1970, 15). Bastide also took for granted the pathological dimension of possession, entitling one of his works Le rêve, la transe, et la folie (1972). In an essay on mediumship, de Heusch wrote that "trance can be seen as the cultural aspect of mental illness or as the 'madness of the gods'" (1971, 256). And Jean Rouch gave to his famous film on spirit possession among Nigerien migrants in Ghana the title of Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters) (1956).

With the debate still raging over whether or not religious trance should be explained in pathological terms, anthropologists began to adopt a functionalist framework in their analyses of possession based upon an increasing concern with healing as a concept with the potential to resolve social contradictions. Such efforts were part of a widespread current of change in Anglo-American anthropology as functionalism took over the discipline. In the field of religious studies, such a move was heralded by Ioan Lewis's claim that possession-as a universal category of behavior that, together with shamanism, could fall under the rubric ecstatic religion-must be studied as a social phenomenon having to do with power and marginality (1966). Lewis's cross-cultural characterization of the powerless predictably spawned further studies of possession as viable strategies of redress for marginalized, deprived, or subordinate individuals in male-centered cultures or competitive contexts (Besmer 1983; Gomm 1975; Gussler 1973; Onwuejeogwu 1969; Wilson 1967). A parallel focus on possession as problem-solving process led other analysts to privilege the therapeutic dimensions of possession at the expense of its religious, aesthetic, and historical significance (Crapanzano 1973; Field 1960; Kennedy 1967; Messing 1958; Prince 1968; Ward 1980). Similarly eschewing the embededness of trance phenomena in a system of cultural meanings, Kehoe and Giletti have proposed a biological model that links women's participation in possession to calcium deficiency (1981; see also Raybeck, Shoobe, and Grauberg 1989).

The medicalization of possession in the Anglo-American literature can be contrasted with the more meaning-centered approach that has prevailed in French anthropology (see Boddy 1994; Csordas 1987). In the latter, the symbolic and aesthetic dimensions are often the focus of the study (Bastide 1978; Métraux 1958; Rouch 1989; Rouget 1985). Rather than casting ritual in a rationalist framework, some of these approaches have hovered between ethnographic analysis and literary account to become poetic testimonies to the complex reality of possession (Balandier1957; Gibbal1994; Leiris1958; Rosenthal1998). Such attention to aesthetic issues has led to an increased focus on the theatricality of possession (Leiris 1958; Métraux 1958; Schaeffner 1965). From this perspective, the possessed mediums are cultural actors who enact a play in front of an audience that shares with the performers an understanding of the staged sequence of events. Like a theater play, the ritual drama always reaches a denouement; categories, feelings, and relationships are expressed in an exaggerated manner, and the social processes of everyday life are epitomized in a stereotypical fashion (see Turner 1968).

Yet, as Kapferer notes in his ethnography of Sri Lankan demonic exorcism, performance is not merely the enactment of a text "reducible to terms independent of its formation as a structure of practice" (1983, 7). It is rather the union of text and performance in the sense that a text takes its shape and becomes experienced through performance. In short, the text constitutes the performance as much as it is constituted by the performance. This notion of a dialectical interplay between text and performance has important implications for the way one conceptualizes change and creativity in possession. The case of vodou in Haiti is a perfect example of how action as text shapes and is shaped by the actors' experience (Brown 1991). Yet when early anthropologists, who had come to take for granted the precise and rigidly orchestrated performances of Brazilian or Dahomean possession, observed the apparently chaotic displays of Haitian vodou, they saw in them a sign of degeneration. For Métraux, the frantic pace, the violent motions, and the frequent outbursts of passion and frenzy-which were only found in Haitian vodou-were a manifestation of anarchy, an indication that Haitian actors did not "follow the text" (1958). Other scholars interpreted them as a sign that old African ways were progressively being forgotten (Larose 1977).


Excerpted from Prayer Has Spoiled Everything by Adeline Masquelier Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Adeline Maquelier is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University.

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