African Appropriations: Cultural Difference, Mimesis, and Media

African Appropriations: Cultural Difference, Mimesis, and Media

by Matthias Krings


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016294
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/20/2015
Series: African Expressive Cultures Series
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Matthias Krings is Professor of Anthropology and African Popular Culture at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. He is editor (with Onookome Okome) of Global Nollywood: The Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Film Industry (IUP, 2013).

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African Appropriations

Cultural Difference, Mimesis, and Media

By Matthias Krings

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Matthias Krings
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01640-9


The Wicked Major


IT WAS GETTING close to midnight when the musicians finally intoned the hymn of Magajiyar Jangare. The amplified sound of the garaya, a two-stringed lute, distorted and cracking through the megaphones that served as loudspeakers, sent shivers down my spine. I had witnessed a number of public bori possession dances before and knew that this was the sign for the spirit mediums to begin their preparations. On that night in December 1992, Idi and his group had been performing in Unguwa Uku, one of the bustling quarters outside the old city of Kano, Nigeria, since the last prayer, at about eight that evening. For hours, Idi had sweetly praised women and men among the audience with words sung to the tunes of the spirit hymns. Those who were praised had reciprocated with cash, thus expressing their close relationship to particular spirits as well as their acknowledgement of Idi's praise. Now Idi sang the lines which prompted those willing to come forward to serve as the spirits' "horses," or mediums, on that very night: "Children of bori, come forward, your mother has arrived, the one with the large zane-wrapper." The six-gourd rattle players sitting in front of Idi gave their best and sped up the rhythm. Clad only in single cloths tied around their waists or above their chests, the nine "children of bori," six men and three women, came up and sat down in the middle of the makeshift dance floor, an open space surrounded by more than 300 people. Soon some of the mediums began to yawn. With trembling bodies and bulging eyes, groaning and frothing from their mouths, they produced the physical signs of possession trance. The scene grew wilder by the minute. As if violently thrown across the dance floor by invisible hands, some mediums traversed the open space half-crawling, half-jumping — raising clouds of dust. Finally, when the spirits had fully mounted their horses, the scene calmed down again. Each medium now moved and spoke according to the personality of the particular spirit he or she embodied.

Two of the mediums, whose spirits had treated their bodies with particular harshness, stood erect — their legs apart, hands on their hips — and announced who they were by shouting their kirari, a form of self-praise, in a wild mixture of French, English, and corrupted Hausa:

What's up, Monsieur spirits!? Come forward, Monsieur spirits! Only we of the governor, the lads of the governor! We conquer the town; we pass the town; we go into hiding as if we weren't there! One wants us to come; one wants us to leave! We come to town; the town falls empty; we leave the town, and the town falls empty! We are pagans who go to sleep at half past ten and rise at ten! We are pagans who turn the next day into "tomorrow"! We are killing. People say it's Allah — Allah is killing. People say it's us! Ocho!

When they had finished, the two mediums were led outside the circle and got dressed. When they came back, one of them was wearing a red uniform, the other a green one with red applications; both men also wore sashes across their chests, as well as berets and heavy boots. While one of them used his whip and Thunderer whistle to push back the audience and rearrange the dance floor, the other greeted the dignitaries among the audience with military salutes and handshakes. As I learned from someone standing next to me, the one in red was Kafaran, the "Corporal," and the one in green Komanda Mugu, the "Wicked Major." Both belonged to the family of Babule spirits who are said to be of European descent.

The two Europeans, who temporarily occupied the bodies of their African mediums, were almost naturally drawn to the only other European present, the one "who occupied the body of an anthropologist" — to borrow a phrase from Paul Stoller (1994: 646). They came over to me. After we shook hands and someone translated the greetings the spirits had uttered in corrupt Hausa, Kafaran ordered a bench to be brought for his superior and himself, and they sat down next to me. Together we watched the dance of the other spirits, who belonged to different families, including hunters, aristocrats, Fulbe, Tuareg, and Maguzawa, or pagan Hausa. Not only were the three of us among the few who had been offered a bench to sit on, but as I soon discovered, we had a number of other things in common, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking bottled soft drinks, and taking notes.

My new friends were the last to be called on to perform in front of the musicians. "Black ones, lads of the governor, one can see your whiteness, one can see your blackness," sang Idi in their praise, exclaiming, "Let's drink fire, let's taste the whip! Come forward, the one of Halima, owner of a thousand bullets!" Marching more than dancing in their heavy boots, they transformed the dance floor into a military parading ground. Their performance climaxed in a powerful demonstration of their superhuman invulnerability to fire. By stroking their bare chests with burning torches, they "washed [themselves] with fire," and when they "drank fire" like fire breathers, they lit up the surroundings by sending large balls of fire up into the night sky. Soon after they had finished their performance, the music stopped and the audience began to disperse. The spirits, however, far from swiftly leaving the bodies of their mediums, stayed on for a while outside in the dark, where people consulted them about their personal problems. Suddenly, I was approached by one of the Babule's helpers, who told me that Kafaran wanted to see me. I followed him to a dimly lit spot where Kafaran, about to leave his medium, was waiting. "Did you get what you came looking for in Nigeria?" he asked me, and I said, "Yes, almost." "What about maganin kwarjini, a 'medicine' which will ensure you the respect of others?" I had to confess that I had not come across it yet, and he offered: "I will give it to you!" However, he made clear that he expected something in return: "What will you give me?" "Twenty naira," I replied. He took a deep, roaring breath and said, "Fifty naira!" We made a deal, and he asked me to give the money to his "horse," who would prepare the "medicine" for me and from whom I should collect it the next day. I handed the money to his helper, shook hands with the spirit, and watched him dismount his medium. The moment he left, the medium fell to the ground. Gradually regaining control over his body, the medium, a young man called Isa, inspected himself and the scene around him, and then he asked us in astonishment what had happened and how he had gotten to where he found himself now in the early hours of the morning.

In this chapter, I focus on spirit possession as a primary technology for the mediation of cultural difference in Africa, which is based on the conception that the human body can serve as a medium for spirits. Recollecting my own experiences from 1992 to 1994 with Babule spirits in northern Nigeria (Krings 1997), I trace the origin of these ritual copies of Europeanness to French colonial West Africa in 1925. The spirits that first manifested themselves during possession rituals in the Hausa-speaking regions of southwestern Niger embodied the essence of colonial power and European alterity. "We copy the world to comprehend it through our bodies," writes Stoller (1994: 643) in his discussion of Michael Taussig's take on spirit possession and Cuna healing figurines. With reference to Adeline Masquelier (2001), who further developed this argument with regard to the Babule, I argue that the early Babule mediums did not only copy to comprehend but also to acquire some of the qualities of those on whom their ritual copies were modeled. The power thus acquired, however, was not used against its source to mock or resist the French colonial regime, as has been contended both by contemporary observers and some more recent interpreters (Stoller 1984), but against forms of amoral power and illegitimate authority — that is, witchcraft and local chiefs installed by the colonizers. I argue that the Babule spirits, far from being ritual caricatures of colonial Europeans, rather, have to be conceptualized as embodied pastiches, as particular spiritualized copies of powerful others, who transferred some of the qualities of the colonial Europeans to those possessed by the Babule spirits.

What becomes obvious by following the traces of the Babule spirits to the present, as I set out to do, is that they change their meaning according to respective historic contexts and the social functions of the rituals of possession they are associated with. What began as a revitalization movement inspired by embodied pastiches that formed its spiritual backbone, in Niger in 1925, became a religious institution around which Nigerien immigrants to southern Ghana organized their communities and social life in the 1950s. In northern Nigeria, where the Babule had been integrated into the pantheon of bori spirits early on, they acted according to the logic of a typical cult of affliction: during the 1990s, they were the source as well as the remedy for serious afflictions and mundane problems alike, which were somehow associated with local modernity, and they enabled their adepts to make a living by performing as their vessels during public possession dances and administering "medicines" to clients during private consultations. What these different forms have in common is that they make use of alterity to articulate and legitimize certain functions of the self.

REWIND: NIGER 1925–1927

The early Babule spirits manifested themselves in southwestern Niger during a period marked by the intensification of French colonial rule. Since the turn of the century, Kurfey and Arewa, the two neighboring Hausaphone regions that were to produce particular strongholds of Babule followers, had each experienced dramatic political and economic changes. In search of traditional rulers who would help govern the peasant population, the French had installed "district chiefs," or chefs de canton, among people who hitherto had had no dealings whatsoever with centralized political institutions, such as the egalitarian Kurfeyawa, or expanded the power of traditional political authorities which had formerly been checked by a fragile system of power sharing, such as in Arewa (Fuglestad 1975; Latour 1992). In both regions, the new local authorities had proven to be particularly efficient helpers of the French. They had helped fight revolts, forcefully recruited men to serve in the French army during World War I and as laborers for construction work, exacted aliments, and levied taxes (Echard 1992: 96; Fuglestad 1975: 211). In 1925, such coercions became even more burdensome when the French decided to develop Niamey, which would become Niger's administrative capital. To realize their plans they needed manpower, foodstuffs, and animals for transportation, all of which they exacted particularly from the regions near Niamey. The Babule spirits first made their presence felt in Tudu Anza, a village of the Arewa region (Echard 1992) during the dry season of 1925.

In that village, a woman called Shibo became possessed by an unknown female spirit who turned out to be Batura (female European). Nothing is known about the immediate context in which this happened. It is also unclear why Shibo, daughter of the chef de village of Shikal in the neighboring canton of Kurfey, went to that particular Arewa village. The spirit, however, must have struck a chord with the villagers who flocked to the séances Shibo began to organize. Soon, more villagers, especially young people, became possessed, and the number of spirits grew. Embodying spirits such as the Governor, Commandant de Cercle, and Capitaine, the possessed "became invulnerable, swallowing cinders, flogging each other with torches and so on" (Fuglestad 1983: 129). When Shibo and her followers began to agitate against the chef de canton, Tassao Gao, the French stepped in with a number of unsuccessful disciplinary measures. The spirits and their cult then spilled over into neighboring regions, and by May 1926, had already spread among the Hausa-speaking Mawri of the subdivision of Dogondoutchi. Meanwhile, Shibo, who had returned together with a number of followers and musicians to Shikal, her home village in Kurfey, continued to initiate new adepts into the cult of the strange spirits. By February 1927, the cult had spread across the whole of Kurfey. Like before in Arewa, they also began to agitate against the chef de canton of Kurfey, Gado Namailaya. A French official described the situation as follows: "A woman of Shikal, Shibo, and her father, Ganji, have invented a sect that copies our administration. Young boys and girls come together, found villages, name governors, commanders, doctors, exercise with wooden rifles, arrest the native guards. ... Shibo enters into trance, preaches insubordination, urges people to stop paying taxes and to refuse to work" (Scheurer, in Olivier de Sardan 1984: 282; my translation). To reassert their presence among the peasants, the French decided to carry out a population census of the Kurfey canton. Led by a young and inexperienced official keen to break the passive resistance of the population, this census turned into a punitive expedition. However, the administration at Niamey disapproved of this development and decided to compensate the victims, among them also followers of the Babule spirits (Echard 1992; Fuglestad 1975). The Babule adepts and their followers claimed this success as their own and as proof of the power of their spirits. According to Fuglestad (1983), two further events must have contributed to a growing conviction among the peasants that the tables were beginning to turn: the death of the chef de canton, Gado Namailaya, who was the most proximate symbol of colonial rule and who died in March 1927, and the assault on the military post of Tessaoua in June of the same year, which went unatoned. When the cult started spreading among the Songhay-Zerma and Tuareg of the neighboring cantons later that year, the colonial administration arrested Shibo and several hundred of her followers.

On the orders of the French commandant de cercle, Horace Croccichia, Shibo, and about sixty of her followers were brought to Niamey and imprisoned. According to Jean Rouch (1960), who in the 1940s conducted research into the Hauka (as the Babule spirits were called by their Songhay-speaking adepts), Croccichia locked up the spirit mediums without food for three days and three nights. When he called them out of their cells, they danced and became possessed by their spirits, and Croccichia slapped them one after another until each admitted that there was no such thing as Hauka spirits. Rouch reports on a second version of this incident as well:

"Dance, I want to speak with Hauka!" said Croccichia. So they performed a ceremony in front of him. They became possessed, and he asked the gods to weep and to take their tears and put them on the Hauka. The possession crisis stopped immediately, of course, and the commissioner said, "You see, there are no more Hauka, I am stronger than the Hauka." Then he put them all in jail. When they were in jail, one man became possessed and said, "I am a new Hauka, I'm Corsasi (The Wicked Major)" ..., and the man said, "I'm stronger than all the other Hauka, we have to break out of jail." (Rouch 1978: 1008)

Some of Rouch's interlocutors believed that this jailbreak was actually successful and that the spirit mediums were able to flee to the Gold Coast. Adeline Masquelier (2001) recorded a similar version from Nigerien Babule adepts in the 1990s, who turned the historical defeat into a success. In this version, Croccichia "never had a chance to display his power by beating the troublemakers," for the mediums became possessed soon after their imprisonment and "in a matter of minutes" knocked down the prison walls with their bare fists and escaped "before anyone realized what was happening" (175). The historical facts, however, read much more prosaically. The majority of the Babule mediums were discharged after two months and allowed to return to their villages. But Shibo and some other prominent figures of the "sect" were deported to Upper Volta and Ivory Coast, where Shibo was to return to Kurfey only after nine years (Echard 1992; Fuglestad 1975). Though the so-called Babule movement has since lost its political implications, the veneration of the foreign spirits never ceased to exist. Migrant workers from Niger took them to the colonial Gold Coast where the cult was further elaborated and its pantheon expanded. Back in Niger, the spirits were integrated into the pantheon of two older cults of spirit possession — the holey of the Songhay-Zerma and the bori of the Hausa (Echard 1992; Krings 1997; Rouch 1960).


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Table of Contents



1. Major Wicked: Embodying Cultural Difference

2. Lance Spearman: An African James Bond

3. Black Titanic: Pirating the White Star Liner

4. Vice and Videos: Kanywood under Duress

5. Dar 2 Lagos: Nollywood in Tanzania

6. Branding bin Laden: The Global "War on Terror" on a Local Stage

7. Master and Mugu: Orientalist Mimicry and Cybercrime

8. "Crazy White Men": Un/doing Difference in African Popular Music

Coda: Mimesis and Media in Africa





What People are Saying About This

Bayero University, Kano - Abdalla U. Adamu

Matthias Krings has brilliantly fused together vignettes of contemporary African visual mediascapes that cause us to revise our perceptions of eddies and translocations of transnational mediated popular culture to Africa and within Africa.

Tufts University - Peter Probst

An original, stimulating, and convincing discussion of mimetic behaviors in the fields of cultural production and artistic expression.

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