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Where Humans and Spirits Meet

Where Humans and Spirits Meet: The Politics of Rituals and Identified Spirits in Zanzibar

Kjersti Larsen
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Where Humans and Spirits Meet
    Book Description:

    Zanzibar, an island off the East African coast, with its Muslim and Swahili population, offers rich material for this study of identity, religion, and multiculturalism. This book focuses on the phenomenon of spirit possession in Zanzibar Town and the relationships created between humans and spirits; it provides a way to apprehend how society is constituted and conceived and, thus, discusses Zanzibari understandings of what it means to be human.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-056-2
    Subjects: Religion, Performing Arts, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Map of the Western Indian Ocean
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
    Kjersti Larsen
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    This book deals with the phenomenon of spirit possession in Zanzibar Town. The spirits involved are known to Zanzibari women and men asmasheitani(sing.sheitani) ormajini(sing.jini) and the rituals performed on their behalf generally are calledngoma ya sheitani(sing.ngoma ya sheitani). Focusing on the phenomenon of spirit possession, and the relationships it creates between humans and spirits, provides a way to apprehend how this society is constituted and conceived and, thus, to discuss Zanzibari understandings of what it means to be human. It illuminates Zanzibari understandings of the nature of human relationships, both in terms...

  6. 2 Introduction to Zanzibar: THE PLACE, ITS POLITICS AND ORGANIZATION
    (pp. 25-41)

    I will in the following chapter give a brief introduction to Zanzibar and Zanzibar Town and to the historical and social processes which are relevant in this context. I shall stress the underpinning importance of ideas of kabila and gender in this society – ideas which are closely tied to the conceptualization of difference and thus, to the distinction between self and other. But let me start with Zanzibar as a place.

    Zanzibar forms part of the wider Swahili coast, which runs from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique.¹ Situated in the Indian Ocean about 40 km from the Tanzanian mainland, Zanzibar...

  7. 3 Spirits, possession and personhood
    (pp. 42-59)

    Ngoma ya sheitani is what in anthropological literature is called a spirit possession ritual.¹ In Zanzibar the spirits called masheitani or majini and the phenomenon of spirit possession form, in practice, an integrated part of Islamic beliefs and practices, and ngoma ya sheitani are understood as curing rituals. The rituals are sometimes talked about as performing medicine (fanya dawa), and the ritual groups are from time to time referred to as the hospital (hospitali). The spirits involved represent both the cause and the cure of the illness and suffering. The rituals are performed in order to satisfy and please a...

  8. 4 Makabila, people and spirits
    (pp. 60-80)

    Zanzibaris hold that for every kabila of people in the world, there is a kabila of spirits. As there are different makabila of people living in Zanzibar, so there are also different makabila of spirits; however, some are more common than others. Among the more common kinds of spirits are masheitani ya ruhani – Muslim spirits from ‘Arabia’.¹ Other common spirits include masheitani ya kibuki, who are Christian spirits from Madagascar, and masheitani ya habeshia, Christian spirits from Ethiopia. Then there are the masheitani ya rubamba, who are pagan spirits from the island of Pemba.² Many other kinds of spirits are...

  9. 5 Human concerns, spirits and recreation of relationships
    (pp. 81-94)

    In the following I shall discuss the healing aspects of the rituals. I will emphasize the spirits’ interference in people’s lives; in their relationships and well-being, and how people deal with the spirits. I will briefly explain how Zanzibaris approach spirits in order to make communication possible and to ensure some influence on the spirits. I will provide an extensive case history of a ritual called ngoma ya ruhani. The presentation of the ritual and its framework will serve to further demonstrate the extent to which the rituals are healing rituals. Relationships – not the individual – are the focus of attention....

  10. 6 Between self and other: BODY AND MIND
    (pp. 95-108)

    The main purpose of this chapter is to examine how distinctions between human beings and spirits are perceived and performed. The reality of spirits and their materialization through human bodies depends upon a conceptualization of personhood that includes a separation of body and mind. Crucial to this discussion is the empirical fact that although people and spirits may share a body, people still make clear distinctions between human beings and spirits, and between what can be seen as the human-self and the spirit-self.

    Women and men say that they can feel (hizi) when their spirit is about to inhabit them....

    (pp. 109-122)

    Understandings of the body concern ideas of biology and aesthetics. The aesthetic dimension, including its performative acts is, in this society, explicitly expressed in questions of kabila, while the ambiguity of biology and aesthetics is first and foremost disclosed in questions of gender and gender differences. My contention is that gender as it is understood with reference to the spirits is tied to Zanzibari gender images in general. But while gender in the human world is perceived as referring to biological sex, people define the gender of the spirits on the basis of aesthetics. When gendered spirits inhabit sexed bodies,...

  12. 8 Women, men and gendered spirits
    (pp. 123-144)

    A ngoma ya kibuki provide an opportunity to discuss Zanzibari dramatization and discourse on the ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in gender images. My interest lies in examining the degree to which gender and gender differences are, in this ritual context, negotiated, constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. At the same time the ritual also illustrates the enactment of difference regarding kabila and distinctions between humans and spirits along the very same lines. A ngoma ya kibuki is different from other kinds of ngoma ya sheitani in several ways. First, a ngoma ya kibuki is the only ritual which focuses on the married...

    (pp. 145-157)

    The rituals of ngoma ya sheitani constitute contexts where the other is dramatized, and echo what Janice Boddy (1988) has called a catalogue of otherness.¹ The phenomenon of masheitani can be understood as one of the phenomena through which members of one culture know and represent other cultures to themselves and to the world at large, as Fritz Kramer (1993) has argued with respect to so-called possession phenomena in general.

    The process through which people become inhabited by spirits can, as I have already discussed, also be described in terms of mimesis (Kramer 1993). According to Taussig, mimesis, or the...

  14. Glossary
    (pp. 158-162)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 163-170)
  16. Index
    (pp. 171-174)