Friends of the Kel Essuf: Perspectives on Shamanism in Tuareg Mediumistic Healing
The Tuareg are a semi-sedentary, Islamic, socially-stratified Saharan people who live in Niger and Mali, West Africa, and speak Tamajaq (a Berber language). Several types of healers serve among the Tuareg (also known as Tamashek), and many of them are believed to have a special contract with spirits called Kel Essuf (“people of the wild, solitude, or nostalgia”). Islamic marabouts perform divination and heal with Qur’anic verses and cabalistic numerical systems. Smith/artisans are usually spirit-possession ritual drummers believed to hold superhuman powers. Male healers called boka (a Hausa-derived term) cure with perfumes and plants. Female herbalists (called tinesmegelen or tinesefren) inherit their occupation in specific clans; they use leaves and bark predominantly to treat women’s and children’s stomach ailments and conduct marital counseling. Some herbalists and diviners have close relationships with these non-Qur’anic spirits and seek to control them for divination, counseling, and healing.
Certain conditions are needed to achieve a contract with the Kel Essuf, and this mediation between the spirits and humans affects human social relationships. These “friends of the Kel Essuf” undergo illness and altered states of consciousness (ASC), but tame the spirits by following rules of a social and spiritual contract, and thereby acquire power to heal and divine. The concept of “core shamanism” used by Michael Harner and Michael Winkelman is useful as a heuristic device, but does not characterize the friends of the Kel Essuf—some shamanic healing symbols and social roles must be understood within a specific cultural context. In the case of the Tuareg it is more constructive to ask what forms and meanings of shamanistic activities Tuareg use, rather than whether shamanism exists.
Tuareg mediumistic healers do not display shaman characteristics identical to those described in much cross-cultural research, but rather they are more like mediums. The friends of the Kel Essuf induce an ASC, but generally do not experience soul flight or journeys. Tuareg friends, like mediums, typically acquire their position in response to illness and give sacrificial offerings to their possessing spirits. They are not supposed to perform malevolent acts, but rather heal and protect.
The Kel Essuf Spirits
The concept of essuf is central to Tuareg mediumistic healing. Essuf (“the wild, solitude, or nostalgia”) is a psychosocial and metaphorical state as well as a physical place. The spirits called Kel Essuf may be accommodated by mediumistic diviners or exorcised at public rituals. Johannes Nicolaisen reported that these beings are tied to deserted places and are often encountered in obscurity or on travels in distant places. Spirits usually attack adults in the form of illness. They may compete for people and become jealous of those who are fortunate, highly valued, or undergoing important transitions. They are believed to reproduce and have their own language.
When possessed by the essuf, people are said to be “in the wild.” This ASC is conceptualized by many Tuareg as a “turning around of the head.” In public spirit possession ceremonies, it is expressed in a “head dance” performance, and in both public rituals and more secluded mediumship as a spirit “mounting” the possessed host. Fundamental to understanding ASC and friendship with the Kel Essuf is the varying social context of this ASC: Some persons possessed by Kel Essuf become mediumistic healers, but others languish in a state of illness. Possessed persons are usually believed to suffer from tamazai, similar to depression, which does not respond to Islamic scholars’ cures, but requires public exorcism through a musical group therapy session led by a drummer and a chorus of female singers. During the possession exorcism ritual, the spirit takes over, but during mediumistic healing, the medium communicates with the spirit through a pact or contract that requires the medium to offer sacrifices to the Kel Essuf and obey certain rules. The medium’s identity merges with that of the spirit, but the medium retains greater control than the possessed person.
Herbalists who have special non-Qur’anic divination powers are called timaswaden or timanai (from asawad denoting “to look or see”). These non-Qur’anic herbalist/diviners are rare, and renowned over a wide region. Many Tuareg consult them before undertaking important projects such as travel and well-digging, or when other healers cannot diagnose their illness. These female diviner/mediums use several techniques, such as dreaming, imagination (interpretation of the dreams), memory, and speaking to their tutelary spirits. Dreams are used to identify a thief, predict an auspicious day for holding a wedding, distinguish between good and evil, foretell the future, and diagnose illnesses. But the diviner must also know the patient well and like them; therefore, when the client requests divination, the diviner dreams to divine the patient’s character before proceeding with additional diagnoses.
Tuareg diviner/mediums cure organic and non-organic illnesses, whose boundaries are not clear-cut and do not conform exactly to Euro-American bio-medical categories. Psycho- and socio-therapeutic and physical treatments are often combined: for example, herbalists use massage and touch, cleansings, purgings, and plant medicines.
The Pact with the Kel Essuf
The friends of the Kel Essuf have a contract with Kel Essuf and receive aid that enables them to give advice to other humans regarding illness, divine and find things, or predict future events.
Special methods of contacting the Kel Essuf include: being very clean, because Kel Essuf detest dirt; sacrificing a sheep or goat every seven days, because Kel Essuf like blood; praying directly to the Kel Essuf by not pronouncing Islamic blessings during sacrifice; and marrying only with authorization from Kel Essuf spirits. (Nicolaisen) A friend may inherit, cultivate, or purchase a “pact” with the spirits, bringing a spirit under their control through offerings and observance of certain ritual restrictions, thereby acquiring mediumistic, divining, and healing powers. The most prestigious pact with the Kel Essuf results from a calling, which first manifests itself through serious illness.
Many Tuareg say that spirits are “like a husband” to women diviners and the women must do things for the spirit such as slaughter animals. This relationship may cause jealousy and damage a woman’s relationship with her human husband. For example, one husband divorced his famous herbalist/diviner wife after her “door closed” (her genitals were believed to literally disappear or close up). Spirits compete with humans for a diviner’s attention, and make economic demands upon her.
Other non-Qur’anic diviner/mediums must also follow rules with social and moral implications. One boka diviner inherited his divining skill from his father. This man’s pact with the spirits obliged him to limit his relations with women so that his human and spirit wives did not become jealous: He could never see women outside marriage, and had to wear henna on his hands and feet, a symbol of fertility and fidelity to his spirit and human wives. The boka was also required to constantly maintain and reinforce relations with his spirits using attractive aromas and distinctive clothing of bright blue, a color associated with spirits tamed for constructive purposes. The diviner must also carry ritual paraphernalia: a small mirror, a small copper ring, and a non-Islamic amulet. The mirror symbolizes the process of divination; it is also believed to repel evil eye, jealousy, and coveting from others. Copper is believed to coagulate blood and heal wounds. The diviner must wear the ring and amulet exactly at the moments he casts the cowrie shell as a divination device.
Working In an Islamic Society
The friends of the Kel Essuf occupy a somewhat ambiguous status in relation to Islam, and must work to inspire trust. The non-Qur’anic diviners face a challenge because they differ from and potentially compete with the Qur’anic diviners, the marabout, who are a channel or mouthpiece for Allah and interpret through verses from the Qur’an. Community members, and especially patients and marabouts, must see the divination/mediumship of the friends of the Kel Essuf as socially constructive. The non-Qur’anic diviners must be concerned for human welfare beyond their immediate household and their own gain. Diviners must display dignity, reserve, and generosity to be considered legitimate and trustworthy. These qualities distinguish their ritual therapeutic practices from ordinary illness, mental deficiency, or other personal problems. The diviner must sacrifice and give alms, not solely to the Kel Essuf, but also to other humans (for example, maternal relatives and children) to reinforce medicines and preserve the contract with the spirits. For example, for tree spirits’ medicines to be effective, herbalists must distribute millet and sugar to children before gathering the medicines, must pray to and give alms to the trees before gathering, and must use a rock rather than a metal ax—which is more destructive to trees—to harvest the medicines.
These social qualities were vividly illustrated in the career of one renowned female herbalist/diviner who became adept at integrating non-Qur’anic and Qur’anic mediumistic skills. Hadiza initially divined with cowrie shells, insisting her work with Kel Essuf spirits was complementary to, rather than opposed to, Qur’anic verse divination and healing. This strategy was important politically and religiously in a region with many sacred tombs and shrines, where many clans claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammed, and where prominent male marabouts were highly respected and influential. She referred certain cases to the marabouts to cure, avoiding overt competition. One day, without any instruction or apprenticeship, Hadiza found she could write Qur’anic verses, and began Qur’anic divination as well, supplementing her mediumistic skills and further reconciling her practice with official Islam.
Social Dynamics of the Pact
The attainment of a pact with the Kel Essuf requires a secure network of social support and professional credibility based on personal character credentials. One woman, who was frequently possessed by spirits and who aspired to become a diviner, failed to parlay her affliction into a mediumship. She never convinced others of a spirit pact or diviner skills, primarily because she broke the sexual mores of her community by giving birth to several illegitimate children and displaying her lack of reserve and dignity, an important Tuareg culture value.
Healers’ diagnoses also reinforce a social ethos that validates the role of the diviner. A diagnosis called tourgoum reflects conditions such as prenatal birth defects caused during pregnancy when someone makes the mother angry. Husbands feel guilty, because a husband is supposed to be able to intuitively sense their pregnant wife’s wishes and needs and avoid making her unhappy. This diagnosis emphasizes the need for sensitivity to a pregnant woman’s needs.
Another diagnosis is karambaza, a stomach ailment believed to be transmitted to children by angry smith/artisans who activate a malevolent force called tezma if nobles have not paid the smiths for their goods or services.1 Increasing drought has depleted much of nobles’ livestock, and as a result, social upheavals have occurred when impoverished nobles have been unable to support smiths through their traditional client-patron relationships and smiths have in turn become wealthy by selling their jewelry work to urban residents, tourists, and expatriate workers. Tezma is believed to strike children and livestock in particular because they are so highly valued. The herbalist’s diagnosis exposes these tensions, and perhaps guides toward compensatory action, or at least reminds nobles of the need for caution in exposing belongings. This diagnosis of tezma-caused karambaza is also connected to wider beliefs concerning the cause of misfortune, tending to limit the accumulation of wealth in the hands of too few persons and encouraging economic reciprocity and redistribution. These values are important since resources are often scarce and uncertain. Diviners thereby emphasize the importance of these values in the Tuareg public consciousness.
The Current Political Context
These diviner/healers and their practices are affected by recent changes, in particular social upheavals caused by droughts and armed conflict between Tuareg and the central state governments of Niger and Mali. Recently, there have been transformations in traditional roles and relationships between the social strata due to upheavals of colonial and post-colonial nation-state political policies, a series of droughts, tensions with central governments, and upheavals that caused refugee flight from rural areas to towns.
Since the 1990 to 1996 Tuareg rebellion against the central governments of Niger and Mali (see page 8 this issue), residents of the northern regions have suffered from sporadic but traumatic political violence, despite Peace Accords in 1995 and 1996. Non-combatants are often caught in the crossfire between Tuareg nationalist/separatist rebels and government militia.
In the political turmoil following the Tuareg rebellion, there is sometimes no clear distinction between former rebel fighters, peace-keepers, bandits, militia, and police. During the armed conflict, many diviners’ “eyes and ears” warned of impending military attacks. Some diviners tried to protect local residents from political violence but were themselves often harassed by militia, who suspected the the diviners provided Tuareg rebel fighters with powerful protective amulets against guns.
Divination and mediumship should ideally be used for constructive, benevolent purposes to help others. Healing effectiveness requires generosity toward not solely the tutelary spirit but also other humans in a wide circle of support. This belief reflects longstanding Tuareg preference for “checks and balances” of powers, and suspicion of too great an authority at the center of the political system.
In effect, these shamanistic healers walk a tightrope of power, between fighting evil and becoming accomplices of evil. Friends of the Kel Essuf must act as mediators and counselors as well as healers. They must approach the Kel Essuf in order to tame them, but they risk the perils of falling into an abyss. They must be ready to devote themselves to the spirit, but at the same time not neglect their psychosocial and economic obligations to other humans. This balance is difficult to maintain, and it comes at a price. Therefore, the friends of the Kel Essuf grapple with existential dilemmas common to all humankind.
1. Smith/artisans, who belong to an inherited occupational group and social stratum in the traditionally stratified Tuareg system, manufacture jewelry, weaponry, and implements for hardening, herding, and trading among the Tuareg. In some regions, smiths also serve as praise-singers for noble patron families, and officiate at noble rites of passage. In the pre-colonial system, each noble family inherited a smith family, and the smiths were supported by noble families in patron/client relationships. Today, these relationships tend to be more voluntary, and have become more monetarized; for example, nobles pay smiths not only in millet, sugar, and tea, but also in cash.
Susan J. Rasmussen is a professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Houston.
References and further reading
Harner, M. (1990). The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Nicolaisen, J. (1961). Essaie sur la Religion et la Magie Touaregues. Folk 3, pp 113-160.
Rasmussen, S. (1995). Spirit Possession and Personhood among the Kel Ewey Tuareg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rasmussen, S. (1997). The Poetics and Politics of Tuareg Aging: Life Course and Personal Destiny in Niger. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
Rasmussen, S. (1998a). Only Women Know Trees: Medicine Women and the Role of Herbal Healing in Tuareg Culture. Journal of Anthropological Research 54(2):147-171.
Rasmussen, S. (1998b). Ritual Powers and Social Tensions as Moral Discourse among the Tuareg. American Anthropologist 100(2), pp 458-468.
Rasmussen, S. (2001). Healing in Community: Medicine, Contested Terrains, and Cultural Encounters among the Tuareg. Westport, Ct.:Greenwood (Bergin & Garvey).
Winkelman, M. (1992). Shamans, Priests and Witches. Tempe: Arizona State University Anthropological Research Papers #44.
Winkelman, M. (2002). Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology. American Behavioral Scientist. 45(12), pp 1875-1887.
Winkelman, M., & White, D. (1987). A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners and Trance States: Data Base. In Human Relations Area Files Research Series in Quantitative Cross-cultural Data, Vol. 31. Levinson, D. & Wagner, R., Eds. New Haven, Connecticut: HRAF