Spirit Possession: Modernity and Power in Africa


As Heike Behrend and Ute Luig make clear in their introduction, this book is not a sequential account of the development of spirit possession cults throughout history, nor is it a desperate attempt to keep them alive. Instead, the essays included in this collection concern the influences of spirit possession on modern-day societies.

The anthology, comprised of commentaries and reported fieldwork, is separated into four different sections: "Spirit Possession and Modernity;" "Complexities and Proliferation of Spirit Possession;" "Spirit Possession and Gender;" and "Spirit Possession as Performative Ethnography and History `from below.'" Most of the case studies presented are based on first-hand information collected from the late 1980s through the early 1990s. Geographically, they range from the Bijagos Islands off the west coast of Africa to Nigeria to Madagascar. While the topics of the studies are wide-ranging, each chapter focuses on a specific event or culture. The incorporation of spirit possession into everyday circumstances and current realities is a common theme.

Each chapter is readable and engaging, and relates the relevance of possession cults to economic activity, cultural traditions, health practices, and technology. The case studies included suggest that the only way to ensure successful development is to work with the people of developing countries within the context of their own realities.

Rather than looking at possession cults as peripheral factors of given societies, these essays discuss spirit cults as active and involved parts of each community. The authors touch on a variety of issues, including power, nationality, gender roles, religious systems, and social dynamics. Many of them offer alternative approaches to understanding and interpreting the practices of spirits and their mediums. Their conclusions may differ from common perceptions of the possession cults, but seem a more accurate portrayal of the faith.

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