A few weeks ago, there was a fascinating story from Mozambique about an epidemic of ‘spirit possesion’ and how people were ‘possesed’ by certain spirits with a wide range of issues and a serious manners deficiency.
The intersection between the material world and the ‘spirit world’ is an interesting one. It is quite staggering how widespread belief in spirits is, but irrespective of the lack of factual data to support this, it is an interesting reflection on the society that witnesses these manifestations.
In Mozambique, a study into the phenomenon noticed a strong correlation between psychological trauma or physical illness and possession. Strangely enough, the severity of the trauma or illness was directly proportional to the number of ‘spirits’.
The fact that the spirits were reportedly interested in communicating with others also strikes me as revealing. It seems the persistence of such phenomena may often also be connected to such mundane things as a desire to communicate with others.
It is also interesting how closely such phenomena are tied to societal concerns, especially when it comes to major upheavals. One overlooked legacy of the Mozambique war was the emergence of a new type of spirit that was inextricably tied to those brutal events.
These were supposedly spirits of dead soldiers who possessed certain people in the spirit of having ‘unfinished business’- one of the oldest horror film clichés. Spirits becomes not just about individual problems but become a manifestation of national trauma writ large.
The Mozambique people were forced to confront this bloody chapter of their history not only in the real world, but also in their self-created spiritual dimension. One can only wonder how much more difficult it became to move on towards reconciliation and rebuilding once vengeful spirits entered the picture.
And such events persist elsewhere, with interesting twists- frequently the concept of traditional gods is merely a slightly more grandiose substitute for spirits in some communities. Sometime ago, the Ugandan newspaper The Sunday Vision run a story with the title ‘The water gods must be angry’.
In this case, the spirits and their concerns were intimately connected to water transport and fishing of the District that was the subject of that story. In this case there was a long and slightly amusing list of no-no’s when one was in proximity to the lake including no saucepans on board, women not allowed to touch the oars of the boat and pointing at any spirits should you happen to is not allowed. Even walking naked near the lake is considered dangerous enough to affect the fish catch. The spirits evidently, are quite picky.
These stories and fears play on very modern concerns. One obvious one- articulated by one of the village elders- is the fact that the younger generation is moving away from tradition and embracing modernity and Christianity. As such beliefs lose currency, it becomes inevitable that those who still believe will cling even more tightly to their beliefs.
It also becomes a reaffirmation of misogyny- a surprising amount of rules prevent women from getting involved in the fishing and transport industry that runs the community. In doing so, it becomes a slightly unconventional but effective way of maintain the status quo and power structures of the society. In that context, it is also an expression of economic uncertainty.
All these things combine and perpetuate the idea of the spirit world intertwining with ours. It is hard to shake off the idea that mankind’s ennui and anxieties will always manifest itself in increasingly eccentric ways.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer