Do you believe in devils? Spirits? Possessions? Exorcisms? Or are spirits in any society simply the bio-chemical reality of hypnosis, revelation through sound, pitch and tone? An anthropological need for the occasional freak-out, fulfilled?
I was skeptical of all things spirits until recently, when I stepped into a Kibuki cult spirit possession ceremony. There, in the fevered pitch of my surroundings, I started to think about my personal cosmology of spirits. I’m attuned to energy. I can definitely pick up on “bad” energy, but I was never one to polarize the world in terms of good and evil.
Call it spiritual relativity – one person’s evil is another person’s anthropological thesis paper.
Whether I believed in anything or not, though, the feeling in the room that afternoon was palpably charged, and beyond earthly comprehension.
(A part of me is fearful to write what I saw and felt that afternoon, as I don’t believe my soul is strong enough to play with spirits who occupy a space beyond recognition. If I don’t write about it now, though, I never will. Every time I think of conjuring again the images of last Thursday’s entrance into a house full of spirits, I honestly quiver with confusion.)
I write this recollection as a total outsider – naive to the nuances of what appears to be an ancient cosmological family of spirits who have lived within and among the Swahili people since the beginning of time.
Kibuki is a particular kind of cult here in Zanzibar town that involves the visitation of Malagasy-Comorian spirits. An American photographer is here on a Fulbright and her project focuses on Kibuki. I met her at a cultural gathering a few months ago and she explained that she’s here to photograph and eventually participate in a Kibuki cult ceremony as a “client.”
I’d never heard about the Kibuki cult before.
I knew of waganga – natural healers who practice the Islamic healing arts by expertly using herbal and traditional medicines that synthesize African healing systems with text from the holy Qur’ran. A visit to a natural healing hospital in Mwera opened my eyes to the multi-layered religious and pagan belief systems animated to heal the sick and weary.
The waganga use intriguing healing methods that, for instance, require the sick patient to drink a prayer by writing holy Qur’anic passages with food colouring on a sheet of paper and then dipping the paper into a hot cup of chai, dissolving the prayer for quick consumption.
But Kibuki practices ? No. The more this American photographer spoke about this predominantly female cult, my curiosity was peaked. The following day I told my colleague Zeinab what I had learned, and she casually assured me that if I wanted to go to see for myself, she could arrange it. I told her I was interested.
I got a text message last Thursday from Zeinab saying that if I was ready, a woman named Asiya could take me to a Kibuki ceremony – an exorcism for an mgonjwa (sick person) who’d been diagnosed with the affliction of mashetani (devils).
I agreed to meet Asiya at four p.m. at her place, cycling to her German-designed apartment complex on the outskirts of town to meet up with her, a woman named Kat, and two other women whose names I didn’t catch. Asiya and Kat were kind and warm, offering me a purple scarf to cover my black dress. “The spirits don’t like the colour black,” they explained. The other two women were gruff and impatient, eager to arrive.
Together, the four of us strolled down quiet back roads. It was four p.m. and I was sleepy. I started to feel a little anxious about where we were going, and what we might see. I stopped at a small duka to buy a bottle of water. The ladies were all dressed in shimmery reds and pinks, and together we looked like a moving garden of tulips.
After more strolling and a taxi ride up a steep hill just beyond Zanzibar’s National Archives, we stumbled out of the taxi and started walking toward a house that appeared to be in perpetual development, not yet complete but built enough to house a crowd of mostly women and a few men who’d come to participate.
We walked to the doorway, where a crowd of onlookers had gathered to peer inside. I was wide-eyed and vulnerable to the forces & energies present in the room. The ngoma (drums), a kind of trance music, was already pumping. Nearly thirty people had crowded into the space. Potent oudi (incense) wafted in the air, leaving thick trails of smoke. I slipped off my red boots and tucked them by the door, among a heap of shiny flips flops and sandals.
Asiya entered the space with me and directed me to sit with the other women who were lined in rows of two against the back wall. I crunched down next to two women who immediately took a liking to me, leaning against me and trying to get to know me over the base drum beating and blaring from the loud speakers right next to us. I could barely hear them, but I was grateful for their welcome. I wrapped my purple shawl over my shoulders, held my knees to my chest, trying to take it all in — what I saw and felt, my heart pumping faster, my soul askew.
A woman sat on a stool hunched over and covered in white sheets in the center of the room. She was rocking and swaying lightly. In front of her was a tall table covered with various medicines and liquids in glass jars and bottles. Oudi was burning from clay cups lined up around the edges of the table, amidst other plants and twigs carefully arranged.
Linda Giles, a scholar of spirit possessions in East Africa, explains, “The spirit may be enticed to possess the patient (or sometimes the mganga) and explain why it has come and what it wants. Most often it will want an offering plate (of food and incense), an animal sacrifice, a certain type of cloth to wear, a ring or a dance/ceremony in its honor.”
The drum beat was a complex constant, causing our bodies to sway and buckle without giving it much thought. There was no animal sacrifice that afternoon, but there was dawa (medicine) and offerings of brandy and oudi.
A wild-eyed woman with dots of white paint on her forehead came up to me and brusquely threw a kanga over my head, thrusting a cup of hot coals of burning incense under the kanga so that I had no choice but to take deep, intoxicating inhalations of the potent scents. I felt high. When she whisked the kanga away, she started patting down my hair onto my sweaty forehead, with a force and wilfulness that scared me. I thought she might use that same force to remove my head from my body.
I kept swaying, leaning against the ladies scrunched behind me, clapping back and forth to the beat. I looked around for Asiya, who was sitting on the opposite end of the room, next to a man whose eyes kept rolling back and forth, his legs shaking.
I started to feel uneasy when glass after glass of brandy was tossed down by almost everyone in the room. I looked over to the right, where, in the adjacent room, little girls sat in their mothers’ laps on the floor, seemingly unaffected. The sick patient in the center of the room continued to rock back and forth. Her attendants were fully possessed, their eyes red and jittery as the drinks went down and the drum beats blared.
(I honestly feel that if spirits/devils/jinni are real, they are interfering with me writing about them at this exact moment. Every time I sit down to complete this post, I feel antsy and self-conscious, as if there is literally some force that doesn’t want me to understand. My text keeps disappearing. I think I’ll have written something and it’s gone. I will continue to try to explain, but I am honestly experiencing some feeling about this that I can’t name, and that frightens me.)
The sick patient remained swaying on her stool as one by one, her attendants pressed on her shoulders, danced around her, held her chin up, peered into her eyes. They were wrapped in hot pink and red kanga styles I’d never seen before. One had fashioned herself a kind of diaper that was then tucked into a pair of beige stretch pants. Others wrapped their heads and chests with kanga, and carried long wooden spears, sharp at the tip. They were all dancing, faces slack, slick with sweat.
The mood in the space became increasingly charged as each possessed spirit downed glass after glass of brandy, the drum beating in a room full of chaotic, unpredictable actions and sounds — shuddering, shouting, spasms, screams, and shrieks.
I looked across the room and saw one tall, lanky young man sit in a chair, his whole body a-quiver, eyes rolled back in a trance. He shuddered. It was like he was making eye-contact with me, raising his brows maniacally like he was trying to get my attention, but he wasn’t really looking at me, but beyond me. His eyes kept rolling back and forth, his legs shaking, his chest thrusting forward in spasms of possession.
It’s been said that in this particular cult, Kibuki, females are possessed by male spirits, and male spirits are possessed by female spirits. This makes for a really fascinating dynamic in a mixed gendered space, because all the predictabilities of Swahili society and culture start to quicksand, letting new dynamics emerge.
Men walked around with an ultra feminine affect, wrapped in kanga, dancing lasciviously, and in general, being a much softer, kinder presence in the space. They got wasted, chain smoked, gyrated, but they were not as overbearing as the women.
The women embodied the worst of male energy — aggressive, harassing, and lustful, their gestures, debauchery’s blueprints. The larger women really intimidated me, their sexually-repressed lids popping off, tipping shots of brandy down with abandon. I felt like at any moment I could be molested or wrestled to the floor. Dancers flung themselves around in the small space, threatening to trample or topple over sitting guests. They gyrated, touched themselves, touched each other, and ground their bottoms into the laps of seemingly unsuspecting spectators.
One woman approached me and shook my hand, gripping it so hard that I thought she’d never let go. Her eyes pierced through me with a kind of detached fire. I was assured by my two new friends that she liked me and was just coming to greet me, but I wasn’t sure what she might do, and couldn’t find the person behind her eyes long enough to sense that I was safe.
Both the men and women continued to dance, waving spears in the air or sometimes aiming them at peoples’ faces to cajole them into dancing. Some seemed to be embodied and then all of a sudden possessed by a spirit, only to return again to a “normal” state within minutes. A young woman sat on a chair and drank, breathed deep, and then suddenly fell into a fit of spasms, like epilepsy. She seemed like an everyday Zanzibari young lady, but in that moment, she was out of her mind, communing or rather taken over by spirits from another world.
If I hadn’t believed some version of this was possible, seeing it made me believe and it frightened me.
It frightened me because no matter how anthropological I can get about it, rationalizing the function of a conservative society’s cosmological excuse to step outside the bounds of social and religious propriety, I still couldn’t account for what I was witnessing in the moment. I could not link or connect, and I was left peering into a world that leaned into a darkness way too deep for me.
It was one particularly large, aggressive woman’s flailing, erotic dancing that made me feel like I’d had enough. I stepped up abruptly, which caused a little scuffle of confusion among the attendants and the guests, especially my two new friends, who tried to call me back into the space. But I’d had enough. I stepped onto the porch, with others who were curious but not willing to go inside. From there I watched as one of the girls who’d befriended me also became possessed by a spirit, jerking her body around in fits of sexual thrust, getting low to the ground, butterflying at the knee.
Outside, I found comfort in Kat, who was sitting on the baraza by herself. She explained that she’d just come to get out of the house and did not like attending Kibuki ceremonies. I learned, too, that Asiya anapanda — meaning, she lets spirits “mount” her — and so do the other women who I’d originally walked with to the ceremony.
Kat and I sat quietly together for a while, particularly intrigued by the possessed who’d emerged from the house in spastic searches for water or cigarettes.
At one point, I asked Kat if Kibuki w as at odds with Islam, seeing as alcohol is a central part of the experience and is used to appease the spirits as well as to channel them. Kat confirmed that some of the spirits themselves are considered Muslim or at least Islamic, and that pagan and religious worlds overlap.
Later I read that the spirits can either be Muslim or Pagan, African or European, a good Muslim or a bad Muslim, from the coast or mainland, and that the spirits of the Kibuki-Malagasy cult are actually heavy-drinking European Catholic priests. Within the Kibuki ceremony, the people themselves aren’t drinking or doing anything to defy religious law — their spirits are — but spirits themselves can also be found within the bounds of Islam (though Islamic religious leaders openly denounce cult spirit possession practices).
I asked Kat why she didn’t like to go inside. She shook her head and confessed that she was afraid she might “catch” mashetani (devils) just by observing.
Maybe this is what was making me so uneasy. Giles writes: “many women report that they do not attend [Kibuki] because they fear they would ‘catch a spirit’ and then have to undergo much expense to satisfy it. This seems to be no idle threat, since many cult members report that they were first possessed as spectators.”
There is such a thin line between believer and non-believer.
Spirit possession is a part of everyday life here – even if you don’t necessarily believe or follow a particular cult, a natural healer might be able to cure your afflictions through spirit possession in a way that no Western doctor could even attempt. It is possible that a spirit may be inherited, caught, or sent through wachawi (magicians) to cause harm. Sometimes calling on spirits is the only way to heal from torment or illness.
What amazes me is the intimacy and complexity of spirit relationships. Not all spirits are meant to be exorcised, but rather, through negotiation and ceremony, appeased in exchange for their supernatural gifts of divining, curing, and fortune-telling.
I guess in a way, we are all searching for our cults – families of belonging that let us reach for the divine while staying connected and grounded on earth. The cult of poetry. The cult of golf. The dancing cult. The cult of kitchens. The cult of academia. The cult of newspapers. The cult of war. The cult of alphabets. The cult of music.
Is it because we all experience inexplicable torment and we search for divine ecstasy wherever we can find it? Do we all just seek out spaces and people who give us permission to release ourselves into the euphoria (and power) of belonging?
Are cults curing wells for loneliness?
I wasn’t at peace with Kibuki, but it was hair-raising — woke me up to a world beyond worlds. Even as a skeptic, the spirits are there and they’re watching. I have to believe that their potential to heal (not harm) is what draws people back into their fold each time.
The next Kibuki ceremony takes place in May, out in a field. I think I might attend.
*Author’s note: I am not well-versed on the subject of cult spirit possessions. I am very intrigued. I culled most information from Linda Gile’s expert work on the subject. My experience is clearly subjective and biased. I welcome any corrections or interpretations.
Giles, Linda. Possession Cults on the Swahili Coast: A Re-Examination of Theories of Marginality –Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 57, No. 2, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 234-258, 1987.