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Nkoya ancestral cult: Wim van Binsbergen


among the Zambian Nkoya

Wim van Binsbergen


1. Introduction[1]

‘That day, when I had come to ushwana, (the name-inheriting ritual for my deceased mother’s brother Muchati), I had not the slightest idea that it was me they wanted to inherit the name. So there we were in Nyamayenda’s village, where my mother originates from. Relatives and other people had come from all surrounding villages in the valley, and even from other valleys. We danced to the tune of the xylophones and drums, and drank beer. I was a small boy of twelve years old, and helped out at one of the xylophones, playing the bass part. All we knew was that secretly the elders of the village had discussed the name-inheritance of Muchati, and that in the middle of the night they would rise from the men’s shelter where they were sitting, chatting and drinking beer. They would come forth and catch, among the adults and youths dancing around the orchestra, the person they had secretly chosen to be the heir.

‘It is a great honour to inherit a name, but it is also terrible. The shade is anxious to return to the village, and we honour him by giving his name to a relative who is still alive. It is very nice to inherit a name. You receive most of the personal possessions of the deceased, his gun if he had one, his clothes, personal things. If he had a wife, she can be your wife if you want. Or if you are a woman and you inherit the name of your aunt or elder sister, then her children will be yours, and if she had a husband, he can be your husband if you want. But the shade is formidable, and unpredictable. If the name you have inherited does not fit you, the shade will make you ill, he may even kill you. It is very difficult to say why a name should not fit you. If your illness or back luck is caused by a wrong name you have inherited, that is something you can only find out through divination. Even if the elders select someone who was close to the deceased before his death, someone who in his habits and character is similar to the deceased, then still the shade can reject the living person who is caught to take his name. Nobody will ever take a name voluntarily, unless it is the name of a headman. And even then people may refuse. A few years ago they wanted my father to inherit the name of Chief Kankulwe. But we, his sons, implored him to refuse, since we feared that our father would be killed by sorcery just because of that name. For if it is a big name you inherit, if it makes you a chief or headman, or if the possessions that come with it are plentiful, then your younger brother or your cousin will be jealous, and may commit sorcery against you. To inherit a name is really a very trying matter.

‘That night, when I saw my grandfather and other relatives approaching me, I realized that they wanted to catch me to make me Muchati. I fled. They caught me by a slip of my shirt, but I tore loose, and ran away from the dancing ground in the middle of the village. The elders were after me. I never ran faster in my life. I could hear them crying: ‘‘Muchati! Muchati! Tatiyetu (our father)! Yaya yetu (our elder brother)!’’

I was scared to death. Along the village path I ran to the next village, where I hid in the house of my grandmother. I could hear them coming nearer and nearer. I decided to make a run for the river. For if you reach the river and immerse yourself in the water before they can catch you, you are free and you do not need to take the name. There is something special between water and the shade; for instance, when you start praying, you take some water in your mouth and blow it out. So I sped out of my grandmother’s house again, and made for the river. They were on my heels. There we were, running through the night. Fortunately there were no lions or buffaloes about, then. I had almost reached the river bank, when I tripped over some root in the path, and fell. Immediately they were upon me, seized me, and called me by my new name, Muchati. I kicked and screamed, and tried to break loose again, but it was too late now. I had become Muchati. Everyone crowded in on me, bending their knees and clapping their hands in a reverential salute. Everyone called me by the kinship term with which he or she had addressed my mother’s brother when was still alive: ‘‘Welcome, father.’’ ‘‘My elder brother, you have come back.’’ ‘‘Mother’s brother, stay with us now!’’

I was a twelve-year old kid, and they addressed me as if I were an elder. My mother and her one surviving brother came up to me, clapped their hands for me, called me ‘‘elder brother’’, and started crying. I gape up all resistance, and started crying too. Muchati’s own son came up to me, then a grown-up man almost old enough to be my father. He saluted me, calling me ‘‘father,’’ and we cried.

‘I was taken to a semicircular windbreak of reed mats, and there they dressed me in white short pants. Meal was put on my hair. Then I was led to a newly-erected shrine in the shape of a forked branch. I had been placed at some distance from the permanent village shrine, which as you know has a similar shape. I was made to sit at the foot of the new shrine, on a reed mat. Then my mother’s relatives came again to formally welcome me as Muchati who had come back to the village. The elders started lecturing me on the responsibilities that now rested upon me, as the heir to this great name. As dawn came, all the people who had danced and drunk beer through the night, lined up near the shrine, and one after the other sprinkled some meal on my head and saluted me, saying: ‘‘Welcome back home, Muchati.’’

‘My mother’s brother had been a formidable man, and a great buffalo hunter. I had loved him dearly when he was still alive. Now as I was sitting there, I felt numb and tired; yet I began to feel that the name of Muchati would fit me and would not turn against me...’


These were the words, approximately,[2] in which Muchati, fifteen years after the event, told me the story of how he himself had inherited the name of his deceased kinsman — the central and most dramatic aspect of ancestor veneration among his people, the Nkoya of Central Western Zambia. The tale was prompted by the occasion. Through the early night we were walking down the path and forded the valley’s central stream, on our way to Mayobe village, where that night (a year after the death of Kafungu, a woman in her late twenties) an ushwana ritual would be staged similar to the one in which Muchati had played the principal part. As we walked along the wooded slopes, the small forest gardens and the grass-covered riverbanks, the serenity of the night and the vividness with which Muchati told me about one of the most important moments in his life, put me in a proper frame of mind to share in the intensity and drama of ushwana. Effortlessly, or so it seemed, I crossed the stream that forms the boundary between the secularized life-world of a European anthropologist and renegade Christian, and the life-world of the Nkoya, where shades are part of reality and, through ushwana, reincarnate continually in the world of the living. Following the path up the opposite slope, we reached Mayobe village. There, the musicians were already tuning up their instruments, beer drinking had started, and, no doubt, the heir of that night had already been selected by the secret gathering of elders. I had already reached a stage in the field-work where our arrival in the village no longer attracted more attention than that of other more or less prominent locals. We joined in the dancing, chatting and drinking, and the ritual proceeded towards its dramatic climax.


2. Two Problems

My aim in this paper is not to present a full description of ancestor veneration among the contemporary Nkoya. I shall concentrate on two problems which, although pertaining to very different levels of conceptualization and experience, complement each other.

     The first problem can be defined without challenging the habitual canons of a scholarly, analytical approach to African religions. I concerns the extent to which an analytical theory of African religious change is capable of explaining contemporary plurality[3] of religious forms in selected areas of that continent, as the synchronic outcome of the dialectical historical processes that have shaped a social formation. As an integrated complex of religious beliefs and practices, in other words as a cult, ancestor veneration among the contemporary Nkoya operates in a context of religious plurality: it is only one of several major cultic forms found side by side among those people today. Much of my published work on Central African religion constitutes an effort to interpret the contemporary plurality of religious arrangements as the ideological component of distinct socio-politico-economic part structures (called ‘modes of production’ for lack of a better term) that in the course of the last few centuries have emerged in the expanding social formation encompassing Central Western Zambia. These part structures have become interrelated and subordinated to each other in a fashion that could be illuminated with the concept of the articulation of modes of production. The outlines of the structural theory, tentatively explaining the mechanisms that cause these phenomena, and a discussion of the attending methodological and conceptual difficulties, I have presented in extenso in my recent book Religious Change in Zambia.[4] Although in the present paper I shall apply that theory to the Nkoya ancestral cult, I cannot here repeat the argument in all its complexity.

     However, the second problem I want to confront in this paper is of even wider scope: it stems from dissatisfaction with the scholarly, external approaches to African religions, including my own approach. But before this second problem can be formulated, let us first take a more comprehensive look at Nkoya society and its ancestral cult, to which Muchati’s account has already introduced us.


3. The Nkoya and Their Ancestral Cult

The ancestral cult in Western Zambia has been the subject of several studies.[5]Although these studies, and other sources[6] suggest a considerable structural homogeneity for this part of Africa — a homogeneity which is manifest in the religious field no less than in other aspects of society — the following description only refers to the Nkoya people.

     The Nkoya today mainly inhabit the wooded plateaus between the Zambezi, Kabompo and Kafue rivers. They are surrounded, and partly interspersed, with historically and culturally more or less related groups (including Lozi, Kwanga, Kaonde, Luvale, Mbunda, Lamba, Ila, Tonga, Lenje), and the Nkoya language is virtually their only truly distinctive feature.[7] About 35,000 people speak some variant of Nkoya as their first or main language. The small polities which in the 18th century, grew out of Nkoya clan territories, in the 19th century were increasingly incorporated into the Lozi state; the latter became, under the name of Barotseland, a protectorate within Northern Rhodesia (1900), and was fully incorporated into the Republic of Zambia in 1964. In the area, labour migration gained momentum in the first decade of this century, while Christian missions arrived in the 1920s. Especially since Independence small-scale cash-crop cultivation has been added to labour migration as a form of involvement in capitalist production.

     Nkoya village society today displays the main features of peripheral capitalism: domestic communities partly engaged in non-capitalist modes of production, while reproducing, and being reproduced by, a qualitatively different, distant, capitalist sector, with labour migration and cash cropping as the main links between the two. Non-capitalist modes of production are still prominent in Nkoya life: food-crop cultivation, hunting, fishing and collecting organized on a kinship basis form significant aspects of the rural economy. Despite a partial reliance on money earned, and food, clothing and utensils purchased, in the capitalist sector, and despite the existence of all sort of transitory forms between capitalist and non-capitalist organization of rural production, the bilateral kinship system, and the associated residential and marriage patterns, still form the organizing principles underlying much of the day-to-day social and economic process in the villages.

     Nkoya kinship organization revolves on bilaterally and affinally recruited effective kin groups. These can best be described as factions consisting of a more or less floating cluster of younger men and women (who are extremely mobile, both residentially and as regards their effective membership of kin factions), attached to a more stable core of bilaterally related elders. The elders are holders of prestigeous titles. The fact that each title ideally implies village headmanship, renders a considerable degree of residential fixation to the otherwise rapidly shifting factions. Even so, the boundaries of kin groups are blurred and overlapping, and their composition cannot be predicted from a genealogy but springs from the actual social process (particularly: patterns of mobilization and allegiance in case of marital, political, or health crises). The organization of non-capitalist production takes place within these kin groups. Production is controlled by the elders, who allocate land and women, who own guns and other implements, and to whose heriditary titles fishing rights accrue.

     Through their titles, and the hierarchy implied in them, the elders keep up, in an eroded form, the organizational, ideological and ritual superstructure of a tributary system such as it existed in the last century. However, as a structure of control, exploitation and redistribution that tributary system ceased to exist with the imposition of colonial rule. Contemporary Nkoya rural society contains other superstructural remnants of earlier modes of production whose economic infrastructure has been supplanted by peripheral capitalism. Some kin groups are claimed to be of slave origin, other to be royals: a vestige of the tributary mode of production. Another mode of production which penetrated in the last century, in close association with the tributary mode, was that of mercantile capitalism, locally represented by Swahili and Ovimbundu traders. This mode of production was likewise wiped out with the advent of the colonial state. but traces of it can still be found in a prominent class of cults of affliction: notably those which, in cultic congregations cutting across existing residential groups and kin groups, venerate alien spirits that allegedly cause misfortune by chance, without human infringement of moral codes being involved. In ways which I have described and explained elsewhere,[8] these cults of affliction were transformations of the ancestral cult (along with cults of the wilds, of the deep forest); in their turn these non-ancestral cults of affliction became transformed again into the prophetic, theistic, regionally-organized cults that appeared in Central Western Zambia shortly before World War II. These transformations, just like the waxing and waning of Christian congregations including Watchtower, can be explained, to a considerable extent, by reference to the changing political and economic structures in which the Nkoya were involved in the course of this century and the last. Thus the ancestral cult among the Nkoya today exists in a context of religious plurality, which comprises, in addition to the ancestral cult: chiefly cults; non-ancestral, non-prophetic cults of affliction; non-ancestral prophetic cults of affliction; and finally, Christian cults.

     The main manifestation of the ancestral cult itself can be summed up as below. All these manifestations can be interpreted as ideological means ensuring the temporary viability of kin groups and residential groups, counteracting their highly unstable and shifting nature.

a. Erection of a village shrine (made out of a forked branch) at the creation of a new village; the ancestral cult thus underpins the distinct existence of the village (constituting the visible core of the effective kin group) as a viable unit of production and reproduction.

b. Enthronement of the successor to the village headmanship takes places at this shrine; the ancestral cult thus legitimates the patterns of authority that govern the social and economic processes within the village and kin group.

c. Among several rival explanations of misfortune (including sorcery, and intervention of the High God), misfortune is often attributed to ancestral wrath at the bread of moral obligations between living close kinsmen. Such misfortune takes the form of mental disturbance, women’s reproductive troubles, general debility, or lack of success in hunting. Two particularly prominent alleged causes of misfortune in this respect are: failure to keep the peace within the kin group (thus threatening its viability as a unit of production and reproduction); and a hunter’s failure to distribute his bag among his relatives (thus threatening the kin group’s viability as a unit of internal distribution and consumption). Collective prayer to the ancestors, and offering of meal, beer and meat stock at the shrine are major steps in the redress of internal relations.

d. The living not only have obligations to meet vis-à-vis each other, but also vis-à-vis the dead. These obligations include: observing the rules concerning burial and inheritance, as well as special instructions such as the deceased may have given before his death; and having a living member of the kin group inherit (kuswanisha) the name of the deceased, so that his name and social person is not lost for the kin group. The institution of ushwana thus is a major mechanism in the reproduction of the kin group as a vital unit in the social and economic process. The enthronement of the village headman or chief is merely a more exalted case of ushwana, and designated by the same term. Many cases of misfortune are attributed, through divination, to defective observance of the living’s obligations vis-à-vis the dead, or to the choice of an unsuitable heir. In these cases the ancestors are not conceived as a nameless collectivity, but the identity of a specific irate ancestor is found out through divination, in the course of which lists of deceased kinsmen are recited.

e. While success or failure in agriculture (mainly due to meteorological conditions and crop pests) is the province of the cults of more exalted supernatural agents (chiefly cults, and, more recently, cults of the High God including Christian cults), success in hunting is primarily associated with the ancestral cult. A hunter (and a sizeable proportion of the male population are hunters) will store his hunting medicine in his ancestral shrine, and will present his gun there, sprinkling it with white meal and offering prayers and libations to his ancestors. Many shrines are adorned with hunting trophies. Moreover the ancestors are considered to speak through the hunting oracle: success or failure in the hunt, the gender of an animal killed, can be interpreted as the sign of a specific opinion of the ancestors on important matters at hand.

f. The village shrine is the place where members of the kin group are acknowledged as such at birth and after a long absence, or where they offer prayer before setting out on a long journey, especially as labour migrants. Thus the ancestral cult marks crucial stages in an individual’s career. The shrine is however never a place of burial: burial takes place away from human habitation, in the forest.

g. In a more diffuse way, without formal ritual elaboration, the ancestors are considered to take an active interest in the day-to-day lives of their living kinsmen, and frequent reference is made to them, sometimes in a relaxed, jocular manner. They frequently appear in dreams, where they admonish the living or reveal unexpected resources, e.g. hitherto unknown medicinal properties of forest plants.

     As indicated, this ancestral cult exists in a context of religious plurality. In the other cultic complexes found today among the Nkoya, different supernatural agents are venerated than ancestors; different explanations of misfortune and of evil are propounded; different (and typically: much less) emphasis is laid on the relation between man and nature, on primary economic appropriation of nature for the sake of human production; different moral implications are encountered (from the a-moral orientation of the non-ancestral cults of affliction, to the emphatically moral overtones of Christian cults); and ritual congregations are differently structured: from the territorial unit (from a valley, or a group of valleys administering a chiefly cult, to the individualized recruitment patterns of cults of affliction and Christian cults, that cut across existing residential groups and kin groups and, that no longer can be said to underpin viable socio-economic units of production and reproduction).

     The overall idiom of these various coexisting cults is irreducibly different. Yet all these cultic forms, with the exception of mission Christianity, can be considered as radical transformations and permutations of religious themes already available in the ancestral cult.[9] This process of transformation can be traced, not only on the basis of a formal analysis of contemporary forms, but also on the basis of historical analysis, data for which can be gleaned from oral, archival, and published secondary sources as well as from a comparison of distribution patterns of ethnographic traits. This enables us to fix a time scale to each of the major cultic forms. The emergence of each of these forms appears to coincide with the emergence of major modes of production in the social formation of the region; e.g. the emergence of chiefly cults along with the emergence of the tributary mode of production; the emergence of prophetic, theistic cults of affliction, and of mission Christianity, with the emergence of industrial capitalism as a dominant mode production. Therefore it seems reasonable to try and explain the emergence of these various cultic forms as religious aspects of these new modes of production, which in the course of the last few centuries have imposed themselves upon the more ancient domestic mode of production. The ideological component of the latter was and is the ancestral cult in, supposedly, more or less its present-day form.

     I cannot here enter into a discussion of the dialectics of articulation, of consciousness, and of the relative autonomy of the symbolic and ritual order vis-à-vis the material processes of production and reproduction. Yet these dialectics are crucial, if we are to understand how cultic forms to not automatically constitute an epiphenomenal superstructure (as they do under capitalism in its purest form), but instead (as under peripheral capitalism, or under non-capitalist modes of production) form an integral, essential part of the very relations of production that govern economic and social life. Neither is it possible to explain in the context of this paper how ideological components of modes of production which have ceased to govern production and reproduction (e.g. the tributary or mercantile-capitalist mode), still, as chiefly cults and non-ancestral cults of affliction, live on as a form of religious expression in a context of religious plurality. The theory advanced in Religious Change in Zambia touches on all this, and particularly throws light upon the persistence of the ancestral cult. The latter’s remarkable vitality is explained, not on the basis of some postulated self-propelling property of so-called traditional culture, but on the basis of the continuing viability of the domestic mode of production in contemporary Nkoya society — a viability which is crucial to the political economy of peripheral capitalism.


4. Beyond Theory: Experience

The structural theory of African religion outlined above, just like the others that have been formulated,[10] operate at a level of great analytical abstraction. These approaches apply an idiom that is totally, and deliberately, alien to African religions forms and modes of conceptualization. While they may constitute a step forward with regard to questions and debates as formulated within scholarly disciplines dealing with African religions, they do not seem to bring us any nearer to the experiential, or existential, aspect of these religions. The very concepts we are applying (such as religion, cult, structure, mode of production, social formation) are imposed from without. It would appear as if these concepts could be applied, with equal success, or lack of success, by armchair scholars without first-hand knowledge of African religious life, and by researchers, including Africans, who have intimately observed, and lived through, the subtle personal and collective dramas staged by these religions as aspects of a total social process. By sleight-of-hand we, as theorists of African religion, produce statements about these religions which, if the Africans we write about were to read these statements, would be totally irrelevant and alien to them. Okot p’Bitek’s African Religions in Western Scholarship [11] has been an outcry to that effect; and while p’Bitek’s argument has created considerable embarrassment I am not aware of any attempts by analysts of African religion to really take up the tremendous challenge which that small book represents. In a related fashion, and with less of a personal stake in the African-ness of African religion, James Fernandez[12] has chided researchers working on African religion, such as Robin Horton and myself, for imposing ‘imageless’ models upon the full, living imagery that for him constitutes an essential dimension of African religion.

     In partial defense against these serious allegations one could say three things.[13]First, the imposition of alien analytical categories, of etic models upon an emic reality, is an essential task of scholarship, and something we should be proud of. Secondly, in addition to symbolic and internal analyses of African religions, there is room for contextual approaches that locate these religions within their social, political, economic and historical framework; and from these external, contextual approaches one cannot demand that they illuminate the more internal aspects at the same time. As Geertz[14] put it:

‘The anthropological study of religion is therefore a two-stage operation: first, an analysis of the system of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up the religion proper, and, second, the relating of these systems to social-structural and psychological processes. My dissatisfaction with so much of contemporary social anthropological work in religion is not that it concerns itself with the second stage, but that it neglects the first, and in so doing takes for granted what most needs to be elucidated.’

Thirdly, the etic models we impose may not be so totally alien, since they sometimes represent more or less simplified translations, to the etic (attic...) level, of African emic categories which researchers like Horton and myself have mastered in the course of prolonged, participatory field-work on African religions.

     Having made these points, I am still dissatisfied, for a number of reasons. The scholarship that claims the imposition of alien analytical categories as its major task, may be legitimate, respectable, and worthy of research funds; but its results may have meaning only within the context of such scholarship (or, by extension, within the context of the North Atlantic secularized, industrial, urban society producing and reproducing such scholarship). What relevance does such scholarship have for members of the Third-World societies treated in it? Also, while it may be true that some etic models in fact adequately restate emic ones (e.g. for Central Western Zambia, an etic model of sorcery as a levelling mechanism counteracting inequality and upward mobility can be shown to have parallels in people’s own conceptualization of sorcery in their society),[15] this is certainly not the case for the main concept featuring in e.g. Horton’s approach, or in my own. Such distinctions as between microcosm and macrocosm, infrastructure and superstructure, domestic and capitalist modes of production, primarily reflect the contradictions inherent in North Atlantic society today; and the theoretical problems they solve there (if any) are not shared by the African subjects in whose lives these distinctions are alleged to play a dominant role. These people would hardly be able to recognize their own life-world as rendered by such theoretical models. And what is more, I for one fail to recognize, in these approaches, not only what I take to be the experiences of my African friends and informants, but also my own experiences as a field-worker.


5. Experiencing African Religion in Field-work

There is a marked tendency, among anthropologists today, to interpret Pope’s maxim[16]

‘The proper study of Mankind is Man’

as meaning

‘The proper subject matter of anthropology is the anthropologist.’

After the illusory positivist objectivism of classic anthropology, this swing of the pendulum is most timely. We need not be alarmed by the narcissist elements it undoubtedly contains: hopefully after spending its momentum, the pendulum will swing back, leaving us, with an anthropology that knows approximately as much about its main measuring instrument (the field-worker) as astronomy, electro-physiology or psychoanalysis know that theirs (telescopes, micro-electrodes, and the psychoanalyst’s mind, in that order).

     Anthropologists in the field tend to be much more than mere spectators. Often they are major protagonists in the social processes they describe.[17] Because of the personal, social and financial resources he controls a field-worker may unwittingly cause or trigger the quarrels he describes as in vitro;[18] may partially sponsor rituals that occupy key positions in his academic arguments; may solicit verbal and gesticulatory responses relating to courtship and love-making by actively creating the appropriate setting for those; or may stimulate[19] a surge of ethnic awareness when his own presence among an ethnic minority offers unique opportunities of ethnic self-advertisement

     But it is a poor field-worker who always knows himself in control of the field, or who desperately strives for such control.[20] It is virtually impossible that a field-worker penetrates, with his observations and participation, the more intimate dimensions of people’s lives, without getting entangled, if only briefly, in the same web of perceptions, conceptualizations, aspirations and anxieties, within which the so-called informants are caught. this is what makes anthropological field-work a devastating, but profoundly human experience, whose justification lies largely outside the field of academic production as measurable in terms of books and articles written and lectures given.

     For the study of African religion through anthropological field-work, this view of field-work has several implications which will be totally unacceptable to the majority of my colleagues.

     If participation observation creates some degree of osmosis (between the religious beliefs and actions of the subjects, and the researcher who studies them), then the researcher has, through introspection, some immediate access to these beliefs, actions, and the attending emotions and aspirations. The field-worker will be able (to a limited extent) to make meaningful and essentially correct statements about the experiential dimensions of the alien religion he studies, precisely because the participation he engages in temporarily make him a non-alien. Upon the social field and the social process which already existed before his arrival, the field-worker through his research imposes a research-centred process and field, which confusingly blend with the original ones. In the course of his field-work, in an increasing number of practical situations, the researcher becomes a participant. His peculiarities (often including foreign origin, unusual skin colour, academic background, deficient language mastery, secularized world-view, or a combination of those items) are fairly irrelevant in many settings. A white European renegade — Christian field-worker dancing around the orchestra on the night of ushwana, or lining up with the others (exhausted and intoxicated, like them) in order to sprinkle meal on the head of the chosen heir, is ‘venerating an ancestor’ (according to the codes of the local community) just as he is ‘collecting data’ (according to the code of a distant academic community).

     Does that field-worker believe in this ancestor’s post-mortal reality, in the reincarnation that is alleged to take place? That question is less legitimate and meaningful than one would be inclined to think, and can only be answered along with two related questions: Does that researcher believe in data? And do his fellow-participants in the ushwana ritual believe in the ancestor and in the reincarnation that is alleged to take place?

     Frankly, my intuitive answer to all three questions would be that most unscientific of all gestures, a shrug of the shoulders. A the theoretical level I will (like I would then, eight years ago) passionately defend the view that data are mere artifacts of the selective theoretical perception with which one enters the field, in combination with the vicissitudes and chance occurrences of the field-work situation. At the practical level however, I have engaged in a passionate quest for data, sacrificing sleep and leisure time, spending a fortune, wrecking my car, and risking my own health as well as that of the members of my family in the process. At the theoretical level of explicit intellectual reflection, the local participants in the ushwana ritual, when prompted in a formal interview situation or when overheard in spontaneous conversation at a beer-drink, could be shown to display a considerable variety among themselves, as well as a considerable variability as individuals. All would be inclined to attribute some degree of reality to the shade. However, many of the peasants involved would have been labour migrants to distant urban areas, would occasionally listen to radio broadcast, would have attended several years of primary school, and would for some years have been active members of Christian churches. Through all these influences they would have been exposed to a mechanicist, secularized view of the factors that control the functions of the human body, and of the ecological processes governing wildlife. As a result they would have acquired more relative views of the shade’s power to control illness and success in hunting. Others among the Nkoya would belong to the Watchtower sect, and would entirely reject the notions of the shade and ushwana; refusing to stage ushwana in their own Watchtowerized villages, they would participate in ushwana elsewhere only for the sake of social obligation. In other words, it would be hard to tell whether or not the local participants involved in ushwana do ‘believe’. But in the ritual context, it would be an irrelevant question to ask. For at the practical level this variation and variability in the cognitive patterns attending ushwana is not reflected in people’s ritual actions once ushwana is being staged (i.e. outside the Watchtower villages). Everyone ‘believes’ with his body, his voice, his clapping, his tears — no matter what goes on, then or at other moments, in his mind.

     The essential point is that in this type of local, folk religions which, people themselves perceive as a collective tradition and whose congregations are not purposely and recently established but, on the contrary, are conterminous with existing residential groups and kin groups, the cognitive aspects of the religious system are not dramatically embraced, accepted, by an act of conversion at a specific time and place — by an act of will which could also have led to rejection and negation. Instead, these cognitive elements are unobtrusively instilled in the course of life, and are gradually adopted, along with the cognitive elements pertaining to other cultic subsystems within the social formation. They are taken for granted. Their truth value lies at a practical level, and has nothing to do with the theodicies and apologetics of the North Atlantic Aristotelian tradition. This tradition has come to dominate religious anthropology, e.g. in the form of logically integrated treatises claiming to describe local African religious systems, and (as regards the definitional problem) in the form of an obsession with the non-empirical status of the supernatural agents venerated in ritual.

     From this point of view it is totally immaterial what the field-worker ‘believes’ to be the theoretical objective reality of the shade venerated in a ritual like ushwana. Like the others, he may come to a point where he takes that reality for granted; at least for as long as the ritual lasts. And the proof of this is that, like the others, he shows his belief at the practical level, with... his body, his voice, his clapping, his tears.

     African folk systems of religion can be temporarily adopted, absorbed, because they are not surrounded by conspicuous insurmountable cognitive or actional boundaries. They invite us to join in.

     I see very little reason why, among the participants, the anthropological field-worker studying religion should be treated as a total alien, or, worse still, as a virtually invisible, non-human measuring instrument, supposedly registering ‘data’ which no non-human instrument could ever register. I suspect that there is something in the nature of ritual which renders this form of human activity particularly suitable for the practical crossing of cognitive and cultural boundaries. Emile Durkheim called this element ‘effervescence’, while Victor Turner more recently attempted to penetrate it with the notion of ‘communitas’.[21] What ritual participation certainly creates is a reversion of the habitual field-worker’s attitude of incessant, conscious participation reversion observation and interpretation; thus the practical merging of outsider and participant, while too subjective to pay off in the way of data collection, in the field situation represents a caesura long enough to remind us of the fact that we are just as human as the people we study. And to remind them of that fact.

     This does not mean that the anthropologist, in some mysterious or mystical way, becomes one (let alone: remains one) with the local people — that his identity merges with theirs in a lasting sense that can be transferred to the non-ritual aspects of the field situation. He remains more of a stranger to them, than they tend to be vis-à-vis each other; but the difference is quantitative, not qualitative.

     Thus, ‘religious plurality begins at home’; the stranger doing field-work on African religion constitutes a boundary condition, a limiting case, of religious plurality even in those rare African settings that in other respects would seem to lack such plurality. A theory of religious plurality would enable us to understand the religious anthropologist at the same time; just as a theory of field-work would take us a long way towards a theory of religious plurality. Or, like Richard Werbner[22] stated in one of the most profound, or simply cryptic, opening sentences in recent anthropology:

‘Religion and strangerhood transform together.’


6. Conclusion

The aim of the previous section of this paper was not to present a theory of field-work in religious anthropology, but to formulate a problem that such a theory might attempt to solve in future. Yet I am not at all sure that a solution in terms of a detached, analytical theory would be in the spirit of this paper:

...The light of the rising sun skirts the conical grass roofs of the houses of Mayobe’s village. Shikanda, the young girl who was seized, last night, to inherit the name of her deceased aunt Kafungu, sits on a reed mat in the middle of the village. She faces the ushwana shrine and the rising sun. She is now wearing a white dress; albeit that the only white dress her relatives could afford to buy turns out to have black-and-white checkered sleeves. Shikanda holds Kafungu’s last-born child in her lap. The child has become Shikanda’s, now that Shikanda has become Kafungu. On Shikanda’s face the terror of last night has given way to a serious, only slightly anguished expression. On another reed mat to the right of Shikanda sits Ntaniela, Kafungu’s widower, holding in his lap his first-born son from the marriage that ended in Kafungu’s death. Ntaniela is likewise dressed in white. For the duration of the ritual, he is considered Shikanda’s husband, although his marriage will never be consummated, and each will go his own way after the ritual is over.’

‘Exhausted, dazed in the morning light, and all more or less drunk, the remaining participants in the ritual line up in order to salute Shikanda under her new name, and to sprinkle meal on her head. Our number has dwindled to about forty. Some of us are crying. In my ears still reverberates Shikanda’s screaming when, in the middle of the night, the elders caught her: ‘Nakana, nakana, natina shikuma, nakana (I refuse, I refuse, I am so afraid, no!).’ I intercept the resigned, puzzling smile with which Ntaniela looks at Shikanda holding his child. The people keep shouting ‘Kafungu! Kafungu!’ and call Shikanda by the kinship terms they would each use vis-à-vis Kafungu when still alive. Unable to fight back my tears any longer, I am overwhelmed by the thought that Kafungu has actually returned in the shape and person of Shikanda; that the shade is eminently real; that here, among the downtrodden ethnic minority of the Nkoya, in a Central African backwater, death has been overcome.’


References Cited

Bleek, W.

1979 ‘Envy and inequality in field-work’, Human Organization, 38: 200-5.

Colson, E.

1962 The Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

De Fontanes, M.

1821 (ed.) Traduction de l’Essai sur l’Homme, de Pope, en vers français, précédée d’un discours et suivie de notes, avec le texte anglais en regard, Paris: Le Normant.

Durkheim, E.

1912 Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Fernandez, J.W.

1978a ‘African Religious Movements’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 7: 198-234.

1978b ‘Imageless ideas in African inquiry’, paper read at the Social Science Research Council Conference on Cultural Transformations in Africa, Elkridge; also read at the 1979 International Seminar ‘Recent African Religious Studies: Towards an Evaluation,’ Leiden: African Studies Centre.


Geertz, C.

1966 ‘Religion as a cultural system’, in: M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological approaches to the study of religion, London: Tavistock, pp. 1-46.

Horton, R.

1971 ‘African conversion’, Africa, 41: 85-108.

1975 ‘On the rationality of conversion’, Africa, 45: 219-35, 373-99.

Lancaster, C.S.

1977 ‘The Zambezi Goba ancestral cult’, Africa, 47: 229-41.

Marks, S.A.

1976 Large mammals and a brave people, Seattle & London: Washington University Press.

Melland, F.

1923 In witchbound Africa, London: Cass.

Munday, J.T.

1948 ‘Spirit names among the central Bantu’, Africa, 7: 39-44.

Nchabeleng, J.M.

n.d. ‘Play and time: A philosophical analysis of development’ [check title], doctoral thesis, Department of Philosopy, University of Leiden, 1981 [check date].

p’Bitek, O.

n.d. African religions in western scholarship, Kampala etc.: East African Publishing House (1971).

Roberts, S.A. (ed.)

1977 Law and the family in Africa, The Hague/Paris: Mouton for African Studies Centre.

Stefaniszyn, B.

1954 ‘African reincarnation reconsidered’, African Studies, 13: 131-146.

Turner, V.W.

1968 The drums of affliction, London: Clarendon Press.

1974 Dramas, fields and metaphors, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

van Binsbergen, W.M.J.

1977 ‘Law in the context of Nkoya society’, in: Roberts 1977: 39-68.

1979a ‘The infancy of Edward Shelonga’, in: van der Geest & Van der Veen 1979: 19-90.

1979b ‘Anthropological field-work: ‘‘There and Back Again’’, Human Organization, 38: 205-209.

1981a Religious change in Zambia, London & Boston: Kegan Paul International for African Studies Centre.

1981b ‘The unit of study and the interpretation of ethnicity’, Journal of Southern African Studies, in press.

van der Geest, J.D.M., & K.W. van der Veen (eds)

1979 In search of health, Amsterdam: Anthropological Sociological Centre, University of Amsterdam.

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1979 ‘ ‘‘Totemism’’ in history’, Man, 14: 663-683.

Wilson, M.

1971 Religion and the transformation of society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1]     Field-work among the Nkoya was conducted in 1972-74, 1977, and 1978. For full acknowledgements and a list of my related papers till 1980, see: van Binsbergen 1981a. For the present paper I am especially indebted to discussions with Johnny Nchabeleng; and to Adrienne van Wijngaarden for typing successive drafts. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the I.U.A.E.S. (International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences) Intercongress, Amsterdam, April 22-25, 1981 — Symposium on: Plurality in Religion.

[2]     Of course the conditions under which Muchati told his story rendered a verbatim record impossible. His text was reproduced from memory within days after the occasion; it appears here in an edited form, to which for clarity’s sake a few lined from Muchati’s statements at other occasions during the same period (1973) have been added. Names of persons and localities have been altered.

[3]     Although some contributors to this symposium have opted for the term ‘religious pluralism’, rather than ‘plurality’, I would strongly prefer the latter term — which is also the one propounded by the conveners. Pluralism, like any -ism, emerges as the result of actor’s deliberate choices within an explicit ideological context — and as such it might apply, e.g., to phenomena like denominational ‘pillarization’ in Dutch society. However, such a state of affairs is not encountered in situations like that of the Nkoya today. Moreover, the term pluralism is unfortunate since it is often employed as a respectable euphemism for ethnic and racial segregation, apartheid. Plurality of religion is a much more primary, analytical term, which simply poses the coexistence of distinct, mutually more or less irreducible religious forms — while the causes the conditions of such plurality remain a topic for further empirical investigation.

[4]     Van Binsbergen 1981a.

[5]     Cf. Colson 1962; Lancaster 1977; Marks 1976; Melland 1923; Munday 1948; Stefaniszyn 1954; Turner 1968; for the Nkoya: van Binsbergen 1977: passim, 1979a: passim, 1981a: especially ch. 1, 3 and 4.

[6]     Cf. van Binsbergen 1981a: footnotes to ch. 3 and 4.

[7]     Cf. van Binsbergen 1981b.

[8]     Cf. van Binsbergen 1981a: ch. 1, 4-7.

[9]     This is even the case with the non-ancestral cults of affliction, which, although venerating alien spirits in non-communal congregations, can be shown to be fairly straightforward transformations of the ancestral cults in more or less distant areas, where a ritual and symbolic culture, and a production system, prevailed that was historically and substantively closely related to that of the Nkoya . And, as I have shown elsewhere (van Binsbergen 1981a: ch. 4), even mission Christianity in Western Zambia fits to a considerable extent into this pattern of symbolic transformation, despite its distant, alien origin.

[10]   Cf. Horton 1971, 1975; Wilson 1971

[11]   p’Bitek n.d.

[12]   Fernandez 1978a, 1978b.

[13]   Van Binsbergen 1981a: 28-38.

[14]   Geertz 1966: 42.

[15]   Van Binsbergen 1981a: ch. 4.

[16]   Pope, Epistle II, line 2, in: De Fontanes 1821.

[17]   Cf. van Binsbergen 1978a: 55f.

[18]   Cf. van Binsbergen 1979a: 43. Only in order to avoid awkwardly complicated phrases, I describe the field-worker as male; however, gender does not seem to constitute an important factor in the aspects of field-work discussed here.

[19]   Cf. van Binsbergen 1981b.

[20]   For a general discussion of related problems in field-work, cf. Bleek 1979 and van Binsbergen 1979b; Nchabeleng n.d. provides a philosophical analysis of this problematic, in terms of the process of ‘going native’.

[21]   Durkheim 1912; Turner 1974.

[22]   Werbner 1979: 663.


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