free web hosting | website hosting | Business Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting
Guinea-Bissau traditional psychiatry


Marxist or symbolist approaches to the medical domain among the Manjaks of Guinea-Bissau

Wim van Binsbergen



Although neo-Marxism informed the author’s field-work on the therapeutic effectiveness of rituals among the Manjaks in northwestern Guinea-Bissau, the explanatory value of materialist models turned out to be limited. Far from collapsing under the impact of capitalism (through migrant labour in Senegal and France), Manjak society keeps up an intact symbolic order. Migrants continue to interpret their physical and mental disorders in local terms and to participate in expensive rituals which absorb their capitalist earnings. Thus they submit to the gerontocratic order, restoring their roots in a cosmology in which the (orifice-less) Perfect Body ultimately consists of the ancestral Land itself. Spatio-temporal belonging, filiation, domestic kinship power and bodily functions thus merge, illuminating many aspects of illness behaviour and its expressions in ritual and everyday life. Neo-Marxism, epistemologically linked to societies under capitalism, scarcely explains this repertoire of symbols — yet helps us to pinpoint its unexpected vitality.


Between materialist and idealist anthropology

The relations between the symbolic order and the political economy of any social formation are unmistakable and often throw an interesting light upon the specific structure and dynamics of the symbolic order. But the potential of such analysis gets spent, and after initial illumination it soon turns out that some of our fundamental research questions tend to become remain unanswered (if they do not become obscured and misdirected) under a materialist approach. The reasons that made some of us adopt that approach in the first place remain valid (cf. van Binsbergen 1984a). These reasons do not primarily lie (contrary to Droogers 1985) in the academic market incentives at fashionable theoretical innovation, but in the following considerations which together somehow sum up the current neo-Marxist inspiration:

 (a) A rejection of the philosophical idealism which for almost a century (under the impact of Durkheim and his philosophical forbears) has dominated social anthropology in general and especially religious anthropology, and which has claimed an independent dynamics sui generis for cultural and symbolic phenomena.

(b) The attempt to share, albeit it only in the vicarious form of scholarship, in significant forms of protest and struggle (between classes, ethnic groups, generations, sexes; against statal, colonial and/or racial oppression) in the present or the past, and adopting there the cause of the underlying groups. Once we have understood that oppression always has roots in the political economy, our good intentions might easily lead us to concentrate on such roots alone, projecting a political economy of exploitation and oppression onto any situation involving any of the social groups listed here, and materialistically assuming the primacy of that political economy over whatever symbolic or ideological expressions that group interaction might take. Ultimately the relative powerlessness of our own social-scientific academic production in North Atlantic society may be a principal factor in our desire to vicariously liberate socially and distant other people — if only on paper.

(c) Neo-Marxism has proposed new answers in the prolonged struggle between, on the one hand, cultural imperialism as propounded by North Atlantic society in general as from the nineteenth century, and, on the other, the extreme, kaleidoscopic fragmentation which cultural relativism has propounded, as the main stock-in-trade of classical anthropology. Neo-Marxism has helped us to understand how the logic of capitalism (as mediated through bureaucratic formal organizations) is one of the major structural implications, and conditions, of such cultural imperialism — albeit that we do not yet fully understand the place of anthropological intellectual production in this set-up.[ii]

      More importantly, the paradigm of the articulation of modes of production — one of the major contributions of neo-Marxism — has allowed us to see a limited number of broad patterns of fundamental structural correspondences cutting across the dazzling multiplicity of cultures, and to anchor these patterns in a few simple basic forms of exploitative relations of production such as have repeated themselves in time and space: exploitation of women by men; of youth by elders; of villages by unproductive aristocratic or royal courts; of labour by capital. The assumption that each of these basic forms of exploitative relationship (each of these modes of production) represents a unique logic of its own, expressed in recognizable and repetitive (however superficially different) economic, social, political and ideological forms, has begun to enable us to view the manifold contradictions such as characterize all social formations, and particularly those of the modern world, as the dynamic interplay between modes of production seeking to impose their hegemony over others in the same social formation.

      Here the problem is that our understanding of the capitalist mode of production, its logic of commoditification, and the contradictions it generates in contact with other modes, has reached considerable maturity (after all it is the mode of production which has produced — albeit somewhat antithetically — our own discipline, and which has largely dictated the patterns of our personal lives inside and outside the lecture-room and the study), whereas our appreciation of other modes of production and their logics, as conceived in the same materialist framework, is still very tentative, exploratory and intuitive. What immense stores of knowledge anthropology has built up about other modes of production is largely cast in a non-Marxist, idealist idiom; but (despite individual attempts) we have not yet set out to systematically decode this body of information in neo-Marxist terms, and perhaps may never succeed in doing so entirely because of the material and ideological constraints to which our own production of academic knowledge is subjected in the context of our capitalist society. As a result, classical and neo-Marxist anthropology continue to constitute largely separate realms of meaning and explanation, sometimes at daggers drawn, often simply incapable of relating to each other and of illuminating each other’s analyses. The awareness of a vast, occasionally rich, profound and beautiful edifice of classical description, analysis and theory leaves the more sensitive neo-Marxist anthropologist uneasy about the abstraction, generality and superficiality of his or her own tentative materialist approach. Yet one hesitates to trade the bad conscience this generates, for the false consciousness an idealist classical approach would constitute.[iii]

      The heuristic potential and illuminating power of the neo-Marxist position has been brought out time and again with regard particularly to the analysis of such innumerable social situations in the contemporary Third World as are characterized by peripheral capitalism. In the specific field of medical anthropology, the ubiquitous commoditification of health care, along with the general commoditification of the productive and consumptive experience of its Third World users in social formation increasingly dominated by peripheral capitalism (proletarianization: dependence on wage labour and on monetarized markets for food, housing, labour, entertainment etc.); the increasing dominance of formal bureaucratic organizations in the medical domain — partly through the impact of the colonial and post-colonial state whose logic owes much to capitalism, and partly because this is the organizational form in which (First World, pharmacological) capital seeks to structure the production and marketing of health commodities; the very emergence of the medical domain as a separate identifiable sector in peripherally-capitalist Third World societies; the spin-off of these processes in the way of indigenous healers exchanging the time-honoured local forms of their trade, for innovations mimicking the cosmopolitan doctor’s office, bedside manner, techniques, remuneration and professionalization — all these highly familiar topics in medical anthropology today bear witness to the relevance of a neo-Marxist perspective.

      Yet this needs scarcely surprise us: of course an approach that started out as an analysis of capitalism in the first place, should be capable of gauging rather adequately the impact of peripheral capitalism in selected social domains such as the medical one.

      Our analytical problems, as medical anthropologists seeking to apply a neo-Marxist paradigm, really begin when we turn to historical societies which pre-dated capitalism, or to contemporary societies where, for one reason or another, the inroads of the capitalist mode of production have been slight, ineffective, blocked. Is a neo-Marxist approach capable of analyzing societies without capitalism? Or is neo-Marxism only an epistemological echo of the capitalist ideological make-up of North Atlantic society, capable only of discerning whatever is fundamentally, ontologically kindred to it? Having explored elsewhere (van Binsbergen 1984 and in press) the amazing impenetrability of Manjak society in northwestern Guinea-Bissau for capitalist encroachment , the Manjak case as discussed in the present paper represents a far from promising test case for this question.

Neo-Marxist materialism came as an afterthought to my main Zambian field-work in the 1970s, and while it has proved incapable of catching up with my data on Tunisian popular Islam as collected in 1968 and 1970,[iv] it formed the context of my research in progress in Guinea-Bissau. Moreover, that country’s liberation struggle has had great symbolic and emotional value for radical North Atlantic academics ever since Basil Davidson (1969, 1981) adopted it; for better or worse, it still stands as a creation of one of Africa’s main radical theoreticians, Amilcar Cabral. When the Bissau Ministry of Health needed anthropological information on the psychiatric therapeutic potential of local, non-cosmopolitan healers, the request appealed to me not only because it offered the opportunity of an inside view and a personal intellectual contribution to that country, but also because it would force me to confront my theoretical views with new field-work in which symbolic phenomena and their practical effects on people’s lives would be so central that I could not easily take refuge in some superficial political economy generalizations, but would be forced to look for neo-Marxist interpretations as rich and as profound as the best classical anthropology would be capable of.


Manjak rituals[v]

The research was situated in the Manjak area in the northwestern part of the country: a region where autochthonous cults, foremost the cult of the Land (Mbos), are still immensely powerful and where the world religions (Christianity and Islam) have little penetrated. In some respects this was the most intensive and ‘direct’ field-work in my career: for the first time I did not have my own household but stayed with a local family, whose head was a senior Land priest to boot, and I worked without an interpreter during most of the research. However, with all this rapport the free flow of information remained checked by the extreme secretiveness of Manjak culture: within the villages and their various constituent wards I could readily participate in the ongoing social process and in collective ancestral and other rituals as directed at the multitude of local shrines (cf. figure 1), but the Sacred Grove just outside the village (centre of the Land cult and of adult male ritual and social life in general) remained closed to me, and only sporadically could I accompany individuals when their frequent personal quests for healing and good fortune led them to the napene priests — the incumbents of a cultic complex (only loosely associated with the Land cult) whose many oracular shrines (puból) were also found all over the villages. It was mainly as a client or patient myself that I managed to gain frequent access to the rituals of the pubols and of the region’s most important regional cult (that of Mama Jombo in Coboiana, at a distance of c. 50 km) — and in doing so I merely followed in the footsteps of the many Portuguese and Senegalese strangers these shrines have accommodated over the years.

village path compound path ward boundary
other wards trees ruin
well kitchen hut cattle pen
bathroom hut name of ward open toilet place
dwellings (rectangular: modern, iron-roofed; round: traditional, thatched) deity's shrine
distinct compounds (compound 2 consists of the larger men's house and the smaller women's house benii (assembly place) belonging to the Pey ward (with shrine and cemetery
a collection of ancestral shrines oracle hut

Figure 1. A typical Manjak ward.

      The Manjak situation was my first personal experience not only with an African society where the flow of information was so utterly restricted and privacy so highly valued (one can imagine both the advantages and the disadvantages of this state of affairs from a field-worker’s point of view), but also with a still viable gerontocracy that had successfully withstood the eroding effects of capitalism and the modern state. The latter aspect I found difficult to appreciate. In day-to-day interaction it was brought home to me that I did not qualify as an elder (in a society where age, and age differences, formed a constant obsession for the participants, and even men in their sixties still recognized their junior status vis-à-vis the ‘real’ elders, their seniors); similarly I was constantly reminded of the fact that, as a non-initiate, my status was much lower even than that of my local age-mates. And beyond this personal level (which was not untinged by personal projections referring to my own social position as a son, a father, and a senior academician, in Dutch society) there was the neo-Marxist paradigm,[vi] which had taught me to consider the relation between elders and junior members of their society (women, and young men) as essentially exploitative: was not such exploitation the pivot on which the ‘domestic’ mode of production hinged? Instead of the post-revolutionary society I had been prepared for and with which I might easily have identified — one where young people had come to formulate a new and inspiring social order —, I found myself in an unexpectedly archaic social order fully dominated by elders. The proceeds of the region’s massive and prolonged labour migration to Senegal and France mainly seemed to be controlled and appropriated by the elders, not so much (as commonly elsewhere in Africa) in the form of bride-wealth or other local capital investments, but certainly in the form of relatively very expensive ritual offerings (of rum and animal sacrifices) imposed by cults whose leaders were elders, and (after the Land had had its libatory share) largely consumed by these elders. Migrants to other parts of Guinea-Bissau and to Senegal would usually return at least once a year, with money mainly spent on ritual offerings, and while those in France of necessity observed longer intervals, much of their distant experience was articulated in terms of relations with the Land and local shrines, money for sacrifices would be transferred, and they would make a point of attending at least the local initiation festival that, once every twenty years, forms the culmination of the cult of the Land. Contrary to current insights, the migrants’ participation in the capitalist mode of production did not seem to serve the reproduction of that mode, but of the local modes of production under gerontocratic control (van Binsbergen 1984b). Political economy yet again.


Therapeutic effectiveness

Not without ethnocentric projection, from this tentative analysis I tried to proceed — conform my research plan — to pronouncements as to the therapeutic effectiveness of the various cults in which Manjak participants, including migrants, were involved.

      One of the striking features of Manjak rituals (which are invariably prompted by illness) is the lack of dramaturgic and symbolic elaboration. The rituals have a low degree of formality. They are poor in symbolism and expression, little elaborate, and lack a dramaturgy of tension and relief. They are usually limited to a few minutes of pouring, drinking, killing, a short mumbled prayer, more drinking, after which follows a hasty retreat to productive activities in the paddy-fields or cashew and palm groves. This applies to most ancestral and Land ritual. Only the principal ancestral ritual (the erection of a shrine for a deceased kinsman, for reasons of human demography a relatively extremely infrequent occurrence), may be more elaborate in that it may involve the monotonous drumming of praises on talking drums, and a collective meal or drink in which also members of neighbouring wards and villages, and particularly age-mates, take part along with members of the deceased’s ward. Commensality is also an aspect of the occasional rituals staged by priestly and other occupational guilds. Despite the very considerable alcohol consumption, local ritual is invariably very sober, simple, matter-of-fact, direct. Ritual concern and tension turned out to entirely concentrate on the material requirements that had to be met even before a ritual could be staged: people, and especially returning migrants, rush up and down the all-weather road to the market town of Canchungo (formerly Teixeira de Pinto) for ever more rum and animals in order to discharge constantly ramifying and increasing ritual obligations imposed by divining and officiating elders against whom they have no appeal. Those involved spend a fortune on this, yet do not seem to enjoy it in the least, nor derive any catharsis from it, at least not such as could transpire in my day-to-day contact with them. On the contrary, what did come across was their mounting state of stress, when confronted with their powerlessness in the face of the officiants’ demands, with their own dwindling resources in terms of time of money, and with the fact that the post-revolutionary Guinea-Bissau economy often made it impossible to find a taxi or buy sacrificial items even if the money was available.

      In this set-up, I tended to interpret these rituals as primarily the financial and symbolic submission, on the part of women and young men, to their elders: both directly (as officiants), and indirectly (the supernatural agents venerated in the cults were thought of as being just as demanding and forbidding as the human models, the elders, after whom they would appear to be shaped). How could such submission ever be wholesome? I was prepared to accept that when elders were both officiants and clients/sponsors in these rituals, the result might benefit them emotionally and spiritually — reinforcing the gerontocratic dominance they were enjoying also outside the ritual sphere. But I tended to deny all therapeutic effect when women and young men, at the hands of elders that already dominated their non-ritual life, saw this domination again reinforced in a cultic setting. The cost of ritual participation, and the clients’ lack of enthusiasm in the original, religious sense of the word (i.e. ‘divine rapture’), all seemed to corroborate such a conclusion.

      I was however prepared to make an exception for the napenes’ cultic complex. Its loose association with the Land cult was clear, even though no ritual activity could take place at the pubols that was not immediately complemented by a similar offering at the Sacred Grove. The pubols (thick-walled, dark, secluded, with one or more typically two conspicuous libation basins, and crammed with paraphernalia: shells, horns, animal skulls, etc.) were of a very different construction from the Land shrines outside and inside the Sacred Grove: the latter were mere miniature thatched huts without walls and virtually lacking further specific features or paraphernalia. The pubol officiants were specialist ritual entrepreneurs who did not have any ex officio social or political status in their wards of residence nor in the Land cult. And the pubol rituals of divination and healing were intimate, full of subtle dramaturgic and symbolic effects, and unmistakably cathartic. Having repeatedly experienced, as a client, the liberating forces of the napenes’ cultic idiom even across cultural and linguistic boundaries, this was a conclusion I could not very well escape. But again, the napenes did not necessarily occupy key positions in the gerontocratic structure of this society — while the officiants of the Land cult did.

      Obviously, however, neither a field-worker’s aesthetic appreciation, nor his projection of personal or theoretical views as to what constitutes a pleasant sort of society, nor even his personal existential experiences with divination and healing, provide sufficient clues to approach that crucial but ill-studied aspect of African religion: therapeutic effectiveness. What was needed was an assessment of occurrences of physical and spiritual disorder, in an attempt to trace the structural conditions under which people had fallen ill, the various local and cosmopolitan therapies they had pursued, and their outcome in the short and the long term. This involved a study (mainly through general observation and participation in the host family, in the village and at the local dispensary of cosmopolitan medicine), of symbolism and practices towards the body, illness and healing; and the sort of diagnostic in-depth interviews and observations my psychiatric colleague in this project (a Western-trained psychiatrist with several years of practical experience in Guinea-Bissau) enabled us to conduct.

      Not surprisingly, in the West African context, the North Atlantic, post-Freudian distinction between somatic and psychic disorder was found to have no local equivalent. Instead, all forms of discomfort and misfortune were interpreted — on one level of discourse, that is — in terms of affliction by supernatural agents. Every person afflicted was supposed to have intermingling ritual obligations towards various such agents (belonging to such various classes as diseased kinsmen, minor land spirits, the Land itself, and the pubol healing spirits). Some ancestral obligations were inherited by birth, while others stemmed from any number of contracts humans (the patient himself, or a kinsman acting on his or her behalf) had once entered into with these agents. Humans would always be behind in fulfilling — in the way of paying for, and staging, expensive sacrifices — their parts of the bargain, and illness was a sign of the agent becoming impatient. To virtually all serious complaints this aetiological system was applied, usually in peaceful co-existence with cosmopolitan medicine as administered either at home, at the migrants’ distant places of work, or in the regional and national centres of Canchungo and Bissau.

      This unspecific aetiology could initially be studied on whatever complaint my main informants happened to suffer from. However, the project’s emphasis was on therapeutic effectiveness in cases of mental disorder. Therefore, together with the psychiatrist, I collected and analysed such local cases we could find of what, by any cosmopolitan or transcultural-psychiatric standards, would have be considered grave mental disorder.

      On a population of about 90,000 Manjaks today, severe mental cases turned out to be rather rare (some of our best studied ones are listed in table 1).

patients name Fernando Carlos Arguetta Bajudessa Politia
sex male male female female female
year of birth 1918 1953 1942 1957 1967
year complaint became manifest 1983 1972 1980 1982 1981
residence is family head with F with MZS with paternal kin with F
complaint (provisional) psychotic chronic schizophrenia hysteria extreme apathy psychotic
anamnesis (selection) ex-napene, junior partner took over practice; now involved in modern Basic Health Care project war time separation from Mo; extreme mobility aspirations imposed by F; rejected by colonial patron when schooling in capital; still sexual assaults on FW when a child, placed by F in household of M’s ideal marriage partner; forced by F to marry a non-Manjak in distant region of Guinea Bissau; H and D died subsequently improper marriage; accompanied migrant H to France; H long imprisoned there on criminal charges; H failed to live up to kinship obligations vis-à-vis both consang. and affinal kin at home F traditional ‘king’, demoted in Independence struggle; extreme status loss in family of orientation; patient could not stand humiliation by schoolmates
cultic treatment + + + + +
cosmopolitan psychiatric treatment + + + + +

Table 1. Some severe mental cases among contemporary Manjaks, Guinea Bissau

      Far from corroborating my initial hypotheses as summarized above, this material suggests that contemporary Manjak society, however much it could be considered a backward labour reserve in the capitalist world system, is characterized by a remarkably wholesome balance, in its internal symbolic and authority structure as well as in its relations with the outside world (through migrancy combined with very strong and persisting ritual ties with home). Gerontocratic relations appear to prevent, rather than generate, insanity; and incipient mental problems appear to be redressed and corrected in an early stage, invariably by invoking a combination of local rituals including the cult of the Land. The data indicate the therapeutic effectiveness of this ritual complex. Severe mental distress seems to occur or at least to persist primarily in such cases when the subject is fundamentally incapable of communicating effectively with the cult of the Land as mediated by the elders.

      I submit that here we are hit upon the mainstay of Manjak medical culture. Such blockage as appears to lead to persisting mental distress always involves factors external to Manjak society, and in most cases appears to consist in the disruption of the balance between symbolic rootedness in Manjak society and (often prolonged and distant) economic participation in the outside world — typically one characterized by bureaucratic formal organizations, urban structures and the capitalist mode of production (cf. Collomb & Diop 1969; Diarra 1966). Manjaks fall mentally ill if that outside society takes excessive control at the expense of ties with home, the Manjak culture, and the central symbolic role of the elders therein.

      The following example therefore appears to bring out the essence of the therapeutic role of elders in Manjak society:

In her mother’s compound Ndisia,[vii] a young woman of the Ucacenem ward, awaited her migrant husband’s annual return from Senegal. Alarmed by a series of earlier sudden infant deaths in the family, she panicked at the first signs of fever and apathy in her two-year old son Antonio, whom she was still breast-feeding. Without delay she reached for the most powerful healing strategy that Manjak culture provides: she took Antonio to the house of the village’s most senior Land priest, Fernando, to whom her family was not related and whose ward (called Brissor) was in a different part of the village. She was given a room in the priest’s men’s house,[viii] and stayed for over a week until the boy showed definite signs of improvement. The old man did not have to treat the child explicitly: his personal, invisible emanations as an elder were considered to be eminently effective. Through this action, moreover, Antonio gained lifelong honorary membership of the elder’s ward, which even involved the (in all other situations eagerly guarded and disputed) rights of libation on the ward’s ancestral shrines.

Such therapeutic adoption, which does not affect the patient’s rights in his own ward of origin, is the only way in which libation rights can pass on to non-kin. In the neighbouring Vilela ward two young adult women had once gained similar rights under similar circumstances, and they regularly shared in collective rituals of the Brissor ward.

      Part of the underlying model is not difficult to reconstruct: illness is seen as uprootedness, as a disrupted relationship between the person and Land, and when the social and genealogical aspects of this condition are redressed through fictitious re-affiliation, the link with the Land is restored and improved, and the Land’s life-giving force as mediated by the elder once more flows freely to the patient.

      All this does not sound particularly original. If the Manjak socio-ritual system had been consciously engineered by an anthropologist familiar with the classical work of Meyer Fortes (1969a, 1969b), the result may not have been too different from what I found empirically. The most idealist, culture-centred symbolic analysis might have arrived at the same sort of conclusion in terms of a wholesome communion with the essence of a culture. Personally, I would have distrusted this analysis for that very reason, — as the all too predictable result of a set, neo-classical interpretational framework. However, since my neo-Marxist approach did give me ample opportunity to arrive at a materialist interpretation if such had done more justice to the empirical data, my ending up, instead, with the present, main-stream interpretation reflects not so much the automatism of time-honoured, dominant modes of anthropological analysis, but a genuine struggle to get the most out of a rival, material paradigm — and failing to do so.


The Land as body

However, trading a materialist interpretation for a more symbolist one does not reveal to us the underlying mechanism that in either case may be said to govern the link between the individual on the one hand, and socio-ritual structure on the other. The next question to be asked is therefore: what, in the symbolic and/or material structure of Manjak society, allows rituals controlled by senior men to have such a strong impact on both mind and body? I believe that the answer can be given, and that it lies not in the sort of material structures that a political-economy approach would reveal, but in the amazingly consistent Manjak system of symbolism of the body, that, in a microcosm/macrocosm parallelism reminiscent of various idealist philosophical systems in the European tradition (Plotinus, Leibnitz), at the same time amounts to a total conception of the world, in other words, of Land.

      When I tried to formulate, mainly on the basis of observation and participation, Manjak notions of bodily and sensory functioning and experience in health and disease, I was at first struck by an extreme rigidity and reticence, which reminded me much more of peasant culture in North Africa and civil society in Europe than of any Black African traits such as I expected on the basis of prolonged personal field-work in Zambia, anthropological studies, and current North Atlantic and négritude stereotypes concerning ‘the’ exuberant, utterly corporeal, rhythmic and sensuous ‘African’. Among the Manjaks, it was as if everything that could be socially and physiologically functional and stimulating about the human body had become very highly restricted. With the exception of children (up to non-initiated young adults), Manjak villagers would hardly touch each other, and would perform their digestive and sexual bodily functions in the greatest secrecy so that not even the merest suggestion of these needs or drives would enter into public life and conversation. With averted gaze people would engage in series of monologues rather than in dialogues; this would be true particularly of the interaction of members of different generations, but even age-mates would tend to fall into this pattern. There was a little developed cuisine whose products were meant to fill the stomach and drive home the gender division of labour but hardly to cultivate (in the way of food exchanges and collective meals) socio-ritual relations beyond the extended family — except for rare occasions of ritual commensality. The local music’s simple abstract structure was wholly subservient to the abstract Morse-like requirements of the talking drums. Representational arts appeared to be absent, except the extremely stylized cylindrical wooden sculptures that, as images of the deceased, constituted the ancestral shrines. The most beautiful items Manjak culture produced: band-woven cloths of intricate, abstract, multicoloured designs, were not meant to be worn but to be hoarded in chests by the dozen until the owner, at his or her dying day, would be sown into them and thus committed to the grave; i.e. they were displayed for a few minutes only, at the time that marked the culmination of a human being’s life, and at the same time his or her most intimate and consummative communion with the Land: burial.

      While these few and disconnected impressions may suffice to indicate the general restrained atmosphere of everyday life, in illness behaviour a similar pattern seemed to be at work. Illness had to be denied, dissimulated or repressed, both by the patient and by his or her social environment. On the basis of illness, patients could claim no dispensation from daily chores around the house nor from the immensely heavy productive activities in the paddy-fields. Any sick-bed was always a burden and never a relief. As a result people were inclined to give in to their ‘weaknesses’ on this point only occasionally, with very little social conform in the way of nursing, special privileges etc., and then only for an amazingly short time. Being (publicly acknowledged to be) ill was a state to be measured in hours rather than in weeks or months.

      In a society so prone to migrancy to capitalist places of work, a materialist anthropologist would be tempted to explore the extent to which this rather unexpected pattern might be partly attributed to the internalization of the ideology of capitalism. Had not extreme commoditification, and exploitative labour conditions under high capitalism, produced somewhat similar notions of the human body and its ‘uses’, perhaps not so much in the lives of suppressed workers but certainly in the official codes of formal bureaucratic organizations within which production was realized, in employers’ dreams and aspirations, and in the standards applied by their company’s doctors?

      Further research and reflection, however, convinced me that such an interpretation is spurious. Manjak bodily symbolism is not in any sense a product of capitalist encroachment, but on the contrary is another manifestation of an all-pervading, integrated cosmological system that, at best, protects its bearers from the alienation inherent in the peripheral-capitalist experience.

      A projection of current, enlightened notions of North Atlantic culture would at first make the human body in Manjak culture appear as extremely constrained, denied and repressed. But when we go through the psychiatric case material, we find precious few indications of such repression in the mental symptoms of patients.

      Instead, the fundamental underlying cultural image seems to be that of the Perfect Body, which is whole and fertile, which is closed onto itself to such an extent that It no longer has orifices; that no longer has needs that necessitate the passing of external substances from outside to inside (or even from inside to outside); and that by virtue of this perfection places Itself outside the chain of human and social exchange, dependence and manipulation, and at the apex of filiation. Mental distress means separation from that Perfect Body; mental health means emulating that Perfect Body, and anxiously but whole-heartedly concealing the extent to which one’s own body and social functioning emulates that ideal only imperfectly.

      Among the living, the male elder comes closest to this ideal. Although he may not be beyond the consumption of food and drink, his consumption is largely confined to the inner recesses of the house and of the Sacred Grove, shielded from the common gaze. His bodily needs are thus denied, and he cannot allow himself to be ill. If still involved in chains of social and bodily exchange, it is others that need to receive from him (rice, cattle, sperm, acceptance, healing etc.), and never the other way round. His being is whole and closed (closed also from the stream of information and gossip — Manjak secretiveness perfectly fits this model). His body is almost lifted above its human limitations, and therefore — as long as no publicly witnessed passage across orifices is at hand — can be allowed to be massively displayed in a mere loin-cloth.

      Young men, women and children are way beneath this ideal, and therefore may indulge, in varying degrees, in all the imperfections of the human and social condition: devour, defecate, mate, receive, adorn, beg, steal, be entirely naked, disclose secrets, etc.

      Again one step above the elder is the ancestor, so close to the Ideal Body that he or she may be represented by a mere short stick protruding from the ground: the standard ancestral shrines as referred to above; although locally recognized as an anthropomorphic image, not even facial openings are cut, and only a slight suggestion is given of a neck or a reclining shoulder-line. Like an elder, and even more so, the ancestor is outside a chain of exchange, can no longer ask and need not ask, since his or her living descendants are supposed to do everything they can to anticipate his desires and fulfil their obligations — hence their embarrassment and shame when illness (always interpreted as sign of a breach of contractual obligations vis-à-vis a superior being) publicly reveals that they have failed to do so.

      But the Ultimate Body that incarnates this system of symbolism and carries it to its final consequence is Land Itself. The universal source of life, also in the material sense of rice and palm-wine, it may give[ix] but it cannot be admitted to receive. Humans may try to impose upon Land with their gifts (when pouring alcoholic drinks and animal blood) and with their dead bodies (which are buried in the Land), but Land has no orifices through which to receive. Its shrines are inconspicuous, without elaboration. They may be marked by a shrub, a piece of tree trunk, but often are just a totally unmarked spot; and they particularly lack formal libation basins — the equivalents of bodily orifices; at best, in the course of a ritual, shortly before libation takes place, the officiant may with a quick movement of his hand sweep open a very shallow hole of only one or two centimetres deep and a few decimetres wide, discarding any dead leaves that may have collected there. Alternatively, graves (Land’s only undeniable openings) can only be dug by senior Land priests, who force ordinary mourners to look chastely away when the body — already rendered orifice-less in its thick, mummy-shaped layer of cloths — is lowered into the ground, and who through secret underground extensions of the grave attempt to conceal its exact location forever after...

      To an amazing extent and degree of detail can both the ritual and the medical system of the Manjaks be subsumed under the formula of the orifice-less Perfect Body, right up to the form and content of Land ritual and the material shape of Land shrines. Without exaggeration, the human body can be said to be the dominant symbol in Manjak culture, and it has been applied and transformed in such a consistent way as to — surpass and surmount everything corporeal. Of course the relationships involved are not always those of direct transposition. For instance, in many aspects of Manjak symbolism the topological inverse of the human bodily shape is encountered: a hollow, tapering cylindrical space, and modern glass bottles, that happen to fit this description rather well, are among the most conspicuous material items in Manjak ritual and everyday life — dominating conversations and actions to an incredible extent.

      Confronted with such circularity between mind and body, macrocosm and microcosms, one can only guess at the psycho-somatic implications of a cosmology that presents the human body, with its constant flow in and out of natural, corporeal and social matter, as the imperfect incarnation of the perfectly closed, life-giving Land, the principal deity of this society. One suspects possibilities of symbolic and corporeal transfer and transposition in which symptom and economic action, exchange and well-being merge to an extent that may well be deemed capable of eluding anything but the most brutal confrontation with the logic of capitalism. Whether this symbolic system in itself has been the principal factor in keeping capitalism out, or whether, alternatively, the overall nature of the political economy of this part of the African Atlantic coast has merely facilitated the emergence and persistence of this symbolic system, remains a question for further research.


Back to political economy

Meanwhile, the cultic complex of the napenes, their pubols and their rituals occupy a curious position in this set-up. It combines selected elements of the overall idiom but mainly transforming them into their opposites. Here we find, in flagrant contrast with the cult of the Land proper, elaborate, thick-walled womb-like shrines, packed with myriad paraphernalia and including conspicuous libation basins; the latter tend to occur in pairs and then particularly suggest a topological inversion of human breasts. The supernatural which, in its corporeal sublimation, is so unapproachable, forbidding and masculine in the other manifestations of this cosmology, here suddenly appears as approachable, bodily, and maternal. It is here, in the pubols’ divination and ritual, that mortals can yet attempt to have direct communion with the Land: through the sacrificial smudge that the priest, with bare hands, smears directly onto the client’s naked skin — an almost shocking corporality, therapeutically very effective as if to offset the detached, ascetic abstractions of the cultic main stream. Here, in this cultic side-stream, one yet seeks to manipulate, and to set condition to, the Land’s formidable powers. A poor men’s version, one would be inclined to say, of the exalted ideals of the dominant cult, — a distorting mirror of its aspirations and negations, and as such the aspect of Manjak ritual that could and does lend itself best for ritual entrepreneurship and innovation. Here client’s expenses are of a level comparable to that of the ancestral and Land cult — but they are seen not as fulfilment of unconditional obligations but as payments, and in addition to prestations in kind involve considerable amounts of money. The aetiological repertoire of the pubol attendants is no longer unspecific and general, but specifies particular complaints and their specific, elaborate remedies, whose forms and interpretations are subject to healer’s constant innovations and re-interpretations in an attempt to capture an uncertain and highly competitive medico-ritual local market. The relation between healer and patient is no longer cast in the idiom of belonging to and venerating the same local Land (although the Land cult does claim its share from every transaction going on in the pubols) to which one is attached by birth without optionality or escape, but in the idiom of contract. In other words, at the oracular shrines we encounter a type of transformation (of the dominant Manjak symbolic idiom) that is not only feminine, routinized and eroded — it also begins to develop the well-known traits of commoditification, constituting the locus of capitalist encroachment in this otherwise fairly impenetrable socio-ritual system.

      Little wonder perhaps, that this is the aspect of the Manjak ritual scene that accommodated me (myself steeped in an utterly commoditified, capitalist life-world) more than any other, to which I could relate most — which even appeared to offer partial but eminently effective answers to my own existential needs.

      But here we are operating at the very fringe of the Manjak socio-ritual and medical system. Reference to capitalism does not begin to explain the patterns of symbolism, continuing gerontocracy, migrant participation, and therapeutic effectiveness that constitute the core of Manjak society. But why should a Marxist-inspired approach to religion confine itself to the capitalist mode of production? A closer look at the non-capitalist relations of production on which Manjak village society continues to revolve, may suggest alternative ways to yet break away from the fixation on cosmology and ideology, and lay bare the patterns of economic action, and exploitation, that are really at work. Are not the youth, through their expensive ritual participation, investing in the sort of ideological capital that, one day, when they have become elders themselves, they may claim to be theirs? Are not the elders transmuting capitalist-derived capital into Manjak capital, laundering (much like, in North Atlantic society, money proceeding from tax evasion and crime) the proceeds from labour migration that otherwise would remain utterly devoid of meaning and value even for the young migrants themselves? Rather than conceiving of the body as Land, could we not try to reverse to equation and spell out what it means — both symbolically and economically — that the human body, locus of productive force by excellence, is symbolically externalized, slighted and denied?

      When a non-capitalist society scarcely seems to yield to capitalist encroachment, it is tempting to resort to a neo-classical, idealist interpretation — thus reconstructing and making explicit what is implied in the local ideology. But in the long run it would be more rewarding to seek and formulate a specific political economy that is cut to the measure of that society. In this vein Peter Worsley (1956) reinterpreted Tallensi society as analysed by Fortes. As far as Manjak society is concerned, however, that part of my task only begins to be discernible now.


References cited

Carriera, A.A.P.

1947a         Vida social dos Manjacos. Bissau: Centro de Estudios da Guiné.

1947b         Céu, Deus e a Terra (lenda de Manjacos). Boletim Cultural da Guiné Portuguesa (Bissau), 2:461-463.

1961            Símbolos, ritualistas a ritualismos animo-feiticistas na Guiné Portuguesa. Boletim Cultural da Guiné Portuguesa (Bissau) 16, 63: 505-540.

Collomb, H., & B. Diop

1969            Migration urbaine et santé mentale. Waltham (Mass.): African Studies Association.

Davidson, B.

1981           No fist is big enough to hide the sky: The liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, London: Zed Press; second edition of: The liberation of Guiné, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969.

de Jong, J.T.V.M.

1987           A descent into African psychiatry. Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute.

Diarra, S.

1966            Problèmes d’adaptation de travailleurs africains noirs en France. Psychopathologie africaine, 2: 107-126.

Droogers, A.

1985           From waste-making to recycling: A plea for an eclectic use of models in the study of religious change. In: W.M.J. van Binsbergen & J.M. Schoffeleers (eds.), Theoretical explorations in African religion, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International, pp. 101-137.

Fortes, M.

1969a         The dynamics of clanship among the Tallensi. Oosterhout (The Netherlands): Anthropological Publications, and London: Oxford University Press. Reprint of the 1945 edition.

1969b         The web of kinship among the Tallensi. Oosterhout (The Netherlands): Anthropological Publications, and London: Oxford University Press. Reprint of the 1949 edition.

Meillassoux, C.

1975            Femmes, greniers et capitaux. Paris: Maspero.

Rey, P.-P.

1971            Colonialisme, néo-colonialisme et transition au capitalisme: Example du ‘Comilog’ au Congo-Brazzaville, Paris: Maspero.

1973           Les alliances de classes, Paris: Maspero.

1979           Class contradiction in lineage societies. Critique of Anthropology, 13-14: 41-60.

van Binsbergen, W.M.J.

1979           The infancy of Edward Shelonga: An extended case from the Zambian Nkoya. In: J.D.M. van der Geest & K.W. van der Veen (eds), In search of health: Six essays in medical anthropology. Amsterdam: Anthropological Sociological Centre, pp. 19-90.

1981a            Religious change in Zambia, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International.

1981b            Theoretical and experiential dimensions in the study of the ancestral cult among the Zambian Nkoya. Paper read at the symposium on Plurality in Religion, International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Intercongress, Amsterdam.

1984a         Can anthropology become the theory of peripheral class struggle?: Reflexions on the work of P.P. Rey. In: W.M.J. van Binsbergen & G.S.C.M. Hesseling, Aspecten van staat en maatschappij in Afrika: Recent Dutch and Belgian research on the African state, Leiden: African Studies Centre, pp. 163-180.

1984b         Socio-ritual structures and modern migration among the Manjak of Guinea-Bissau: Ideological reproduction in a context of peripheral capitalism. Antropologische Verkenningen (Utrecht), 3, 2: 11-43.

1985a         From tribe to ethnicity in western Zambia. In: W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P.L. Geschiere (eds.), Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment, London/ Boston: Kegan Paul International, pp. 181-234.

1985b         The cult of saints in north-western Tunisia: An analysis of contemporary pilgrimage structures. In E. Gellner (ed.), Islamic dilemmas: Reformers, nationalists and industrialization, Berlin/New York/Amsterdam: Mouton, pp. 199-239.

van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & P.L. Geschiere

1985            Marxist theory and anthropological practice. In W.M.J. van Binsbergen & P.L. Geschiere (eds.), Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment, London/ Boston: Kegan Paul International, pp. 235-89.

van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & J.M. Schoffeleers (eds.)

1985a            Theoretical explorations in African religion. London/Boston: Kegan Paul International.

Worsley, P.

1956           The kinship system of the Tallensi: A revaluation. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 86, I: 37-75.


[i]               After preparatory trips in 1981 and 1982, field-work was conducted in 1983 in the Calequisse section of the Cacheu region, with occasional extensions to the Caió and Coboiana sections. I am indebted to the people of the Cacheu region for their hospitality and interest; to the African Studies Centre, Leiden, for financing the project and granting me leave of absence; to Joop de Jong, then Head of Psychiatry, 3 de Agosto Hospital, Bissau, for initiating the project and contributing to its more specifically psychiatric side; to the Ministry of Health, Guinea Bissau, for facilitating administrative and logistic aspects; to Patricia Saegerman and Else Broers, as wife and elder sister respectively perceptive companions in the field; and finally to Renaat Devisch, whose penetrating discussions in the stimulating environment of the Louvain ‘Unit of Symbol and Symptom’, 1984 and 1985, greatly contributed to my analysis of Manjak symbolism. The first version of this paper was read at the Second Satterthwaite Colloquium on African Religion and Ritual, Satterthwaite (Cumbria), U.K., April 1986; I am indebted to Kirsten Alnaes, Michael Bourdillon, Richard Fardon, Ronald Frankenberg, Ladislav Holy, Richard Werbner and James Woodburn for stimulating comments on that occasion. A revised version was read at the Institut für Ethnologie, Freie Universität, Berlin (West), May 1986, where I benefited from stimulating comments made by Georg Elwert, Till Förster, Georg Pfeffer and Helmut Zinser. This article was originally published in English as: ‘The land as body: An essay on the interpretation of ritual among the Manjaks of Guinea-Bissau’, in: R. Frankenberg (ed.), Gramsci, Marxism, and Phenomenology: Essays for the development of critical medical anthropology, special issue of Medical Anthropological Quarterly, new series, 2, 4, December 1988, p. 386-401.

[ii]              Cf. van Binsbergen 1984a and references cited there.

[iii]             I have pursued a materialist approach for a number of years (cf. van Binsbergen 1981a; van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985; more specifically in the medical anthropological field: 1979 and 1981a: ch. 5, 6 and 7). I have repeatedly confessed my guilty conscience (1981a: 10f, 73f; 1981b, 1984a, 1985a), and stressed the need for a synthesis of Marxian ideas and the sophisticated insights of main-stream symbolic anthropology (1981a: 68f; van Binsbergen & Schoffeleers 1985).

[iv]             Van Binsbergen 1985b and other works cited there; however, the possibility of a materialist perspective was indicated in van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985.

[v]              Cf. Carreira 1947a, 1947b, 1961. De Jong 1987 also discusses general religious and medical concepts partly derived from Manjak culture, although most of his specific descriptions derive from other parts of Guinea-Bissau.

[vi]                Meillassoux 1975; Rey 1971, 1973, 1979; cf. van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985.

[vii]            All proper names are pseudonyms.

[viii]           Visiting daughters of the house are also put up here (and not at the women's house) when the occasion arises.

[ix]                Although not through orifices: the Land gives (i.e. yields produce) not in highly localized spots but over extensive land areas: paddy-fields, palm and cashew groves, and gardens. Significantly, the tapping of palm trees and the resulting palm wine (ideally set aside for consumption by elders in a ritual context) had a mystical significance of communicating with the essence of Land.



page last modified: 11-02-01 14:26:41 AAA Matilda Europe    
Easy Submit Add Me!