FETICHISM IN WEST AFRICA
SPIRITUAL BEINGS IN AFRICA—THEIR CLASSES AND FUNCTIONS
INEQUALITIES among the spirits themselves, though they are so great, indicate no more than simple differentiations
of character or work. Yet so radical are these varieties, and so distinct the names applied to them, that I am compelled to recognize a division into classes.
Classes and Functions.
1. Inina, or Ilina. A human embodied soul is spoken of and fully believed in oy all the tribes. It is known in the
Mpongwe tribes of the Gabun country as "inina" (plural," anina ") ; in the adjacent Benga tribe, as "ilina" (plural,
" malina") ; in the great interior Fang tribes, as "nsisim."
This animating soul, whether it be only one, or whether it appear lii two, three, or even four forms, is practically the
same, that talks,, hears, and feels, tKat sometimes goes out of the body in a dream, and that exists as a spirit after the
death of the body. That it has its own especial materiality seems to be indicated by the fact that in the Fang, Bakele, and other tribes the same word " nsisim " means not only soul but also shadow. The shadow of a tree or any other inanimate object and of the human body as cast by the sun is "nsisim."
In my first explorations up the Ogowe River, in 1874, as in
my village preaching I necessarily and constantly spoke of our
soul, its sins, its capacity for suffering or happiness, and its
relation to its divine Maker, I was often at a loss how to
make my thoughtless audience understand or appreciate that the nsisim of which I was speaking was not the nsisim
cast by the sun as a darkish hne on the ground near their bodies. Even to those who understood me, it was not an
impossible thought that that dark narrow belt on the ground was in some way a part of, or a mode of manifestation of, that other thing, the nsisim, which they admitted was the source of the body's animation. So far defined was that thought with some of them that they said it was a possible thing for a human being to have his nsisim stolen or otherwise lost, and still exist in a diseased and dying state ; in which case his body would not cast a shadow. Von Chamisso's story of
Peter Schlemehl, " the man who lost his shadow," in actuality I
So few are the special activities by which to distinguish anina from other classes of spirits, that I might doubt whether they should properly be considered as distinct, were it not true that the anina are-. all of them embodied spirits; none of them are of other origin. As disembodied spirits, retaining memory of their former human relationships, they have an
interest in human affairs, and especially iu the affairs of the family of which they were lately members.
2. Ibamho (Mpongwe ; plural, "abambo"). There are vague beings, " abambo," which may well be described by our
word " ghosts." Where they come from is not certainly known, or what locality they inhabit, except that they belong
to the world of spirits. Why they become visible is also unknown.
They are not called for, they are only occasionally worshipped ; their epiphany is dreaded, not reverenced.
" The term ' abambo ' is in the plural form, ana may therefore be regarded as forming a class of spirits instead of a single individual. They are the spirits of dead men; but whether they are positively good or positively evil, to be loved or to be hated, or to be courted or avoided, are points which no native of the country can answer satisfactorily.
Abambo are the spirits of the ancestors of the people of a tribe or race, as distinguished from the spirits of strangers. These are the spirits with which men are
possessed, and there is no end to the ceremonies used to deliver them from their power."
The ibambo may appear anywhere and at any time and to anybody, but it has no message. It rarely speaks. Its most common effect on human lives is to frighten. It flits; it does not remain in One spot, to speak or to be spoken to.
Indistinctly seen, its appearances are reported as occurring mostly in dark places, in shadows, in twilight, and on dark
nights. The most common apparitions are on lonely paths in the forest by night.
To all intents and purposes these abambo are what superstitious
fears in our civilization call " ghosts." The timid dweller in civilization can no more tell us what that ghost is than can the ignorant African. It is as difficult in the one case as in the other to argue against the unreal and unknown. What the frightened eye or ear believes it saw or heard, it persists in believing against all proof. Nor will ridicule make the belief less strong. However, the intelligent child in civilization, under the hand of a judicious parent or other friend, and relying on love as an expounder, can be led to understand by daylight, that the white bark of a tree trunk shimmering in certain moonlight, or a white garment flapping in the wind, or a white animal grazing in the meadow, was the ghost whose waving form had scared him the night before. His superstition is not so ingrained by dail}^ exercise but that reason and love can divest him of it. But to the denizen of Fetich-land superstition is religion ; the night terror which he is sure he saw is too real a thing in his life to be identified by day as only a harmless white-barked tree or quartz rock.
3. A third class of spirits is represented by the name Omhiviri. The "ombwiri " (Mpongwe ; plural," awiri") is certainly somewhat local, and in this respect might be regarded as akin to the ancient fauns and dryads, with a suggestion of a likeness to the spirits resident in the dense oak groves and the massive stones of the Druid Circle. But the awiri are more than dryads. They are not confined to their local
1 J. L. Wilson.
rock, tree, bold promontory, or point of land, trespass on which by human beings they resent. The traveller must go by
silently, or with some cabalistic invocation, with bowed or bared head, and with some offering,—anything, even a pebble.
On the beach, as I bend to pass beneath an enormous tree fallen across the pathway, I observe the upper side of the log
covered with votive offerings,—pebbles, shells, leaves, etc., — laid there by travellers as they stooped to pass under. Such votive collections may be seen on many spots along the forest paths, deposited there by the natives as an invocation of a blessing on their journey.
"The derivation of the word ' Ombwiri ' is not known. As it is used in the plural as well as in the singular form, it no
doubt represents a class or family of spirits. He is regarded as a tutelar or guardian spirit. Almost every man has his
own ombwiri, for which he provides a small house near his own. All the harm that he has escaped in this world, and all the good secured, are ascribed to the kindly offices of this guardian spirit. Ombwiri is also regarded as the author of everything in the world which is marvellous or mysterious. Any remarkable feature in the physical aspect of the country, any notable phenomenon in the heavens, or extraordinary events in the affairs of men are ascribed to Ombwiri. His favorite places of abode are the summits of high mountains, deep caverns, large rocks, and the base of very large forest trees. And while the people attach no malignity to his chai'acter, they carefully guard against all unnecessary familiarity in their intercourse with him, and never pass a place where he is supposed to dwell except in silence. He is the only one of all the spirits recognized by the people that has no priesthood ; his intercourse with men being direct and immediate." 1
These spirits are sometimes spoken of with the nkinda and olaga (Mpongwe ; plural, " ilaga"). They all come from
the spirits of the dead. These several names indicate a difference as to kind or class of spirit, and a difference in the
1 J. L. Wilson.
work or functions they are called upon to exercise. The ilaga are spirits of strangers, and have come from a distance.
While the ombwiri is indeed feared, it is with a respectful reverence, different from the dread of an ibambo. Ombwiri
is fine and admirable in aspect, but is very rarely seen ; it is white, like a white person. Souls of distinguished chiefs and other great men turn to awiri. The fear with which the native regards massive rocks and large trees —the ombwiri homes—need not be felt by white people, who are themselves considered awiri, without its being clearly understood
whether their bodies are inhabited by the departed spirits of the Negro dead, or whether some came from other sources.
The awiri are generally favorably disposed, especially to their former human relatives ; but it is necessary to gratify them with religious services constituting an ancestral worship.
While some of them reside in great rocks or trees, others dwell in rivers, lakes, and seas.
Awiri, if they love a person and desire to favor him or her, have the special power to grant a gift desired by most Africans, viz. the birth of children. The awiri live mostly in the region of their own former human tribe. It is possible,
however, for them to go everywhere ; but they usually remain within their old tribal limits. If, however, a tribe should remove or become extinct, their awiri would still remain in that region, and would affiliate with the new people who might come to occupy the deserted village sites.
Awiri have a period of inactivit}^ the cold dry season of four months (in western Equatorial Africa), May to September.
At that time they become very small, inactive, and almost lifeless (a condition of hibernation, somewhat like that of bears r or of inertia, as when a snake casts its skin?).
4. There is another class of spirits called Sinkinda singular, "nkinda"), some of whom are the spirits, of people who in the ordinary stations of life were ''common, or not distinguished for greatness or goodness. Others of these sinkinda
are of uncertain origin, perhaps demons whom Njambi had created, but to whom He had never given bodily existence.
Almost all sinkinda are evilly disposed. They come to the villages on visits to warm themselves by the kitchen fires or out of curiosity to see what is going on, and sometimes, temporarily, to enter into the bodies of the living, especially of their own family. The entrance of a nkinda into a human Body always sickens the person. It may enter any one, even a child. If many of them enter a man's body, he becomes crazy.
Sometimes the nkinda, when asked who he is, says: '' I am a spirit of a member of your own family, and I have come to
live with you. I am tired of living in the forest with cold and hunger. I wish to stay with you."
Often when people are sick with fever or cold, the diagnosis is made that some nkinda has come on a visit. If it is of the
same family as those whom it is visiting, it comes and goes from time to time, to please itself ; but it is never, like an
Sometimes these sinkinda are called "ivavi" (sing. ovavi," messenger). They come from far and bring news, e, g. "An
epidemic of disease is coming," or "A ship is coming with wealth." Sometimes the news thus brought proves true.
(Is this our modern spiritualism ? ) In such cases the coming of the nkinda is regarded as a blessing, in that it warns the
living of evil or brings them wealth. The information is always carried by the mouth of some living member of the family.
If these sinkinda are asked by a non-possessed member of the family, " Where do you live? the reply is, "Nowhere in particular. But at evenings we gather about your town, to see you and join in your dances and songs. We see you, though you do not see us."
5. Mondi. There are beings, "myondi" (Benga ; singular, "mondi "), who are agents in causing sickness or in either
aiding or hindering human plans. These spirits are mucli the same as those of the fourth class, except that in power they
seem to be more independent than other spirits. But they are not always simply passive in the hands of the doctor; they are often active on their own account, or at their own pleasure, generally to injure. They are worshipped almost always in a deprecatory way. They often take violent possession of human bodies ; and for their expulsion it is that ilaga,
sinkinda, and awiri are invoked. They are invoked especially at the new moons, but also at other times, particularly in
sickness. The native oganga decides whether or no they be myondi that are afflicting the patient. When the diagnosis
has been made, and myondi declared to be present in the patient's body, the indication is that they are to be exorcised.
A slight doubt must be admitted in regard to these myondi, whether they really do constitute a distinct class, or whether
any spirit of any class may not become a myondi. The name in that case would be given them, not as a class, but as producers of certain effects, at certain times and under certain circumstances.
The powers and functions of the several classes of spirits do not seem to be distinctly defined. Certainly they do not
confine themselves either to their recognized locality or to the usually understood function pertaining to their class.
These powers and functions shade into each other, or may be assumed by members of almost any class. But it is clearly
believed that spirits, even of the same class, differ in power. Some are strong, others are weak. They are limited as to the nature of their powers ; no spirit can do all things. A spirit's efficiency runs only on a certain line or lines. All of them
can be influenced and made subservient to human wishes by a variety of incantations.
There are other names which, while they belong to spirits, apparently indicate only peculiarities in spiritual manifestations, and not representatives of a class.
1. There may enter into any animaFs body (generally a leopard's) some spirit, or, temporarily, even the soul of a living human being. The animal then, guided by human intelligence and will, exercises its strength for the purposes of the temporary human possessor. Many murders are said to be committed in this way, after the manner of the mythical
German wehr-wolf or the French loup-garou.
This belief in demoniacal possession of a lower animal must not be confounded with the equally believed transmigration
of souls. The fonner is widespread over at least a third of the African continent. In Mashona-land " they believe that at times both living and dead persons can change themselves into animals, either to execute some vengeance, or to procure something they wish for; thus, a man will change himself into a hyena or a lion to steal a sheep and make a good meal off it ; into a serpent to avenge himself on some enemy. At other times, if they see a serpent, it is one of the
Matotela tribe or slave tribe, which has thus transformed himself to take some vengeance on the Barotse.
2. Another manifestation is that of the uvengwa. It is claimed to be not simply spiritual, but tangible. It is the self-resurrected spirit and body of a dead hum.an being.
It Is an object of dread, and is never worshipped in any manner whatever. Why it appears is not known. Perhaps it shows itself only in a restless, unquiet, or dissatisfied feeling.
It is white in color, but the body is variously changed from the likeness of the original human body. Some say that it
has only one eye, placed in the centre of the forehead. Some say that its feet are webbed like an aquatic bird. It does
not speak ; it only wanders, looking as if with curiosity.
My little cottage at Batanga is a mile and a half from the three chief dwellings of the station. One afternoon in 1902 I went to the station, leaving my cook and his wife in charge of the cottage. When I returned late at night, he asserted
that an uvengwa had come there. A few yards in front of the door of the house is a mango tree with its very dense dark foliage. The trunk is divided a few feet from the ground. The light from the open door streamed into a part of the front yard, leaving the tree trunk in dark shadow.
The woman going out of the door had started back, screaming to her husband that she saw an uvengwa standing in the
crotch of the tree and peering around one of the branches. The husband went to the door. He asserted to me that he
also had seen the form. In their terror, neither of them made any investigation. Possibly a chalk-whitened thief had taken advantage of my absence to prowl about. But the two witnesses rejected such a suggestion ; they were sure it was a visitor from some grave.
3. Other spiritual manifestations are spoken of as the personal guardian-spirit and the family guardian-spirit. These do not constitute a separate class, but are the special modes of operation adopted by the ancestral spirit or spirits in the protection of their family. Its description belongs properly to a later chapter under the name of the Family Yaka fetich.
The manner of invocation of all these five classes of spirits, in the case of obscure diseases, is very much the same now as what Dr. Wilson described fifty years ago. What he saw on the Gabun, River tallies with what I also saw thirty years ago at Benita, and subsequently in the Ogowe. Even at Gabun, in the present day, though the Mpongwe have been enlightened, the same ceremonies are kept up by other tribes, the Shekani and Fang, who have emerged on the coast at
Sick persons, and especially those that are afflicted with nervous disorders, are supposed to be possessed by one or the
other of these spirits. If the disease assumes a serious form, the patient is taken to a priest or a priestess, of either of these classes of spirits. Certain tests are applied, and it is soon ascertained to which class the disease belongs, and the patient is accordingly turned over to the proper priest. The ceremonies in the different cases are not materially different ; they are alike, at least, in the emplojanent of an almost endless round of absurd, unmeaning, and disgusting ceremonies which none but a heathenish and ignorant priesthood could invent, and none but a poor, ignorant, and superstitious people could ever tolerate.
In either case a temporary shanty is erected in the middle of the street for the occupancy of the patient, the priest, and
such persons as are to take part in the ceremony of exorcism. The time employed in performing the ceremonies is seldom
less than ten or fifteen days. During this period dancing, drumming, feasting, and drinking are kept up without intermission day and night, and all at the expense of the nearest relative of the invalid. The patient, if a female, is decked out in the most fantastic costume ; her face, bosom, arms, and legs are streaked with red and white chalk, her head adorned with red feathers, and much of the time she promenades the open space in front of the shanty with a sword in her hand, which she brandishes in a very menacing way against the bystanders.
At the same time she assumes as much of the maniac in her looks, actions, gestures, and walk as possible. In many cases this is all mere affectation, and no one is deceived by it. But there are other cases where motions seem involuntary and entirely beyond the control of the person; and when you watch the wild and unnatural stare, the convulsive movements of the limbs and body, the unnatural posture into which the whole frame is occasionally thrown, the gnashing of the teeth, and foaming at the mouth, and supernatural strength that is put forth when any attempt is made at constraint, you are strongly reminded of cases of real possession recorded in the New Testament.
There is no reason to suppose that any real cures are effected by these prolonged ceremonies. In certain nervous
affections the excitement is kept up until utter exhaustion takes place; and if the patient is kept quiet afterwards
(which is generally the case), she may be restored to better health after a while; and, no matter how long it may be
before she recovers from this severe tax upon her nerves, the priest claims the credit of it. In other cases the patient may not have been diseased at all, and, of course, there was nothing to be recovered from.
If it should be a case of undissembled sickness, and the patient become worse by this unnatural treatment, she is removed, and the ceremonies are suspended, and it is concluded that it was not a real possession, but something else. The priests have certain tests by which it is known when the patient is healed, and the whole transaction is wound up
when the fees are paid. In all cases of this kind it is impossible to say whether the devil has really been cast out or
merely a better understanding arrived at between him and the person he has been tormenting. The individual is required to build a little house or temple for the spirit near his own, to take occasional offerings to him, and pay all due respect to his character, or to be subject to renewed assaults at any time.
Certain restrictions are imposed upon the person who has recovered from these satanic influences. He must refrain
from certain kinds of food, avoid certain places of common resort, and perform certain duties ; and, for the neglect of
any of these, is sure to be severely scourged by a return of his malady. Like the Jews, in speaking of the actions of
these demoniacs, they are said to be done by the spirit, and not by the person who is possessed. If the person performs
any unnatural or revolting act,—as the biting off of the head of a live chicken and sucking its blood, —it is said that the
spirit, not the man, has done it.
But the views of the great mass of the people on these subjects are exceedingly vague and indefinite. They attend these ceremonies on account of the parade and excitement that usually accompany them, but they have no knowledge of their origin, their true nature, or of their results. Many submit to the ceremonies because they are persuaded to do so by their friends, and, no doubt, in many cases in the hope of being freed from some troublesome malady. But as to the
meaning of the ceremonies themselves, or the real influence which they exert upon their bodily diseases, they probably
have many doubts, and when called upon to give explanation of the process which they have passed through, they show
that they have none but the most confused ideas, 1
Wilson, Western Africa.