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Ancestors from the East, Spirits from the West. Surviving and Reconfiguring the Exogenous Violence of Global Encounters in the Sahel

Ancêtres venus de l’Est, esprits venus de l’Ouest, survivre et s’adapter face à la violence exogène des rencontres globales dans le Sahel
Antoinette Tidjani Alou
p. 75-92


The Sahel possesses an outstanding history as an arena of social, political, economic, cultural and interethnic interrelations and conflicts. This is visible notably in foundation narratives that exist all over the region, staking claims to an ancestor from the Islamic East. This widespread phenomenon intersects interestingly with a cult of spirit possession like hawka, originating in the oral culture of Arewa in East-Central Niger, formally renowned for its steadfast attachment to African ancestral religion and arising from embodied spiritual reaction and resistance to European colonization. Hawka highlights cultural responses to a violent encounter with the West This paper examines aspects of these two interconnected intercultural themes and motifs arising from historical encounters with East and West. It argues that the presence in the Nigérien Sahel of “ancestors from the East” and of “spirits from West”, distant in time but not in significance, respond to the domination of Sahelian societies by Arabs and Europeans, eliciting in the affected African populations diverse cultural and religious strategies of negation and negotiation of the tensions and compromises involved in identity formation.

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1The Sahel possesses an outstanding history as an arena of social, political, economic, cultural, and interethnic interrelations and conflicts. These have produced, among various other results, intercultural manifestations visible in oral arts such as foundation narratives, folktales, and popular songs. These productions in turn contain and articulate social commentary, political strategies and cultural contradictions which are often imbricated.

2Dating the fashionable concept of hybridity and topical discussions of globalizations, these interrelations remain visible through a variety of themes and motifs such as those referred to in the title of this paper: “ancestors from the East,” on the one hand, and “spirits from the West,” on the other. Though these two cultural phenomena have a number of points of juncture, as we will see, they in no wise exhaust the numerous instances of external influence on and domination of Sahelian societies. Nor do they downplay the efforts of these societies to come to terms with historically situated experiences of imposed exogenous power.

3The present discussion takes its cue from two interesting cultural phenomena distant in time and origin, but less so in their significance. The first reference here is to Sahelian foundation narratives and epics, be they Songhay-Zarma, Hausa, Fulfulde epics or others, and to the ways in which they capitalize on the current prestige of Islam, foregrounding what is now seen as a bonafide symbolic and religious capital (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970: chap. 2; Bourdieu, 1984: chap. 3.; Bourdieu, 1994: 39). Their elevated status has emerged through a variety of ways, but the foundation narratives are intended, notably, as a modality of legitimating rights as founders/first settlers.

4Second is the observation that colonial rule, its violence and oppression, at the psychological, social, and political levels, did not fail to impact on the social and political organization, modes of cultural expression and psychic stability of the people of the Sahel, as it did elsewhere. Here too, as elsewhere, it contributed, among other influences, to the creation of new hybrid trends and themes in Sahelian oral cultures. These are visible, in particular, in various religious forms of negation and negotiation of colonial violence and domination such as the bori (or holley) and the hawka cult of spirit possession. Both of these feature “spirits from the West,” i.e. an inclusion into preexisting pantheons of deities imitating and embodying, during the possession of adepts, the colonial, administrative, military, and social apparatuses and hierarchies. There exist, of course, other cultural responses to colonization including satiric songs of social commentary like Maazo Dan Alalo’s Baudot (Niang, 1999; 2005), narrating the lived history of the colonial experience from the ironic and vicarious viewpoint of a social underdog (A. Tidjani Alou, 2009, 2010).

5From the documentary and empirical data on the subject of surviving and reconfiguring the exogenous violence of global encounters, evidenced in the invention of ancestors from the Islamic East and in the emergence of spirit possession cults featuring deities originating from the experience of French colonization, it is impossible to broach this subject from a peaceful thematic standpoint. This is so because of the significant historical, social, economic and political price at which these intercultural realities were born, provoked or imposed. Hence that the present discussion is far removed from a facile PowerPoint presentation showing, first, the image of a turbaned sultan, mounted on an Arab thoroughbred, preceded by players of the kakaki (a long, impressive ceremonial wind instrument also found in Morocco), meant to suggest “ancestors from the East.” Similarly, using as a second introductory image culled from one of the less rabid scenes of the hawka ritual of possession from Jean Rouch’s film, Les Maîtres, fous. showing adepts in trance, miming European military hierarchy and salutes seems equally impossible as a visual introduction to a presentation of “spirits from the West”.

6Firstly because the present paper is not interested in the superficial exoticism the first image might misleadingly imply. Secondly, the hot sporadic polemic that seems to oppose a handful of scholars referenced below regarding the interpretation of the hawka cult, born of African spiritual reactions to European colonization, draws attention to the seriousness of the issue involved. The objective of this paper is, therefore, to engage briefly with the contributions of more knowledgeable predecessors on a topic of personal research interest: the history, politics and symbolic capitals of the spaces of the pre-Islamic Sahel and its selective appropriation of Arabic and other European influences. Following the binary established in the title, the intention here is to look in turn at motifs and interpretations of “ancestors from the East” and of “spirits from the West,” whilst paying attention to points of overlapping and interference.

Ancestors from the East

7My interest in the “ancestors from the East” that Sahelian foundation myths and epics claim as founding fathers was sparked off by collaboration with Fatimata Mounkaïla and relies in part on her 1993 paper. In this paper, she links foundation narratives to epics in terms of style, theme and genre and all of these to the all-important mytheme of origin (Mounkaïla, 1993: 16).

  • 1 Abu Yazid also known as Abuyazidu or Bayajidda is, in fact, an invented ancestor of the Hausas. Thi (...)

8Without mentioning Eliade’s (1963) important contribution in this particular, Mounkaïla underscores the fact that Sahelian narratives lauding heroes like Zabarkane of the Zarmas, Dinga of the Soninkés, Za Al-Yaman of the Zas of Koukiya, Abu Yazid of the Hausas1 or Oduduwa of the Yorubas bear the marks of a “conscious effort” to link them not only to Islam but “to the first centuries of Islamic history.” She notes that these narratives are recited by master griots or djessarés (in the case of the Zarma and of the Songhay) during important events such as: a) the death of a Zarma chief, at which time performance of the foundation myth serves as an obituary and a memorial of origin of the “people”, dating back “from the Time of the First Ancestor”; b) the assembly of chiefs in the context of the challenge of serious decision-making, when reciting the foundation narrative reminds the community of mourners of the models of greatness to be followed; c) the beginning of a New Year, especially following a difficult year, marked by crisis; d) during other significant life-cycle events or social events (ibid.:20).

9Both genres events are related to what Eliade (1963) would term “the magical prestige of origin.” They all stand in relation to the re-actualizable “First Times”: the foundation of the clan and of the chieftaincy; periods of crisis reminiscent of the primordial chaos that preceded creation and social ordering. Both are, in turn, perceived as dependent on the exemplary wisdom and powers of organization of the ancestors. These are the symbolic seasons and reasons of (re)commencement, evoking the beginning of beginnings. Social, political and religious events are thereby reconnected to Origin and its poles of cosmogony and eschatology, creation/innovation and death-for-rebirth.

10Hence, narratives of this nature are far from banal. Moreover, they are thought to contain and transfer the sacred energy of primordial time and of the ancestors who witnessed it and helped to organize it at the human level. Mounkaïla emphasizes in her text referenced above that these reconstructed narratives of origin are thus directly and deliberately placed in connection not only with Islam but, even more significantly, with Islamic “First Times”. This tendency can currently be observed even in the foundation narratives of groups like the Mawri of Lougou and Bagagi, “animist” Hausa clans who do - or did not until recently - in their vast majority, otherwise associate themselves with Islamic values, or who do so only marginally or in order to underscore their own distinctive alterity.

11Commenting on the pervasiveness, currency, and circulation of the reference to ancestors from the East, Mounkaïla observes the predominance of intertextuality and of interculturality in the Sahel. She notes that “These narratives about ancestors from the East bear witness to the remarkable persistence of motifs that cross boundaries between what are thought incorrectly, to be self-contained social entities” (ibid.: 20). We are further reminded that cultural motifs from the Muslim East entail a number of characteristic elements. These include toponomy (heroes originate in or are associated with specific places in the Islamic East); mystic encounters (with prophets of Abrahamic origin); the hagiographization of heroes modeled on Islam rather than on traditional paradigms (power comes from Allah, the prophet, the Koran and not from ancestral magic); the insertion of Koranic verses and popular motifs like that of the flying carpet, indigenized in the myth of Zabarkane (Mounkaïla, 1989, 2008).

  • 2 See A. Tidjani Alou, « Rapport de Terrain d’Enquête sur la Sarraounia. Lougou et Bagagi, 21-28 Janv (...)

12The idea that Sahelian cultures and narratives actively borrow from other cultures, notably from those of the Islamic East - and related cultural spheres like those of India and the Biblical East - is also expressed in textual metaphors. These point to intertextual interplay between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Islamic East and among Sahelo-Sudanese cultures. The phenomenon of “borrowing” is seen, if not in so many words, as a form of cultural circulation and re-territorialization through the active use of hypotexts accessed in a regional pool. These are perceived to be diffused in a complex relay system, relying on a back-and-forth movement between orality and writing in which literate djessarés and marabouts have long served as agents of direct or indirect transmission of Islamic verses, of popular Islamic folktales and of their fantastic repertoires. Such elements are selectively worked into the foundation myths of the Zarmas, Hausas, Soninkés, Mossis, Songhays and other peoples of the Sahelo-Sudanese region whose narratives claim ancestors hailing from places like Arabia, India, Yemen, Egypt and Persia. The itineraries of these mythical founding fathers - and less frequently mothers - as reported in “countless versions of innumerable myths of origin” (Mounkaïla, ibid.), often transit through the holy land of Mecca or allow the ancestors privileged relationships with prophets like Mohamed, founder of Islam, or Noah, civilizing hero of biblical fame2.

13Tapping into the symbolic value of prestigious cultures in the geo-cultural zone seems to be an obvious strategy of self-valorization and of ideological legitimization used by chiefs and rulers. This strategy bears testimony, nonetheless, to an ambivalent relationship of rulers and the court griots that served them to Islamic culture and values. There is no doubt that the ruling classes, their affiliates, and praise-singers instrumentalized and continue to instrumentalize the perceived prestige of Islam to their own ends. At the same time, they rely on ancestral magic for their political power and longevity.

14Though Mounkaïla does not examine this point, she nonetheless mocks the foundation epic of her own ethnic group, the Zarmas, whose hero, “Zabarkane the Arab”, unlike other illustrious Sahelian founding fathers claiming an ancestor from the East, managed only the prestigious feat of founding a “petty principality.” The dissonance between the popular and aristocratic variants of the foundation narrative of the Zarmas is also underlined: the civilizing hero and founding ancestor of ordinary Zarmas, of “common” stock, is not Zabarkane but Mali Beero, who hailed prosaically from neighbouring Mali, in today’s political geography.

15The subtext is that these narratives are not accidental influences but conscious constructions of the ruling classes, prioritizing east-to-west migrations and directions of settlement over north-south ones which obviously existed. This is not meant to contradict Cheikh Anta Diop’s argument (1979, chap, vi) that the valley of the Nile was a matrix of out-migration from which the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa was populated. To the contrary, following Cheikh Anta Diop, Mounkaïla (ibid, 15) suggests that the myth of the ancestors from the East originally pointed to an African East. For Diop (1979, 371-374), this is none other than the Nile Valley; to the east for Africans from the West, to the north-east for the Fangs, or to the north for the Bakoubas, in conformity with their myths of origin. Besides, these narratives inventing an ancestor understood to hail from the Islamic East do not necessarily reveal a deep penetration of Islamic values, which began only in recent times for certain sections of the general population.

  • 3 See note 2 above.

16Fieldwork into popular culture demonstrates that certain founders of clans, after migration from other areas of Africa such as the kingdom of Daura, already under Islamic influence as early as the 12th century, sometimes reverted or converted to an African ancestral religion when driven by political strife or warfare to a new land of settlement. Such is the case of the first priestess-chief Sarraounia Yar Kasa, founding ancestor of the Aznas of Lougou and surrounding region, in Eastern Niger of our times. Nonetheless, since at least 1960, the Sarraounia of Lougou and the Bawra of Bagagi, priestess and priest of an African ancestral religion, also claim Eastern origins - Egypt and Persia respectively - while remaining adamantly “animist” even today. This attachment to ancestral beliefs and religious practice does not prevent the Bawra from reciting a foundation myth in which the clan’s ancestor, having transited through Mecca, left the holy land in anger as none of Mohamed’s followers would marry his daughter3. Similarly, refusal to convert to Islam does not prevent the current village chief of Lougou, the Sarraounia’s village, from appealing to the testimony of marabouts for the legitimization of Lougou’s current foundation narrative when he affirms: “According to history, she [the Sarraounia] came from Egypt [originally], but they [in fact] set out from Daura. Even the marabouts, will tell you that [this is true]:”she came with her power, because her father was king over there, when her father died, she was the legitimate heiress, but a plot was fomented to put her to death“ (Tidjani Alou, 2004: 20, author’s translation). The ”truth“ of this oral historical account is presented as being so self-evident and irreproachable that even the ”marabouts,“ religious contestants though they are, can hardly deny it.

17Yet, the undertones of this reference to ”marabouts“ are two-edged. At one level the idea is that, ever-ready to oppose traditional religion as they may be, this is one thing even they, the marabouts, cannot refute. And aren’t they purportedly pillars of integrity, authorities in matters of truth, hence bound to recognize truth from whatever quarter it might originate? Ultimately, the observer is left with the impression that the authority of Islam, through the reputation of its teachers, is still accredited despite its detrimental effects on the official prestige of traditional religion, its authorities and practitioners. There is, at once, in the stance of this elder, a certain antagonism as well as a pragmatic recognition of the new balance of power that effectively obtains.

  • 4 See the article “Nigeria”, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2007’.

18Finally, voluntary assimilation of Islam-inspired scripts into Sahelo-Sudanese foundation narratives and epics seems also to have played to the detriment of the prestige of sophisticated African states of yore, based on ancestral religion, culture and values like those formed by the Hausa. As I have noted elsewhere (Tidjani Alou, 2009), erasure functions here in official history writing. For example, despite a strong pre-Islamic political culture in the Hausa kingdom of Daura, marked by the emphatic presence of both male and female rulers, the electronic version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica records only post-Bayajidda male Islamized rulers, alongside aspects of current life in Daura. It underemphasizes and retracts longstanding and significant female leadership when it notes merely in passing that ”it [Daura] was founded by a queen and was ruled by women in the 9th and 10th centuries,“ before going on to list by date and period the reigns of successive male Muslim rulers4. It must be noted, however, that the Hausa people themselves, once converted to Islam or influenced by Islamic culture and ideology, have bought massively into this untruthful reworking of history by claiming descent from an ancestor from the Islamic East. We will recall, to the contrary, the existence of prior, pre-Islamic accounts of migration to West Africa originating in an African location in the East of this continent. Hence the invention of origins in an Islamic East was, prior to European colonization, a factor that contributed to the erasure of the memory of intra-continental migration and of female leadership. This process, of course, has been further abetted and aggravated by European colonial rule. As authors like Arzika (1985: 295, 298), among numerous others, have shown, colonial rulers tended to valorize Islam as a intermediate ”civilizing“ factor, coming to the assistance of the inadequacies of the coverage of an undermanned colonial government, a strategy sometimes upset by Islamic revolts like the Air revolts in Niger, in 1916.

19Thus the African people of Daura, originating in a kingdom ruled by Hausa non-Muslim women and men centuries prior to the introduction of Islam, find themselves descending, due to identity (re) construction via a new foundation narrative, from the marriage between the Queen of Daura and an Arab Prince, who supposedly rescued her along with her entire kingdom, which he later inherited. Stakes in this reinvented foundation narrative are also held by ”Islamic reformers, colonial administrators and Western-trained historians“ who invest in it in order to symbolize ”not only that Hausa culture sprang from the ennoblement of the local stock by an outsider from the Islamic East, but also to represent Islam’s power to effect the transformation of Hausa society from matrilineal to patrilineal descent, and the removal of Hausa women from the sphere of public power“ (Bivins, 1997: 1).

20Consequently, the invention of ancestors from the Islamic East is neither as straightforward nor as innocuous as it might appear. It obviously crystallizes the pressures of Islamic cultural domination and the political and ideological instrumentalization of this domination by local political leaders anxious to enhance their own prestige by deflecting a few feeble rays of exogenous power onto their own persons and power, thereby aiding and augmenting the implantating of foreign cultural values to the detriment of ancestral ones and further obscuring the history of their own African people.

21Nuances and degrees of this integration of a new power in the local sphere are universally noticeable. Indeed, the retention of ancestral religious values does not prevent the impact of Islamic values on the palimpsestic reinvention of foundation narratives. This phenomenon might well be doing more than simply inscribing knowledge of ”current affairs“ and contemporary history into these narratives. Finally, Western instruments for the diffusion of knowledge, like the Encyplopaedia Britannica and the fact of Muslim and other Africans buying into reworked foundation narratives, aimed at demonstrating the superiority of Islamic culture over African culture, as demonstrated in the Bayagidda myth, concur at their various levels in advancing the same cause: the symbolic annihilation of African roots on the continent itself by denying Africans the right to descend from their own ancestors, with offering them the dubious prestige of forgetting their own history, of replacing their own founding fathers and mothers by those of peoples and cultures that dominated then in the past and still dominate them today.

Spirits from the West

22Do ”spirits from the West“ tell another story or are they part of the same master narrative referred to above? This is what the second part of this discussion will attempt to ascertain. The spirits referred to here are specifically the hawka (also written hauka) or babule, terms translating the idea of ”mad“ spirits, of deities of ”fire“, respectively. They are known as deities of ”violence and wickedness“, (Idrissa, 1996, 40, my translation), associated with tremendous ”force“ or ”power“ (Fuglestad, 1975 and Stoller, 1995), of dramatic and military-like burlesque expression. They can only be properly understood in the joint context of African traditional religion, colonial violence and local socio-economic and political crises. The hawka or babule emerged in 1925 and are referred to as ”European deities“ due to the behaviour of adepts in trance. In addition to other typical attitudes of trance, the possessed consistently mime European and European-like figures and systems: they ”drool, rise, salute each other in military-style and speak in the language of the hawka. Wooden rifles are used for military salutes and manoeuvers: the “officers” bellow orders to the “soldiers” and the entire “troop” stands at attention. The zima (priest) calms the deities and individual consultations can begin“ (Jean Rouch, Les maîtres fous, cité par Idrissa, 1996, my translation).

23Spirit possession is a complex subject in itself, giving rise to a variety of interpretations. The hawka cult is a particularly good example of this complexity and of the heuristic discrepancies the study of spiritual phenomena is bound to produce. As far as possible, it is best to leave their quarrels to specialists. What is proposed here instead is to provide: a) a brief outline of the history of the cult and of the context in which it arose and developed; b) a cursory description of ritual and pantheon; c) a few insights into the spiritual and cultural negotiation of colonial violence and Western-impacted African metropolises.

A brief outline of the history of the cult

24Two waves of this religious phenomenon are often identified and referred to as ”early hawka“ and ”modern hawka“ respectively. Both are sometimes perceived as a particular expression of African traditional religion and its outgrowths, assimilatable to the bori or holley cults (see Olivier de Sardan, 1993).

25Early hawka was born of a crisis within the Sudie and Mawri populations of Niger at the end of the 19th century, a crisis which concerned the entire population of what is now Niger. For Fuglestad (1975: 210-211), it was the ”defense mechanism of a stable society challenged by crisis“. The context of emergence was a series of socio-economic and political predicaments including local razzias led by adventurers, colonial violence of the Voulet and Chanoine column, jihad, famine and the violence and rupture born of the imposition of a system that was rigid and incomprehensible, especially to peoples of the Hausa fringes like the Mawri but also the Sudie who lived in acephalic clanic societies observing ancestral religion. To them the imposition of an artificial and abusive chieftaincy was particularly odious, especially to the Sudie who did not practice the uneasy Mawri compromise of power sharing between spiritual authority on the one hand and political authority on the other (Piault, 1970: 51,57,60, 107-108, 111, 136).

26According to Fuglestad, the movement emerged in ”winter (sic) 1925“ when the French administration got wind of strange and disturbing goings-on in ”the small village of Toudoun Anza“ in the Arewa region, ”organized by a priestess named Chibo“ after whom the ”sect“ was called ”Chibo’s sect“ by the French colonial administrators. The Governor acted to restore ”order“ in the face of the ”chaos“ provoked by a religious phenomenon characterized by opposition to the chief, Gado Namalaya, installed by the French as well as a ”total resistance to the system put in place by the French“ (Fuglestad, 1975: 205; Idrissa, 1996, 44). The villagers of Toudon Anza refused to bow to ”proper“ colonial order involving per capita taxation, forced labour and so on. They did this espacially by repairing to the bush where they formed new villages, out of reach of the French and their puppet-chief The cult seemed to have been a central aspect of this new ”free village“ organization, which Caribbean scholars would read as a form of ”marroning“.

27Up until 1927, when the first movement was squashed and its leaders fined, imprisoned or deported, the cult spread and flourished in the then ”animist“ regions of Arewa, Kurfey ou Tondiakandia, from 1927-1925, and in the eight following years, resurfaced in sporadic flare-ups. In 1946, agitation in Filingué was attributed to this ”movement“. It was perceived as more than just religious by the French at the time and by certain scholars today. This is notably the case of Idrissa (1996) who adamantly supports the idea of a ”peasant and anti-colonial revolt“ led by the priestess Chibo, empowered by the babulé or hawka deities, between, 1925 and 1927, a revolt he sees as unique in its religious guise, its peasant origin and its female leadership (ibid.: 31). For the Nigérien Idrissa, this was nothing less than an attempted armed resistance that failed (ibid.: 32). The cult moved to the Ivory Coast on the wings of out-migration of adepts and deported priests where it tackled other challenges and assumed new meanings.

A brief description of the cult

28For Fuglestad (1975: 207), the four most significant characteristics of the hawka are the following: a) ”Dances of possession during which the participants, who have become invulnerable, strike themselves with burning torches, swallow hot coals, etc“; b) the ”veneration of deities designated by terms borrowed from the French military and administrative hierarchy“; c) ”very clear opposition to the so-called “traditional chieftaincy” which was artificial among the Sudie, the Zarmas of Zarmaganda and the bellahs of Imanan“; d) ”the will to reform society, a will that translated into the creation of new villages, whose internal organization seems to have been patterned on that of the colonial administration“. Stoller’s (1995: 94) description of the hawka also pinpoints European ”influence“. Sensitive to the theatrical ”pyrotechnics“ and enactments of cultural agency, this ”insider’s view“ (that of a European-descended, American anthropologist initiated into the cult) moves into interpretation. For Stoller ((1995: 94) ”Hauka possession was - and of course is - much more than spectacle. Inspired by Hauka deities defiance (sic), Hauka spirit possession appropriates European and Europeanized African embodied behaviours to directly and indirectly challenge the colonial order “. J. Monfouga Nicolas (cited by Fuglestad, 1975: 215) sees hawka as a cult that ”allows participants to expulse“ their colonial conflicts through derisive expression and paroxysmal reenactment. Stoller reads the cult as response through an ”embodied politics of resistance“ to Europe’s capturing of African bodies via colonial processes, a response aimed at understanding and overcoming attempted domination through the body and thanks to a recourse to spiritual resources.

29The hawka pantheon and ritual, both the ”earlier“ and the ”later,“ attest to African confrontation of the reality of European domination through colonial rule. It highlights the presence of the West as well as aspects of the appropriation and interpretation on Western presence on African soil. This section of the paper uses material drawn from the ”modern“ manifestations of the hawka captured in Jean Rouch’s film Les Maîtres fous.

30Before going further it must be remembered that while Rouch’s film documents the cult in its migration to the ”coast,“ its beginning was in the Nigérien Sahel, in the same Arewa region mentioned above. This is the region of the people of Lougou and Bagagi, known for their attachment to ancestral religion. Both have ascribed to themselves respective founding ancestors from the East: Egypt for Lougou (which concurs with Cheikh Anta Diop’s argument though origin is usually read by contemporary scholars as a reference to modern Egypt); the ”Baghdad of Saddam Houssein“ for the chief of Bagagi (which is quite another matter). This parenthesis, as we will see, is important for the coherence of the present discussion.

  • 5 Smugglers.
  • 6 Burden-bearers, from the Hausa verb to carry.

31The hawka spirit possession cult practiced by Nigériens in migration to Ghana and the Ivory Coast was studied by Jean Rouch as of 1927. His study points to the cult as a refuge and a source of social and spiritual regulation and catharsis for the proletarized and lumpen-proletarized Nigérien peasants, usually male, migrants who found themselves in the chaos of new African metropolises where, from farmers and artisans, they became: ”Dockers, smoogolis5, bottle boys, grass boys, kaya-kaya6, timber boys, hygiene boys, gutter boys, gold mine boys“, according to Jean Rouch’s narration in his own voice in the documentary film. In his interpretation, this was a renewal of the hawka cult which gave a new meaning to this religious manifestation: in the context of migration and the apprenticeship of new professions, the hawka deities became gods ”of the city, of technology and of power“.


  • 7 Idrissa, 1996: 60 notes, however, after the growth of the pantheon in the 1980s, the emergence of n (...)

32The possessed in trance are the ”horses“ of the deities. The latter became more and more numerous as time went on. They were over eighty of them in the 1980s7. The pantheon included figures like: Caporal Gaadi, Capitain Malia or General Malia (military figures), Madame Lokotoro, the indigenous male nurse’s wife, Madame Salma (wife of the colonial administrator, Captain Salma), Commandant Mugu, the evil commander, a spiritual reinterpretation of the colonial administrator Crochiccia - see Stoller, 1995: 94). Idrissa (1996, 40) adds other spirits such as Istamboula, the one from Istanbul, a deity who is, significantly, especially in the light of the earlier part of this discussion, ”great (devout) Muslim and the chief of all the hauka, “ King Zuzi, a judge from the anglophone ”coast“ (Ghana), Mayaki, the ”war chief, Sekter, the secretary in colonial administration, and various ranks and file of the military. New indigenous professionals in the service of the colonial order are also represented: Maykouanou “the mechanic”, Maylamba, the land surveyor. Added to the phenomenon of relexification and the use of generic categories to name specific deities, we observe the use of proper names like “Bassirou,” a male deity who is an “installer of telegraphic lines”, female deities like “Fatimata” and “Mouskoura” who, Idrissa tells us, refer to two daughters of the local “garde-cercle ” (a local colonial administrative auxiliary), a child deity like “André,” bearing a French name and identified as “a mulatto boy.” In short, what we encounter here, Idrissa states, is the “colonial personnel” in its entirety “from the army to civil personalities, employees and wives.”

33A close study of this pantheon seems judicious as the intercultural influences that emerge are complex representations of the sociopolitical economy of the time. While military and administrative powers, manned by Europeans, French in this case, and their indigenous auxiliaries are massively present, the identity of the deities also pinpoint rupture and change in the local society. The colonial power structure and new order of domination incorporates formerly unknown professions with strange rituals, manipulating unheard-of techniques. It introduces and imposes new local power configurations, stake-laden alliances and hybrids. It is also interesting to observe the way in which the hawka cults coalesces and references two forms of foreign domination. Istamboula, the chief of the pantheon is a spirit from the East, which Stoller (1995 : chapter 8) considers being syncretically associated with Bilal, the black confidante of the prophet Mohamed, and with Dongo, the West African deity of thunder. Dongo is the awe-inspiring deity of thunder, on whose name Nigérien

34Muslims will not swear deceitfully even today, though they routinely dissemble pronouncing the name of “Allah” as their witness. Nonetheless, the deity is, Stoller maintains, himself associated with the powerful colonial military and administrative personnel and their ruthless burning, killing, plundering, punishment and exploitation of Africans on the continent. It might be that the destructive effects of the thunderbolt, the fear of celestial anger and of deities of fire were later associated with the previously unknown and deadly pyrotechnics of the form of canon and firearms the French colonizer employed in the “pacification” of what is now Niger, begun at the very end of the 19th century. Through the presence of the deity Istamboula, a spirit perceived as a devout Muslim, the hawka pantheon of “spirits from the West” takes in charge the local results of colonial globalization and associates it with earlier waves of Islamic internationalization expressed in the invention not only of ancestors but also of spirits from the East.

35The space, props and religious proceedings of the hawka cult can be seen both as a ritual and as a text to be interpreted. These perspectives are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Together, they bear witness to the presence of intercultural and intertextual characteristics within this religious manifestation. There is a paucity of documentation regarding the space of the early hawka cult (see however Idrissa’s description of the priestess Chibo in action, culled from the colonial archives). Nevertheless, the second hawka movement, filmed and described by Jean Rouch, provides many pertinent elements for this discussion.

36The later manifestation of the cult in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, in 1927, took place on Sundays, out of town, in the bush, not far from Accra. The space of the ritual included a cement altar (stone) for sacrifices and libations, a termite’s nest painted black and white representing the “governor’s palace”, placarded with Western “props” including a télégramme, a cinema programme advertising a film featuring the popular hero Zorro, a statue of the governor, sabers, wooden rifles and colonial costumes. Nearby a ritual flag, made of pieces of ordinary printed cotton is hoisted; this is the “Union Jack”. Other necessary materials for the ritual are at hand: the monocorde viola used traditionally to call the spirits, perfume to entice them, eggs to be broken on the governor’s helmet, a whip, sign of European command and a whistle (same). The whip is made of leather of a special origin: the skin of a cobra or of a sea cow, decorated with strips of other leather and with cowry shells. Participants in trance speak in pidginised French or English and transgress social alimentary rules by sacrificing a dog, licking its blood and boiling and eating its meat. Their bodily movements are a stiff-jointed simulation of military attitudes and salutes as well as stylized parody of activities imported from the West, like driving a car (See Jean Rouch’s documentary film Les maîtres fous).

37The ritual space reduces (to manageable dimensions), telescopes and condenses the violent encounter with colonial rule and its brutal imposition of aspects of a social, political and cultural “order” imported from the West. The repercussions of this experience is exemplified in the migration, proletarization and lumpen-proletarization of Sahelian males who find themselves in a new geographical, social and cultural environment, subjected to new economic rules of production and survival outside the bonds of the home community that formerly ordered and nurtured their existence.

38Here the present simultaneously draws upon and deviates from the past: ritual flags coexist with the Union Jack, flag of the colonial master of the land of migration, while new spirits answer to the call of the ancestral instrument designed for this purpose. The egg of origin collides on the colonizer’s helmet and breaks. Taboos too are broken. The flesh of dogs which is not eaten in the Nigerian Sahel becomes the feast of the spirits and of their “horses” who waste not a single morsel. The whip, the gun, the whistle synecdochically evoke the violence of the colonizer and of colonial rule. Wooden rifles are indispensable ceremonial props. These cohabit with sabers and all are placed on the traditional shrine of a termite’s nest, a well-known abode of the spirits.

39But the military power, the military ritual of European domination is also embodied during spirit possession. These “European” deities do not walk or behave like normal human beings. Some bark rules while other jump to attention, stiffen their bodies, or crawl on the ground in a mime of tactical training. The demeanor of the bodies of the adepts is a grotesque parody of the military march. This is not mere imitation. Mockery encounters the serious intention of mastery of dangerous and extraordinary phenomena through embodiment, spiritual catharsis and neutralization.

40The body of the adept in trance becomes a locus of personal and collective expression of resistance. It is no wonder the deities who “mount” the possessed render them powerful and invulnerable to fire, an important element of the military aspect of colonial violence and domination. Moreover, adepts are possessed by deities who have some relation to their lives in terms of similarity or opposition, and they become associated with these deities in as well as out of trance. The social ramifications of the cult exist beyond the ritual which becomes a complex intercultural space and makes the social spaces of the adepts to be just the same through bodily deportment, language and other meaningful mime. This is enacted with no regard for exactitude and with an eye for ridicule, the same which is turned on certain social relationships and experiences of everyday life. It is therefore not only the body that endeavors to surpass, negate and negotiate the experience of colonial domination, but also the psyche and the spirit. However, endogenous and exogenous scholarly sources have a tendency to provide what seems to be incomplete or biased analyses of the spiritual responses to colonization, notably through over- or under-interpretation, in response to their own postures and stakes.

41The invention by Africans from the Sahel of ancestors from the Islamic East and the emergence of the hawka deities of “fire and violence” constitute two interesting cultural phenomena distant in time but less so in their place of origin and significance (both of these cultural phenomena are recorded for the Arewa region, once noted for its firm attachment to ancestral religion). The first phenomenon, the invention of ancestors from the Islamic East, certainly had its apogee in the 19th century. But this invention clearly started centuries before in areas where Islamization penetrated at an earlier epoch, if only among kings, chiefs, nobles and royal courtesans, whether profoundly or superficially. The second cultural phenomenon considered here, that of the hawka “European” spirits is much more recent as it began at the end of the second decade of the 20th century. It responds to, resists, attempts to negate and to negotiate, at the psychic and spiritual levels, the historical reality of another form of global domination, that of Western colonization. Both are forms of domination. Both regard the cultures and societies of Africa as inherently inferior and improvable on the basis of absolutely ideal models imported into and imposed from without Africa, with the intent of superseding and effacing préexistent endogenous social forms and cultural patterns. Both have contributed, among other influences, to the creation of new hybrid trends and themes in Sahelian oral cultures.

42However, these intercultural features, inherited from earlier and more contemporary globalizations (driven by Arabs and Europeans) and their combined repercussions in terms of religion, education, contemporary politics and State administration should not mislead us into considering Sahelian societies as a homogenous brew concocted in the cauldron of history. Such a standpoint would be naïve, oblivious of history and of the social, economic and political price at which these intercultural realities were born bought, provoked or imposed. It would imply the negation of Arabic and Western domination and the instrumentalization of exogenous cultural values by local political leaders, converted to Islam or not, erroneous knowledge about African history. These historical misrepresentations originate in particular in endogenous sources such as strategically reinvented oral foundation narratives. They are relayed by African scholarly and other sources, often unwittingly, due to insufficient research and/or to a mindset engineered for receptiveness of such misrepresentations. These find a ready ally in exogenous scholarly sources like the Encyplopaedia Britannica article cited above, which is likely to be uncritically accessed by those who stand to lose from ingesting incomplete or unsound information about their own culture and identity.

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Arzika, M., 1985, Droit et société Au Niger. L’Evolution du droit coutumier, Strasbourg, Thèse de doctorat, Université de Strasbourg III.

Bivins, M., 1997, Daura and Gender in the Creation of a Hausa National Epic. African Languages and Cultures, 10, 1, 1-28.

Bourdieu, P. & J.-Cl. Passeron, 1970, La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement, Paris, Éditions de Minuit.

Bourdieu, P., 1984, Homo Academicus, Paris, Éditions de Minuit.

—, 1994, Les règles de l’art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire, Paris, Seuil.

Diop, Ch. 1979, Nations Nègres et Culture, Paris, Présence Africaine.

Eliade, M., 1963, Aspects du mythe, Paris, Gallimard. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Nigeria,, 2007.

Fuglestad, F., 1975, Les hauka. Une interprétation historique, Cahier d’Etudes africaines, 58, XV-2, 203-216.

Idrissa, K., 1996, Une révolte paysanne et anticoloniale : la prêtresse Chibo et le mouvement des baboulés/hawka au Niger (1925-1927), Sociétés Africaines et Diaspora, 3, Paris, 31-69.

Mounkaïla, F. 1989, Mythe et Histoire dans la Geste de Zabarkane, Niamey, CELTHO.

—, 1993, Ancestors from the East in Sahelo-Sudanese Myth : Dinga Soninké, Zabarkane Zarma, and Others, Research in African Literatures, 13-21.

—, 2008. Saveurs Sahéliennes. Anthologie de la littérature orale songhay-zarma, Paris, Harmattan, 4 tomes.

Niang, Abdou Salam, L’Expression de l’univers hausa dans les chants de Ma Azou Dan Alalo, Thèse de doctorat, Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, 1999.

—, “Reflections on Islamic Values and the Use of Arabo-Islamic Vocabulary in the Wakoki of Maazou Dan Alalo”, in Niger. Voicing Identities, Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, 42 (2), 2005, p. 66-80. Electronic Version:

Piault, M-H., 1970, Histoire Mawri. Introduction à l’étude des processus constitutifs d’un Etat, Paris, C.N.R.S.

Rouch, J, 1927, Les Maîtres Fous, Film.

Stoller, P., 1995, Embodying colonial memories. Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa, New York, London, Routledge.

Tidjani Alou, A., 2004, “Rapport de l’enquête de terrain sur la Sarraounia, menée à Lougou et Bagagi, du 21 au 28 janvier, 2004”, publication interne, Niamey, Université Abdou Moumouni, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines. Groupe de Recherche sur “Littérature, Genre et Développment”.

—, 2009, Niger and Sarraounia, One Hundred Years of Forgetting Female Leadership, in Oral Literature and Identity Formation in Africa and the Diaspora, Research in African Literatures, Indiana, Indiana University Press. Vol. 40, n° 1, Spring 2009, 42-56.

—, 2009, Performance and Power: Cultural Strategies for Contesting Hierarchy and Political Autority in Maazou Dan Alalo’s Song Baudot, in Afrique et développement, Vol. XXXIV, N° 2, 2009, 1-20.

—, 2010, Le rire de l’africain en situation colonial chez Ma Azou Inoussa dit “Dan Alalo” et Ferdinand Oyono, in A. Chamayou et A. B. Duncan (Eds), Le rire européen, échanges et confrontation, coll. “Etudes”, Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 365-386.

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1 Abu Yazid also known as Abuyazidu or Bayajidda is, in fact, an invented ancestor of the Hausas. This “son of the king of Baghdad” is cast, in a widely diffused reworked version of the foundation narrative of Daura, the first of the seven original Hausa States or “Hausa bakwai,” in the redemptory role of the civilizing hero of the new Daura, ruled for centuries by Hausa men and women practising their ancestral religion. Islamization, colonization and the masculinization of political power, owing to both, have served to install this fable of an ancestor for the Islamic East.

2 See A. Tidjani Alou, « Rapport de Terrain d’Enquête sur la Sarraounia. Lougou et Bagagi, 21-28 Janvier, 2004. Publication interne du Groupe de Recherche sur « Littérature, Genre et Développement », p. 46. Interestingly, F. Mounkaïla’s research in the Mythe de Zabarkane (1998, 91) unearths an identical detail.

3 See note 2 above.

4 See the article “Nigeria”, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2007’.

5 Smugglers.

6 Burden-bearers, from the Hausa verb to carry.

7 Idrissa, 1996: 60 notes, however, after the growth of the pantheon in the 1980s, the emergence of new members of the hawka family as well as the creation of new contemporary spirits like kung fu and Kangjaga deities.

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Bibliographical reference

Antoinette Tidjani Alou, « Ancestors from the East, Spirits from the West. Surviving and Reconfiguring the Exogenous Violence of Global Encounters in the Sahel », Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 75-92.

Electronic reference

Antoinette Tidjani Alou, « Ancestors from the East, Spirits from the West. Surviving and Reconfiguring the Exogenous Violence of Global Encounters in the Sahel », Journal des africanistes [Online], 80-1/2 | 2010, Online since 01 June 2013, connection on 23 May 2017. URL :

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About the author

Antoinette Tidjani Alou

Professeure de français et de littérature comparée, Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey E-mail:

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