SOKENDAI Review of Cultural and Social Studies


vol.19 (2023)

Contexts and Viewpoints in Studies
on Spirit Possession:

with a Focus on the Position of Hauka Spirits
in Songhay Spirit Possession Practices in Bamako, Mali

UCHIDA Shuichi

Nara Prefectural University

Key words:

Songhay, spirit possession, context, recursivity, city, neo-cybernetics

This essay addresses spirit possession practices that have been continuously conducted by Songhay immigrants in the capital city of Mali focusing on the Hauka spirits that appeared during the colonial period. The purpose of this study is to clarify the Songhay immigrants’ recognition of these spirits and the contexts which are important to them when practicing spirit possession, to construct a theoretical perspective taking into consideration the viewpoints of spirit possession practitioners.

The group of spirits called “Hauka” by Songhay people, which mimic roles and positions in the French colonial system and which are considered as “white”, has been interpreted in prior studies in relation to the historical context in which followers of the spirits were viewed to be hostile to the political system at that time. However, such interpretations, which place considerable importance on the historical context, do not match practitioners’ conceptions about these spirits in Bamako. In order to establish a theoretical position that may help explore the practitioners’ viewpoints, this paper, referring to basic concepts of the neo-cybernetics, assumes that the spirit possession practices become significant in accordance with the practitioners’ experiences and cognition. From this standpoint, these parctices should be considered as a recursive and autonomous process through which practitioners recreate their own cognitive world.

An analysis of Songhay’s worldview and case studies show that Hauka spirits are integrated into practitioners’ worldview in a particular way and are not at all related to the historical context. The analysis and case studies also demonstrate the significance of the following contexts in interactions with Hauka spirits: those relating to the practitioners’ own experiences and those relating to the Songhay worldview characterized by the fact that humans (the Songhay people) and spirits have similar social relations and morality. These contexts are all the more significant in an urban environment, where Songhay immigrants who engage in spirit possession practices are diverse in terms of their native place, residential area, and knowledge and experiences of these practices, since the contexts support the consistence of interactions of each practitioner with mediums and spirits, and the creation of ties between the actors (humans and spirits).

This paper, thus, clarifies the contexts that are significant to practitioners and expresses interpretations of their importance in the urban settings, while prior academic literature has attached importance to macro-contexts, such as political situations, and has under-evaluated the practitioners’ viewpoint regarding the new spirits. Therefore, by making a clear distinction between the perspective of the observer and that of the practitioner and considering the context as subjective and correlative in relation to the significance for practitioners, the paper presents the possibility of approaching the practices of spirit possession in a way more matching the viewpoint of the practitioners.