Women Unleashed: A Recollection of Demonic Possession

The only time I’ve ever seen a person possessed by a “demon” was during a stint in Tanzania. I was in Dar es Salaam together with a shambling crew, composed mostly of friends, to shoot television footage in the finest residences as well as in the slums of the city; a project devoid of sense and future, which would have lost us quite a lot of money (also on the account of our ignorance of the local culture and mentality, at the time of accepting the assignment), but which had catapulted us into a dreamlike dimension.

One evening we were filming a concert in a nightclub — which I certainly could not locate now, since many streets in that city have no name. When the work was done, we had stayed for a drink.
At a given moment, something happened. The young girls on the dance floor took to courting the males with unrestrained mapouka. It had all happened in the space of a minute: an ordinary dance hall had suddenly turned into a menagerie of quivering buttocks, fiercely swaying hips and explicit simulations of copulation between women, during which one of the girls theatrically took on the male role and pretended to take the other from behind. All the athletic and handsome males had moved to the sides, and leaned on the handrails surrounding the dance floor, while the maidens tried to get their attention with pressing and gradually more obscene dances. On the sidelines of this orgiastic and flamboyant, exquisitely feminine enactment, which was almost innocent by virtue of a serene erotic nonchalance, we stood astonished, a group of white Westerners completely ignored by those present. That sensual spectacle ended as it had begun, without warning or perhaps following a signal we could not pick up on, and the girls went back to dancing in a more traditional way.

A few hours later, returning late at night in the minivan to the hotel, we stopped at an intersection because we heard screaming. Nearby was a woman writhing on the ground, arching her pelvis inhumanly, while a huddle of people had gathered all around. There were those who were trying to hold her down, comforting her and caressing her, but her writhing and screaming did not seem to abate. That frenzied wiggling, with her legs spreading and her chest flexing and curving, had a kind of impudent quality: a loss of inhibitory restraints that made the spectacle not certainly exciting, but rather unseemly.

One of our escorts, an impassive and indecipherable dark-skinned sixty-something man, whom everyone called “Uncle”, rolled down the car window and asked what was going on. He received back a few words in Swahili from one of the onlookers, rolled his window back up, and we set off again in silence as if nothing had happened. Later I asked our interpreter what Uncle and that man had said to each other on the street, and what had happened to the woman we had all seen in convulsive spasms. She was the victim of a spell, he told me, she was possessed by spirits; those people were waiting for the neighborhood shaman who would soon come to “take away” the demons.

That night, back in my room, catching sleep was impossible: the feeling that I had attended not one but two mysteries did not leave me. Somehow, in my mind, I sensed that there was, perfectly clear and undeniable, a connection between the girls seducing the males by feigning intercourse with each other, and the possessed woman uncontrollably screaming in the dust. I could not have said exactly what invisible thread connected the two experiences I had just had, but I knew it was there.

In the years that followed, I reflected on it often. Although the situation of women’s rights in Tanzania has improved over time, the society is still highly patriarchal, and gender discrimination, violence, abuse, and harassment of women is still widespread. What I had witnessed were two episodes in which transgression — namely that of the liberated female body — was instead permitted, as it was well regulated.

The obscene and unbecoming dance called mapouka (which also involved gender reversal, in the assumption of the male role to mimic intercourse) was possible insofar as it was sanctioned by the context: the confines of the discotheque, and the agreed-upon time limits. One thus danced only in that place, and for a specific time frame.

Similarly, the phenomenon of possession — which might at first glance appear to be an event of disruption of the social order — actually has precise cultural norms and functions. As Moreno Paulon writes,

no society seems to be unprepared for possession. If the spiritic onset can disrupt and mark the existence of an individual or a class of individuals, no cultural order is disrupted or comes into crisis when possession manifests itself in one of its members. Human cultures have developed a wide variety of conventions, such as well-established rituals and symbolic interpretations, that accompany and guide the episode. Often an elected group is instructed to categorize and manage the phenomenon: it cures a sick person where possession is considered the symptom of a pathology; it interprets the oracle when the possessed person is a bridge and his word a message from beyond; it exorcises the possessed person if a malevolent spirit is believed to have seized her body. But the idea that possession is necessarily related to “evil” and that it must be responded to by exorcism is only one among many cultural constructions in the world. Within the order of a society, a cult of possession can serve the most varied functions: it can confirm or rediscuss the balance of power between the sexes, consecrate a national identity, legitimize a ruling family, or even express class suffering, consolidate a moral system, direct political decisions, indicate marital alliances.

(M. Paulon, Sulla possessione spiritica, in AA.VV., Il diavolo in corpo, 2019, Meltemi)

Here then, in the span of one evening, I had witnessed two moments in which the female body expressed itself at once irregularly and regulatedly. The mapouka and the spirit possession, when considered in relation to a generally oppressed female condition, appear as “authorized rebellions”: escape valves, on the surface, but deep down devices of self-discipline, micro-techniques of control of the system, a bit like Carnival was the inversion of hierarchies approved by the hierarchies themselves.

Unleashed sexuality, free from the constraints of culture, is not permissible. It is the nightmare of any authority. On that torrid African night I attended not one, but two mysteries — which were perhaps the same: a millennial battle between repressive and expressive impulses, a conflict that exploits the language of myth and ecstasy, but takes place always and only on the female body.

The Ouija Sessions Ep.5: Semiavou

In this installment of The Ouija Sessions, one of the most incredible survival stories ever.

Turn on English subtitles & enjoy!

The Ouija Sessions Ep.3: LoBagola

At the beginning of the 20th century a famous “savage” bewitched the West: in the third episode of The Ouija Sessions, his spirit tells us about the incredible way he stayed afloat in a world that made the Exotic a circus attraction.

[Turn on English subtitles!]

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 4

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 4 – THE SUN, THE MOON AND THE STARS

The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.

The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:

Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)

Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.

We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives

from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. […] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise that

Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)

The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.

The first three Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here and here.

1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 10

In the 10th episode of Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the psychedelic story of crainal trepanation advocates; the african fetish hiding a dark secret; the Club that has the most macabre initiation ritual in the whole world.
[Be sure to turn on English captions]

And so we came to the conclusion … at least for this first season.
Will there be another one? Who knows?

For the moment, enjoy this last episode and consider subscribing to the channel if you haven’t yet. Cheers!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Six Handkerchiefs for the Cannibals: The Infamous “Jameson Affair”

This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 54 – “Se questo è un uomo”

From James W. Buel, Heroes of the Dark Continent, 1889

In 1885, the state of Congo became private property of King Leopold II of Belgium. During the 23 years of this colonial domination, the king never set foot in this country; yet he exploited its resources and enslaved its inhabitants, causing 8 to 30 million deaths, which means he literally halved the local population. The Force Publique, a militia established by the king to spread terror, used to torture and mutilate men, women, and children, thus writing one of the most shameful and bloody pages of European colonialism.

James S. Jameson

Such an inhuman context was the setting for the scandal of James ‘Sligo’ Jameson, heir of a famous Irish whisky distillery still operating today. A naturalist, hunter and explorer, Jameson joined the Emin Pascià Relief Expedition led by Sir Henry Morton Stanley in 1886. Despite the stated objective of this expedition was to provide aid to the Emin Pasha who was under siege, its real task was to expand Belgian settlements on Congolese territory. On February 25, the soldiers left Zanzibar, heading to the heart of what was then called “Black Africa”. The scandal happened when they arrived in Ribakiba (a town known today as Lokandu).

According to Assad Farran, Jameson’s interpreter, during a meeting with the local tribe leaders, the Irish gentlemen showed his curiosity for the practice of cannibalism. “In England we hear much about cannibals who eat people, but being myself in the place, I would like to see it in person”, he said. The tribe leaders confirmed that anthropophagy was quite common in that area, and they suggested Jameson to offer a slave as a gift to one of the neighbour villages. So, for the ridiculous price of six handkerchiefs, Jameson bought a 10-year-old girl.

On reaching the native huts the girl, who was led by the man who had brought her, was presented to the cannibals. The man told them: “This is a present from the white man. He wants to see how you eat her”. The girl was taken and tied by the hands to a tree. About five natives were sharpening knives. Then a man came and stabbed her with a knife twice in the belly. The girl did not scream, but she knew what was going on. She was looking right and left, as if looking for help. When she was stabbed she fell down dead. The natives then came and began cutting her in pieces. One cut a leg, another an arm, another the head and breast, and another took the inner parts out of her belly. After the meat was divided, some took it to the river to wash it, and others went straight to their house. During all the time Mr. Jameson held a notebook and a pencil in his hand, making rough sketches of the scene.

Recontruction of Jameson’s sketches.

When Assad signed this sworn statement in 1890, four years after the events, Jameson was already dead. Since his description of the events was confirmed by another witness, the scandal broke out, and the word spread fast from Europe to the US, where the story was even published in the New York Times.
Jameson’s widow then tried to redeem the memory of his husband by publishing a letter he was supposed to have written on his deathbed. This writing provided a different version of the events: the whole thing happened so fast that Jameson was powerless to stop the carnage happening before his eyes. Yet in the letter (which many suspected to be a fake written by Jameson’s friends) there were some details—such as the six handkerchiefs used to buy the little girl—corresponding to the interpreter’s report: if the letter’s purpose was to restore a posthumous honour to Jameson, this strategy proved to be rather weak.
The situation became even more confused when Assad withdrew his charges, declaring he had been misunderstood. Yet, everyone could figure out that, in all likelihood, he had been forced to retract his accusations by Belgian officers.

Although a number of grey areas still remains, there is little doubt that the accident actually occurred. Another witness remembered that back then Jameson had no problems telling this story, and that he didn’t realise the gravity of his actions until long afterwards. “Life is very cheap in Central Africa; Mr. Jameson forgot how differently this terrible thing would be regarded at home.” During those dreadful years in Congo, while regularly committing massacres, Europeans treated natives like cattle. So, from the colonists’ point of view, six handkerchiefs were clearly worth a gory and unforgettable show.

The Erotic Tombs of Madagascar

On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.

One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.

In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.

These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?

We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).


A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:

We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.

Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava
,
in Madagascar: Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie
(Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)

One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Why?
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.

You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.

The primitive seduction: two unusual “savages”

In 1929, New York’s Knopf publishing house issued the book Lobagola: An Africa Savage’s Own Story. This remarkable autobiography, written by Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, told the adventurous and bizarre life of a “stranger in the XX Century“.
Bata LoBagola was born in West Africa, in a region of Dahomey (now Benin) so remote that it had not been yet reached by white men. Bata had his first encounter with Europeans in the last years of XIX Century when, together with some other members of his tribe, he ventured to the coast and saw a ship getting ready to set sail. When they got to the ship in a canoe, the “savages” were welcomed aboard by merchants, who for an hour or so toured them across the boat; but when the ship left the bank without warning, Bata’s friends, scared, jumped in the water and were devoured by sharks. Bata, who had been delayed under the deck, escaped that fate but had to leave for a different continent’s unknown lands. He was only seven years old.

He landed in Scotland, where he spent his adolescence under the protection of a generous benefactor, and was educated in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Almost by chance, he found out he could earn a little money in the entertainment world, simply telling about his country of origin and his people. So he started to perform in vaudevilles and small traveling shows, answering the audience’s questions and performing traditional dances. Being well-learned, intelligent and an excellent speaker, he soon became more than a simple sideshow attraction, and began being invited to speak before ethnologists and anthropologists. Traveling back and forth between Europe and the United States, LoBagola lectured at the University of Pennsylvania and at Oxford, becoming some kind of “cultural ambassador” for West Africa and of his people’s uses and customs.

Lobagola1

To understand why audiences were so fascinated with this “savage”, we have to think about the mentality of that time. In the second half of XIX Century, intensifying colonialism had brought to the discovery of several primitive people, and simultaneously the new modern anthropology was born. On a popular level, adventure novels focusing on the exploration of virgin lands were among the most successful publications. And the insatiable desire for exotism mixed with a widespread and open racism, with the curiosity of seeing the backward primitive man with one’s own eyes; so much so that when he was invited to Philadelphia in 1911, LoBagola earned the definition of “best exhibit in the entire Museum“. As his promotional pamphlet put it, he really seemed “too refined for the primitive crudities of his tribe and too wild for sophisticated society“.

Bata Lobagola was by now a sort of celebrity, constantly touring as a cultural informant in schools and universities, but unfortunately his life took a turn for the worse. Bata had problems with alcohol and a tendency to be involved in small brawls, but the actual sword of Damocles hanging over his head was his homosexuality. Arrested several times for sodomy and minor misdemeanor, he ended up in prison for good in 1931 for petty theft and sexual crimes. The following year the Bureau of Naturalization, whose officials evidently thought something was wrong, began pressing LoBagola, eventually forcing him to confess a truth no one suspected until then.
Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola’s real name was Joseph Howard Lee, and he was born in Baltimore, Maryland.

Not everything, in his book, was made up: Joseph Lee had probably been in Glasgow in his youth, as his pages show a certain knowledge of the town, and according to several accounts he had a slight scottish accent. But for sure his childhood had not been spent among lions and elephants — much as it was certain that lions and elephants did not “team up”, as he had written in a creative page of his book, to hunt down humans.
If some readers, who were familiar with West Africa, had realized by the time his false autobiography appeared that his descriptions were pure fantasy, University professors never started to doubt his version. All the most curious if we consider that in the same book the idea is candidly suggested that one could tell anything about Africa to white men, and they would believe it.
Racial discrimination can be considered one of the factors behind LoBagola’s false identity: since 1907, pretending to be a savage ensured him certain privileges that paradoxically he wouldn’t had been able to attain as an afroamerican. He died in 1947 in Attica maximum security prison, where the most dangerous criminals of the time were detained.

But his strange fraud had an excellent predecessor.

George Psalmanazar appeared in London in 1703, declaring to be native of Formosa (Taiwan), at the time a faraway island of which very little was known. Psalmanazar had astonishing habits: he only ate raw, cardamom-spiced meat, he slept sitting upright in a chair, performed complex every-day rituals to honor the Sun and Moon, and followed an unknown calendar. And his tales of his native land were fabulous and cruel — particularly his descriptions of the annual ritual sacrifices of 18.000 young boys, culminating in cannibalism.
George Psalmanazar was invited to talk about Formosan culture in the most important intellectual clubs, and even lectured before the Royal Society.
In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, a book which immediately had enormous success and several reprints. Everywhere Formosa was the talk of the day: readers and intellectuals were fascinated by the accounts of these savages who only wore a golden plate to cover their genitals, who dwelled in underground homes feeding on snakes, and occasionally eating human flesh. Besides reporting on Formosa’s customs and traditions, Psalmanazar also detailed language and alphabet, so convincingly that many german grammars went on including this information even decades after the hoax had been confessed.

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In 1706, facing growing skepticism and the accounts of those travelers who had actually been to Formosa, Psalmanazar had to drop the mask: he actually was born in France, was educated by Jesuits, and his only talents were a huge knowledge and an uncommon attitude for languages. So much so that he succeded in constructing one from scratch, to support his lies and reach fame.
Before dying in 1763, he wrote a second book of memoirs, published posthumously, where he uncovered some details about the creation of his hoax. But not even in this last autobiography did he reveal his true name, which today still remains a mystery.

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In spite of his last years’ religious convertion and his remorse for the scam, Psalmanazar’s work is now regarded as a small masterpiece of ingenuity. Besides a functioning language, the author gave his fantastic island a history, cults and traditions, even several different coins and over precise ceremonial outfits, and today his fresco seems to anticipate, on the account of its obsessive care for detail, some modern literary constructions (think of Tolkien’s appendices about his imaginary Middle Earth’s genealogy, linguistics, botany, etc.).
But there’s more, as historian Benjamin Breen writes:

As I devoured the immense creativity on display in Description of Formosa, it occurred to me that Psalmanazar was also telling us something fundamental about the origins of modernity. The world of seafarers, merchants, slaves, and transported criminals that created Europe’s overseas empires was built upon elaborate fictions, from Prester John to Jonathan Swift. Although the scale and singularity of his deception made him unique, Psalmanazar was also representative: while he was inventing tales of Formosan cannibalism, his peers were writing falsified histories of pirate utopias, parodic accounts of islands populated by super-intelligent horses, and sincere descriptions of demonic sacrifices.
These works raised profound questions about the nature of truth and fiction. Is the act of travel also an act of authorship, of inventing a reality that we each filter through our individual preconceptions? How do we understand worlds that differ so fundamentally from our own that they almost seem to be other planets?

(B. Breen, Made in Taiwan?: An Eighteenth-Century Frenchman’s Fictional Formosa)

For LoBagola’s story, the main source is a wonderful podcast on Futility Closet. LoBagola’s autobiography can be found on Amazon. George Psalmanazar’s story is splendidly told in Banvard’s Folly, and Description of Formosa is available on the Internet Archive.

The elephants’ graveyard

In The Lion King (1994), the famous Disney animated film, young lion Simba is tricked by the villain, Scar, and finds himself with his friend Nala in the unsettling elephants’ graveyard: hundreds of immense pachyderm skeletons reach the horizon. In this evocative location, the little cub will endure the ambush of three ravenous hyenas.

The setting of this action-packed scene, in fact, does not come from the screenwriters’ imagination. An elephants’ graveyard had already been shown in Trader Horn (1931), and in some Tarzan flicks, featuring the iconic Johnny Weissmuller.
And the most curious fact is that the existence of a mysterious and gigantic collective cemetery, where for thousands of years the elephants have been retiring to die, had been debated since the middle of XIX Century.

This legendary place, described as some sort of secret sanctuary, hidden in the deepest recesses of Black Africa, is one of the most enduring myths of the golden age of explorations and big-game hunting. It was a true African Eldorado, where the courageous adventurer could find an unspeakable treasure: besides the elephants’ skeletons, the cave (or the inaccessible valley) would hold such an immense quantity of ivory that anyone finding it would have become insanely rich.

But finding a similar place, as every respectable legend demands, was no easy task. Those who saw it, either never came back from it… or were not able to locate the entrance anymore. Tales were told about searchers who found the tracks of an old and sick elephant, who had departed from the herd, and followed them for days in hope that the animal would bring them to the hidden graveyard; but they then realized they had been led in a huge circle by the deceptive elephant, and found themselves right where they started.

According to other versions, the elusive ossuary was regarded as a sacred place by indigenous people. Anyone who approached it, even accidentally, would have been attacked by the dreadful guardians of the cemetery, a pack of warriors lead by a shaman who protected the entrance to the sanctuary.

The elephants’ graveyard legend, which was mentioned even by Livingstone and circulated in Europe until the first decades of the XX Century, is indeed a legend. But where does it come from? Is it possible that this myth is somewhat grounded in reality?

First of all, there really are some places where high concentrations of elephant bones can be found, as if several animals had traveled there, to a single, precise spot to let themselves die.

The most plausible explanation can be found, surprisingly enough, in dentition. Elephants actually have only two sets of teeth: molars and incisors. Tusks are nothing more than modified incisors, slowly and incessantly growing, whose length is regulated by constant wear. On the contrary, molars are cyclically replaced: during the animal’s lifespan, reaching fifty or sixty years of age in a natural environment, new teeth grow on the back of the mandible and push forward the older ones.

An elephant can have up to a maximum of six molar cycles during its whole existence.
But if the animal lives long enough, which is to say several years after the last cycle occurred, there is no replacement and its wore-down dentition ceases to be functional. These old elephants then find it difficult to feed on shrubs and harder plants, and therefore move to areas where the presence of a water spring guarantees softer and more nutrient herbs. The weariness of old age brings them to prefer regions featuring higher vegetation density, where they need less to struggle to find food. According to some researchers, the muddy waters of a spring could bring relief to the suffering and dental decay of these aging pachyderms; the malnourished animals would then begin to drink more and more water, and this could actually lead to a worsening of their health by diluting the glucose in their blood.
Anyways, the search for water and a more suitable vegetation could draw several sick elephants towards the same spring. This hypothesis could explain the findings of bone stacks in relatively circumscribed areas.

A second explanation for the legend, if a sadder one, could be connected to ivory commerce and smuggling. It’s not rare, still nowadays, for some “elephants’ graveyards” to be found — except they turn out to be massacre sites, where the animals were hunted and mutilated of their precious tusks by poachers. Similar findings, back in the days, could have suggested the idea that the herd had collected there on purpose, to wait for the end to come.

But the stories about a hidden cemetery could also have risen from the observation of elephants’ behavior when facing the death of a counterpart.
These animals are in fact thought to be among the most “intelligent” mammals, in that they show quite complex social relations within the group, elaborate behavioral characteristics, and often display surprising altruistic conduct even towards other species. An emblematic example is that of one domestic indian elephant, employed in following a truck which was carrying logs; at the master’s sign, the animal lifted one of the logs from the trailer and placed it in the appropriate hole, excavated earlier on. When the elephant came to a specific hole, it refused to follow the order; the master came down to investigate, and he found a dog sleeping at the bottom of the hole. Only when the dog was taken out of the hole did the elephant drive the log into it (reported by C. Holdrege in Elephantine Intelligence).

When an elephant dies — especially if it’s the matriarch — the other members of the herd remain around the carcass, standing in silence for days. They gently touch it with their trunks, as if staging an actual mourning ritual; they take turns to leave the body to find water and food, then get back to the place, always keeping guard of the body. They sometimes carry out a sort of rudimentary burial practice, hiding and covering the carcass with dry twigs and torn branches. Even when encountering the bones of an unknown deceased elephant, they can spend hours touching and scattering the remains.

Ethologists obviously debate over these behaviors: the animals could be attracted and confused by the ivory in the remains, as ivory is used as a socially fundamental communication device; according to some researches, they show sometimes the same “stupor” for birds’ remains or even simple pieces of wood. But they seem to be undoubtedly fascinated by their counterparts, wounded or dead.

Being the only animals, other than men and some primate species, who show this kind of participation in death and dying, elephants have always been associated with human emotions — particularly by those indigenous people who live in strict contact with them. There has always been an important symbolic bond between man and elephant: thus unfolds the last, and deepest level of the story.

The hidden graveyard legend, besides its undeniable charm, is also a powerful allegory of voluntary death, the path the elder takes in order to die in solitude and dignity. Releasing his community from the weight of old age, and leaving behind a courageous and strong image, he proceeds towards the sacred place where he will be in contact with his ancestors’ spirits, who are now ready to honorably welcome him as one of their own.

Post inspired by this article.

La strage degli albini

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Quest’anno in Tanzania si terranno le elezioni.
Di conseguenza, quest’anno si innalzerà il numero di bambini albini che verranno uccisi e fatti a pezzi.

Il nesso fra i due eventi è costituito dalla stregoneria africana, che permea la società tanzaniana a quasi tutti i livelli, e a cui molti dei candidati faranno ricorso per vincere ai seggi elettorali. Infatti nonostante ogni villaggio in Tanzania possa vantare una chiesa, una moschea o entrambe, questo non significa che gli abitanti abbiano abbandonato le credenze tradizionali.

Di fatto, risulta evidente che, per quanto formalmente vi sia una presa di distanza nei confronti della stregoneria, nella pratica essa sia a tutt’oggi fortemente radicata nel pensiero tanzaniano.
Sussiste l’idea che l’insuccesso, la malattia e la morte possano dipendere da azioni malefiche, e questo ha permesso al guaritore tradizionale, il mganga wa kienyeji, di sopravvivere ed operare ancora intensamente, nonostante la presenza di una legislazione coloniale ancora attiva che dovrebbe condannare la sua attività, e un Sistema Sanitario pensato per raggiungere in maniera capillare anche le zone rurali.
(A. Baldassarre, Gravidanza e parto nell’ospedale di Tosamaganga, Tanzania, 2013)

Africa, Tanzania, Lake Eyasi, ornamental skulls and beads used by the local witch doctor

Al di là dei giudizi facili e riduttivi sulla superstizione, l’ignoranza o l’arretratezza del cosiddetto Terzo Mondo, è importante comprendere che se la stregoneria è ancora così viva, è perché assolve a una funzione sociale ben precisa: quella del controllo delle pulsioni e dell’istituzione di un codice di condotta reputato appropriato – quindi, essenzialmente, è uno di quegli elementi che cementano e tengono assieme l’identità della società.

Con i discorsi di stregoneria e le azioni pratiche dirette contro la stregoneria, la società mantiene viva la capacità di osservarsi preoccupata.
(A. Bellagamba, L’Africa e la stregoneria: Saggio di antropologia storica, 2008).

In Tanzania, la magia (sia benevola che malevola) è praticata ma allo stesso tempo temuta e condannata. Questo stigma dà origine ad una complessa serie di conseguenze. Un uomo che si arrichisce troppo in fretta, ad esempio, viene sospettato di essere uno stregone; quindi in generale le persone cercano di nascondere, o perlomeno condividere con il gruppo, la propria fortuna – appunto per non essere accusati di stregoneria, ma anche per evitare di provocare l’invidia altrui, che porterebbe a nuovi sortilegi e malefici. Evidentemente questo meccanismo diventa problematico quando ad esempio una donna incinta si sente costretta a nascondere la gravidanza per non suscitare le gelosie delle amiche, oppure nel caso più eclatante delle violenze di cui parliamo qui: la strage degli albini che ormai da decenni si consuma, purtroppo senza grande clamore mediatico.

Worshippers carry oil lanterns during a night time procession through the streets of Benin's main city of Cotonou,

Il 2015 è partito male: a febbraio Yohana Bahati, un neonato albino di un anno del distretto di Chato nella Tanzania settentrionale, è stato strappato dalle braccia della madre da cinque uomini armati di machete. La donna è finita in ospedale con multiple ferite alle braccia e al volto per aver cercato di difendere il figlioletto; il cadavere del bambino è stato ritrovato pochi giorni più tardi, senza braccia e né gambe. Nel dicembre precedente era sparita una bambina albina di 4 anni, che non è stata più ritrovata.

L’albinismo è diffuso nell’Africa sub-sahariana più che altrove: se in Occidente colpisce una persona su 20.000, in Tanzania l’anomalia genetica arriva a toccare la percentuale di un individuo su 1.400.
Sono quasi un centinaio gli albini assassinati negli ultimi quindici anni, ma le cifre ovviamente si riferiscono soltanto ai casi scoperti e denunciati. E soprattutto non tengono conto di tutte le vittime che sono sopravvissute alle mutilazioni.
Il macabro listino dei prezzi di questa caccia all’albino fa rabbrividire. Secondo un report delle Nazioni Unite, in Tanzania le diverse parti del corpo (orecchie, lingua, naso, genitali e arti) da utilizzare nei rituali di stregoneria possono arrivare a valere 75.000 euro; la pelle sul mercato nero è venduta dai 1.500 ai 7.000 euro. L’anno scorso in Kenya è stato arrestato un uomo che cercava di vendere un albino ancora vivo, per la somma di 250.000 dollari. Secondo le credenze, i poteri magici degli albini sono molteplici: le loro ossa sono in grado di togliere il malocchio; con un loro braccio si può localizzare l’oro in una miniera; con i seni e i genitali si preparano pozioni contro l’infecondità; ultimamente pare si sia diffusa addirittura l’idea che stuprare una donna albina potrebbe curare l’AIDS… e via dicendo.

AdamRoberts1

AdamRoberts2

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Emmanuel Festo

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Nel 2009, un attivista ha dichiarato all’agenzia AFP: “Sappiamo che gli informatori che identificano un albino vulnerabile possono ricevere un compenso di 100 dollari, sappiamo che gli assassini vengono pagati migliaia di dollari, ma non è chiaro chi siano i reali consumatori; stiamo parlando di un grosso business, e c’è corruzione nella polizia e nei tribunali, ecco perché le uccisioni continuano“.

Nonostante la situazione sia tutt’altro che rosea, di fronte alle pressioni internazionali forse qualcosa si sta muovendo: proprio il mese scorso, trentadue stregoni e più di duecento guaritori tradizionali, secondo la BBC, sono stati arrestati dalla polizia tanzaniana – segnando forse un’inversione di marcia rispetto alla precedente riluttanza delle autorità ad intervenire sulla questione. Intanto, diverse iniziative sono sorte per cercare di dare una voce a questo eccidio, come ad esempio l’audiolibro sociale italiano Ombra Bianca (fra i testimonial, anche diversi premi Nobel, Papa Francesco, il Dalai Lama). Il film White Shadow (2013), opera prima di Noaz Deshe premiata a Venezia con il Leone del Futuro, racconta la vita difficile di un ragazzino albino in Tanzania, fra discriminazioni e violenze.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v1Za15vZoQ