Boris Wastiau: Mahamba. The Transforming Arts of Spirit Possession among the Luvale-speaking People of the Upper Zambezi

Studia Instituti Anthropos 48

This book explores symbolic practice in the spirit possession rituals known as mahamba in the upper Zambezi region, specifically among the Luvale-speaking people of North-Western Zambia. In it, rituals of possession are analysed as transformational practices that evoke changes in the subjects undertaking them. Furthermore, these rituals of possession are seen as phenomena that transform a long time in specific historical and sociocultural contexts. The mahamba are numerous in kind, in turn addressing serious illness, infertility, madness, failure, social distress and other ills.

Alternatively displaying the features of ad hoc therapeutic rituals or those of overtly religious cults and calling membership of men as well as women, mahamba can lead into initiation to a religious sodality, to admission into a professional cast, or simply to the restoration of regular health and social status.

What is specific about the transformations affecting the people and the rituals themselves? Are they related and what are the cultural and/or sociological factors determining them? How is symbolism produced and what is the role of shrines and artworks? A historical perspective and the analysis of two sets of contemporary rituals are combined to advance elements to produce answers. The main hypothesis is that a process of poiesis, the generation of symbolic fields, is due to the existence of a core processual structure that endures in possession rituals, whatever the sociological function that they fulfil. It is contended that the mahamba are instruments for structuring history that people constantly reprocess in order to face their predicament.

Boris Wastiau has been one of the curators for central African art and ethnography at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he received his degree in the social sciences and anthropology, the University of Coimbra, and the University of East Anglia, where he received his Ph.D. in 1998. In 2009 he became Director of the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva.

Boris Wastiau: Mahamba. The Transforming Arts of Spirit Possession among the Luvale-speaking People of the Upper Zambezi. 325 pp., ill., 2000. ISBN 3-7278-1293-1. sfr 75,-