Anthropology, mostly defined as the scientific study of humanity, concerned with human behavior, human biology, cultures, societies, and linguistics, in both the present and past, is one of the sciences that seeks to reach across cultural boundaries and give us an understanding of the many varied societies upon our world, sometimes so different from each other that they might as well be from different planets. Like in any science, the anthropologist looks for studies of human activity through investigation of physical evidence, through stringent protocols and fact-based research. Yet also, as in many sciences, the researcher sometimes hits a wall of bafflement in which they are no longer penetrating into the unknown, but groping along the edges of it, trying to make sense of it and find a way in. There have been a handful of these explorers and researchers who have come up against something they truly do not understand and which their training has not prepared them for, brushes with forces beyond their comprehension. Here we will look at a selection of instances in which respected, highly seasoned scientific anthropologists in Africa had supernatural experiences that would challenge their beliefs and the very fundamentals of what reality is.
First off is American cultural anthropologist and professor of anthropology at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Paul Stoller, who is one of the most respected in his field, over his more than 30 years of field work earning many accolades, numerous academic awards, and grants from Wenner-Gren Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, the National Science Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as receiving a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. The American Anthropological Association named him the recipient of the Robert B Textor Award for Excellence in Anthropology and he has also won the coveted Anders Retzius Medal in Gold, given once every three years by the King of Sweden, for his scientific contributions to anthropology. He has written numerous ethnographies, biographies, memoirs and novels, as well as countless articles, many of which have been nominated for various awards. He is highly respected in his field, and is also interesting in the fact that much of his fieldwork and studies relate to magic, sorcery and spirit possession.
Stoller was long interested in various ritual practices, specifically in Africa, and far from just sitting in his study reading about such things he really went the whole hog. In the 1970s, he travelled to the Republic of Niger and Mali in order to live among the Songhay people and study their culture and linguistics. It was here that he would cultivate an interest in actual magic and sorcery, and he has said of the evolution of this interest in magic in the workshop, Weaving the World: Writing Evocative Ethnographies:
I think that the topic chooses the anthropologist rather than the other way around. In Songhay they say that if you want to seek out sorcery or magic, you will never discover it. You might approach it, you might talk about it, you might meet some people, but it will never grab you. So, what happens according to them is, if you eat magic, which is, you eat the substances to transform yourself, then magic eats you. If you consume history, you are consumed by it. It is the larger force of things that focuses on you. In my case, my initial fieldwork was in linguistic anthropology and I was interested in Friday mosque sermons. I never sought out to learn about sorcery. But then – I described this in my book In Sorcery’s Shadow (1987) – there were these two birds living in a rafter of the house where I was living. They were pooping on my floor and I got all irritated with these birds so I would knock their nest down. They would fly away, but then build another nest and get closer and closer to where my desk was. So after a while I just stopped paying attention to them. One day one of the birds pooped on my head in the presence of a guy that I thought was a rice farmer. But he turned out to be a Songhay healer. He said, “I’ve seen a sign, you’ve been pointed out to me. Come to my house and begin to learn.” That is how I got into the topic of sorcery. For me at least, things have sought me out. I have stumbled into sorcery.
Stoller would jump fully into the world of Songhay sorcery and magical practices, living in a hut and studying under a man named Adamu Jenitongo, considered to be one of the most knowledgeable and powerful Songhay sorcerers of his era, as well as under the apprenticeship of another sorcerer called Hamidou Salou. This took him into a murky world of strange powers, dark forces, and mysterious spirits that most outsiders have never even heard of, much less become a part of. Among his studies of various spells and rituals, he had some particularly odd experiences. One of these was a time he tried to help a friend bless his house, as it was apparently being terrorized by a powerful evil spirit called Dongo, which was greatly feared by the local people to the point that they did not dare even so much as invoke its name. The ritual involved the sacrifice of a black rooster, but Stoller apparently botched the spell and angered the spirit and caused it to plague him with misfortune. He would say of this:
Things began to unravel a few days later. After a short trip to Tillaberi, Adamu Jenitongo’s village 75 miles north of Niamey, I returned to the capital city and was in a car accident, bruising my forehead when it slammed against the sun visor. The evening after the accident, I attended a wedding ceremony and developed a pounding headache, blurry vision, and a high fever – telltale signs of the onset of malaria. Complaining about my symptoms, his in-law, a physician, gave me sulfa drugs to teach the ‘malaria’. The drugs quickly produced an allergic reaction – a severe rash that spread over my torso and down my legs. I became more feverish and was soon too weak to walk. At night I had disturbing ‘malarial’ dreams, all of which were about my difficult death. After several days of suffering, I somehow gathered the strength to get out of bed, dress myself and hail a taxi, which I took to Hamidou’s hut. I told Hamidou my tale of transgression.
His mentor chastised him, calling him a “foolish boy,” telling him that his attempt to banish Dongo had greatly angered the spirit, especially since he had tried it as just a lowly and unworthy apprentice. Stoller was sent on his way back to the United States to recuperate from his illness, along with a satchel of magical herbs, medicine, and resin to help him. Oddly, although he was very sick, doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him and no reason for why he was ill. It wasn’t malaria or any other known disease, doctors were stumped. However, after burning the resin every day and taking the herbs and medicine he had been given by the sorcerer he made a full recover within a few days. Stoller would write several books on his experiences with the Songhay, including In Sorcery’s Shadow, The Burden of Writing the Sorcerer’s Burden: Ethnography, Fiction and the Future of Anthropological Expression, and Fusion of the Worlds: Ethnography of Possession Among the Songhay of Niger, the latter of which would be nominated for the prestigious J.I. Staley Prize. He continues to do anthropology work and fill halls for his numerous lectures, as well as blogging regularly on culture, politics, and higher education for The Huffington Post.
Another anthropologist who experienced some odd things during fieldwork in Africa was English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who was a pioneer in the development of social anthropology, President of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland from 1949–51, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1946 to 1970, and also the recipient of numerous honors, including the Rivers Memorial Medal and of the Huxley Memorial Medal, and he was even knighted in 1971. In short, he was no quack. He is best known for his work on various religious practices among African tribes, particularly in Sudan and among the Azande people of the upper Nile in the 1920s. While studying their ways he did much research on their magic and witchcraft, and although he mostly did this through a scientific lens he reportedly had some strange experiences that he would not be able to easily explain. In his book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, he writes of one particularly odd incident:
I have only once seen witchcraft on its path. I had been sitting late in my hut writing notes. About midnight, before retiring, I took a spear and went for my usual nocturnal stroll. I was walking in the garden at the back of my hut, amongst banana trees, when I noticed a bright light passing at the back of my servants’ huts towards the homestead of a man called Tupoi. As this seemed worth investigation I followed its passage until a grass screen obscured the view. I ran quickly through my hut to the other side in order to see where the light was going to, but did not regain sight of it. I knew that one man, a member of my household, had a lamp that might have given off so bright a light, but next morning he told me that he had neither been out late at night nor had he used his lamp. There did not lack ready informants to tell me that what I had seen was witchcraft. Shortly afterwards, on the same morning, an old relative of Tupoi and an inmate of his homestead died. This event fully explained the light I had seen. I never discovered [the light’s] real origin, which was possibly a handful of grass lit by someone on his way to defecate, but the coincidence of the direction along which the light moved and the subsequent death accorded well with Zande ideas.
What was going on here? Finally, we have the English-American anthropologist Edith Turner, who among the various far-flung people she studied, covering such places as Mexico, Israel, Japan, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, and Korea, also spent much time doing fieldwork among the Ndembu of Zambia and the Bagisu of Uganda. She was known for her interest in the various rituals, shamanism, and especially the magical healing practices of these places, and it was during her time in Africa that she would allegedly witness this type of magic firsthand. In 1985, as she was living among the Ndembu people, she was invited to attend a spiritual healing ceremony for a woman named Meru. Leading the ritual was a witch doctor by the name of Singleton, who had deemed the woman’s sickness to be caused by possession by a malicious spirit called an ihamba. After covering the victim and others present with red clay in order to protect themselves from the ihamba jumping into their bodies and taking some herbal concoction, the bizarre ritual began with trying to guide the spirit out of the body, which would supposedly take the form of a tooth, and Turner would describe what unfolded next in her book Experiencing Ritual:
Clap, clap, clap – Mulandu was leaning forward, and all the others were on their feet – this was it. Quite an interval of struggle elapsed while I clapped like one possessed, crouching beside Bill amid a lot of urgent talk, while Singleton pressed Meru’s back, guiding and leading out the tooth. Meru’s face in a grin of tranced passion, her back quivering rapidly. Suddenly Meru raised her arm, stretched it in liberation, and I saw with my own eyes a giant thing emerging out of the flesh of her back. An opaque ‘plasma’ might describe it. This thing was a large gray blob about six inches across, a deep gray opaque thing emerging as a sphere. I was amazed-delighted. I still laugh with glee at the realization of having seen it, the ihamba, and so big! We were all just one in triumph. The gray thing was actually out there, visible, and you could see Singleton’s hands working and scrabbling on the back, and then the thing was there no more. Singleton had it in his pouch, pressing it in with his other hand as well. The receiving can was ready; he transferred whatever it was into the can and capped the castor oil leaf and bark lid over it. It was done. I did not merely intuit the spirit form emerging from Meru’s back but saw it, saw it with my own eyes. This is different from intuition or imagination; it is nearer to seeing a ghost.
Rather oddly, Turner would claim to have psychic experiences and occasionally go into strange trances for the rest of her life. Such cases are curious because they come from trained scientific professionals and blur the line between the reality we know and the world beyond our normal senses. What is going on in these cases? These are people who have gone out to faraway places that most of us could never imagine going to, getting peeks into cultures far removed from our everyday lives, and although expecting to see the strange, coming across things that they were perhaps not ready for and which challenged their beliefs. Whatever they experienced out there on their travels, it just goes to show that in some ways, no matter how much our knowledge of the world has increased, there are still dark pockets of the unknown lying out in the shadows.