“The Whites hold our Spirits !”- Submission, Sorcery and Alienation


READER  of  three reports  which offer views from additional perspective. They demand and invite to further reflexion. Please, take your time with your own print-outs (9 pp. 97% PC) as I will do.

     Jan Vansina: Paths in the Rainforests (1990) chapter 8 (overview)  
     Pierre Petit: Power and Alienation among the Luba of Katanga (1996)
     Zoé S. Strother: Suspected in sorcery (1996)


A historical introduction by Jan Vansina on the Central African tragedy in the decades between 1865 and the twenties of the 20th century:

Jan Vansina (in “Paths in the Rainforests – Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa”, London 1990). I summarize key passages from the 8th chapter: “Death of a Tradition” (pp. 239 – 247 ( Only “ ” means authentical quotation )
The author emphasizes the continuity between conquest and colonial history, which is usually overlooked.

The growth of the industrial world economy already promoted a strong commercial expansion into equatorial Africa in the 19th century. (239) Most history books obscure the fact that the conquest lasted 40 years. A combination of war, destruction by fire, disease and starvation killed an estimated half of the total population in those decades.

In 1865, raiding parties arrived from Sudan and occupied in the north until 1885. In 1869, Zanzibari founded Nyangwe Station on the Lualaba River. Under the legendary Tippo Tib their conquest were reaching in 1887 the valleys Uele, Ituri, Upper Lopori and Upper Tshuapa. They forced the population to settle in large villages and helped power the “Sultani”, young ambitious men of power whom the traditional elite had little to counterbalance in order to maintain a collective counterweight. (242) After 1890 significant European military operations and systematic conquests began in the rainforest. The ruthless terror of the rubber companies gave the strongest encitement to violence. They also harnessed the army of the state to suppress the resistance of the local population. Sometimes considerable troop contingents were used. The rubber wars lasted in the Congolese part of the rainforests from 1893 to about 1910. (244)

“The violence and utter destructiveness of such colonial wars is often still misjudged,” writes Vansina. “Routinely village by village was burned down and people fled, sometimes for years, into deep forests where they built only the flimsiest of shelters and depended largely on gathering for food. During the fighting and immediately afterward, casualties among Africans were high, but even more died later from the combined effects of malnutrition, overwork, and epidemics such as smallpox, measles, dysentery, and above all sleeping sickness. In some districts, the conquest lasted for years. (…) The resulting tribute of war, hunger, and disease was terrifying.(…)The familiar old ways of life collapsed under such novel calamities”. (244 f.)

For Vansina the direct link to the next phase of colonization is of great importance too:

“The peoples in and around the rainforests had lost political control and, with it, the initiative to

Mbole: Death by Hanging –  coll. v.Graeve (Link , auf Deutsch)

create institutions for coping with the new order. Furthermore, the hitherto unexpected events events and disasters also opened up a tragic chasm (=deep crack, Gv) between the physical and cognitive realities, which required new explanations and major adjustments of the equatorial tradition.” (245) The ensuing administrative subjugation never gave the Africans the opportunity to find an answer based on their own traditions. Vansina cites as example a meeting of the Kwa “ precisely to consider whether the epidemic could be halted by sending for a famous witch finder. The missionary (…) instead advised them to rely on God. But that was 1891 and people could still call a diviner (…) By 1920 (… s)uch diviners were outlawed by then and prosecuted as confidence men and dangerous agitators.” (245)

The Mission resolutely used all means at its disposal to weaken or abolish the traditional social hierarchy and its sanctioning power, driving forward the division of communities, particularly the alienation of the younger generation from their elders.

From the beginning, all colonialists took it for granted to implement the foreign bureaucratic practices of Europe in the rainforest, whether it meant the succession of Chiefs, equal legal status among villagers, marriage law and public morality, or the erosion of traditional legal procedures and principles; their substitutes then were labeled as ‘common law’.

Metapher für Trauma

Lengola c : Rand Africanart

“This process was just the opposite of the dynamics, when novel foreign practices were justified in terms of the old tradition.” (247)

The peoples of the rainforest began to doubt their own cultural heritage and to accept parts of the foreign tradition. “But they clung to their languages and to much of the older cognitive content carried by them. Thus they turned into cultural schizophrenics, striving for a new synthesis, which could not be acchieved as long as freedom of action was denied them.” (247)
For Vansina, the traditions of equatorial societies in the late 1920s were nothing more than a preserved empty shell. (246-247)



Pierre Petit outlines the process of subjugation and colonization as well as the contribution of ‘black magic’ in the spiritual horizon of the Luba.

“Power and Alienation among the Luba of Katanga (Congo R.D.C.)” – Communication presented at the40th African Studies Association meeting (1997, Columbus, Ohio)
  • ‘Copy and paste’ excerpts with permission of Pierre Petit
  • You have the original (with bibliographical references) at your disposal here:  https://ulb.academia.edu/PierrePetit


It has been argued that political incumbents in Africa are often connected with invisible or superhuman forces. This applies to societies varying in their level of political centralization, from the stateless Nuer (and their famous leopard skin chiefs) to the sacred kingdoms of the Ganda or the Swazi. In other words – and this assertion is a strictly heuristic, non-classificatory one – , the sources of power are seen as more external to mankind in Africa, and more internal to it in the West. This difference leads to contrasted conceptions about historical agency, because a power external to mankind can be more easily appropriated than a power embodied in the social actors themselves. Such a hypothesis could explain the deep sense of alienation felt by many African peoples ─ among which the Luba ─ since the early stages of colonization.

The ancient kingdom Luba of Katanga began to wane by 1870 and the Belgian colonial rule later accelerated its dissolution. However, the myths and rituals of kingship live and develop in the chiefdoms established since colonization.

The Luba Society can be described as a three-layered socio-political organization:

The power of the Luba rulers – be it kings (formerly) or chiefs (at present) – is
closely linked to their strong ties to the spirit world. After the founding epic, the founder of the dynasty, Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe, owes his fame not primarily to military or political talent, but to the introduction of Luba into ritual cuisine. The food, while observing ritual rules, allows each Luba to contact its guardian spirits, whoever they are. This mystical community is witnessed at every level of Luba society, from family elders to the king himself.

The second layer of the Luba Society is the Landchief, acting on behalf of its whole lineage. Each estate is under the control of a guardian spirit associated with a feature of the landscape – usually a pool or a rock – in which the ritualist of the owner line addresses prayers and offers food as part of his worship. In return, the guardian spirits supply all the territorial resources that humans need, be it game, fish, salt, clay, iron or gems. It is reported that any usurpation will result either in the usurper’s death or in the disappearance of the estate’s produce.

Family elders make up the third level. The head of a household is responsible for the cult of family ancestors. These ancestors provide many benefits to their living relatives: they are the dispensers of the technical mastery that sculptors and potters need, they can help on hunting trips, and pregnancy is always under the protection of an ancestor of the family, who is “godfather” to the unborn.The respect children owe to their father is partly a consequence of his role as family priest: no one but him is able to contact the ancestors and ask them for help in case of illness or misfortune.

Consider the recent history of the Luba:

From the middle of the nineteenth century, the Luba Empire underwent repeated assaults of outsiders, last of which were the the Europeans. Unlike their predecessors, the Europeans – the Belgians – actually managed to settle under the Luba and enforce their law against the Luba throughout the kingdom.
Seen from the Luba perspective, these strangers had apparently succeeded in taking away from the Luba leaders the sources of the three different levels of power (chief, country, family). This is how people usually talk about the subject under the Luba.

The Catholic missionaries were reportedly very hostile to practices intended for the family ancestors. Their converts were forbidden to share meals with these spirits, the most common ritual practice to honor them. Any backslider denounced to the catechist who could him have whipped or even transferred to the civil authorities.

According to the Luba, white missionaries went to graveyards at night to speak with the dead and obtain their power (“bukomo”, “strength”). They were thus monopolizing the dead ─ they even set up Christian graveyards with this perfidious aim ─ at the expense of Luba ritualists, who needed the help of the dead for their own activities, such as curing the sick. As a Luba elder told me, “Ancestors no longer answer since we have been diverted from them by the overseas voice of God”.

A similar hostility was directed against the territorial guardian spirits. Some missionaries deliberately violated high places, by braving the prohibition to go to them or by bathing in sacred pools (Burton 1947, …). Nowadays, landchiefs in charge of the cult of guardian spirits are confronted with the hostility of the churches. One chief complained that the spirits have fled because of the multiplication of churches. Another claimed that if he were to worship his guardian spirit as he formerly did, he would be booed and called “Satano” by the villagers.

In fact, white people are not only charged with destroying the guardian spirits or driving them out, but also with capturing their power for their own use. In 1991, when looting organized by the Zairian army brought an important USAID road project to a sudden end, evacuated expatriate employees left behind all their equipment. This abrupt departure confirmed former suspicions that the American expatriates had come to grow rich with the aid of the local guardian spirits. Supposedly, the Americans roamed the bush nightly and used the guardian spirits to produce cars or corrugated iron.  (…) After the Americans’ departure, the landchiefs laid claim to all equipment left on thespot, arguing very logically that these goods produced by guardian spirits belonged legitimately to them.

Expatriates were also criticized for taking them back home, to Europe and America, so as to have them work on their behalf. A Luba paramount chief is even rumored to have made a deal with the Americans to sell them a most famous guardian spirit. It is believed to have been captured and put in a bottle thanks to white people’s science, and the chief is thought to have carried it to the USA when he traveled there.

P.Petit was himself confronted by related problems many times in the field. For example,when he was conducting research about salt- or pottery-making, he was denied the access to the main deposits of clay or salt, as some people feared he would rob the guardian spirits of these places, depriving the villagers of that most valuable resource (Petit in press).

The powers of kingship are also seen as endangered. Both the epic and the rituals of royalty stress this strict continuity between the present ruler and the founding hero, Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe. However, it is rumored that Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe has been captured by white peopleduring the first years of colonization. They then confined him in a mysterious monument in Belgium until 1960, the year of the independence. Other versions claim that Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe is still in prison, not in Belgium, but in the Vatican’s cellars.

Things are (still) more complex, as new forms of power may come into being. For example, white people were accused of witchcraft-like cannibalism during the middle of the century. Such practices are reminiscent of the dealings of Luba witches that reportedly gather together for sabbaths where they eat human flesh.

A last case relates to new forms of power, unprecedented in precolonial society. Luba religion was not centered round an all-powerful creator god. This last concept was introduced by the Christian missionaries, and the Luba consequently think that this “foreign” god benefits mainly to the white people, his favorites. This common belief is given credence by African pastors when they sermonize that white people’s wealth has no other origin than their attachment to Christian faith, as one can hear. Some Luba invert this discourse and say that the whites’ better fate is a consequence of their alliance with Satan. But in both cases, white people are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of an omnipotent being, be it God or Satan.

In conclusion, it has been argued that white people are nowadays considered by the Luba as the depositaries of the acting powers of the world. This is obvious from the various rumors circulating even today, but it could also be demonstrated through the study of rituals, which have incorporated many elements of Western culture, such as televisions, radios, or the Bible.

The intrusion of Western people precipitated the collapse of the formerly unvanquished Luba kingdom. In a culture where power is rooted in superhuman forces, this political waning was convincingly explained as a consequence of white people’s seizure of all the spiritual forces on which Luba had built up their strength. The 1960 independence has only slightly mitigated this sense of alienation: three generations of domination have left lasting memories. Far from having disappeared, this feeling of alienation is continuously evidenced, reinforced by white people’s opulence, which remains an enigma for the Luba, who do not see it as a simple consequence of capitalism’s historical movement.

To conclude in the own words of a Luba elder who summarized his sense of alienation, the great deeds of Luba ancestors “are now just nice stories. We are orphans, lost people, led astray by others, and we do not know any more what to do”.



The  personal research report by Zoé S. Strother reveals to be a ‘case study’ with surprising references to P.Petit’s account.

SUSPECTED OF SORCERY, Post 6 in “In Pursuit of History – Fieldwork in Africa” ​​1996 pp.57-74, Carolyn Keyes Adenaike & Jan Vansina, Eds.

The report was written eight years after her fieldwork in a village in the Eastern Pende, whose residents for two years had been hosting, informing Z.S. Strother studying for her PhD. She describes her stay in its various phases and frankly analyzes the conflict potential of the situations in retrospect and draws a partly disillusioned balance sheet.

From the start of her story “How a picnic led to a trial” to the “Repercussions”, we are aware of honest effort of the young field researcher, but also a feeling of overburdening. She initially finds almost perfect working conditions, through the protection of the long-standing – since 1942! – paramount chief (65), but with his death in the middle of her stay, she falls into the maelstrom of a long overdue rearrangement of power relations, and finally has to leave immediately.

Her personal conflict with Pende norms is basically only a side issue of the critical situation, but offers her a bitter existential experience, that she would not have gained by the foregoing conventional ethnographic data collection alone.

Before Z.S. Strother leaves the region after two years of residence, she wants to investigate the archaeological potential of a special place, “Manda,” two and a half miles from the village, abandoned under the pressure of the Chokwe invasions in the late 1880s and 1890s. Since the Belgians 1934 had not allowed a resettlement of this  ‘too remote’ place, and forced everyone to build along the road instead, “Manda” became a nostalgic theme, a place with many merits. Strother wants to see where and how people built before the colonial system. (57/58) A close friend, sub-chief, accompanies her on the two hours’ walk. On the way they meet a catechist of the local church. Greetings. To their surprise, “Manda” is currently being run by a rival clan, and to her disappointment, the entire ground is covered by peanut fields. Pieces of pottery and blacksmith’s waste are scattered around, she collects some curiosities from the ground, some with the hoe. Then they retire and have a picnic.

The next day, a complaint of the rival clan chief in question reaches her village, saying: “I went to Manda with a shovel to dig up the bones of his predecessors for my sorcery (wanga). I would have recruited the pastor to drive away the spirit of the dead who guarded the site, and then sacrificed a chicken and ate it on the spot. “(59)

Because the plaintiff does not dare to accuse the white woman – “the heritage of Belgian colonialismbeing what it is” – he sues her companion for a fine of seven goats, at that time at least five hundred dollars. (59). More rumors are agitating the village, but her acquaintances behave as if they were not taking the matter seriously. A few days later, a spring in the neighboring village has fallen dry. Some consider this a warning on the part of the white woman; many advise the plaintiff to withdraw the action.

Although Strother stated at every opportunity that Westerners have no ‘wanga’, no witchcraft, she convinced no one: If a group lives in such luxury and exercises such power over the daily lives of as many people as the Whites, it must practise witchcraft.

The young woman refuses to apply that collective reputation on herself. (60, note 6). She feverishly awaits the trial, where she wants to clear up all the misunderstandings. However, the higher chief and her mentor directs the defense to an innocuous track claiming that she has been on his mission. And there is no doubt allowed about his authority to place orders. – He certainly has no interest in further burdening the difficult relationship of the clans and villages with a witch trial.

The young woman realizes now that also the villagers are keen observers and that they observe according to customary criteria, of their fellow villagers for their lifetime and observing just for a certain time.

For them, an entire chain of evidence proves their capacity for witchcraft.

  • Whoever met her on the long paths between the villages on foot was convinced that she would fly again as soon as one was out of sight. The young man, whom she once scolded for borrowing her bike without asking her – she had intended to bike to a ceremony – was sure she could fly instead.
  • A new assistant from another region was unnerving her with the repeated question of how she could recognize sorcerers if she came to a new village. He referred to the conviction expressed by the head teacher who had cited proven cases (65/66). That’s an authority in the village.
  • Reflecting surfaces in their surroundings could always be interpreted as magical mirrors. (66)
  • Now she sees some unobtrusive episodes in a different light, for example: supporters of the home football team calling her name as soon as their players lead the ball. (66)
  • There are rumors about her glasses, which she wore all the time, even at night. In this community, goods (including men’s shirts) must circulate uninterruptedly. Something seen in the hands of a person day after day becomes conspicuous and suspicious. (67) And then, unfortunately, eyesight is an important metaphor in the discussion of sorcery and wizards have “four eyes.” (68)
  • Because some plants repeatedly reappear in certain rituals related to art objects, she has begun to collect samples of leaves, bark, roots, and stems, hoping to identify some of them later in the United States.


Supposedly she has informed her inhabitants from the beginning adequately about her research project, but as a chief explains, one fact can not be denied: “All the leaves that you see, this is ‘wanga’ witchcraft)” (67)

The designated successor of the deceased chief begs her for a strong amulet during the highly dangerous transitional period. She refuses to provide one, he takes it very badly. Later, he suddenly demands a motorcycle from her. – This is very reminiscent of the alleged forced labor of local Luba ‘guardian spirits’ for US NGOs, reported by Petit?

The young woman had been accepted as a student, because some youth also were somewhere as students (62), but she could have developed selfish ambitions that threatened the village society. (60) The most serious ambitions, such as the acquisition of wealth or the surpassing of others in the practice of ‘wanga’, require the control of spirits on the other side. (61) Once a wizard with a reputation as a hitman even told her what he found out about the white people’s wealth: ”We (= the Whites) had killed Jesus Christ. In this understanding, by killing God’s son, the most powerful spirit around, Whites were able to force Christ to priviledge them over the other God’s children, to send airplanes stocked with goods from the other side for their use”. (61)

According to the decision of the old Paramount Chief, this young woman has been dealing all the time with experienced wizards – and been allowed to be present at exclusive ceremonies by special permit, even where not all men were allowed. That also arouses suspicion. (63) Her focus on art began to be interpreted as a mere pretext (“politics”) to strengthen her metaphysical powers. As an old woman tells her, “No student works so hard!”

She would be unable to pose a personal threat against someone having no kinship connections, but “I could be feared on a community level once the accusation was launched that my seardh for ‘wanga’ might entail control over the dead, who safeguarded the general livelihood of the village”. (73) – We remember the dried up spring in the neighbour village!

Like Petit, Strother also speaks of rumors or gossip of simple village comrades, including women, who want to outdo each other. Among the men of the hierarchy one suspects rather political tactics and rhetoric. The tops of the hierarchy keep a low profile. We do not learn from the essay what they really think. One thing is clear: the paramount chiefs and chiefs must control all wizards and other troublemakers, and if they fail, they must restore social peace, with and against rival claims in the hierarchy. The essay presents some jealous men in action.

Towards the end of the essay, Strother pays tribute to the tolerance shown by ‘their’ village: “The outsider’s presence demands understanding, codification, interpretation. As time passes, it no longer suffices to dismiss the foreigner’s behavior to general oddity; she or he should know better. The initial indulgence extended to an ignorant visitor begins to wane as the person becomes – in whatever eccentric fashion – a part of the community.”(73)

Fact is that the foreign guest can never really become ‘part of the community’ and after a while becomes simply intolerable and must go. Only government officials, military and missionaries can not be sent away!

Zoé Strother did not suffer the same problems during her nine month’s stay with mask carvers among the western Pende (BLOG “MATALA, beautiful dancer …” LINK). “This may have been because the masquerade (was) completely removed from its original ritual context and the sculpture is dead. “(73)

These are hard but clear words. Here the PhD student conducted successful field research for “Inventing Masks”, with the friendly consent of the modern African artisans. We know that the ‘temporary bridge’ of secularized and commercial business relations between Africans and Whites has been working for a long time. Any ancestors, ghosts and other family secrets remain undisturbed and invisible in the ground and can not unfold their potential for conflict. (Forget for a moment some kind of Art Trade!)

Back to the conflict:

Outside her village, the resentment of the young white researcher and her activities increases again with the shock that other sources are drying up in the neighboring village. (72) If the clan-chief can not sanction and stop white woman’s witchcraft through public accusation, what is to do? Was it really someone else’s fault?

Zoé Strother later receives in Kinshasa a typical Western explanation for the drying up of the sources: Deforestation. A truck had appeared in her village the year before too, financed by a Swiss ecumenical group, to buy up corn twice a year from now on. This should offer young fathers an alternative to working in the wild diamond fields of the area. Unfortunately, corn (US=maize) requires freshly cleared rich soil and, accordingly, requires land to be deforestated every one to two years. Enthusiastically middle-aged men destroyed the few narrow gallery forests on the rivers and thus the sources of clean drinking water in the region. (72 Note 19)

In two articles I described the economic and ecological development in Bandundu province according to official sources and found people in the same poverty trap. (“Looking for an address on Kwango” LINK)

The answer Zoé Strother receives has little chance of acceptance.

  • It was an Swiss group of Whites of with full postcolonial authority and fullt ecological incompetence who had initiated this degenerate process. God knows what sect or a pious charity they represent!
  • The village leaders had finally something to offer their young men (and their wives). In addition, the elders prefer to keep them under their control in the village.
  • Ecological connections would be a topic for targeted education – as well as questions of healthy nutrition (cf. manioc in the Kwango dossier). Who should convey that? The media of Western countries complain daily about our alarming shortcomings at home and all over the world. On the other hand, the people in the Congolese village now seem to have forgotten in their misery traditional insights and rules, grasping desperately the quick benefit, without worrying about tomorrow, ruthlessly relieving the disadvantages to their Next. This Next can be their wife or daughters, who must procure water, no matter where and in what quality.


Back to the Start!

From the “Death of a Tradition” in Equatorial Africa” (J. Vansina), passing by ‘Sorcery’  (P. Petit and Z.S. Strother) – we end in a rather hopeless situation, where an alarmed village woman warns anyone in a shrill voice:

“Be careful! That woman blighted our crops and dried up all our springs for use in her sorcery! ” (73)

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