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Where Humans and Spirits Meet: The Politics of Rituals and Identified Spirits in Zanzibar

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Volume 5

Social Identities

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Where Humans and Spirits Meet

The Politics of Rituals and Identified Spirits in Zanzibar

Kjersti Larsen

184 pages, 1 map, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-84545-055-7 $135.00/£99.00 hb Published (June 2008)

eISBN 978-0-85745-056-2 eBook

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“…a fascinating account of spirit possession in Zanzibar…[that] contributes to and sheds new light on debates on ethnicity, identity, and gender… Its particular value lies in its excellent ethnographic data, which demonstrate the author’s deep knowledge of Zanzibari society and its interconnections with the wider world, both ‘East’ and ‘West’, and highlight the value of long-term ethnographic fieldwork.  ·  JRAI

Kjersti Larsen’s book raises significant anthropological questions about much writing on spirit possession in Africa…Larsen’s work makes important and detailed considerations of [the] problem [of  racial identity], perhaps more sensitively than many others.”  ·  Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale

…a sensitive and rich portrayal of the phenomenon of spirit possession in Zanzibar Town.  ·  American Ethnologist

"[The author] provides a sensitive account of people's experiences of possession and the ways in which they relate to their spirits. It is refreshing to read an account like this in which some of the uncertainties and differences of opinion about spirit possession are highlighted."  ·  Tanzanian Affairs

"Written as a reflexive and phenomenological account, and organized into nine short chapters, the book traverses theoretical terrain in ways that challenge theories that reduce spirit possession to an effect of social marginality."  ·  Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale


Zanzibar, an island off the East African coast, with its Muslim and Swahili population, offers rich material for this study of identity, religion, and multiculturalism. This book focuses on the phenomenon of spirit possession in Zanzibar Town and the relationships created between humans and spirits; it provides a way to apprehend how society is constituted and conceived and, thus, discusses Zanzibari understandings of what it means to be human.

Kjersti Larsen is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology and African Studies at the Department of Ethnography, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo. She has carried out fieldwork in Zanzibar since 1984 and since 1997 has also conducted fieldwork in Northern Sudan.

Subject: Anthropology of Religion Anthropology (General) Performance Studies
Area: Africa


Map of the Western Indian Ocean
Preface and Acknowledgements

Chapter 1. Introduction

  • Considering perspectives on spirit possession
  • The fieldwork: people, engagement and context
  • The fieldwork: ritual participation
  • Performance, meaning and reflexivity
  • Ritual, communication and enactment
  • Knowledge, experience and forms of negotiation
  • The book

Chapter 2. Introduction to Zanzibar: the place, its politics and organization

  • A view of the past and the present
  • Identity, social privileges and political reorganization
  • A plural society
  • Gender, distinctions and effects in everyday and ritual life
  • Gender, ritual participation and knowledge

Chapter 3. Spirits, possession and personhood

  • The position of spirits
  • Spirits are beings with a worldly existence
  • Spirit possession and practices
  • Personhood, notions of strength and self-control
  • Experiencing spirits

Chapter 4. Makabila, people and spirits

  • Articulation of differences and the problem of identity
  • Identification of a spirit
  • The demands of spirits belonging to different makabila
  • The world of spirits and human beings

Chapter 5. Human concerns, spirits and recreation of relationships

  • How the spirits reveal their presence in the human world
  • Communication between humans and spirits
  • The ritual group and the ritual framework
  • Ngoma ya sheitani: a celebration and a cure

Chapter 6. Between self and other: body and mind

  • Ngoma ya ruhani
  • States of body and states of mind
  • A bodily experience of spirits
  • Losing oneself to the spirit
  • Altered states of body, altered states of mind

Chapter 7. Gender: relations, markers and sexuality

  • Gender and complementarity
  • Concealment and disclosure
  • Acts of disclosure and moral ambiguity
  • Enactment and perceptions of the body
  • Strict categories in a flexible universe
  • Gender images and human practices

Chapter 8. Women, men and gendered spirits

  • A ngoma ya kibuki ritual
  • Matters of affection, pride and self-control
  • Presentation, representation and excess
  • Comedy, parody and the ways of humans and spirits
  • Body, aesthetics, and gender images
  • On reflections and acts of transgression

Chapter 9. Conclusion: social identities and dramatization of the other

  • An aesthetic moving together
  • Improvisation, play and the dramatization of a life-world
  • Reflections on embodiment and modes of knowing


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