Zande - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Zande tend to attribute a soul, mbisimo (under certain circumstances separable from the body), to both animate and inanimate beings; in traditional belief, the souls of people became ghosts after death. Ghosts were believed to inhabit earth caverns in the bush, as did the Supreme Being, Mbori, who partook in their ghostly nature. In Nzakara-speaking areas, where the word "Mbori" did not exist, "Zagi" referred not only to the Supreme Being, but also to the outside universe in general, and ancestor spirits had concomitantly greater importance. Mission influence has ensured that Mbori is today almost universally associated with the Christian God and that the ghosts, once regarded as potentially benevolent, propitiable ancestors, are more and more associated with evil. Catholic and Protestant congregations are well established and numerous, and have, widely if superficially, affected traditional beliefs and other cultural features. Belief in witchcraft remains important, however, and both belief in and the practice of magic seem to be on the increase.

Witchcraft, mangu, is seen as an organic phenomenon, hereditary in the male line for men, and in the female for women. It need not be conscious; its action is understood as psychic. A witch sends out his or her "witch soul," mbisimo mangu, said to be visible at night, to consume the mbisimo pasio, "flesh soul," of the victim's organs. Witches are also believed to cause other kinds of misfortune by less clearly defined means. Although their mode of action is mysterious, witches are not seen as in any way supernatural, but as part of the normal order of things. They are believed not to be able to operate at any great distance; commoners are usually unable to bewitch nobles or vice versa. Witchcraft is assumed to be at least a factor in all misfortune; for remedial action, it is thus important to identify the witch. Identification was formerly achieved through divination by witch doctors or by means of various oracles, especially one in which a poison, benge, was administered to chickens, the outcome depending on whether or not the fowl survived. The use of benge was already severely discouraged in colonial times, and such oracles are now used very rarely, and never officially. Witch doctors are largely a phenomenon of the past, as are the closed associations through which people formerly sought both offensive and defensive magic. For consultations, including the identification of witches, recourse is now often to (generally female) diviners, who are prophetesses of the "native" Zande Christian church (Nzapa Zande), which now shares the people's allegiance with the European and American missions.

Religious Practitioners. The traditional cult of domestic ancestor shrines required no specialized priesthood. Matters of witchcraft and magic have always been determined by parttime specialists/practitioners. Witch doctors, who were trained in the use of magical medicines, operated at public séances; Nagidi are believed to derive their power directly from God and are, for day-to-day purposes, consulted in private.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremonies were formerly witch doctors' séances. One or more witch doctors, in colorful ceremonial dress, would dance and sing to musical accompaniment before commencing their divination. The circumcision of pubescent boys also forms part of an elaborate series of ceremonies; others were associated with initiation into the (now defunct) magical-medicine associations.

Arts. Music, both instrumental and vocal, is very important in Zande culture; traditional instruments—wooden gongs, skin drums, whistles, xylophones, and large bow harps—also accompany singing and dancing. Harps are occasionally decorated with carved human heads; otherwise, nonutilitarian carving is poorly developed.

Medicine. Zande apply generally known common-sense cures to minor ailments. All serious diseases are attributed to witchcraft and are accordingly combated by magical medicine. The general term ngua, which originally meant simply "plant" or "tree," once covered both good and bad "medicines" of every sort. Nowadays Zande distinguish between protective or curative "medicine," which is increasingly becoming known by the Arabic term dawa, and ngua used as vengeance "medicine." Magical "medicines" are used, not only to ward off (or avenge) misfortune, but to obtain successful harvests, human fertility, good hunting, and other benefits, including job promotions and success in examinations. Such "medicines" are bought from people believed to have the requisite knowledge; payment is held indispensable if they are to be efficacious.

Death and Afterlife. All deaths, except those of very small children, are attributed to witchcraft or magic and call for magical vengeance. Upon death, the soul (mbisimo) becomes a ghost, which in some sense may be present in the homestead ghost shrine, but also dwells with other ghosts and with the Supreme Being, Mbori, in earth caves in the forest.


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