Join us on a trip to Uganda guided by our guest blogger Sophie Hooge Seebach, PhD Scholar at the Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University:
What do the voices of the dead sound like?
In Acholi, Northern Uganda, the spirits of the dead do not disappear when the physical body stops functioning. If you die a good and natural death, you are buried close to the home where your spirit remains to look after your living relatives. But if you are murdered, or if your body and grave is not respected properly, your spirit might turn into a cen; a vengeful spirit intent upon causing trouble and hurting people till they receive the right sacrifices, usually in the form of goats or chickens.
Ajwaki, witchdoctors or diviners, use calabashes such as this to communicate with the dead, and to manipulate the cen into leaving their victims be. One ajwaki-in-training showed me his calabash and told me that when he was done with his training, I would be able to hear the voices of the spirits clearly, in the sound of the rattling seeds inside. He never managed to get me to hear the voices of the dead. Only once did I come close to experiencing the powers of the spirits, and that was when I visited an ajwaka called Acayo; the one who gave me this calabash.
A young woman was suspected of having been possessed by spirits, so she had come to Acayo to seek help. Ten or so women rattling calabashes and three men playing drums were crowded into a little hut, all looking at the young woman sitting in their midst. As the music built, and the sound of singing and rattling of calabashes became overpowering, the young woman rose and danced wildly in a trance-like state, stamping her feet on the dusty floor, tears streaming down her face. Acayo found a chicken which she handed the young woman, as ‘food’ for the angry spirits possessing her. In an explosion of movement the young woman sprinted out the door, chicken under one arm, and with a flurry of dust and colourful fabrics, all the women followed. They would go to the bush and cook and eat the chicken, and thus hopefully satisfy the spirit so it would leave the young woman alone.
Maybe, on that day, I did hear the voices of the dead.
// Sophie Hooge Seebach
Photo of calabash: © 2007 Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.
Additional photos: Sophie Hooge Seebach