Hauntings: possessing bodies, reclaiming spaces in Niger
(Tulane University/Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies)
Paper short abstract:
Spirit possession, Islam, schooling, haunted spaces, erasure of spiritscape, Niger
Paper long abstract:
The past decade has witnessed a proliferation of incidents of mass possession among schoolgirls in Niger. Possession by brutal, unpredictable spirits dramatizes the controversies surrounding women's education in Nigerien society. Rather than address the moral panic set in motion by Nigerien girls' increased presence in schoolrooms, I focus on other claims to spaces articulated in the language of spiritual ecology. During exorcism, possessing spirits claim to have lost their homes when trees were cut to build schools. These spirits are part of a sacred topography disrupted by the transformation of the bush into farmland, the shift toward individual property, and urban expansion. In the pre-Islamic past, landmarks such as trees objectified the tenuous relations between people and spirits, configuring the landscape into a vibrant microcosm. Only after securing the spirits' approval could one cut a tree; spirit veneration thus translated into an ecological ethos that guided the management of natural resources. In the wake of colonization, trees were cut to make way for road and human settlements. Later the implementation of new agrarian practices and the promotion of Islamic law further encouraged land clearing and the subsequent destruction of the spiritscape. Today spirits haunt the "edge of Islam," giving voice to conflicts over moral and material spaces, their boundaries, and their histories. In an age of renewed anxiety over the definition of Islam and Muslim practices, schoolgirls caught by violent spirits demanding to be remembered thus obliquely call attention to the ways that some spaces are struggled over.
Spirit of place