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1 Settings and Samples in African Cults of Affliction
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God, Jesus, The Ancestors, And Janet In Luba Divination

Bilumbu, of Luba-Kasai origin, reflects the same emphasis on the core points of the social structure, in this case the patrilineage. Like Nkita, it has experienced significant changes with the urbanization of its clientele. The kilumbu (singular of bilumbu ) is a medium of the spirits who interprets the misfortunes of others. Bilumbu mediums enter this role after having their own possession or disturbances, and having been told by diviners that they have bulumbu , that is, the gift of prophecy or divination. The bilumbu, as well as the chiefs (balopwe ) in Luba society, are the individuals who legitimately interpret buvidye , the quality associated with bavidye , the founding spirits of the Luba nation (Booth 1977:56; Roberts 1988).

Observation of a Makenga variant—"to work for those who need it"—of the Bilumbu rite in Kinshasa in 1982, however, makes very plain that the urban rite, at least this one, has changed significantly from what it was earlier. After many generations of male mediums in a particular patrilineage, a woman had become the central medium of this particular cell. The "generalization" of divination and therapeutics, which has already been mentioned in connection with Nkita healers, was also evident in this instance of Bilumbu.

Kishi Nzembela, a woman of about sixty years, mother of eight, grandmother of twenty-two, carried on her lineage's Luba divinatory and therapeutic tradition. Zairian psychologist Mabiala ma Ndela, who accompanied me on this visit, had known Nzembela for some time and regarded her work as somewhat atypical within this tradition.


Nzembela "owned" or "managed" the spirit of her deceased daughter Janet, although all buvidye holders within the Nzembela line of mediums and spirits had been males for at least four generations before her.

Nzembela prefaced our discussion of her ancestors, and her daughter Janet, with emphatic affirmations that she was a devout Catholic and believed in God and Jesus, and that these must be named before any ancestors in an invocation. The walls of her small chapel featured two painted portraits, one of the Christian Trinity, the other of her daughter Janet.

Nzembela's entry into this work had begun in 1956, eight years after the death of her daughter Janet at age eighteen. Janet, a cripple, had been a talented, dynamic person and a leader, having been elected to head a group of handicapped children. She was also a gifted singer and had wanted to pursue a career as a singer. She had been possessed by spirits and claimed the gift of spiritual healing, as well. At eighteen, in the course of a pregnancy that seemed to the family to go on interminably, she died of complications. The family had also at that time had trouble with the police at the market.

Janet's spirit visited the family in 1956, when her brother, a soldier in training in France, was possessed following a sickness he could not overcome with help in hospitals. In his dreams, Janet instructed the family to give her a proper burial, to construct a beautiful tomb. Her brother did not wish to become a medium, so Nzembela, the mother, offered to do it for him. In a family celebration, a beautiful tomb was dedicated (in the byombela rite with the ngoma drum), and a feast was held following the sacrifice of a goat and four chickens. Having done this, Kishi Nzembela received a vision in which her mother, Madila, told her there was no conflict between the work of Janet and membership in the Catholic church. She was instructed to continue attending church, although on hearing of her possession, the church threatened her with excommunication. She went to the priest with her dilemma. After her presentation of her visions, and the priest's affirmation of how beautiful they had been, she received his blessing. If her work was evil, it would destroy her; if it was good, she would be blessed.[1]

She has continued working with the spirit of Janet and has had many mostly Luba clients from within and outside the family, including a few whites. Nzembela does not divine and heal on Sundays, the days she prays and worships. Weekdays, she is very busy. Some clients enter into trance quickly, others need pemba , white powder, sprinkled on them to achieve it. Nzembela offered that her own behavior may affect the


degree to which Janet will come to clients. If, for example, she has done wrong, Janet will hesitate. Sometimes Janet journeys to Europe to visit her siblings, in which case she will not respond to singing and chanting in Nzembela's seances.

As we arrived to visit Nzembela, she was singing and shaking two rattles. Five other persons were seated on the floor inside the chapel, either singing or in trance (fig. 1). Nzembela had already taken care of one healing case earlier in the morning. Mabiala and I were invited to join those seated before her. All present were given white powder to put on their foreheads and at each temple, so as to be able to "see clearly" the things of the spirit. Nzembela and an assistant were wearing white coats with a red cross on the lapel. As the singing and rattle shaking became more intense and Nzembela distributed dried tufts of an aromatic plant to inhale, several of the participants began waving their hands about. Nzembela was leading the rhythm, but it was her young assistant who first became fully entranced and provided the central mediumship role for the seance. This woman was a client of several months, about twenty years old. She had been married, but her husband had not paid her family the bride price, and he had left her with a young child. Her family was angry with her and the young man. She was under great stress. Nzembela had taken her in to work and counsel with her.

When the young assistant, following the singing, became possessed with Janet, she announced—in an altered voice—Janet's greeting. Thereafter, "Janet," in a painfully distorted voice, spoke about each case before her, in turn, interspersing her comments with addresses to "Mama" Nzembela, telling her what she was seeing in the cases. The case of another young woman's affliction, she said, resulted from her "witchcraft" of having lured her sister to Kinshasa. Her abandonment of her rural parents had generated conflict in the family. She would need to be cleansed and reconciled with her parents to be whole again.

The young medium, possessed with Janet, turned to me and asked about my marriage. When I assured her it was good, she wanted to know with what problem I had come. I decided on the spur of the moment to mention a work-related problem. "Janet" said, and this was confirmed by Nzembela, that there were indeed persons or spirits who were trying to hurt me, even though they had not succeeded in doing so. The medium gave me some pemba powder to put on my forehead and temples, and under my feet and under my pillow, to help me in dreams to see the truth about my situation. This would also return the evil intentions back upon their perpetrators.


Figure 1.
 Kishi Nzembela's compound in Kinshasa, Zaire: (a) Nzembela's
therapeutic chapel decorated with paintings of Jesus and the angels, and
daughter Janet; (b) storeroom; (c) patrilineal ancestors' shrine with wooden
figures depicting particular persons; (d) matrilateral female ancestors'
shrine; (e) tree shrine with base painted with white and red dots; (f) water
tap; (g) latrines; (h) living quarters.

Another seance began with Nzembela, shaking the rattle, singing her hymnlike song about Jesus and God who had saved us and Janet who would bring solace. A young man was in deep prayer, as if trying to enter trance to see his problems. Nzembela picked up a second rattle to intensify the rhythm and to bring the young man into trance, but he did not come. Later she took up his case in a semiprivate counseling session and listened to his complaints and miseries. Presently the young woman assistant entered trance, "Janet" again greeted "Mama" and the others and then turned to the young man to divine his case. Through the assistant, "Janet" said she could not see his problem behind his dizziness and loss of memory. She then turned to her own child. "Janet"


began thumping on the child, holding it between her legs, rolling around, while the child screamed. "Janet" said the child had a bad spirit of death in it. The child's mother (in trance) was evil, and the child was in terrible shape. I feared that this outburst of self-negation by the young woman would hurt or even kill her infant. However, this did not happen.

Further cases were more mundane. There was the woman who wanted to find out why her husband's Mercedes had crashed. He had seen bad spirits, said Nzembela. A woman whose husband was roaming around unfaithfully, "Janet" accused of wrong actions toward her husband.

The voice of "Janet" lapsed and Nzembela, as herself, began listening, occasionally offering advice, to the quiet young man who had been sitting in the corner throughout all this. She moved close to him, "in therapy" now, and spoke softly to him, prohibiting him from thinking of suicide. She encouraged him to pray, to take white powder, and to return next day for cleansing. The others present also received similar counsel and attention from Nzembela.

She also told of a case of a white man's family that had come to her for the presentation of their problem: his failing business and a marriage that was breaking up. During the divining and therapy session the family's daughter went into trance and revealed that her husband, a Latin or Italian, was from a people who had something against her own people, the Flemish. Her ancestors were against her marriage to him. After some confessions and the revelation of other problems, this family was helped to resolve their differences.

Apart from the young apprentice who had entered possession several times, it was unclear how many of these clients would eventually be drawn into a network of similar Bilumbu medium-healers. The session ended when all the clients had been dealt with for the morning.

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