Preferred Citation: Janzen, John M. Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

1 Settings and Samples in African Cults of Affliction

The "Grands Rites" Of Kinshasa

Kinshasa, Africa's largest city below the Equator, with about 3.5 million inhabitants, covers over two hundred square kilometers on the banks of the Zaire River. Local scholarship speaks of "les grands rites," representing numerous regional and ethnic traditions from around the Congo basin.

The local society of Kinshasa, and approximately half of its inhabitants, are of the Kongo-speaking (or Kikongo) society, of Lower Congo, or Zaire. From its beginning as the village of Kinshasa, then as the capital of the Belgian Congo, and after independence in 1960, as the capital of Zaire, Kinshasa has drawn residents from the entire region. The civil wars of the postindependence era and the deterioration of rural infrastructure and standard of living, together with the lure of the city, have led to the migration of many people to the city to seek their livelihood. Population expansion far beyond the ability of the city to provide an infrastructure of electricity, sewerage, and even water, has given rise to enormous suburban villagelike settlements. These population movements into the capital have brought with them the religious, therapeutic, and social forms of the regional cultures. From the Luba area of the Kasai region, one finds Bilumbu; from the upriver Mai-Ndombe region of Bandundu, Badju and Mpombo; from upriver in Equateur Province around Mbandaka, Zebola and Elima (or Bilima); from the Upper Zaire and Kivu, Mikanda-Mikanda; from Bas-Zaire and Bandundu provinces, Nkita; and from East Africa and Kivu, Mizuka.

Buttressing The Lineage In Western Bantu Society

Of the major cults of affliction represented in Kinshasa, the most characteristic of Western Bantu society—coastal Kongo, eastward into


Bandundu—is undoubtedly Nkita. Not only is the focus of its therapeutic ritual, the lineage, at the core of the society, but it is ancient. It is mentioned in early historical documentation on the Congo coast, as well as in accounts from Haiti, where it has become an element in the loa system. Nkita is associated with bisimbi nature spirits, and, as a lineage cult, is often involved in the regeneration and maintenance of lineage government. The bisimbi invest, or validate, lineage authority, which in many regions is embodied in powerful medicinal and religious compositions, the minkisi . Nkita concentrates on the dynamics of the matrilineage and the individual affliction believed to originate from lineage problems. The cult cell is within the lineage itself, frequently originating in the crises of segmentation and the need to renew leadership (Bibeau et al. 1977; Janzen 1978; Lema 1978; Nsiala 1979, 1982; Devisch 1984).

The history of lineage and public cults of affliction is significant in coastal and Western Bantu society. Given the prominence of fairly fixed settlements, landed agrarian lineages, and of markets and trade, and of—especially coastal and Southern Savanna—chiefdoms, this is not surprising. However, few of the early institutional forms have been adequately studied. The close articulation of emblems of authority, social renewal, and healing is common. My work on the historic Lemba cult that emerged in the seventeenth century in the context of the great coastal trade bears this out (Janzen 1982). Lemba represented a ritualized concern for several dimensions of society—the maintenance and protection of alliances between landed and prominent lineages; protection of the mercantile elite from the threat of envy by their subordinates due to their accumulation of wealth; the maintenance of trade routes overland between the Atlantic coast and the big markets of the interior; finally, the resolution of contradictions that resulted from the social upheavals caused by the great trade. There will be occasion to return to Lemba as an example of a public cult of affliction later in this book.

As in many cults of affliction, nkita is at once the name of the illness, the spirit behind it, and the therapeutic rite. The sign of affliction in Nkita is frequently expressed in diffuse psychological distress, dreams, and fevers, or threat to the continuity of the lineage in the form of children's illnesses or deaths, the barrenness of women or couples, or lingering sickness of male leaders. These problems are often associated with the suspicion of inadequate leadership, or at any rate a loss of contact with the bisimbi or nkita spirits in which lineage authority is vested. An individualized version of Nkita therapy concentrates on particular


cases that, if cumulative and serious, may trigger a collective therapy that seeks to renew leadership through the resolution of conflicts and the reestablishment of harmonious relationships with ancestors and nature spirits.

The Nkita rite, following the identification of the individual or collective diagnosis of the cause of the misfortune, requires the "quest for nkita spirits" in a river at the outset of the seclusion of the sufferer. These spirit forces are usually represented in smooth stones or lumps of coral resin found in appropriate streambeds, and they become the focus of the identification of the sufferer with the spirits. The seclusion of the sufferer-novice and instruction in the esoteric learning of Nkita is the first stage of teaching by the Nkita leader. The site or domain of this seclusion, a common feature of all ngoma initiations, is in Kikongo called vwela and refers to the forest clearing or the enclosure of palm branches, set apart and sacralized for this purpose.

Because of the lineage focus of Nkita and simbi spirit mediation, the rites attendant to Nkita have a close connection to, or arc done concurrently with, other rites that perpetuate collective lineage symbols, such as shrines bearing ancestors' mortal remains (nails, hair, bits of bone), leopard skins, chiefly staffs, sabers, or other signs considered to bear the spirit and office of past leaders. In some of these parallel rites, ceremonial couples, such as the Lusansa male and female priests, provide the personification of the continuous spiritual line. Instances of sickness or infertility in lineages associated with these rites may precipitate the nomination of new priestly couples.

In urban Kinshasa, according to psychologist Nsiala Miaka Makengo, who surveyed Nkita extensively in the mid-1970s (1979, 1982), there are an estimated forty to fifty "pure" Nkita practitioners, a figure that does not, however, include those whose practice is limited to their own lineages. The full rites, done with a full-fledged nganga Nkita are expensive and complex, thus beyond the reach of many families. Cost and availability of drummers, musicians, supporting personnel, transport to the site, and coordinating the whole ritual have become problematic. Thus, Nkita practitioners have tended to become generalized therapists for Kongo and non-Kongo people, in which non-kin join the seances, and the rituals become generalized for a range of conditions. Nsiala found that these Nkita healers receive on average five cases per day that require hospitalization, either in their compounds or another hospital, and up to a dozen cases that can be treated and released (1979:11). Of these, 40 percent were male, 60 percent female. They


came in all ages, distributed as follows: Children from birth to five years (15 percent), youths up to sixteen years (50 percent); adults (35 percent). Despite the apparent trend for the Nkita healers to become generic urban healers, their work continues to reflect the dual levels of the individual and the collectivity. Although the majority of cases are individuals, unique family or lineage therapies have evolved in the urban setting. These include mutual confessions, the group confessing to the sufferer, lifting the potential harm of malefic medicines, and holding veritable "psychopalavers" to vent the aggressions that exist within the group. These mechanisms of group renewal are frequently interspersed with divination to seek further understanding as to the internal group reasons for misfortunes.

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.

Urban Changes In Cults Of Affliction

This brief account of two urban cults of affliction from the Western Bantu setting, both emphasizing lineage or family mediation, does not exhaust the range of types and regions represented in Kinshasa. It hints of some of the changes that cults of affliction undergo with urbanization.

Zebola, which originated in the upriver Equator region, manifests itself in physiological and psychological sicknesses of individual men and women. In its historic rural context, Zebola affliction is usually traced


back to possession by nature spirits. A regimen of seclusion, counseling, and ritual therapy brings the clients, mostly female, back to health through therapeutic initiation in the Zebola order. In its urban setting, especially Kinshasa, Zebola possession is frequently diagnosed in cases of women who are pathologically affected by isolation from their peers or families in their urban households. Becoming a Zebola sufferer and neophyte puts the individual into permanent association with a peer group of fellow sufferers, and through therapeutic initiation, eventually gives the individual a leadership role in the wider Zebola community and network.

Ellen Corin's penetrating study of Zebola (1979), both in Equateur Province and in Kinshasa, demonstrates that the women and (a few) men who enter Zebola are increasingly from a variety of cultural backgrounds beyond the upriver Equator region. She notes that the therapeutic initiation, which lasts for months or years, brings the isolated individual into close bonding with others, and from obscurity to a recognizable ritual position in the society. Trancelike behavior inspired by Zebola spirits is less marked in the city than in the countryside.

Mpombo and Badju (Bazu) originate from the Mai-Ndombe region a few hundred kilometers upriver. Zairian psychologist Mabiala, who is studying these cults, notes that a variety of ill-defined signs and symptoms are the modes of affliction here, including dizziness, headache, lack of mental presence, skin rash, lack of appetite, difficulty in breathing, heartburn with anxiety, rapid or arhythmic heartbeat, fever with shivers, sexual impotence, dreams of struggles, or being followed by threatening animals; weight loss or excessive weight, especially if accompanied by spirit visitations; and a variety of gynecological and obstetrical difficulties. Therapeutic initiation also characterizes the entry into the cult of the afflicted.

Mizuka in Kinshasa is a cult of affliction brought to the city and represented largely in the Swahili-speaking community. Men and women are initiated following psychic crises, hallucinations, nervousness, weight loss, weakness, dizziness, and bad luck (Bibeau et al. 1979). Other cults of affliction in Kinshasa include Nzondo, Nkundo or Elima of northern pygmy influence, Mikanda-Mikanda, and Tembu.

Mabiala (1982) has summarized the recent trends in Kinshasa cults of affliction in both negative and positive terms. The high cost of living in the city has driven many people to become healers to earn an income. Many of these individuals are not well trained and have promoted widespread charlatanism. In the village, where most people knew one another and where authority was more intact, this was not so common.


Many people, seeking solutions to their problems, fall victim to the charlatans who hide their incompetence behind a mask of anonymity and fakery, claiming to be competent in whatever their clientele seems to need. This willingness to broaden the competence of the therapeutic focus for increased business, Mabiala and others call "excessive generalism." This, however, also reflects the continued adaptability of traditional medicine in the face of a changing variety of problems, including the broad and vague conditions that may lie behind specific organic symptoms. The importation of a therapeutic tradition into an urban setting far from where it has been learned or originated may lead, in certain circumstances, to a greater degree of abstraction of the principles involved in the selection and combination of medicines and techniques. If specific plants or materials called for in the recipe are not available in the city, substitutes may be selected based on the dictates of underlying principles. A final, negative development Mabiala sees is the trend of African healers to mimic Western medicine. They may modify their practice with technical items such as stethoscopes, microscopes, syringes, and of course the white coat and the "doctor" title.

On the positive side, Mabiala notes the progressive detribalization of therapeutic rites. Clients' willingness to consult healers of language and cultural traditions other than their own permits a greater adaptability to urban conditions and circumstances. The exchanges of therapeutic knowledge that result from healers themselves receiving treatment in cultural contexts other than their own, or being in "isolation" with another tradition's care, has the effect of spreading and enriching the knowledge base available for all. At the same time, there tends to be a rejection of those techniques that seem irrelevant or obsolete. A very positive development in African therapeutics is the addition, to this therapeutic base, of ideas of hygiene acquired by reading, from mass media, or through more focused programs by agencies promoting public health. The encouragement of healers' organizations by the government and the formation of a variety of such groups has also been a positive development, giving greater visibility to healers and bringing recognition by scientists and health-care agencies.

1 Settings and Samples in African Cults of Affliction

Preferred Citation: Janzen, John M. Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.