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Adeline Masquelier (2001): Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger.

Adeline Masquelier (2001) Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger. Durham and London: Duke University Press. pp. 319. ISBN 0822326337 (hbk) US$74.95; ISBN 0822326396 (pbk) US$23.95.

Masquelier's essay addresses complex issues surrounding the possession cults of the Mawri, a Hausa-speaking people from the Dogondoutchi region (Niger). The phenomenon that the author describes is intriguing, since these possession cults, though they fall within the general category of 'possession', are quite distinctive. The interaction between the world of humans and the world of spirits (the Bori) is continuous, and is thus not confined to difficult moments, whether individual or collective, such as epidemics, hunger, and war. Further, it is perfectly clear that Bori society evolved historically by adapting itself to diverse situations: first, it faced the challenges posed by colonial domination, and afterwards it faced the impetuous growth of Islam. It is thus possible to read the present situation, not only as an intricate, synchronic socio-religious system, but also as a hic et nunc response to the challenge posed by Islam. In other words, the cult of the Bori may be linked to the preservation of Mawri traditional identity, and may, therefore, have emerged as part of a conflictual encounter with Islam: which is the most powerful world, that of the Bori spirits or that of Islam?

Masquelier succeeds in lucidly describing how the ambiguous zone between the 'traditional' world (which considers Islam as responsible for much of what is bad in the present) and so-called 'orthodox' Islam (which considers the Bori spirits as a relic of paganism) is culturally organized. A dynamic situation arises from this, a situation in which it is actually the cult of the Bori that is in charge of mediating between these two realms: the Bori cult attempts to occupy an intermediate space in which it represents many positions of prestige (and thus of power). This is the case with lightning bolts: are they hurled by the offended Bori spirits, or are they hurled by Allah for some reason? This is the case with death and disease as well. Thanks to a certain adaptability, the ritual specialists of the Bori manage to maintain, bon gre mal gre, a certain prestige and social power that Muslims can challenge publicly, but do not need to deny privately and in everyday life.

It is interesting as well to note how the Bori spirits are differentiated in terms of their functions, and in terms of their character. And, this richness and specificity become the property of the possessed people, who take on the spirits' personal behaviors. In short, in many respects, Masquelier's volume constitutes an original contribution to our knowledge about possession.

However, there is an odd lacuna in the author's exposition: she informs us that the Bori spirits, when they ride their 'horses', speak in order to express their desires, to issue their injunctions, and also to give suggestions to their devotees. Well, what do they say? I think that it would have been interesting to know the range of content that existed in the Bori spirits' utterances. Since 'possession' is (at least from our perspective) typically conceptualized as an altered state of consciousness, it might seem that verbalization is not culturally conditioned, and thus does not merit careful analysis. Indeed, the author dismisses these verbalizations as irrelevant, yet she should have explained to her readers the reasons for their putative irrelevance.

From a methodological perspective, it is worth observing that Masquelier appears to share the conviction that there is a single hermeneutic framework for interpreting symbols, regardless of the (possibly competing) interpretations offered by her informants. Yet this conviction, of course, is highly problematic. Indeed, the reader often finds himself/herself without any means to evaluate the hypotheses that are advanced. I would also like to add that the author is not economizing in the use of her own rhetoric. In several cases, it is Masquelier herself who invests native practices with symbolic meanings. Let us assume that she interprets them properly. Yet how can one know whether she has really interpreted them properly? I will limit myself to only one example--one that, I believe, illustrates how Masquelier achieves her goal quite well, namely: the close relationship between food and sex (Chapter 7). The author spends a long time on this theme, and produces, among other things, significant semantic glosses. She glosses ci as 'to eat', 'and notes that ci is also used to indicate sexual intercourse, if said of a man. Sha is glossed as 'to drink', and indicates sexual intercourse when said of a woman. It is likely that the analogies she observes between food and sex are consonant with languages and cultures found elsewhere in West Africa (e.g. Akan languages and so on). In many cases, the connection between sexual activity and commensality involves socially shared rules, on whom can legally share his or her own meal with whom. To my knowledge, the relationship is most often mirror-like: one eats with whom one cannot have sexual intercourse. It would be interesting to know if similar rules exist among the Mawri, and if so, these findings would need to be incorporated into the author's explanations of the symbolic connection between food and sex.

Another methodological point centers on Masquelier's rightful position against 'exotic occultism' (p. 122). That is to say, she is against the tendency to maintain a strict distinction between reason and magic, and between secular and sacred actions, since these oppositions separate the 'imaginary' from everyday life and exoticize it. The author aptly calls attention instead to the 'everydayness' of the Bori, 'of their taken-for-granted knowledge which goes without saying and needs no justification' (p. 122). However, she seems to neglect the fact that this claim has significant philosophical and cognitive implications: we are inside the problematic of 'beliefs', a problematic that has a long history, as discussed, for example, by R. Needham and J. Pouillon (1993).

Generally, the author demonstrates good bibliographic knowledge, yet sometimes pushes herself to the limits of citation. For example, is it really necessary to provide the reader with bibliographic references, if one asserts that a husband has to procure raw food that has to then be cooked by his wife (p. 239)? Instead, the relationship between Islam and the African market could have benefited from a better treatment, a relationship that is well known, and which has a century long history.


NEEDHAM, R. and J. Pouillon (1993) Le cru et le su. Paris: Seuil.

Franco Crevatin

University of Trieste, Italy
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Author:Crevatin, Franco
Publication:Journal of Asian and African Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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