An anthropologist schooled in spiritual healing offers wisdom for troubled times

By | September 1, 2022

Anna Badkhen writes:

Once upon a time, in a thatched spirit hut in the Nigerien village of Tillaberi, the Songhay master sorcerer Adamu Jenitongo told the American anthropologist Paul Stoller that the bush was angry. “People who speak with two mouths and feel with two hearts anger the spirits of the bush,” Adamu Jenitongo said. “When the bush is angry there is not enough rain. When the bush is angry there is too much rain. When the bush is angry locusts eat our crops. When the bush is angry sickness kills our people.”

Today, Stoller is a professor of anthropology at West Chester University, a permanent fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and the author of 15 books. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology, given once every three years by the King of Sweden. He is also what the Songhay call a Sohanci benya, a healer who did not inherit his powers but was taught—often a captive or an enslaved person, or, in Stoller’s case, a cultural anthropologist from the United States studying the medicinal properties of plants used in Songhay ethnomedicine. Stoller ended up apprenticing with Adamu Jenitongo for 17 years. He explained his teacher’s comment to me this way: “His whole thing was that when things are out of kilter, when things are out of balance, when there’s a lack of harmony in social relations, then we suffer as human beings.”

Who would deny the lack of harmony in social relations today? It felt like high time to ask Stoller, whose 16th book, Wisdom from the Edge of the Village: Writing Ethnography in Troubled Times, comes out next spring, about what he has learned during his long career, the phenomenon of “spirit possession,” and what wisdom we can take from the villages and people he has studied. [Continue reading…]