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Talking with Spirits: Eco-Intimacy and Spirit Exorcism in the Nigerian Sahel

Conerly Casey
Rochester Institute of Technology

Friday, December 6, 2019
2 p.m.–5 p.m.
Lattimore 513

Abstract: A fervent politics of language and the senses sparked off in northern Nigeria, when, in 1995, more than 600 Muslim secondary school girls became possessed by spirits, with the new sign of “dancing like they do in Indian film.” Spirit possession in this Bollywood form spread across northern states to co-evolve with a meningitis epidemic as it swept across the desert, killing thousands. Almost immediately, Qur’anic scholar-healers began to publicly reprimand Bori spiritual healers for corrupting the senses of Muslims by calling spirits with music and dance. They suggested these sensory practices eroded the geographic and bodily boundaries between humans and spirits that kept humans safe. In this talk, I consider these eco-intimacies and the forms of ontological power, sensory languages and agencies that emerged in talking with spirits. How do we share our bodies and ecologies with the beings and things that surround us, or move in and out of us—whether with humans, spirits, plants, animals, rocks, or metals? Forcefully reading Qur’anic verses to “boil the heads” of spirits, Qur’anic scholar-healers compelled spirits to speak so as to convert them to Muslim “orthodoxy,” before expelling them from their human hosts. Yet, as the spirit exorcisms progressed, Qur’anic scholar-healers extended beyond the disciplinary, expulsive speech of spirit exorcisms to talk with spirits about appropriate spirit-human relations, and the sensoria and forms of speech that called, harmed and displaced humans and spirits. These are by no means new questions in the lively ‘turns’ to affect and ontology across the disciplines. But, with few exceptions, these questions have not entered studies of religious and medical pluralism, and the ecologically-informed sensory languages of neurodiversity and spiritual healing.