Saturday, 17 August 2013

THE WRATH OF THE ANCESTRAL SPIRITS

by Martin Walsh

I've just finished The Wrath of Koma, Maurice Kambishera Mumba's entertaining tale about tradition and tragedy among the Kauma, published by Heinemann Kenya in 1987. The back-cover blurb of the paperback introduces the story:

Old Chembe, a Kauma man from the Am[i]dzichenda people of the Kenya coast, is gravely worried about his son, Dundu, who appears to be going mad. He travels across many ridges to see Mokoli Mwiru, the famous medicineman, for a diagnosis of his son's problem. Mokoli Mwiru gives his diagnosis: Dundu, born after intercession to the ancestral sprits, is under the wrathful attack of the spirits who resent the ingratitude of Chembe's family. Mokoli Mwiru prescribes a ceremony of appeasement.

Old Chembe, weak and irresolute, botches the ceremony... What tragic fate awaits him, his son and his larger family as the unappeased spirits seeks their revenge?

I won't spoil the plot here. Although I bought this short novel in Mombasa shortly after it came out, this is the first time that I've read it from cover to cover. It may not be great literature, but I've enjoyed Mumba's story-telling, the tales-within-tales, the dissolution of the text into poetry, and his wry description of rural life and morality in the waning years of colonial rule. The Wrath of Koma is especially interesting for its anthropology, and not just because the Kauma are among the least written about of the Mijikenda. I've mined Mumba's tale in the past for ethnographic and in particular ethnoornithological tidbits (as in my 'Birds of omen and little flying animals with wings'), but there's much more in it that deserves to be exposed and analysed anthropologically. This includes passages that revolve around the gendered perceptions and motivations of spirit possession and the sometimes violent reactions of men to the claims made upon them. Hearing the distant sound of an exorcism ritual (kupunga pepo), the protagonist reflects on his own experience:

As the sound of the pepo drums faded in the background, becoming less and less audible as he plodded on, Old Chembe thought of the costs he had incurred in having pepo [possessory spirits] exorcised from his four wives.

  There were moments when Old Chembe wondered whether his wives had not conspired to feign that they were possessed by pepo so that they could acquire items which he had refused to buy for them. But Old Chembe was not like his eastern neighbour Jaramba, who once flogged his wives with his walking stick to exorcise the demons in them--none of them 'dared' to be possessed by pepo again after that! (p.29)

The text goes on to detail how Jaramba came to administer this punishment, and how Old Chembe acceded to requests for the treatment of his possessed wives despite his scepticism. This is literature grounded in the observation of everyday life, a fictionalised account that conjures up the so-called 'deprivation theory' of spiritual affliction (Lewis 1971: 72-89), and invites further analysis with reference to current understandings of gender-based violence and its genesis in the imbalances of power and gendered patterns of inequality in the domestic and public spheres. It's a pity that The Wrath of Koma isn't more widely known. Maurice Mumba was the Town Clerk of Mombasa when it was published, and didn't follow it up with another novel. I don't know what has become of him since. When I lived in Mombasa I actually bought three copies of his book, one to give to another anthropologist. Although I only used it for many years as a work of reference, I'm glad that I finally got round to reading it.

References

Lewis, Ioan M. 1971. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Mumba, Maurice Kambishera 1987. The Wrath of Koma. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya.

Walsh, Martin 1992. Birds of omen and little flying animals with wings. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 22 (1): 2-9.

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