David C. Driskell Center


The Body in the African Body Politic
December 4, 2002

A symposium sponsored by the University of Maryland's Center for Historical Studies and
The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of African Diaspora.
Organizer: David Gordon, Department of History, University of Maryland

Representations of the body have long been a component of African political discourse. In precolonial Africa, masks, statues and bodily performance were important aspects of political authority and resistance. Malfeasance was often conceived as a solid material in the body. In the colonial period, new constellations of power, healing abilities and occult forces were represented by abstracted body parts; from the bone-crushing powers of the colonial state to the marrow and blood-sucking qualities of colonial collaborators and parvenu entrepreneurs. In post-colonial Africa, scholars and activists have described the nexus of post-colonial elite accumulation and corrupt state services as the “politics of the belly.” And in civil society, a fascination with sex and defecation has become a sign of detachment from and disgust with formal political life.

The symposium gathers scholars of different disciplines and time periods to discuss how bodily representations have informed African political discourses and practices. The discussion should shed light on the continuities and ruptures in this significant aspect of African political discourse.

Paper Abstracts

David B. Coplan, University of the Witwatersrand

"Ningizimu: Anthropophagy and the Contest of Civilizations in South Africa"

The new South African 5 rand coin uses the old original Zulu name for the country into which their ancestors were migrating centuries ago: Ningizimu, “place of cannibals”. Beginning its sanguine career in the region as a metaphor for the dangerous untamed, in early 19th century African accounts cannibalism becomes both a metaphor and a by-product of the kind of war, new to the region, in which powerful, migratory invaders consume whole sub-clans whose settled habitations lie in their predatory path. Conversely, monarchic founder figures such as Shaka of the Zulu and Mohlomi and Moshoeshoe of the Basotho ba Bakwena are reputed to have extirpated or incorporated unsettled cannibal communities as an fundamental aspect of their civilizing, nation-building missions (even if those they vanquished regarded them as cannibals themselves).

The subsequent depredations by mixed-race (Euro-Khoisan), and finally white colonial invaders north of the Orange River were viewed by the Bantu-speakers in a similar light: an attack of all-consuming rapacity by the cannibalistic, uncivilized, migratory personalistic followings upon the agro-pastoralist, civilized, institutionalized aristocracies of the region. With the rise of industrial racial capitalism on the back of the mineral revolution, this imagistic complex found new application in the working lives of proletarianizing peasants dispossessed of their land and forced into mines, factories, and urban and rural labor reserves. In Lesotho, the metaphor was corrupted by the theory and putative practice of medicine murder, in which tissue excised from living bodies was thought to be processed and consumed to strengthen contentions to colonial chieftaincy. Cannibalism thus has had a long career as an unsavory emblem of social pathology, parasitism, and disintegration. In its elaboration, this multi-valent metaphor cannibalized other culturally-grounded concepts and images of the body, drawn from social banditry, political resistance, and today’s starved hopes. The paper explores the imbrication of the symbolic dyads of civilized/uncivilized (cultured/uncultured; ordered/disordered) in metaphors of consumption of the bodily substance of self/other in South African social historical discourses up to the present.


Wyatt MacGaffey

"Body politics and the problem of magic: a comparative approach."

Kongo rituals, manipulating the body personal to benefit the body politic, raise the problem of "magic," in that actions in one arena are irrationally supposed to cause effects in an unrelated one. Anthropologists have excused this irrationality by arguing that the actions are intended expressively, but this excuse evades the fact that the actors deem their action instrumental. Part of the problem is the word "magic," which establishes a boundary a priori between us and them. This paper breaks down the boundary by considering the rituals of family values in the US and their supposed political effects; the Miss America Pageant is an example of such ritual.


Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts

"The King is a Woman: Embodiment and Resistance in Luba Political History."

This presentation addresses the role of body memory in Luba political practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the memory of deceased kings was embodied in the person of a woman and in regalia that depicted women both abstractly and literally. The paper will present strategies of Luba royal expansion in the precolonial period and concepts of power that are lodged in notions about the human body. Gender specific references to femininity and spirituality are visualized through insignia and other articles of leadership and historical record keeping. The visual record combined with testimony from Luba royals demonstrates that while men ruled in overt terms, women constituted the covert side of sacred royalty and played critical roles in alliance-building and decision-making. Women also figured centrally in attracting and securing the spiritual allegiance necessary for a state built on the strength of spiritual entities called bavidye.

The perpetuation of the royal Luba line was attributed not just to conception through the maternal line, but through the embodiment of the king’s spirit after death in the body of a woman who assumed the title of Mwadi and became the king himself. Processes of exchange and communication between the new king and the various Mwadi spirit mediums of previous kings formed an important dimension of sacred royal practice. The paper will examine the dynamics of colonization and the obstacles that the institution of Mwadi spirit mediums created for Belgian authorities seeking to centralize their power. In effect, the Mwadi and the entire royal apparatus founded upon the ambiguous gendering of power became a quiet form of resistance and led to alternative modes of Luba colonial domination in the early 20th century.


Z. S. Strother, University of California, Los Angeles

"Torturing the Body Politic: Pende Strategies for Empowering 'Society Against the State' (DRC)"

The body is a constant preoccupation during the investiture process of new chiefs among the Pende of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. First, the candidate should meet certain standards. Ideally, he should be “beautiful,” not-too-tall, with the “face of a woman.” Before the process begins, he must pass tests to ascertain that he is not impotent. During the investiture process, which may last for two to six months, the candidate’s body is then moulded like a living sculpture through a carefully calibrated program. For food, the community is heavily taxed to provide him with generous portions of chicken or goat meat at every meal. He may not eat “leaves” during this period. For liquid refreshment, he may only drink palm wine. He is forced to sit immobile for most of the day, but should engage in intense aerobic dancing at dawn and late at night. He is assigned a handmaiden whose principal occupation is the maintenance of his skin; she rubs on a bark wood powder several times a day in order to insure its glowing and satiny texture. Because of this loving care for his body, it is surprising to learn that the candidate must also undergo periodic assaults, ranging from beating with switches; having hot pepper inserted into his eyes and orifices; being forced to sit on a nest of army ants; being forced to remain sitting on a mat without moving for two to three days. This paper will analyze these events in light of Pierre Clastres’ argument that the “torture” of initiations, the desire to mark the body, represents a desire to inoculate the body against a desire for power.


Luise White, University of Florida

"Corporal Metaphors of Insurgency and Counter-insurgency. Or, the Politics of the Face."

I want to examine the specific corporal practices, metaphors, and imagined practices associated with struggles against colonial rule. I argue that the overall import of these practices, especially when read alongside the meanings of other bodily markings and practices in Africa, seeped into European colonial thought, and became central to colonial assertions about the practice of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Some of the embodied practices of Mau Mau are a case in point. The presence of menstrual blood (called "monthlies" in colonial documents), urine, and severed members in Mau Mau oaths were indeed transgressive in terms of Kikuyu society; they were also fairly predictable fictions constructed by administrators who sought to gross out liberals in the colonial office. But whether practices were real or imagined, exaggerated or embellished is hardly the issue: almost everywhere, Africans were said to transform their bodies in order to enhance their powers in rebellion, and whites claimed that they too could transform their bodies-and by extension, their selves-by disguise, and thus and baffle and confuse the Africans they sought to mimic and repress. At this point, I want to look at three examples of insurgency and counter-insurgency: Algeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. The newly unveiled woman of the Algerian revolution, crossing roadblocks to European areas with explosives in her handbag, was celebrated as an embodied transformation by Fanon. But the whole idea of the anonymity of veiling and the transformative power of unveiling managed to combine orientalist and sexual fantasies on both sides of the political spectrum: Fanon cannot describe the unveiled revolutionary woman without describing her dress, her bare arms, and her bare legsBin short, her body. In Kenya and to a greater extent in Zimbabwe, white soldiers blackened their faces and claimed they could pass as Africans well enough to infiltrate guerilla groups. Ludicrous as this sounds, the writing of these counter-insurgents are filled with descriptions of what they imagined such face painting would do: far more than most of the men they were fighting, they believed in the power of masquerade, and dressing and making up as a form of disguise. (Some also wanted to practice a more complete bodily transformation, but the could not transform the genitals which remained the marker of racial difference in this literature). In this paper I want to look at two things, the political imaginary that allows for such a corporeal re-vision in both insurgency and counter-insurgency, and the ways that ideas about the body, and the metaphorical power thereof, informed European thought about Africans.

For further information contact:

Dr. David Gordon
Department of History
2115 Francis Scott Kay Hall
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-7315
TEL: (301) 405-5034
FAX: (301) 314-9399