a process appreciation of The Mooba Dance and Spirit Possession among the Lenje in Zambia
Mooba dance of the Lenje ethnic group of Central Province of Zambia
"Mooba is the main dance of the Lenje ethnic group of Central Province of Zambia, performed since pre-colonial times. It is also practised in parts of Copperbelt and Lusaka Provinces, by both men and women. On certain occasions, when the dance reaches its peak, some lead dancers are possessed by ancestral spirits called BaChooba; it is said that, at this point, the spirits take the lead in dictating the flow of the dance, drumming and singing. Both male and female dancers can be possessed with BaChooba spirits. The costume includes coloured beads, a traditional skirt called a Buyombo, and rattles worn around the calves. In addition, the main dancers hold a spiritual stick known as a Chimika and a fly whisk made out of an animal’s tail. Mooba serves both entertainment and healing functions, and contributes to the spiritual identity of the community. Since the element is performed during social functions that are open to the public, children can observe and learn it freely, with performances attracting a wide audience thanks to their entertaining nature. Almost every adult knows the Mooba dance as it is the main dance of the Lenje people. The Lenje community has also established groups that perform wherever they are invited, helping to promote the practice further afield.
Withness of the Body: Whitehead's phrase, used in Process and Reality, to name the fact that, in human life, our bodies are "with" us at all times as a source of influence received through what he calls "experience in the mode of causal efficacy." The past actual world comes to us through our bodies.
Ecstatic Dancing: a form of bodily "withness" in which "the dancers, sometimes without the need to follow specific steps, abandon themselves to the rhythm and move freely as the music takes them, leading to trance and a feeling of ecstasy." (Wikipedia)
Abandoning Yourself to the Rhythm: in process philosophy the entire universe is vibrational and rhythmic. It moves in patterns. Drums are a way of hearing the rhythms in ways that are danceable. Ecstatic dancing is one form of abandonment.
Ancestral Spirit: a powerful human being in the past whose energy, spirit, and ideas influenced a community, and whose energy, spirit, and aims can be felt in the present, among other ways through dancing..
Spirit Possession: being a state where one’s ordinary sense of “I” is replaced the energy, spirit, and aims a spirit of an ancestral spirit. In moments of possession, the person psyche is governed and guided by the spirit. When the lead dancer in the Mooba dance is momentarily possessed by BaChooba ancestral spirits.
Inclusive Ecology: the universe in its interconnected multiplicity, including visible and invisible dimensions, all woven together into a dynamic evolving whole.
God: a cosmic lure toward healing, wholeness, and beauty found everywhere in creation and an eternal companion to the world's joys and sufferings. The inclusive ecology of the universe is God's body.
The Many Become One
In every moment of experience the entirety of the past actual world becomes incarnate: the many become one. As we respond to the past actual world, we add something new: our own vitality, our own spontaneity, our own hopes and fears. The many become one and are increased by one.
In human life the past actual world includes ancestors. The ancestors are among the many that become one in the present, along with everything else: hills and rivers, friends and family. Often they do this indirectly, through our memories of them and whatever rituals we have to celebrate the memories. They are vague presences buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. But sometimes the ancestors become one with us quite directly, when they take possession of our mind and bodies and dance us. Witness the Mooba Dance of the Lenje in Zambia. The dance is an activity in which BaChooba spirits enter into the present moment, controlling the dancing for a time, after which a kind of new life emerges, enriching the community.
The Ontological Status of Ancestral Spirits
Ancestral spirits are ancestors and they are spirits. They have lived in the past and they live in the present. What we think about them depends on what we think happens after death. John Cobb writes:
"Four general views are representative: merging with undifferentiated being, metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls), extinction, and renewed personal existence beyond death."
Many who are influenced by the sense-bound epistemology of the western enlightenment take "extinction" as the most likely possibility for what happens after death. To the question what happens after death, the answer is: Nothing. And to the question of where people go after they die, the answer is: Nowhere. Extinction is extinction.
But Cobb himself, influenced by Whitehead and the work of David Ray Griffin in parapsychology, leans in the direction of renewed personal existence after death. A Hindu process thinker, Jeffrey Long, believes metempsychosis is a likely possibility. And still others speak of a merging with undifferentiated being or, for that matter, with the differentiated being of the universe itself. With death, they say, our energy becomes part of the planet or the universe. We are, to use Whitehead's phrase, objectively immortal.
In a Whiteheadian perspective, all are possible and some of the views can be combined. For example, it is possible that a soul undergoes a continuing journey after death and that the energy of person whose soul it was becomes part of the universe after death.
How, then, might we reflect upon the possibility that, after death, an ancestor undergoes a continuing journey and continues to communicate with, and influence, successor generations? Many people believe that their ancestors reappear to them in dreams. This would be one example of an ancestral spirit reaching into ordinary life from a different plane of existence. But there are other options, too. If you are Buddhist, you might think of the ancestor as a Bodhisattva: that is, as a soul who returns to the earth to help liberate all sentient things. If you are Catholic, you might think of the ancestor as a saint who is still alive, capable of receiving prayers and offering guidance. If you are a member of the Lenje ethnic group in Zambia, you might think of the ancestor as a spirit who can guide the community through the Mooba dance. In the house of ancestral spirits there are many rooms. Below I focus on the Mooba dance.
- Jay McDaniel
A Place for Spirits in the Wider Ecology of Life
All over the world people believe in living ancestors: that is, people who existed in generations preceding them, but who are still alive with agency of their own, and with whom they can communicate. These ancestral spirits are not simply objects of detached belief; they are subjects, with agency of their own, who can be directly experienced through bodily movements: dance, for example. A person can be danced by the ancestors. An example of spirit possession can be found in the Mooba dance of the Lenje ethnic group of Central Province of Zambia. Their dance has been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
There was once a time when western thinkers, influenced by science, looked on such dances as "mere superstition." They assumed that the outcome of death is extinction and that ancestors, having died, do not really exist as agents in their own right. According to this view, being danced by an ancestor cannot really happen. When people have experiences of living ancestors, whether through communication in dreams or more dramatically, in possession, the ancestors they allegedly experience are but fictions of imagination; and the experiences themselves are best understood as interesting forms of brain chemistry.
The organic worldview of process philosophers offers a different and more appreciative understanding of spirit possession. This philosophy includes the notion (1) that the space-time continuum of the universe is composed of countless regions, of which three-dimensional space is but one; such that, in principle, actualities can inhabit or occupy regions in other dimensions. It also includes the idea (2) that a human being’s “mind,” understood as a series of subjects of experiences, is not precisely identical with the physical brain, which means that, in principle, a mind or soul continue after the death of the brain in some region of the extensive continuum. It includes the idea (3) that human beings can have mind-to-mind connections with other persons, living and dead, otherwise called hybrid prehensions. And it includes the idea (4) that bodily experience is primary in human life, such that we experience other persons and energies through what Whitehead called "the withness of the body." All of this points to the metaphysicalpossibility that living ancestors might be experienced and, yes, danced.
The very consideration of this possibility opens the door for a wider and more enchanted view of "ecology." Ecology includes social ecology as well as natural ecology, and social ecology includes relationships with ancestral spirits as well as contemporary generations. All are woven together, among other ways, in the dance. which itself is a social event nourishing the community and a sense of identity.
There is a fifth idea in Whitehead's philosophy that is relevant here. It is the idea (5) that the universe carries within itself a lure toward life and well-being, toward healing and wholeness, that is in people, the natural world, and, if they exist, in ancestral spirits. This lure is the living spirit of God. The Lenje ethnic group shows us that this lure can be known and felt through BaChooba spirits. They, too, are part of a wider community of life, journeying through time in a wider ecology of Life, itself the very body of God.