Gender and Religion

Throughout Manjakoland, earth spirits (ngesai) live in fixed places marked by uncut groves, silk cottonwood trees, forked sticks, or simply hollowed out places in the soil. They perform services (protection from illness, a good job, vengeance, etc.) in exchange for offerings of livestock, palm wine, and rice dishes. If the contract is broken, that is, if payment is not made for services rendered, the earth spirit sends illness, death, or some other catastrophe. At the more important and powerful earth-spirit shrines, initiated shrine priests perform rites on behalf of the consultants, while at lesser spirit shrines anyone can make a request or a payment, acting on his or her own. Access to the major shrines is forbidden to women and uninitiated men, who wait outside while the shrine priest and male family members act in their behalf. Earth spirits take the inanimate prefix commonly used for animals but also for inanimate objects; they carry no gender.

Bush spirits are also available to perform services for humans, though, as opposed to earth spirits, they are quite mobile and usually enter into private partnerships. The banjanguran take the human prefixes na- (sing.) and ba- (pl.); at least one female "bush maiden" has been mentioned (Gable, 1990, p. 476). Entering into a contract with a bush spirit is dangerous in that, though they are quick to offer their services, they are also ruthless in demanding payment, and will feed on the souls of children of their human "partner's" clan if the latter does not keep them satisfied with food and drink.

Some Manjako of both sexes receive signs such as recurrent illness or extraordinary happenings that they are to become a healer-diviner (napene). Through a long series of rituals culminating in "death" and "rebirth" they develop the ability to see and communicate with bush spirits, who help them in their practice. They are more often male than female, though many women are successful diviners. Female diviners tend to specialize in fertility problems and children's health.

Every Manjako homestead has an ancestor shrine consisting of a dozen or so posts (isaap) representing the souls of the ancestors, in particular past headmen. Years after a man has died, a post is planted in his honor and he joins the collectivity of ancestors. Family members constantly consult the ancestors on family matters and offer them libations. Ancestor posts are predominantly male. In recent years, however, more and more women are being commemorated with posts, not as lineage elders, but as wives and mothers.

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