Medicinal rule. A historical anthropology of kingship in eastern and central Africa

Start - End 
2013 - 2017 (completed)



Academia has artificially split equatorial Africa into an eastern and a western half, with the Great Lakes in the middle. Microhistories that appealed in the postcolonial era have further fragmented the region, inadvertently endorsing ‘the polity prism’. We argue on the contrary that institutions such as kingship should be understood in light of their spatially and temporally extended history. In this region that history is expressed in the idea of the drum, ngoma. Taking our cue from Jan Vansina’s impressive synthesis of ‘the equatorial tradition’ we discern the commonality between the diverse political-religious-medicinal complexes. That commonality we coin medicinal rule – a cultural model occluded by Vansina’s actor-materialism yet encountered widely across the equator. Representing the endogenous factor in historical change, medicinal rule derives from the hunter’s divinatory societies (cf. Lele, Ndembu). It structurally contains the cultural conditions for its offshoot: the transition to the ceremonial state (cf. Rwanda, Kuba).

Hence the three parts of the book that will result from this research (FWO Sabbatical 2017-18 for write-up).

Endogenous logic explains why transitions are reversible and recur, and accounts for the simultaneous rise of symbolically similar practices in separate locations by groups sharing ancestral origins. The nine chapters together attempt to reconcile the two anthropological dimensions of structure/agency and matter/idea with the ‘historical whole’ the ethnographer experiences.

[Kingship, chieftaincy, endogenous, transition, Equatorial Africa, anthropology and history]