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The Meaning of “Hauka” in Songhay Culture

The Hauka are the spirits of colonization, representing, from a purely Songhay point of view. The Hauka re-create colonial history with a Songhay bias. Paul Stoller spent many years researching about Hauka and supernatural power in Songhay in Niger. Each spirit family represents a period of Songhay experience. There were two worlds in Songay; one is social world and another is Spirit world. The author learned many things about Hauka. It’s in the Hausa language meant “craziness.” He also learned that the Hauka were supposed to be funny as well as terrifying. However, Hauka ritual is considered as “horrific comedy”, but Hauka ritual was beneficial and solution for the problems in many ways for the people of Songhay.

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The onset of colonial rule devastated the social and economic bases of most of the societies of the French Soudan. Therefore, there was no exception for Songhay. It tried to fight militarily

 With French armies. Their resistance was not enough, that’s why most Songhay reconciled themselves to the French armies. After that, The French took control over Songhay. The French began to consolidate their power in Niger. It was a very sad moment in Songhay. However, in the meantime, the Hauka movement emerged. The Hauka spirits started showing up in the colonial period because colonialism brought radical and unsystematic change to Africans living under the French rule. The French dismantled traditional Songhay governance, imposed taxes, reorganized their economy to benefit France and its people, making them subservient and dependent on France. They did not like the French education because their children who went to school and learned French and studied European society could never again be a pure Songhay and have a Songhay “head.” Furthermore, French education, together with the policies on slavery and chiefs, created a climate of irrevocable change that Songhay did want it. They wanted to have their autonomy, social & political power, and ability to sustain themselves, that’s why the Hauka movement started during the colonial period. Will this kind of Hauka movement be used in the future when we will have third wars?



The author considers the Hauka ritual a “Horrific Comedy” because Songhay used Hauka to make fun of the powerful to retain some of their dignity. Hauka performance makes the audiences laugh though its fear, because the Hauka are very strong. Author have seen them being able to pick up burning bushes with their bare hands and touch themselves with burning torches, not only that, they know down thick mud brick walls with their fists. Hauka add to the comedy with typical ritual insults in Songhay. For example; Commandant Bashiru called the young woman, the daughter of a donkey, a Songhay ritual insult that normally brings laughter (Page 160). There are many ways of insulting in Songay are usually indirect statements. Hauka look funny, but they are very powerful and dangerous. With having said that, when a Hauka takes his or her medium’s body, today there is funny comedy and terrifying drama that may be a manifestation of ongoing contact with European forces.   

There are some elements in Hauka rituals which are similar to other rituals. People in Songhay dance in a rain to appease the spirits. They use various music instruments in the rain dance. There could not be the rain without the spirits. The spirits control the path of rain. Some of them make private offerings to the spirit. There are still some rituals in the world they do the same things to make rain for a good harvest.  They think the spirits are angry when there is no rain. There still some rituals do rain ceremonies, which are human attempts to control the rain by making offerings to the spirits. There is the same reason for making the spirits happy; that is rain. Some of them do not dance; they just sit and wait for their spirits to come. Some of them think that when people lie or cheat, the spirits of nature take revenge on them, and the rain does not come.

When there was a suffering in Songhay, they often use the idiomatic expression “mey hinka, bina hinka” (two mouths, two hearts). Two mouths represent a duplicity and two hearts represent a hypocrisy. When a person speaks with two mouths, she/he speaks with the sign of deceitfulness and when a person feels with two hearts, she/he is insincere. This Songhay concept “two mouths, two hearts” helps to explain the meaning of the Hauka ritual in many ways. Many people believe that this concept is the cause of widespread misfortune in the Songhay communities. They believe that when there is mey hinka, bina hinka, there are social catastrophes. There was the famine in Songhay, that was a year of mey hinka, bina hinka, a year of duplicity. Farmers were hoping to have the rain and produce a bumper crop, but rain did not come. There was a local food supply during the famine, but that was not enough. Drought was the biggest problem at that time. They organized the community to pray for rain, they prayed for a month, but rain did not come. They scarified animals to bring rain. And they also scarified the body of medium, but nothing happened, no rain yet. They walk with two hearts and two mouths. However, they were killing themselves, the community should be united: one mouth, one heart to have the rains.

In addition, in many ways the Hauka ritual demonstrates spiritual beliefs that help to solve the problems and comfort people. When they spoke silently to the sky from their hearts. Suddenly the wind changed direction and they got rain. In the Hauka ritual, people learned the lesson that they must maintain respect for their ancestors. That means they must respect the spirits. If they do not, they will be ruined. There must be one mouth and one heart in the community. In Hauka ritual, the spirits are still considered as the source of rational thinking and comfort in daily life. They help people have social, political power and to have a freedom. They are helpful for the social changes that have been brought about by colonialism, democracy, and Islam.

At last, the meaning of “Hauka” in Songhay culture is very important. It’s not about only horrific comedy, but it’s also about the spiritual belief that help people to bring comfort and social changes. The Songhay concept “two mouths, two hearts” could not beneficial to the community. “One mouth. One heart” concept was useful for the community. It brought the unity in the community. Hauka movements were a political movement. It started because the French was doing everything for their own benefits rather than for Songhay. Hauka ritual is considered as “horrific comedy”. However, Hauka ritual was beneficial and solution for the problems in many ways for the people of Songhay.



Author: Paul Stoller

Title:  Fusion of the worlds: an ethnography of possession among the Songhay of Niger

Date of Published: 2003

Name of the Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press


Work cited:

Stoller, Paul. Fusion of the worlds: an ethnography of possession among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003.













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