Eco-Intimacies and Illnesses of the Nigerian Sahel

Researcher: Conerly, Casey

Research Project: Eco-Intimacies and Illnesses of the Nigerian Sahel

Region: Nigerian Sahel

Eco-Intimacies and Illnesses of the Nigerian Sahel, a book project, draws on ethnographic research (1991-2017) with healers (leaders of Bori, malams, herbalists, head witches, and biomedical doctors), patients and families, but also with other beings and things that mutually constitute health and illnesses of the Nigerian Sahel—whether the spirits, music, trees, animals, or microbes.  I consider ecologically infused sensitivities and relations, focusing on how beings and things draw attention to themselves, respond, assemble, and vitally affect one another, remaking themselves and their ecologies as they act upon one another in ways that affect health.  Spirits are an intimate part of ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ relations of the Sahel, dwelling in shady trees, water, holes and rock formations, places that cool and support life, human and non-human. I traverse sensory stimulations and relational practices—from calling Bori spirits with music and songs, and the use of spirit-recommended psychotropics, to the spirit exorcisms of reformist malams, whose forceful Qur’anic readings heat up spirits, to convert and expel them from their human hosts. Beyond meaning, powerful sensoria—the forceful sounds of speech, excessive heat, or alluring smells of perfumes, are critical to relational affects—to call, entice, push, or expel spirits, in or out of relations with humans. What Bori, Islamic and witchcraft rationalities and practices prevent illnesses, heal, and divine futures, contributing to public health, occupational health, and healthy Sahelian ecologies? Which practices succeed, and survive, despite the extractive aspects of global capitalism, the attacks of religious extremists, and the hegemony of biomedicine in global health? Addressing the mutable contours of specialist practices and referral networks, my manuscript also takes up the changing relations of humans with other beings and things of the Sahel, as they become central to the politics of health and state, in the hybridizing effects of religion, biomedicine, climate change, and global media. The 1995-96 concurrence of Nigeria’s deadliest meningitis epidemic and the mass possession of Muslim secondary school girls with the new sign of “dancing like they do in Indian film,” for instance, led to largescale spirit exorcisms and conversions, that underpinned the 1999-2000 implementation of sharia criminal codes.  Spirit complaints about humans cutting down trees and polluting the environment with industrial chemicals became the impetus for spirit-human conversations about shared ecologies, and the forced displacements of humans, spirits and other beings and things—a topic, even more critical today, as the increased flooding and droughts of climate change claim lives.   If we consider illnesses of the Sahel, and healing with the compositions of beings and things that come together to affect people, as I’m suggesting, will we redistribute forms of agency, in ways that rearrange what is medically sensible and knowable?  In other words, might perspectives on peoples’ eco-intimacies and relational ontologies—those that highlight ecologically infused sensibilities and a diversity of relations with the beings and things around us—enable us to develop more effective, inclusive approaches to public and ecological health?


In the foreground of the picture a person sits on a chair. A ghost comes from behind above and grabs his head. In the background you can see a similar scene: the man is sitting on a staircase on the wall in front of an opening or a change in the surface of the wall, from which a ghost comes reaching for him. The people do not react to the ghosts; they are attacked from behind.

Spirit Possession by Abdulhamid Yusuf, 1996



Three people are standing between plants in front of a table, on which there is also a small plant in a top and on which visibly different plant parts and herbs are processed - one sees different species lying around, partly already crushed. Two of the people are standing in the background, one is holding a bowl in his hands. The person in the foreground, apparently responsible for processing the plants and herbs, is smelling a bunch of plants or herbs. In his right hand he holds the tool, perhaps a mortar, which he needs for processing.Herbal Medicines by Abdulhamid Yusuf, 1996