Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ehugna: the sacred fertility shrine/maternity house of Diola women

Female figurine, MU Museum of Anthropology

Ehugna: the sacred fertility shrine/maternity house of Diola women

Location: Southwestern Senegal

Opened/Closed: Under siege by (male) western academics

This is the kind of story I stumble upon more by accident than by design.

It really drives me crazy when westerners--male or female--feel they are somehow entitled to invade and appropriate the sacred spaces of "other" people. And that attitude seems to be particularly prevalent among male academics when it comes to the sacred spaces of women.

Notice how the male academic discussed below is complaining about his lack of access to the sacred ritual spaces of Diola women, who live in southwestern Senegal. It's like an obsession, really.

The male academic started his research with the pre-colonial Diola male prophets, and at first he was pleased with his progress in obtaining access to the still existing male religious elders and their shrines. The male academic even "decided" (on his own?) to perform in a male sacred dance, which was apparently associated with the initiation of a new rain priest.

Wow, I'm really one of you guys! So cool!

Then the male academic decided that the Diola women prophets were ripe for appropriation, er, study. And dang, those bitches, er, Diola female religious leaders, just wouldn't play along!

Take what is called Ehugna, the primary women's fertility shrine/maternity house of Diola women. The mean female religious leader refused to tell the dude anything even related to the shrine! She was so mean, she told the dude that the day he gave birth to a child, he could come back to her and she'd explain everything!

Then this dude claims that he dreamed that he was pregnant that very same night. And when he solemnly reported the same to the mean lady, she laughed at him! Our righteous male academic! How dare she laugh at him and hurt his feelings!  

Later, through intense research (snooping), our persistent male researcher found out more information--but no more than what Diola men were allowed to know, which wasn't much. No matter how he begged, pleaded, and whined, those women just wouldn't let him attend the women's fertility shrine. Nope, no men allowed.

So basically the male academic slinks back home, his tale between his legs. And when he's finally safe at the University of Missouri, he launches a temper tantrum in print. Take that, you nasty women! Although all of his hostility is carefully couched in anemic academic language--very "objective" and "detached" don't you know.

This is a theme we see in many settings, whether it's a sacred women's shrine in Senegal or a lesbian bar in San Diego. Men don't like women having the nerve to set boundaries around their bodies and activities--and then policing that boundary.

From the Petri dish in the controlled environment of a sterile laboratory to the faraway fields of another country, virtually anything can be the topic of scientific study. However, a University of Missouri religion professor found that if the researcher is a male fieldworker studying women, the situation can be challenging.

"The question of whether men can conduct field research on women ultimately will be determined by the quality and type of the data that they gather," said Robert M. Baum, professor, Religious Studies. "The subject matter of the field research will profoundly shape the possibilities of success. For example, access to women's ritual spaces and esoteric knowledge may be too restricted for male researchers. Research on female religious leaders whose teachings are designed for both men and women and who preside over mixed congregations will be far more fruitful for men to conduct."

His conclusions about male researchers studying female subjects are based on his extensive observations of the Diola (pronounced joe-la) people. Baum has been traveling to southwestern Senegal on the African continent and conducting field research among the Diola communities, approximately 600,000 people, for more than 30 years. The modern Diola are primarily rice farmers.

Initially, Baum's work focused on pre-colonial Diola religious history during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, a period when there were male prophets. Later in his research, Baum studied the work and influence of Diola female prophets who began appearing after the French and Portuguese conquest of Diola lands in the late 1800s.

As he spent time in the Diola culture and grew older, Baum increasingly was given access to male religious elders and their shrines. Despite his improving social status, he found it was more difficult to study the rites and sacred places of women.

"My participation in the initiation of a new rain priest in January 1975, and my decision to perform a sacred dance with other men in the community, marked a decisive turning point in my fieldwork," Baum said. "This did not, however, provide a similar opening at the various women's shrines."

Baum said the most difficult topic to interview the women about was the primary women's fertility shrine, Ehugna, which was only accessible to women who had given birth. The most powerful female religious leader refused to be interviewed about anything related to her shrine.

"She told me that the day I give birth to a child, I should come to her and she would explain everything about Ehugna," Baum said. "That night, I dreamed I was pregnant. I told her about the dream; she laughed and said it was not good enough."

Baum was able to collect information for his study of the Diola through a gradually widening network of women. This information was restricted, however, because they taught him only what was permissible for men to know.

"There are limits to this knowledge," Baum said. "I could not attend the women's fertility shrine, which is the focal point of women's ritual lives. If I had gone to the maternity house, which is where young women receive their final instruction on what it means to be a woman in Diola society, I would have been ostracized from the men's shrines and societies. Many Diola consider men visiting the maternity house a serious violation that could result in death."

When granted the rare interview with a Diola prophetess, Baum was not permitted to take notes or use a recording device, but he had to rely on memory to recall the often hours-long sessions. The prophetess would speak freely of rain shrines and community oriented teachings, but was not willing to comment on her sacred work associated with Ehugna - no men allowed.

Baum's study, "From a Boy Not Seeking a Wife to a Man Discussing Prophetic Women, A Male Fieldworker Among Diola Women in Senegal 1974-2005," was recently published in the journal Men and Masculinities.

Female figurine: Courtesy of MU Museum of Anthropology

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