Harry West is an anthropologist who currently teaches at the University of London. Back in 1994, he spent a year living with the inhabitants of the Mueda plateau in northern Mozambique, studying, among other things, their ideas about sorcery. One of the things he learned was that, when the villagers saw a lion, they often speculated that it might not be an ordinary lion, but might instead be a sorcerer who had turned into a lion, or a lion that had been created by a sorcerer, and was in either case intended to eat the flesh of the sorcerer’s enemies, either through a physical attack or by causing chronic sickness.
West had been helped in his research by an organization called the Arquivos do Patrimônio Cultural (ARPAC), the Cultural Heritage Archives, especially by a staff researcher named Eusébio Tissa Kairo. As partial repayment for this help, West gave a talk about his research to an audience of about two dozen people at the ARPAC provincial office. He wanted, he says, to encourage the ARPAC ethnographers to engage more deeply in anthropological theory, so his presentation was about the ideas of anthropologist Victor Turner on the interpretation of cultural symbols.
He told his audience about Turner’s famous symbolic analysis of the girls’ puberty ritual among the Ndembu, and about Turner’s belief that anthropologists — including ARPAC ethnographers — can see and interpret such ritual events in ways unavailable to the participants themselves. He then set forth Muedan beliefs about lions, most of which were, of course, already familiar to the Muedans in his audience.
Finally, he told his audience, consistent with Turner’s theory, that lions had symbolic meanings to Muedans unarticulated by the Muedans themselves. Lions symbolized both dangerous predation and royal protection, and represented a deep ambivalence toward the use of power in the social world — a cultural contradiction, he said, between the idea that power was necessary for the common good and at the same time an ever-present threat.
The talk was followed by a long silence, and then a few inconsequential questions about minor ethnographic details. Finally, one of the Muedans in the audience cleared his throat. “Andiliki,” he said, using West’s Muedan name, “I think you misunderstand.”
“How so?” said West, nervously.
“These lions that you talk about … ” The Muedan paused, and then continued politely but firmly. “They aren’t symbols — they’re real.”