Comparative Guts

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Thomas Cousins

School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford
Southern Africa Umuthi Wenyongo – medicine [that rebalances] bile

In southern Africa, inyongo — bile —is vital to bodily and cosmological wellbeing. Bile is a potent life-giving substance that must be in correct balance at all times – too much and too little are both dangerous states, and are tied to social relations, both with the living and the dead. An imbalance of inyongo is a “polluting” state: umnyama, literally “darkness of the night.” The darkness is symbolically seen as representing death while daylight represents life. Umnyama is a term used to represent death or “near death” and is often translated as pollution because of a lack of a better English word to convey this complex concept. In Zulu and Xhosa cosmologies in South Africa, pollution is seen as a marginal state believed to exist between life and death. It is conceptualized as a mystical force that diminishes resistance to disease and creates conditions of misfortune, disagreeableness, and repulsiveness. A class of popular, commoditized curatives, known as “izifo zonke” (“all diseases”), operate on the gut to rebalance bile, purify one’s blood, and restore strength (amandla) and health (impilo).

In Southern Africa, symbols and techniques of bodily wellbeing are very old and widely distributed, and have also changed in response to social and political histories of changing societies. In the wake of the HIV epidemic in southern Africa that began during the 1980s, curing and healing involve techniques and substances that “cleanse the body” (ukuhlanza umzimba) or “cleanse the blood” (ukuhlanza igazi), and rebalance schisms in social relationships. Many afflictions are cured by an enema or by “spewing.” Two types of substance dominate popular curative markets: izifo zonke  (“all diseases”) that operate by “cleansing the body” through purgative and emetic properties; and “immune boosters” (in English and in vernacular usage). A huge plethora of materia medica, composed of indigenous flora and fauna, as well as synthetic and industrial substances, are creatively deployed by healers, herbalists, and more opportunistic entrepreneurs, and are described as “muthi”  (often translated as “traditional medicine”), such as herbs, trees, animal fats and organs. Also popular are “Dutch medicines”, “Chinese medicines,” and “Indian medicines”, along with paraphernalia for use by faith healers, such as purified water, incense and candles, as well as soaps, creams, bath salts, and sexual performance supplements. All these folk remedies are highly commoditized and standardized, manufactured synthetically in cities such as Johannesburg and Durban. While newly industrialized, these substances recapitulate much older symbols and practices concerning well-being and affliction known as “ngoma”  (song, rhythm, or drum of affliction)—a term used in many Bantu languages for a set of healing practices and discourses centered on the interpretation of misfortune and the treatment of affliction. It is no small irony that two brands currently popular in South Africa are named “Impilo”  (life) and “Ngoma”  (song/drum of affliction)—life in a bottle, the promise of health as that which is purged.

Central Africa: Nkisi – power figure (Central Africa)

The Bakongo people, from Central Africa, have a complex cosmology, often understood in terms of animist or syncretic religious ideas. While religious ideas have certainly been transforming since the 16th century arrival of Christianizing Europeans, Kongo “power figures” (nkisi nkondo)  remain well known. Nkisi (plural: minkisi ) is often translated as “spirit” or “holy” (an effect of Christian translators), and  understood as a container of sacred substances which are activated by supernatural forces that can be summoned into the physical world. These minkisi take a wide variety of forms, from simple pottery or vessels containing medicinal herbs and other elements determined to be beneficial in curing physical illness or alleviating social ills. Sometimes, minkisi take the form of small bundles, shells, and carved wooden figures. Thus minkisi have the ability to both ‘contain’ and ‘release’ spiritual forces, with both positive and negative consequences for social life.

Nkisi nkondi  figures are highly recognizable through an accumulation of pegs, blades, nails or other sharp objects inserted into its surface. Medicinal combinations called bilongo are sometimes stored in the head of the figure but frequently in the belly of the figure which is shielded by a piece of glass, mirror or other reflective surface. The glass represents the ‘other world’ inhabited by the spirits of the dead who can peer through and see potential enemies. Elements with a variety of purposes are contained within the bilongo. Minkisi, each with meaningful postures and gestures, are containers of powerful substances that are packed into body orifices or within a visible medicine pack on the torso sealed with a mirror, thus have the power to protect, heal, or destroy.

East Africa Mun (Mursi) belly painting (see Fig. 3)

The Mursi  (or Mun  as they refer to themselves) are a Surmic ethnic group in Ethiopia. They principally reside in the Debub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples, close to the border with South Sudan.

‘Eating clay’ is a common expression for the Mun (Mursi) of southwest Ethiopia; people describe activities or people in the same way one would speak of eating food. For example, one’s girlfriend or a sexual encounter with someone are often spoken of as being ‘sweet’ or ‘delicious’. To ask someone if they have received their bridewealth payment one asks Bio wa baku?  ‘Have you eaten the cattle?’ Or bio am noi?  “Who ate the cattle?” Thus, what are called ‘body arts’ or ‘body painting’ glosses over the role of clay in constituting relations with others; in healing action on the body; and also in mediating local experiences of the environment. Vernacular terminologies around ‘body painting’ suggest a fluidity between eating, living, body painting and dwelling in a place.

“In English we speak of consuming culture, art, etc and also of one’s energy or vitality consuming or being consumed by something or someone. Likewise, in English we can speak of the Mun consuming clay through body painting, consuming goods such as cattle, and consuming someone or something through appropriation or absorption. In particular the absorption and transference of energy captured by the term ‘consume’ is compatible with the ways in which local bodiliness and personhood involve permeability between other people, places, and experiences of the environment. … notions of consumption of earth and places have helped to develop an awareness of how locals become consubstantial with their environment. The local blurring of experiences of ‘eating clay’ and ‘eating where one lives’ is what inspired … interest in processes of becoming consubstantial with a community, an earth or a place’ (Fayers-Kerr 2013: 7).

Political critique and social commentary (South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria)

Contemporary African art captures several popular tropes of belly, gut, and intestines in social and political life (see figg. 4, 5, 6):


In many parts of Africa, the belly, the gut, and intestines, are important sites of concern for bodily, social, and cosmological wellbeing. Ritual and mundane action directed at the gut seeks to augment powers of all kinds, and suggests an understanding of personal, social, and cosmological wellbeing and affliction that reveals the delicate relations between bodily, social, and ecological orders of life. References to belly, gut, and intestines, are powerful tropes in analyses of political life in Africa. In particular, Jean-Francois Bayart’s The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, uses the Cameroonian term “politics of the belly” to describe patron-client relations in West African politics. Politicians distribute goods – filling the bellies of clients – in return for political loyalty, obviating the need for democracy and instituting alternative and sometimes moral forms of accountability. Nicolas Argenti describes the political history of the Cameroon Grassfields in terms of the “intestines of the state”. The palace of the chiefdom of Oku is known as “the intestines of the state” (əbtcc kətum; Bah 2004, 436). “Not only in French but also in the autochthonous languages of Cameroon, eating and the belly connote power and its abuses. In Eblam Ebkwo, the language of Oku, as in many of the languages of the Grassfi elds, being installed as a fon (chief) is referred to as “eating” the throne (sə jie kətie), and inheriting or consuming wealth is known as “eating” it. In this political cosmology, the belly is therefore the locus of power, and witches are often said to contain their power as an animal or substance residing in their belly or bowels. It is this set of tropes of eating as an economy of power, desire, and venality that lends the palaces of the Grassfields their key metaphor as the intestines or bowels of the state. In more schematic terms, Achille Mbembe’s brilliant text On the Postcolony  (2001) brings together mouth, belly, and phallus into a broader analysis of the body as the principal locale of the idioms and fantasies used in depicting power. What is important is the conjoining of irony, humour, critique, fantasy, of life conditioned and responsive to ‘commandement’, colonial power: “If indeed it is the festivities and celebrations that are the vehicles for giving expression to the commandement and for staging its displays of magnificence and prodigality, then the body in question is first a body that eats and drinks, and second a body that is open—in both ways: hence the significance given to orifices, and the central part they play in people’s political humor” (Mbembe 2001: 107). What is particularly striking about images, symbols, and practices relating to the gut across Africa is the richness and sheer diversity of significations that give the gut, and related body parts, such power in everyday life, as well as in religious, political, and cosmological life. While every society across Africa understands the gut to be implicated in moral personhood, bodily wellbeing, and the ordering of collective life, the patterning of related symbols and practices is delicately sensitive to the ecological contexts and historical contingencies of social and cultural change and innovation.


Argenti, Nicolas. 2007. The Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bah, Njakoi John. 2004. Ntok ebkuo: A Western Grassfields palace  (Cameroon). Anthropos 99:435–50.

Bayart, Jean Francois. 1993. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. New York: Pantheon Books.

Cousins, Thomas. 2015. “A Mediating Capacity Toward an Anthropology of the Gut.” Medicine Anthropology Theory  2 (2): 1–27.

Cousins, Thomas. 2023. The Work of Repair: Capacity After Colonialism in the Timber Plantations of South Africa.  New York: Fordham University Press.

Fayers-Kerr, Kate. N. 2019. “Becoming a Community of Substance: The Mun, the mud and the therapeutic art of body painting.” In Attala, L, Steel, L & Zinn, K. (eds.) Body Matters: Exploring the Materiality of the Human Body.  University of Wales Press, Cardiff. Pp, 109-133

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mudimbe, V.Y. 1988. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ngubane, Harriet. 1976. “Some Notions of ‘Purity’ and ‘Impurity’ among the Zulu.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 46 (3): 274–84.Walker.

Roslyn A. 2009. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 162-163.