The building looming in front of me is intimidating. It is a long and skinny seven storey block of cement. I looks identical to the seven or so other buildings that surround the roundabout. I stare at the building for an indeterminate time, trying to figure out how to find the woman I had been sent to see. I do not know her name and only know that she lives on the third floor. Secretly wishing that she would magically step outside her flat and call me up to her, I wait. It does not take long for a man to notice my look of distress and asks me if I need help.
“Well, I need to find a woman who lives on the third floor of this building,” I say as I squint up at the building once again.
“What is her name?” I laugh and tell him I do not know. He laughs back and we both sit there perplexed.
I decide to trying calling Farid, the man who sent me in search of the woman, once again, in hopes of receiving more detailed instructions. Farid answers and once again tells me that she lives on the third floor. The man next to me asks for the phone and after speaking in Swahili to Farid, instructs me to follow him. We surprisingly enough walk up to the third floor and knock on a door. Two young boys answer and their mother, whose name turns out to be Fatma, was not home. We finally track her down and the young boys drag me along to another of the large concrete buildings.
The flat is that of Rahma and another Fatma, the boys’ mother’s friends. These are the women who have been kind enough to take me along to the kibuki ceremony this evening. Kibuki is a ceremony mainly for women and gays, in which they become possessed by kibuki (Comorian) spirits. I am asked to sit down and watch Swahili soap operas while Rahma and Fatma get ready for the ceremony. I watch as they get dressed in fancy satin dresses, called dera, and put on makeup.
Soon, we piled into Fatma’s car and drove to a part of town that lives in the shadow of the gigantic cement buildings. We are dropped off and as we walk towards the building, I can already hear the music. As we enter the building, Rahma and Fatma put on their kangas (brightly patterned cloth)—one around their waist and one folded neatly lengthwise and thrown over the shoulder. We are greeted by a woman, and I am introduced in Swahili. The woman laughs and invites us in. Rahma and Fatma do not speak much English, and have to gesture to tell me to remove my shoes before entering.
The room is already full of twenty or so people, some sitting in a circle of chairs and the rest on the floor behind the chairs. The air is already thick with incense and a CD player blasts accordion music from the far corner. A small woman sees me as I enter and enthusiastically gestures for me to sit on the floor next to her. I take my place on the floor and watch Rahma and Fatma pick chairs. Even though the music is recorded, there are three shakers migrating around the room and various individuals clapping along. The atmosphere is already overwhelming and people are still arriving.
I notice that people are getting up from their chairs one by one and greeting a large woman in a chair on the other side of the room.
“What are they doing?” I ask the woman next to me. She giggles and says something in Swahili that I cannot understand, but I do hear the word shitani, or spirit. The large woman had already become possessed by her shitani and all the other members were taking time to greet it and pay their respect. I cannot see the shitani well from where I sit, but I do not have to wait long before I see another woman overcome by her shitani. The woman is sitting in a chair on the other side of the room and another woman approaches her with an earthenware brazier billowing incense. The seated woman removes the kanga hung over her shoulder and unfolding it places it over her head. The attendant then places the incense under the kanga and I can she her saying something. Soon the woman under the kanga begins shaking and shouting. Two other women rush over and remove the kanga from the shitani’s head as it stands, still shaking. They then tie the kanga over one shoulder while another woman brings a spear. The shitani stands shaking for a few minutes before dancing in the middle of the circle of chairs.
By now, the woman carrying the brazier of incense has moved on to the next woman in the circle. The same process is followed and soon this new woman is shouting and shaking. This time, the shitani simply slouches in its chair and its attendants instead tie the kanga around its head and provide a foot rest and staff. The shitani stays in its seat, slouched and shaking like an old man rather than dancing in the center of the room.
Methodically, the woman with the incense visits each member in the circle of chairs and a new shitani enters the room. The kangas are placed in various positions – around the head, over the shoulder, draped over the head, tied under the armpits, etc – which makes it easy to spot who is a shitani and who is not. If a woman still has the kanga draped neatly over one shoulder, she is not a shitani.
I enthusiastically watch the events and the small woman next to me spends most of her time encouraging me to clap along and explaining everything to me in Swahili. I unfortunately do not understand anything she says, but don’t have the heart to tell her so. Every now and then I nod my head as if I understand and she lets out a good-hearted laugh and slaps me gently on the knee or back.
Soon the room is full of shitani and I enjoy watching the different personalities. Some shitani are warriors, dancing fiercely with spears, others are female and graceful. One shitani, who is warrior-like, spends half the time dancing fiercely and the other half walking around the room, shouting in Swahili and making the room burst out in laughter. Again, I unfortunately do not understand what the shitani is saying, but I get the impression it is being a bit of a joker and trying to make people laugh. Some shitani sit on other women’s laps, sometimes still dancing and bouncing, which makes it easy to understand where the rumors I had heard earlier about kibuki being full of lesbians come from. More and more people have arrived and by now there are at least 50 people in the room and it is slowly entering chaos.
I gradually become aware of the attention I am receiving from the shitani. I appear to be quite the novelty, with most shitani staring at me interestedly. A few even approach me and rub my head, shouting, “Meva,” the shitani greeting. Before I realize what is going on, one shitani grabs my hand and forcefully encourages me to follow it. I am led over to a chair and to forced to kneel in front of it. The shitani grabs someone’s kanga, and throws it over my head while grabbing a brazier of smoking incense. It then places the incense under the kanga and when nothing happens after a minute or so, it becomes frustrated and removes the kanga, paints my palms and face white, places two coins in each hand, and then tosses water from a bowl full of coins on my face. From what I could tell, this is the process undergone when a shitani is leaving a person.
I am also given a shot of cognac before I am led back to my original seat. I do not sit long before another shitani approaches me and urges me to follow. I am taken to another shitani, and this one asks me if I speak English in Swahili.
“Naam, pole. (Yes, sorry.) I only speak English.”
“I like English. I try to speak, but I am no good.”
“Your English is better than my Swahili!” The shitani then lets out a loud laugh, slaps me on the shoulder and shouts, “Meva!”Before I make it back to my seat, Rahma intercepts me and informs me that we are going to leave. We collect our shoes and bags and before completely leaving the building, another shitani stops us and shouts, “Meva!”