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The word zombie refers to the “living dead” and originally derives from Central Africa. In Kongo, the cadaver or spirit of a deceased person is called nzambi. But the belief in the existence of the “living dead” is widespread, and the term has also been subject to much cross-cultural appropriation, decontextualization, and recontextualization.
Popular discourses associate zombies with the Caribbean Voodoo religion. For example, Haitians believe that malevolent sorcerers sometimes gain control of the bodies of their victims by robbing them of the component of the soul that contains personality, character, and willpower (tibon ange) or by raising them from their graves. The sorcerers then lead their innocent victims in a comatose trance, under cover of night, to distant places where they must toil indefinitely as slaves. The Haitian conception has informed the image of zombies in mass-mediated popular culture as the macabre figure of a corpse in tattered rags, entirely subservient and beholden to the authority of some unknown master. Zombies are portrayed as docile, with glassy empty eyes, and as being without will, memory, and emotion.
A controversial theory by ethnobiologist Wade Davis (1988) suggests that there may well be an ethnobiological basis for reports of the zombie phenomenon in Haiti. He refers to a case of zombification that was verified by a team of physicians. In 1962 Clairvus Narcisse was pronounced dead at a hospital, and buried eight hours later. But Clairvus reappeared in 1980, claiming that his brother had made him a zombie because of a land dispute. Davis argues that Clairvus was mistakenly diagnosed as dead, buried alive, and taken from the grave. Clairvus claimed that following his resurrection from the grave, he was forced to work as a slave with other zombies. He escaped after two years and spent the next sixteen years wandering about the country, fearful of his vengeful brother. Among the various preparations used by Haitian sorcerers, Davis identified a fish containing tetrodotoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin that induces a complete state of peripheral paralysis and imperceptibly low metabolic levels. Davis postulates that the Haitian belief in zombies could be based on rare instances where an individual receives the correct dosage of the poison and is misdiagnosed as dead. Davis describes zombification as a form of punishment imposed by Bizango secret societies. These societies are arbiters of social life, protect community resources such as land, and use poison and sorcery as weapons.
Other scholars regard the belief in zombies as purely mythical. From a neo-Marxian perspective, the image of zombies as people who are dehumanized and left only with the ability to work is seen as a symbolic commentary on the historical processes of enslavement, colonialization, and proletarianization.
In many parts of Africa, zombies are recognized as an integral aspect of witchcraft discourses, particularly where these address social inequalities. Throughout the Cameroon, nouveau riches are imagined as witches who no longer eat their victims but change them into zombies. For example, the concept of nyongo emerged amongst the Bakweri after German and British colonists arrogated their land, resettled them on reserves, and allowed strangers to profit from the new economic opportunities. The Bakweri suspected prosperous outsiders of forming witch associations, taking deceased kin from their graves, and transporting the zombie spirits by lorry to Mount Kupe, where they worked on invisible plantations. These beliefs are informed by traumatic memories of the slave trade and of forced labor, as well as by perceptions of wealthy absentee landlords.
In Malawi, witchcraft discourses constitute an argument about the morality of accumulation. Accumulation is endowed with moral adequacy when entrepreneurs make their constitutive relations visible by supporting their kin financially, and by redistributing wealth through patronage, gift giving, and feasting. It is perfectly legitimate when entrepreneurs, who are motivated by these concerns, use medicines to protect their businesses. By contrast, accumulation that is motivated by individualism and greed is morally despised. In this situation, entrepreneurs are said to achieve prosperity at the cost of human lives. Zombies are believed to reside with them, to protect their money, and to attract customers to their businesses. Zombies thus serve exactly the same purposes as medicines, but are an index of morally disreputable witchcraft.
In South Africa, images of witches and zombies have multiple symbolic meanings, but capture the desire to dominate and the fear of being dominated. These images resonate with those of elderly women who control the work of their daughters-in-law, and of white industrialists who employ black laborers. The deployment of zombies in a nocturnal “second world” echoes the daunting experiences of young brides who leave their natal households for those of their husband’s family, and of migrants who leave the countryside for alien industrial and mining centers. The smallness of zombies alludes to the diminutive status of these persons, and the idea that their tongues are cut suggests unquestioning obedience.
Davis, Wade. 1988. Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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