Bodies, heat, and taboos: conceptualizing modern personhood in the South African lowveld (1)

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Author: Isak Niehaus
Date: Summer 2002
From: Ethnology(Vol. 41, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh, Department of Anthropology
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,972 words

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The meta-narrative of modernity often posits an inevitable shift from "dividual" to "individual" modalities of personhood. This presumes that with growing commodificatiion, persons are no longer enmeshed in networks of reciprocal exchange, but acquire a sense of individual autonomy, and perceive the body as bounded from external influences. The villagers in the Bushbuckridge area of South Africa, however, continue to perceive the body as permeable and partible. They believe that bodies transmit substances to and incorporate substances from other bodies, and that the conjunction of breath, aura, blood, and flesh gives rise to a dangerous condition of heat. By practicing various taboos associated with sex, pregnancy, and death, villagers aim to avoid contamination. This system of taboos is not a relic of the past, but is integral to contemporary situations of life. (Taboos, bodies, personhood, modernity, South Africa)


A few years ago, when I worked at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I received a telephone call from the head of security. In a desperate voice he explained that he had issued each member of the security staff two brand-new uniforms and politely asked them to return their old ones. "We want to create a good impression," he said. "We don't want our people to go around wearing old shoes, trousers, and shirts." But many workers refused, saying that it was taboo to hand in their old clothing. Our security manager had heard that my area of interest was "South African cultures" and wanted to know whether the workers were fooling him. "Are there really such beliefs?" he asked.

My conviction that the university's security staff did not hastily invent culture was based on my fieldwork among Northern Sotho and Shangaan residents of Bushbuckridge, a region of the South African lowveld. (2) This research revealed that in local knowledge one's body was not totally bounded, and that one's aura (seriti) and sweat contaminated one's clothes. This belief was pervasive and serious. Sometimes clothes could be used as a substitute for the owner. I once observed a housewife performing the first-fruit (go loma) ritual at the beginning of the harvest season. Her four children were obliged to bite the fruits from her garden in order of their seniority. But the third daughter was studying in Johannesburg and could not partake. Unperturbed, she still performed the ritual by simply applying a mixture of the fruits on her third daughter's clothes.

Throughout my fieldwork people were greatly concerned that items of their clothing might fall into the wrong hands and that witches (baloi) might bewitch them through their clothes. For this reason, men allowed only their mothers and their wives to wash their underwear, sheets, and bedding. Like the security manager, anthropologists frequently have to contend with the anomalous persistence of seemingly traditional beliefs in contemporary settings, such as university campuses. Such beliefs unsettle meta-narratives of modernity, particularly the assumptions they make about bodies and persons.

In recent years, several anthropologists have questioned the cross-cultural validity of the individual. In societies where...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A96377771