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Gift, Sacrifice, and Sorcery: The Moral Economy of Alms in Senegal

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 April 2017

Julien Bondaz
EA HICSA/Labex CAP (Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne), Institut interdisciplinaire d’anthropologie du contemporain (EHESS-CNRS)
Julien Bonhomme
École normale supérieure, Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale


In 2010, Senegal was gripped by a strange rumor known as the “death offering”: a mysterious individual driving a 4×4 was said to be distributing alms that killed all who accepted them. The story made the headlines, and several individuals accused of making deadly offerings were beaten by crowds. In this article, we show that the rumor destabilizes the everyday routines of charity and the religious solidarity that underpins them. In the context of Senegalese Islam, the rumor thus exposes the ambiguities inherent in the moral economy of alms (or sarax in Wolof). This paradigmatic case of the poisoned gift reveals a grey area between religion, magic, and sorcery. It also anxiously questions the relation between gift and sacrifice, two classic concepts in anthropology since Marcel Mauss.

Charity and Sorcery in Senegal
Copyright © Les Éditions de l’EHESS 2014

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18. This is where, in February 2010, one of us first heard about the death offering while conducting fieldwork on an unrelated subject.

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61. Frenkel, Miriam and Lev, Yaacov, eds., Charity and Giving in Monotheistic Religions (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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63. Parry, “The Gift.”

64. Mauss, The Gift, 22–23.

65. This reticence toward dealing with almsgiving can also be applied to the political dimension of The Gift . As Florence Weber notes in her preface to the recent French edition of Essai sur le don (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2007), in his concluding chapter Mauss criticizes the charitable conception of social assistance, stating that “the unreciprocated gift still makes the person who has accepted it inferior, particularly when it has been accepted with no thought of returning it ... . Charity is still wounding for him who has accepted it [here, there is a footnote mentioning the Quran, sura 2 265] and the whole tendency of our morality is to strive to do away with the unconscious and injurious patronage of the rich almsgiver.” Mauss, The Gift, 83–84. In the final pages of the book, Mauss again cites a sura on charity from the Quran, but proposes to “substitute for the name of Allah that of society” and to replace “the concept of alms by that of co-operation.” Ibid., 90.

66. Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Baker, Felicity (London: Routledge, 1987 Google Scholar; repr. 2001).

67. Testart, Alain, Critique du don. Études sur la circulation non marchande (Paris: Syllepse, 2007)Google Scholar.

68. The circular model of generalized exchange involves at least three participants: A gives to B, who gives to C, who gives to A. See Lévi-Strauss, Claude, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, ed. and trans. Bell, James Harle, von Sturmer, John Richard, and Needham, Rodney (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969)Google Scholar.

69. Hence the limits of Anita Guerreau-Jalabert’s proposition to consider the economy of religious gifts according to the model of generalized exchange that regulates matrimonial alliances in certain societies. Implying asymmetrical relations between social groups that are alternatively in the position of recipients and givers of women, the cycle of matrimonial reciprocity remains horizontal. The cycle of the religious gift, however, presupposes a relationship to God that is asymmetrical but also vertical.

70. “Marabout” is a polysemous word (as is its Wolof equivalent sériñ). It can designate a dignitary of a Sufi brotherhood, a Quranic master, or, as it does here, a healer-diviner.

71. On maraboutic practices, see: Sow, Ibrahima, Divination marabout destin. Aux sources de l’imaginaire (Dakar: IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop, 2009)Google Scholar; Gemmeke, Marabout Women in Dakar. On the adaptation of these practices in France, see Kuczynski, Liliane, Les marabouts africains à Paris (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003)Google Scholar.

72. “Objects given as sarax ... point to someone’s personal problem or secret, and they suggest, by their size, something about the scale of the problem.” Gretchen Pfeil, “Sarax and the City,” 39.

73. The distinction between liggéey and dëmm overlaps with the distinction—traditional in anthropology since Edward Evans-Pritchard—between sorcery (malevolent magic) and witchcraft (malevolent power inherent to a person).

74. Fassin, Didier, Pouvoir et maladie en Afrique. Anthropologie sociale dans la banlieue de Dakar (Paris: PUF, 1992), 139–46 Google Scholar. This is an evolution that the Ortigues had already observed in the 1960s. See Ortigues, Marie-Cécile and Ortigues, Edmond, Œdipe africain (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1966; repr. 1984), 195Google Scholar.

75. See Gemmeke, Marabout Women in Dakar, 181ff.

76. On the distinction between magic and sorcery see Hamès, Constant, “Problématiques de la magie-sorcellerie en islam et perspectives africaines,” Cahiers d’études africaines, 189/190, nos. 1/2 (2008): 81–99 Google Scholar.

77. Mauss and Hubert’s A General Theory of Magic is usually remembered for its canonical distinction between magic and religion. In reality, the entire text is swarming with ambiguous phenomena that challenge the distinction, “those antinomian confusions which abound in the history of both magic and religion.” Mauss, Marcel and Hubert, Henri, A General Theory of Magic [1902–1903], trans. Brain, Robert (London: Routledge, 2011), 101 Google Scholar.

78. Zempléni, András, “L’interprétation et la thérapie traditionnelles du désordre mental chez les Wolof et les Lébou (Sénégal)” (PhD diss., University of Paris, 1968), 449 Google Scholar.

79. Gemmeke, Marabout Women in Dakar, 27.

80. Fassin, Pouvoir et maladie en Afrique, 274.

81. On the links between alms and sacrifice in West African societies marked by the cohabitation between Islam and “paganism,” see Bazin, Jean, “Retour aux choses-dieux,” in Des clous dans la Joconde. L’anthropologie autrement (Toulouse: Anacharsis, 2008), 493–520 Google Scholar, particularly pp. 495–99.

82. This is confirmed by the work of Gretchen Pfeil: “Sarax remains a form of sacrifice, not gifting” (Pfeil, “Sarax and the City,” 37). On the general affinity between offering and sacrifice, see Firth, Raymond, “Offering and Sacrifice: Problems of Organization,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 93, no. 1 (1963): 12–24 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83. Since Mauss and Hubert’s Sacrifice, a distinction is commonly made between the sacrificer (the official performing the ritual) and the sacrifier (the person or persons benefitting from the ritual). To these roles we propose to add that of the “sacrificee,” in order to give a specific name to the donee or recipient of a sacrifice.

84. Bonte, Pierre, Brisebarre, Anne-Marie, and Gokalp, Altan, eds., Sacrifices en islam. Espaces et temps d’un rituel (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Hamès, Constant, “Le sacrifice animal au regard des textes islamiques canoniques,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 101 (1998): 5–25 Google Scholar.

85. Brisebarre, Anne-Marie and Kuczynski, Liliane, eds., La Tabaski au Sénégal. Une fête musulmane en milieu urbain (Paris: Karthala, 2009)Google Scholar.

86. Mauss and Hubert, A General Theory of Magic, 30.

87. A. Moustapha Diop, “Le sacrifice en milieu lébu (Sénégal),” in Bonte, Brisebarre, and Gokalp, Sacrifices, 331–53; Zempléni, András, “La dimension thérapeutique du culte des rab, Ndöp, Tuuru et Samp. Rites de possession chez les Lébou et Wolof,” Psychopathologie africaine 2, no. 3 (1966): 295–439 Google Scholar.

88. Zempléni, “La dimension thérapeutique,” 379 and 426.

89. Diop, “Le sacrifice en milieu lébu,” 337.

90. On the Bambara, see Jean Bazin, “Retour aux choses-dieux.” On the Hausa, see Nicolas, Guy, Don rituel et échange marchand dans une société sahélienne (Paris: Institut d’ethnologie, 1986)Google Scholar.

91. Mauss and Hubert, Sacrifice, 100.

92. Godelier, Maurice, The Enigma of the Gift, trans. Scott, Nora (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 29–31 Google Scholar and 179–98.

94. These stories of “ritual crimes,” however, are not entirely new in Senegal. In the 1970s, there were recurrent rumors of children being kidnapped for human sacrifices. See Sémédo, Raymond, “Les rumeurs sénégalaises,” Revue africaine de communication 11 (1998): 3–24 Google Scholar.

95. Marie, Alain, “Avatars de la dette communautaire. Crise des solidarités, sorcellerie et procès d’individualisation (itinéraires abidjanais),” in L’Afrique des individus, ed. Marie, Alain (Paris: Karthala, 1997), 249–328 Google Scholar.

96. Boeck, Filip De, “The Divine Seed: Children, Gift, and Witchcraftinthe Democratic Republic of Congo,” in Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa, ed. Honwana, Alcinda and de Boeck, Filip (Oxford: James Currey, 2005), 188–214 Google Scholar.

97. Ibid., 209.

98. Mauss, The Gift, 3

99. Parry, Jonathan, “On the Moral Perils of Exchange,” in Money and the Morality of Exchange, ed. Parry, Jonathan and Bloch, Maurice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 64–93 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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