Accepted paper:

"You will see!": an ethnographic encounter with a Hyena in Venda, South Africa


Fraser McNeill (University of Pretoria )

Paper short abstract:

This paper unpacks the events leading up to and after a ritual expert I was working with shape-shifted into a Hyena. It raises questions of ‘evidence’, ontological obfuscations and radical alterity.

Paper long abstract:

In this paper, I unpack a series of ethnographic engagements which culminated in one of my interlocutors shape-shifting into a Hyena. Towards the end of my PhD fieldwork in 2005, in the former Homeland of Venda, South Africa, I was caught up in a series of supernatural encounters. Whilst defining my personal relationships with those around me, these experiences were excluded from the resulting monograph and any subsequent publications based on this research. During the process of learning certain aspects of ritual knowledge in a context beset by political and economic upheaval, I developed a sensory relationship with some ritual experts which facilitated a bewildering sense of knowing which I have, until provocation by the abstract for this panel, been reluctant to present in written work. Whilst immersed in this world, I attempted - with some success - to manipulate certain sensory/spiritual engagements as a methodological tool through which I sought to understand the supernatural dimensions of the political and economic context from which they sprung, and to which they spoke. The shape shifting incident in question was the result of anger, frustration, empathy and failed manipulation. It raises questions - partially addressed in recent debates - of 'evidence', ontological obfuscations and radical alterity. It asks how we can navigate, with honesty, the emotional entanglements between knowledge and experience, whilst maintaining professional academic integrity.

panel P08
Sensational knowledge: emotional and sensory encounters as ways of knowing