What inspired you to study religion?
I came to study religion entirely by accident. In fact, I never took any courses about religion during my BA! My studies were focused on political science, international relations, and anthropology (but I took no anthropology of religion courses). Despite that, one of the key things I learned in my early anthropological training is that it’s important to be open to the world around you, and to take people seriously when they say something matters to them. And so, when I first started doing ethnographic research in northern Uganda (where I was looking at issues to do with justice and reconciliation related to wartime violence), I tried my best to be attuned to many different aspects of people’s everyday lives. Because of that, I came out of my first fieldwork experiences with different questions than the ones I had started with—as most researchers do.
The International Criminal Court conducted its first ever investigations in northern Uganda, and in 2005 had issued arrest warrants for several senior commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—which has been fighting the Government of Uganda since the late 1980s. The ICC’s move was controversial for many reasons, including because many thought it would undermine local peace-building initiatives, many of which were spearheaded by religious leaders. When I first went to the Acholi sub-region of northern Uganda in 2008, I was spending a lot of time with young men and women who had returned to civilian life after having been abducted by the LRA and forced to soldier and bear children for them, among other things.
While I wanted to know about people’s experiences in captivity and what they subsequently thought about things like the ICC and the interventions of different groups of people in the peace process, I found myself growing increasingly curious about what they had to say about religiosity in “the bush” and at home. I was unsatisfied with journalistic narratives that painted spirit possession in the LRA as pathological or simply mad, and wanted to understand spirits in cultural context. Outside of the LRA, I heard stories of people who were haunted by the ghosts of the war dead, while others complained that these problems were actually Satanic manifestations or something else entirely. I turned my attention more fully to these issues, and so going on to study the anthropology of religion for my PhD was an exciting and unexpected turn for me.
What role does Religious Studies play in our contemporary society?
First, we need to be clear that it matters which society we’re talking about! This will be my first time living in the United States—and as much as the border between Canada (my home country) and the US is culturally and economically porous, I imagine I’m going to learn a great deal about US society (or societies) in the months and years to come. My general sense is that while Canada and the US share many similarities, our social histories of religion, and thus our contemporary conversations about religion, are as different as they are similar.
Meanwhile, as an anthropologist who works in East Africa, I can say that people’s conception of “religion” (not an easy thing to define!) often differs from society to society. Scholars of Religious Studies here have a great deal to offer to wider debates about the role of religion in public life, as they do everywhere. I think this matters not just in terms of some of the big political questions that are on everyone’s minds, but also in people’s everyday lives. Religious studies can have a profound impact on the world by giving people the tools to understand how religion, practice, and belief all shape—and are shaped by—a wide variety of social forces.
Explain a bit of your current research interests along with your dissertation.
My dissertation is an ethnography called “Ghostly Vengeance: Spiritual Pollution, Time, and Other Uncertainties in Acholi.” It’s about people in the Acholi sub-region of northern Uganda, where the two-decades-long war between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army ended about ten years ago. Specifically, the ethnography describes how people understand, talk about, and act upon spiritual upsets (things like haunting by ghostly vengeance, malevolent spirit possession, unexplained illness and death, uncanny events and the like). In Acholi, people come from varied religious orientations and social positions, and I suggest in the ethnography that people understand things like ghostly vengeance as contingent (as in, people aren’t always sure what is going on)—but nonetheless demanding of ethical deliberation.
I’m interested in taking this work forward in two related directions. First, I want to further explore more how people’s experiences with spirit phenomena interact with humanitarian narratives and imperatives about social suffering, resilience, and trauma. Things like ghostly vengeance are related to, but irreducible to individual psychological distress, and “trauma” is itself an unstable category across time and space: it is an idea that has come out of and been influenced by wider sociopolitical and economic forces. So I’d like to know more about how people in Acholi understand the contemporary relationship between spirit forces and human minds. Second, I’d like to do more research on how the ritual and healing practices of ajwaki (Acholi spirit mediums and healers) have changed over the last two decades. During the war, ajwaki were the targets of LRA violence and many shrines were destroyed. Many were forced into exile into a neighbouring district of Uganda. I’d like to know how their ritual work has been impacted by exile, especially in relation to the management of spirits, illness, and placement of shrines.
What courses will you be teaching at UNC Charlotte?
I’ll be teaching two courses to start at UNC Charlotte. The first, which I’m teaching this semester, is called “Magic, Science, And Faith: Ethnographic Approaches to Religion and Healing.” As the title suggests, we’re going to use anthropological methods to explore the categories of “medicine” and “religion” and how they intersect or have intersected in different times and places. In the second semester I’ll also be teaching a seminar called “Religiosity and (Post)Colonial Encounters in Sub-Saharan Africa,” where students will have the opportunity to engage with a wide range of materials about religious life in diverse sub-Saharan African contexts, and which will hopefully help students re-consider how they understand religious life at home. In the future, I’d also like to teach a course about cross-cultural approaches to haunting, memory, and time — in other words, I’d like to invite students to engage with ghosts.
What advice do you have for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing a degree in this field?
My advice for any student pursuing a degree in Religious Studies is to not be shy to make connections with other disciplines, no matter your level of study. There are skills you will learn in Religious Studies that you can use elsewhere, and skills that you will have learned in other disciplines that will enrich your time in this one. Having multiple interests is an asset, not a distraction. For graduate students in particular, my primary advice is not to wait until you feel like you know enough before you start writing. You know more than you think you do. If you wait until you feel like you know enough to start a paper or a thesis, you will never write a word! Allow yourself to write badly — but just write!