Enos Nyamor — Jun 16, 2021

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Juogi

Illustration by ZZDD. Courtesy of the artist

Psychology, as a scientific study of the human mind and an attempt to demystify behavioral patterns, is essentially an offshoot of Western thought. Through psychoanalytic systems, for example, psychology aims at configuring variations in personality, but as an outcome of an individual’s interaction with the immediate surroundings, as well as a clash between conscious and unconscious elements in the mind. But this conceptualization of behavior and personality, set within the limits of pragmaticism and scientific methods, fails to capture the essence of psychic energy that is attached to the supernatural, and which the Luo of East Africa define as juogi.

Juogi encapsulates the connection between the world of the living and that of the spirits – of non-human consciousness. Among the Luo, non-human consciousness is elevated above the objective reality of human experience. Even the common mode of meaning/making in the Luo language, deeply embedded in semiotics, denotes a relationship between everyday life and non-human beings. Thus, in the value system, the human body, although considered whole, is first divided into autonomous organs. These organs are in turn susceptible to invasion by outside forces that roam the earth. And above all, these organs can also embody an agency, and can act contrary to personal resolve – in opposition to one’s firm mental determination.

When, for instance, one experiences a stomach ache, the literal interpretation in English would be that »one’s belly is biting.« The stomach is granted a form of unwarranted aggression. The conceptualization of the outside forces also extends to aspects of human life such as sleep and the ultimate reality that is death. Sleep is in itself a creature that can pounce on one, and when a person is on the verge of going to bed, instead of deploying the phrase »feeling sleepy,« might say »sleep has defeated me.« Likewise, death, too, is a force that can be avoided and can either be natural or unnatural. It is an agent that takes away life, but also coordinates with one’s juogi.

Juogi, then, is life in a different form trapped outside of oneself, but which oversees one’s interactions with nature and society. It is part of a vast network of non-human beings, influenced by the supernatural, yet unique to each person. And although unique to every individual, one can embody a multiplicity of these non-human forces, and so that accounts for the term juogi, which is plural. But this term is often carefully applied, especially in relation to a more sinister juok, which is referenced in the singular. Those with only the juok are considered diabolical, meaning that there is an absence of a dialectic among one’s personal spirits, and this uniformity can result into deviant behaviors. Those who commit acts of transgression are considered to embody juok and not juogi, for their actions are judged unnatural.

The distinction between the term juogi and the term personality, which is the closest translation in English, is that it applies to different contexts in daily life. Although empiricism is the pedestal upon which the modern understanding of personality thrives, the existing methods still discount the mysteries of nature. To understand the significance of the term juogi, however, requires an unsurmountable recognition of motivations beyond one’s limited life experience. Juogi, as such, is attached to a form of atemporality – existing outside the human conception of time – as this denotes both reincarnation and a continuing growth process.

And so, one’s behavioral pattern under the lens of juogi is eternally connected to the behavior of those who preceded one, such as grandparents or the person one is named after. It is for this reason that the Luo have a tradition of naming children after heroes. When a child is born days after a prominent member of a community dies, the parents would opt to name the child after the hero, with the hope that the child would absorb some of the greatness. It often happens that many children in the same community are named after the same legend, making it possible to deduce the generation to which a person belongs.

But the essence of the term is not only to aspire to reincarnation, especially of celebrated personalities, but to also enhance harmony within a community, in which case juogi is applied in the context of idiosyncrasy. In Luo customs, the community or the clan occupies a central position in the shaping of an individual’s identity. It is essential that the community or parents observe the child in their formative years and begin to develop an understanding of their character traits. There are those children whose behaviors are commonplace and predictable, but there are those who exhibit peculiarities, and these are the ones considered to embody juogi. Those with juogi primarily demonstrate constant mood swings. Even as adults, whenever such individuals display an unconventional attitude, it behooves those around to respond amicably, in order to assuage their spirits.

While juogi is applied in identifying those with volatile personality, and setting context for social harmony, it is also a term that is subjectively applied to oneself. It is a form of configuring one’s emotional chaos. When a person is thrust into a mood swing, then it is apparent that one’s juogi has deserted them. The remedy to such a crisis often involves a series of rituals, until a restoration of emotional, mental, and spiritual harmony is achieved. Such an obsession is not considered as a disorder that demands clinical interventions, for example, but as a way in which a person relates to their overbearing juogi.

No doubt this term is instrumental in fostering social harmony and in configuring both mental and emotional state. But it is widely applied to those gifted with special abilities. Juogi encapsulates moods, personality, idiosyncrasy, and also talents. Artistic gifts are affiliated with juogi, and, almost without exception, all artists are bundled together because of their unconventional lifestyles. It is one way that the Luo criticize a work of art, based on the capacity of the artist to induce the juogi in the audience – to transport the audience beyond its objective reality. All musicians and storytellers, for that matter, are considered to be naturally endowed with juogi, for this is the source of their inspiration and what instructs them in their creative processes. When placed in context, an artist residency like Akademie Schloss Solitude would not only be a space for creatives, but also a place occupied by those possessing, or possessed by, juogi.

Enos Nyamor is an art writer, cultural journalist, and cultural critic. Born and raised in Nairobi and a former Akademie Schloss Solitude fellow, Enos is currently an MFA Art Writing candidate at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. Some of his past writings and projects focused on the intersection between physical movement and digital migration, as well as site-specific elements in live art. He is presently working on a collection of essays on intersubjectivity in computer-generated images and dimensions of new media experiences.

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