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Keywords:

  • Palo;
  • Cuba;
  • Kongo;
  • manumission;
  • materialism

ABSTRACT

Cuban-Kongo praise of the dead in Havana turns insistently around complex agglomerations of materials called “prendas,”“ngangas,” and “enquisos.” This article addresses the ontological status of “prendas-ngangas-enquisos,” which practitioners of Cuban-Kongo affliction practices care for as entities that determine the very possibility of their healing and harming craft. Cuban-Kongo societies of affliction, in Havana collectively referred to as “Palo,” stake their claim to influence others in and through these entities. In this essay I seek to position the influence generated in prendas-ngangas-enquisos as a problem for Euro-American materialism, to be addressed not through symbolic or representational solutions but, rather, by refocusing the problem itself via alternate distributions of its epistemological, historical, and ethnographic elements. Contextualized within ethnographic description, I first propose that prendas-ngangas-enquisos do not conform to dialectical logic, and should thus be positioned conceptually as something other than “objects” or “fetishes.” From there, I consider Creole turns on the term prenda and explore scholarly accounts of 19th-century Cuban slavery and manumission, which I place alongside what is known about pawn slavery among BaKongo people prior to and during the Atlantic slave trade. Having established a basic series of conceptual and historiographic coordinates, I then suggest ethnographically how prendas-ngangas-enquisos come to command others, thereby guaranteeing Cuban-Kongo healing and harming sovereignty in Cuba today.