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In the last few decades, discussions concerning the presence of spirit possession and healing practices associated with Sudanic Africans in North Africa and parts of the Middle East, coined as “slave religion,” have highlighted the relationship of these practices to indigenous religions and belief systems of Sudanic Africa. Unlike in the Americas, where the Atlantic slave trade was primarily responsible for the diffusion of similar indigenous African religious practices such as candomblé, Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and their variants, the history behind Sudanic African spirit possession and healing practices in North Africa and the Middle East is much more complex. While increased enslaving activities during the late 18th century through the 19th century may have exacerbated the diffusion of the various Sudanic religious practices such as the Hausa Bori, the Zarma Holey, and the Zar cults to North Africa and the Middle East, their presence and practice outside their original milieu cannot be attributed solely to the slave trade. Interregional commerce, pilgrimage, voluntary migration, and elements of cultural unity underlying the Sudanic African religious and cosmological systems have all contributed at different historical time periods at varying scale to their spread and diffusion in North Africa and the Middle East.

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The South African interior, roughly equivalent to the Highveld on the southern continental plateau, was in the 19th century a stage of numerous players and groups, acting in concert and in conflict with one another, as often dissolving as taking on board new members. The fortunes of Highveld inhabitants, occupiers, and passers-by fluctuated without periods of calm, and turned advantages to few. It was therefore not uncommon for the human flotsam and jetsam created by raiding, battles, and migrations, aggravated by drought and famine, to be subordinated by the survivors and forced to serve those with whom they had no prior allegiance or knowledge. Slavery in the interior was largely a by-product of staking out territory. Rather than generate slaves for sale in an external market, slavery on the Highveld was fed by the political impulse to aggregate followers and servants. An internal exchange emerged in some areas, and traders made a few transactions with coastal exporters, but the general pattern of enslavement was acquisition by raiding and distribution among raiders. The majority taken were youngsters and, to a lesser degree, women. As a rule, the menfolk were killed.