The Kunama have withstood repeated invasions and raids from more powerful, more patriarchal neighbors. Outsiders often call them by the depreciating name Barià, meaning slaves. For three centuries the Kunama were forced to pay tribute to the Funj empire of Sudan, who also took many of them captive and enslaved them. This traumatic history colors [...]
The Kunama have withstood repeated invasions and raids from more powerful, more patriarchal neighbors. Outsiders often call them by the depreciating name Barià, meaning slaves. For three centuries the Kunama were forced to pay tribute to the Funj empire of Sudan, who also took many of them captive and enslaved them. This traumatic history colors their language: where we might say to someone, “Are you crazy?” the Kunama expression is, “Has a Funj taken you?”
Dore emphasizes that Kunama land is “a territory historically exposed to risk,” and that the Andinnas give expression to collective trauma in their ritual theater, “transforming the memory of violence undergone.” They enact Otherness and themes of border-crossing, in a way similar to the zar religion. They smoke and use male behavior, gestures, voices. They reproduce the gestures, moods, positions or bodies of foreign spirits, of the dominators. They act out raids and counter-raids, with acts modeled on European and Ethiopian armies, such as drills and presenting arms. Some of their songs are battle songs. [60-63]
They recall terrible attacks by outsiders: “O countrymen, the country has broken out in battle, flee; if you don’t want to, wait until they come to throw you out and go anyway. Are your feet bound? Why don’t you want to escape?” 
“Why you have lost the enemies? Why you have not held your lance tightly? Why you have not held your lance tightly to kill the one who eats berbere [Ethiopians or Eritreans]? Why you have lost the enemies?” 
“Why we do not burn? Why we do not put to fire Adua and Makalle? Why we do not burn Sawa?” 
Dore says this is “to control and also emotionally express the violence undergone, and the fear.”  That is indubitable, but there may be another dimension he does not consider: the activation of protective spirits around Kunama lands. Even the processional route the Andinnas traverse seems to have a protective magical dimension. There is also the aspect of women acting out warrior and specifically masculine behavior: “I’m on the trail of the Beni Amer [Muslim invaders of Kunama country]. I don’t hide what my mother and father say. I am like a strong man, I am perverse and don’t do what I’m told.” 
Another layer of politics is from recent colonial rule and European religion. The earliest accounts of Andinnas (of Kunama culture generally) come from Swedish and Italian missionaries, and are deeply stained with their prejudices against indigenous religion and culture as pagan superstition. A Swedish letter from Kulluku village refers to the mother of a young convert as a “witch doctor.” Dore points out that the woman may well have been an Andinna.
The Italian-Kunama dictionary compiled by Catholic missionaries renders Andinna as a “spirit-woman, witch.” She has ties to Sadalla, a being who is glossed as Lucifer, chief of the demons, even though for the Kunama, Sadalla does positive actions and healing. He is the spirit who comes to give warnings to the Andinnas who fall immediately in a weeklong trance. During that time they speak in tongues and are in constant touch with Sadalla who drinks aifa with them. [56-57]
While some clergy took the more pragmatic attitude that “we don’t want to know about it,” the main thrust of the foreign missionaries was to do away with the shamanic culture of the Andinnas. Here is a story “Sadalla” told by a Christian convert, which demonizes this important spirit of the Andinnas and describes the women themselves not as healers, but as devil-possessed evildoers:
The demon and the andinnas are relatives. He lives in the deserted countryside. Then he goes into the houses. The andinnas and the spirits sit together; he has an iron stick. Then, if if his subjects behave badly, he strikes her on the neck with the iron stick. If in the country there is a sick person, he goes there. He breathes a spirit into the sick person and they get worse. He then takes to the cemetery the shadow of the sick person. The spirits carry him away and the sick person dies. He goes from country to country in search of meat, in search of honey, in search of aifa. He breathes his spirit into a healthy person who becomes agitated. This is the story of Satan. 
Dore says the public performances of the Andinnas “allow insight on assymetric social relations and symbols, such as between Kunama and external forces, between men and women, human beings and spirits, the living and the dead, and to socialize the relationship between the possessed and the spirit or the spirits.  He remarks that even though men turn to the Andinnas in times of need, they “hold them at a distance” socially, and are afraid of them.
Dore concentrates on the political and “theatrical” aspects, but has less to say about the spiritual. What he calls “therapeutic theater” could also be described as shamanic acts of power. This is especially true of the Andinna’s walking of a ritual course across the Kunama landscape. Their brandishing of weapons and chants appears to be protective magic that brings in power from ancestors and the land. They seem to be warding off danger from their Kunama people, who have suffered such a long history of invasion and danger from without.
Sexual politics of a mother-right culture under seige
Kunama women do not stay in the house; they move freely across the land in daily life. Especially young women cover a lot of terrain in bringing home water. For this reason, as well as the strong mother-right customs of their culture, they have the reputation of being “free” among neighboring peoples. These outsiders, both the Muslim Sudanese and Christian and Muslim Ethiopians, believe that Kunama women hold headship over their men. [68, note 65] This belief is fortified by the lack of sanctions against Kunama women taking lovers, something that the patriarchal neighbors disapprove and severely punish in women.
Traditionally, Kunama women are free to take lovers as they choose, as a different source explains: “As soon as she reaches puberty, a Kunama girl is given a hut of her own where she can entertain her male friends. She is totally free to choose her own boy-friend, a lover or her future husband. It is very seldom that the Kunama parents would practise pre-arranged marriages for their children.” When an unmarried woman takes a lover and becomes pregnant, her parents ask her who the father is. They ask him if he is willing to marry her. If he refuses, she goes through the ‘Mashkabara’ ceremony. The young man provides a cow to be sacrificed, and the young woman’s extended family comes to mark her passage from girlhood:
“Through that ceremony, externally consisting in the changing of her hair styling, the girl is brought into the state of womanhood. The underlining meaning of this ceremony is that, to be a mother a girl has to become a ‘woman,’ no matter whether that takes place through marriage or just simply performing the ‘Mashkabara’.” [Source: "Kunama Customs - Traditions - Pregnancy" at http://baden-kunama.com/KUNAMA CUSTOMS - TRADITIONS - PREGNANCY Part 1 RKPHA 1999-2000.html ] This excellent article continues with a description of the intense solicitude and communal support that the Kunama provide to all pregnant women, in food, labor, emotional, and in every way possible.
The traditional values of the Kunama are communal and strongly egalitarian in many ways. It is a culture of sharing, free of class stratification or of one group lording it over another. Society is organized around the mother-kin, and we have already seen the importance of the Andinna priestesses. However, Kunama women are subjected to female genital excision and even infibulation. These may have been adopted from their patriarchal neighbors, who have invaded and raided and oppressed them for centuries. However it came to be, excision is now deeply embedded in the culture. A third of Kunama women suffer the most severe form, known as infibulation. In this extremely painful ordeal, the clitoris and entire vulva are amputated and the external labia are sewn together into a wall of flesh. Heterosexual intercourse can take place only by cutting the woman open. The Kunama have a name, koda, for the special relation between two women who passed through infibulation together, their legs tied apart to each other. [Endnote 2, p 84]
In the documentary Sharifa’s Three Wishes (2000) the wishes of the deceased grandmother Sharifa all pertain to Kunama traditions. One her wishes is that a clitoridectomy should be performed on her youngest granddaughter, Geneth. “Agid, the mother of the child, tries to refuse. She would like to protect her daughter from this ordeal. Agid argues that in the city many families don’t perform this ritual anymore. The old powerful women warn that an uncircumcised women will be ostracized from the tribal society, won’t be able to inherit and will not be buried in the family grave. The primary threat is the ghost of the ancestors, which can be terrible and can bring tragedy over the entire family.” [Sharifa's Three Wishes]
As the grandmother’s name indicates, some Kunama have converted to Islam, and others to Christianity. The aboriginal culture is buffeted by outside forces, as it has been for centuries. In mixed marriages (aboriginal-faith to Christian or Muslim) contradictions arise. Dore tells how one Muslim husband took the approach as the earlier missionaries: “I don’t want to know about it.” He avoided his wife when she entered trance and ordered not to even speak to him then. Yet the chants of the Andinnas reflect strong Islamic influence, with phrases like Mekka-Madina and Salam appearing often. A Catholic priest told one girl who had been an Andinna’s student, “If you are an Andinna, you can’t be a Christian!” She responded, “Yes I know, now I’m a Muslim because I invoke Meccamedina!” [Dore, 67]
The transwoman oracle
European sources always refer to the Kunama supreme Deity, Annà, as “God,” but in one place Dore indicates that the people saw Annà as co-gendered. He describes the case of a shepherd who took male lovers, declared a female identity, and became a sensation practicing divination, healing, and counter-sorcery a century ago. An Italian court case of 1903 says:
“a man dressed in women’s clothes, and wearing necklaces, went out in the country doing dances as if possessed by a spirit.” People gathered around him: “while still dancing, he told how Annà [god] had spoke to him in a dream, and had also changed his sex. This condition was for him, a man, necessary to be recognized and enjoy the rights of Ascilminà, which are always reserved to women. The people then divided into two camps, most of them shouting at the imposter, other upholding the possible truth of his assertions. [He]… assumed the female name Alima and contracted with great pomp, and to the amazement of many and the mocking laughter of others, the first marriage with one of his shepherds.” 
“But a crowd of people drove off the new couple with sticks, and they had to move to another area. They settled in a remote locale, where people came first out of curiosity and then to consult him. People were of the opinion that Alima was hermaphroditic and thus like God, as they imagined Divinity to be, as the unique origin of the Kunama line.” [74, emphasis added]
Alima’s name grew, s/he got followers and a court, and a village grew up around hir. S/he was called Annà and hir village Anne Suca (God’s country). Every night s/he spoke with various dead people, relatives showing hir with abundant gifts, and more consultations followed. When the rains failed at Sogodas, a council was called, and an old man warned the assembly that they needed to discover the traitors who were hiding like snakes in the country, who were using sorcery to stop the rain. People felt there was no time to lose; the fields were baking, the witch must be found immediately if any of the crops were to be saved. They proposed to consult “Annà.” 
So a group of elders went to hir with gifts and offerings. They told hir who they suspected; all were immigrants from other regions. Alima went into trance, named three of the unfortunates who had been suggested, and made recommendations on how they should pay for their sorcery. When hir pronouncements were brought back to the assembly, a howl of hate rose against the condemned. In vain, the three men protested their innocence and implored friends and relatives to protect them. A hundred hands attacked and threw them to the ground. They were killed on the spot. Alima later implicated another five men who were killed after being tortured. 
Dore speaks of the cross-dressing and assuming of feminine identity as “a necessary act because he invades a territory belonging to the andinna or ascirminè women.”  This implies that prophecy was a female realm –incarnating spirits certainly was — but in fact male diviners also existed. The suli fada male diviners cast lots and oversaw ordeals of accused sorcerers. [84, n. 5] The witch-finding of Alima fits the masculine paradigm more closely than the feminine. There is no indication of this solitary oracular figure ever having been identified with the Andinnas, whose practice is thoroughly communal. No one becomes an Andinna without being initiated and taught, even though that happens after they are selected by the spirits.
Their ritual practices bear some resemblances to the zar religion, another female trance religion that originated in Ethiopia and spread to Sudan, Egypt, Arabia and beyond. Both groups while entranced smoke, brandish weapons, and manifest primarily masculine spirits, and often powerful foreigners as well. There is something going on with ceremonially working the Other, as Dore’s subtitle indicates: “Women and possession as historical archive and experience of Otherness among the Kunama of Eritrea.”