‘We are in this for the money’
The sangoma mediumistic cult of Southern Africa: limitations and potential of an interpretation in terms of commodification
by Wim van Binsbergen

paper to be presented at the international conference: Commodification and identities: Social Life of Things revisited, Amsterdam, 10-13 June, 1999

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© 1999 Wim van Binsbergen

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1. Commodification as a likely perspective upon symbolic production in contemporary Africa

This paper addresses a problem which the convenors of the present conference have highlighted in the following terms:

‘...the many-sided question of the relation between commodities and social identities. There have been a rich array of studies of the role of global commodities, re-appropriated and re-interpreted, in the marking of identities.1 Yet, this link is beset by a basic ambiguity which merits closer attention. Objects — whether old ‘‘prestige goods’’ or imported commodities — may be used to confirm or even to freeze identities. However, the involvement of these goods (also the local ‘‘prestige goods’’) in processes of commodification, related to a market which is in principle open-ended, always undermines such efforts at closure, thus aggravating the struggle for access to these goods. As Birgit Meyer (forthcoming) notes in her study of ‘consumption and conversion’ among Pentecostalists in Ghana: the new consumption goods are not only identity-markers for the people involved; paradoxically they view them, at the same time, as threats, undermining or even dissolving identities. The link between commodities and identities leads to a fetishization of goods, to efforts to ‘‘de-commodify’’ them, which are, however, seldom completely successful. The trajectories of witchcraft beliefs in Africa and Latin America today can be highlighted in these terms. The difficulties in controlling access to commodities — in other words to restrain processes of commodification — allows for continuous re-interpretations of communal boundaries and constantly changing modes of in- and exclusion.2

What is the potential of a commodification perspective for the interpretation of symbolic production in contemporary Africa? To what extent is such a perspective illuminating, and what are its limitations? In the wake of Social life of things we have seen a spate of studies on the anthropology of commodities and consumption, in South countries and elsewhere. Much in the same way as anthropologists discovered the state in the 1970s, and identity in the 1980s, they are now reclaiming the economy, faster than the Dutch can reclaim land from the sea. To a great extent such intellectual fashions within academic disciplines reflect real shifts in the North Atlantic society and global society, and therefore are much more than just fashionable. Even so, it is advisable to be cautious, lest we put all our analytical eggs in one basket, risking to break them once again -- as some fifteen years ago, in the case of our splendid modes of production models; yet, then as now, we cannot help being aware of the great analytical and intellectual gains that counterweigh such risk.

       To indicate the general problem, let me evoke some of the potential, and the dilemma’s, of a commodification perspective on contemporary African symbolic production such as it presented itself in my study of the Kazanga festival, which has been held in western central Zambia since the late 1980s -- one of a growing series of such festivals in Zambia.

        In western Zambia a large number of ethnic identities circulate, among which that of the Lozi (Barotse) is dominant because of its association with the Luyana state. The latter had its pre-colonial claims confirmed and even expanded with the establishment of colonial rule in 1900, resulting in the Barotseland Protectorate, which initially coincided with North Western Rhodesia, and after Zambia’s independence (1964) became that country’s Western Province. Lozi arrogance, limited access to education and to markets, and the influence of a fundamentalist Christian mission, stimulated a process of ethnic awakening. As from the middle of the twentieth century more and more people in eastern Barotseland and adjacent areas came to identify as ‘Nkoya’. Ethnicisation was mainly the work of the urban Nkoya ‘elite’, who formed the Kazanga Cultural Association in the early 1980s. The association’s main achievement has been the annual organisation (since 1988) of the Kazanga festival, in the course of which a large audience (including Zambian national dignitaries, the four Nkoya royal chiefs, Nkoya nationals and outsiders), for two days is treated to a complete overview of Nkoya songs, dances and staged rituals.

        The Kazanga festival revolves around the mediation of the local Nkoya identity towards the national, and by implication world-wide space, — a mediation which is to transmute the local symbolic production (the local population has hardly any other products eligible for exchange with the outside world) into a measure of political and economic power via access to the national centre. Besides the selection and presentation of culture, this involves the transformation of culture: the Kazanga festival has the appearance of presenting items of traditional Nkoya culture, but in fact all these elements have been totally transformed towards a performative format, orchestrated, directed, rehearsed, subjected to the streamlining ordering by an organising elite and its mobilising and mediating ambitions. The models for this performative format derive from radio, television, the world of Christian missions, agricultural shows, state intervention in national ethnic artistic production through music and dance, and intercontinental pop media culture.

        The Nkoya identity which is thus put on display, is not only recent and situational, but also ‘virtual’, in the sense that it does not at all coincide any more with what the participating and performing villagers do experience as the self-evident ordering (in terms of space, time and social relations) of village life, in whose context superficially similar (but on closer scrutiny fundamentally different) truly historic forms of symbolic production are engaged which might be more properly termed ‘Nkoya traditional culture’. The artistic production during the Kazanga festival is somehow suspended in the air, it is intangible, no longer anchored in the social and symbolic particularisms of concrete social groups nor available for effective appropriation by such groups. Yet (or perhaps precisely because these features) it is passionately acclaimed among the very representatives of such particularisms.

        Artistic presentation in the context of the Kazanga festival is a form of commoditification. The performative format anticipates on the expectations of the visiting non-Nkoya elite, and has to produce goodwill and rapprochement, some sort of symbolic ready cash, to be effective within the wider world of political and economic power which is represented by these dignitaries. There is also more tangible ready cash involved: the performers are paid a little for their services. Moreover the performances take place in a context which is increasingly dominated by characteristic commodities from the global consumerist culture of reference: the performances are supported — and this is absolutely unheard of in the villages — by public address systems, and all royal protocol has to give in to the urge, among those possessing tape recorders, photo cameras, and video cameras, to ‘record’ the event — an act most characteristic of our electronic age and of the possibilities of individually reproduced and consumed, virtual and vicarious experience it entails. The standardisation of a commoditified artistic production is also borne out by the emphasis (which is in absolute contradiction with historic village patterns) on identical movements according to neat geometrical patterns, the avoidance of ‘offensive’ bodily movements particularly in the body zones singled out by Christian prudery, and in the identical uniforms of the members of the main dancing troupes. The representatives of the urban Kazanga troupe moreover advertise themselves through exceptional commodities such as shoes (which are not only expensive, but offensive and impractical in village dancing), expensive coiffures, sun glasses and identical T-shirts imprinted for the occasion. The commoditification element is also manifest in the separation — extremely unusual in this rural society — between

   passive, culture-consuming spectators, who explicitly are not supposed to join in the singing and dancing,

   the producers (who clearly act not by their own initiative — as in the village — but as they have been told), and

   the supervising elite (who in their turn single themselves out through such commodities as formal jackets and ties).

        But as far as the Kazanga festival is concerned, commodification is only one side of the analytical medal. In this incorporative context one borrows freely from a repertoire which has certainly not been commoditified even if it is performative: dressed in leopard skins, around the temples a royal ornament of Conus shells, and brandishing an antique executioner’s axe (all these attributes — regalia, in fact — have now become non-commodities, pertaining to a royal circuit that in the present time is no longer mercantile, although it was more so during the nineteenth century), an aged royal chief, with virtuoso accompaniment from a hereditary honorary drummer of the same age (he has always been far above performing with the state-subsidised royal orchestra in the routine court contexts), performs the old Royal Dance which since the end of the nineteenth century was hardly seen any more in this region; at the climax the king (for that is what he shows himself to be) kneels down and drinks directly from a hole in the ground where beer has been poured out for his royal ancestors — the patrons of at least his part of the Nkoya nation, implied to share in the deeply emotional cheers from the audience. And young women who have long been through girls’ puberty initiation, perform that ritual’s final dance, without any signs of the appropriate stage fright and modesty, and with their too mature breasts against all tradition tucked into conspicuous white bras; yet despite this performative artificiality their sublime bodily movements, which in this case are far from censored, approach the village-based original sufficiently close to bring the spectators, men as well as women, to ecstatic expressions of a recognised and shared identity. Obviously commoditification and transformative selection, however important, do not tell the whole story, and even after the recreation of Nkoya culture in the form Kazanga format enough reason for enthusiasm and identification is left for us not to be too cynical about the globalising erosion of the symbolic and ethnic domain.

        Yet, with all the attention for performative control, matched with a strong suggestion of authenticity, it is clear that the Kazanga leadership -- as unmistakable believers in and practitioners of commodification -- does not for one moment lose sight of the fact that the festival is primarily an attempt to exchange the one scarce good which one locally has in abundance, competence in symbolic production, for political and economic power. The national dignitaries, more than the royal chiefs, let alone the audience, constitute the spatial focus of the event, and a large part of the programme is devoted to the dignitaries’ welcome speeches and other formal addresses. Since the political arena is indeed the right place (and not only in Zambia) to exchange symbolic production for development projects, political allocation, and patronage, the harvest of the series of Kazanga festivals since 1988 is by now eminently manifest in a marked increase of Nkoya participation at the national level, in representative bodies and in the media, and in a marked decrease of the stigmatisation to which they used to be subjected under Lozi domination until well after independence. Kazanga is an example of how an ethnic group can not only articulate itself through symbolic production, but may actually lift itself by its own hairs out of the bog.

These Zambian dilemma’s may inspire us in our analysis of the sangoma mediumistic cult in nearby Botswana. But before we can proceed to such analysis, a fair amount of detailed ethnography has to be presented.


2. The sangoma mediumistic cult in Francistown, Botswana

2.1. Francistown as a ritual scene

Francistown is a European creation, with a considerable industrial and commercial sector, founded a century years ago, and racially segregated until Botswana’s Independence (1966). Francistown, a major railhead, has found itself halfway between rural villages and cattle posts and the distant destination of labour migration in South Africa, whence it has accommodated returning migrants and their attitudes, practices, tastes, fashions etc. as acquired in distant places. There is a keen awareness of ethnic differentiation and opposition in the town, reinforced again by a lively political process where ethnic mobilisation and particularly the issue of Kalanga identity and assertion are major inputs. Yet if Francistown ever was a Kalanga town in the sense that the Kalanga ethnic group (as a ‘host tribe’) dominated both the surrounding countryside and the town itself, this can no longer be said to be the case: in addition to a major influx from Zimbabwe, people from all over Botswana have settled there, and the town’s lingua franca is no longer Kalanga but Tswana, Botswana’s official language. Though the vast majority of present inhabitants of the town was not born there, the place has developed a distinct sense of a poly-ethnic urbanism, an idiom of public urban discourse in which the particular cultural inputs from national ethnic groups and the influence from distant places has amalgamated to form some common denominator: with attitudes, types of relationships, pastimes and places to pursue them which are felt to be typically urban; which elaborate stereotypes characterising the various townships within the town and ranking them in a classification of wealth and prestige; and with standard collective representations and responses, with regard to such matters as neighbourliness, conflict resolution, norms of urban public behaviour in the streets, shops, workplaces, fast food outlets, and drinking places.

       This public discourse also defines, on the level of lay participants and everyday conversation, the major medico-religious complexes and their characteristics (cf. Ståugard 1985):

     the clinic or hospital, where generally high-quality cosmopolitan health care is dispensed at considerable costs of time and frustration but against nominal fees (P0.503 per treatment);

     healing churches, with prophets (baprofiti) as cultic leaders; with services in which drumming, dancing, singing, speaking in tongues and laying-on of hands are major ingredients, they form the dominant public religious expression, and as dispensers of spiritual and material treatment feature prominently in people’s health strategies;

     dingaka, traditional healers (the principal ones organised in various local professional associations) using a material divination apparatus (usually the widespread system based on four divining tablets making for sixteen basic combinations) and a wide selection of traditional and neo-traditional medicines; and finally

     basangoma, spirit mediums whose distinctive feature vis-à-vis the dingaka is the inclusion of drumming and trance in divination and treatment, and a greater emphasis on ancestral rather than sorcery explanations of disease and other misfortune.

       People cannot help being aware of these medico-religious complexes. Cosmopolitan medicine, besides being invoked as a first resort in cases of illness, forms a regular component of administrative procedures regulating employment, absence from work, immigration etc., its physical locations dominate the urban scene, and the career opportunities it offers especially to women are greatly aspired. Healing churches exist by the score in Francistown, and they proclaim their existence by signboards, the sounds of singing and drumming not only at weekends but also several evenings and nights through the week. Members can often be seen in the street in their colourful uniforms specific to a particular church. Many display the fact that they are adherents and are being treated in the church by colourful strings of cotton around their wrists and necks; adherents of the major healing church, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), wear enamelled badges wherever they go. Dingaka, operating in and from treatment rooms they insist to call ‘surgeries’, are generally less conspicuous; even the licensed ones rarely put out signboards, although every inhabitant in town has knowledge of a number of them and can easily find recommendations to others. The same applies to basangoma, who however identify themselves by strings of beads around the neck, wrists and occasionally ankles, not only in the elaborate display customary at their professional sessions, but also, less conspicuously, in everyday life. This does distinguish them from the baprofiti and their adherents who never wear beads, more so than from the dingaka some of whom have gone through rituals and continue to adhere to cults also prescribing the wearing of beads: beads form together a catalogue of the bearer’s past sacrifices and current cultic attachments. The commodity angle is important from the outset of our argument: all beads in Francistown are imported glass beads exclusively available from the retail trade.

       At the level of public discourse, people are only dimly aware, if at all, of the esoteric specialist knowledge around which these various medico-religious specialist shape their professional activities, although these matters constitute cherished topics for everyday lay conversation. Most townsmen patronise not just one of the complexes but a combination of them, with this proviso that basangoma with their prolonged and expensive treatment searching deep in the patient’s existence and history normally are referred to as a last resort.

       Poly-ethnic public discourse in town classifies not only major medico-religious complexes and superficially attributes distinctive traits and evaluations to them, it also offers a common-sense aetiology, a provisional classification of symptoms and likely causes necessary for initial crisis mobilisation (of kinsmen, neighbours, colleagues, fellow-church members, employer and health specialists) in the urban environment, and stipulates an initial strategy of health action — to be refined once a particular medico-religious complex has been approach, and revised or extended whenever that complex does not soon respond satisfactorily. In this connexion one major common-sense interpretation, far from peculiar to Francistown public discourse, is that of certain complaints (e.g. chronic headache, swollen extremities, eye trouble, persistent bad luck) as signs of being possessed by spirits, and of certain family conditions (notably the prevalence of such possession in previous generations, handed down in chains of cultic affiliation) as conducive to these complaints.

       Francistown finds itself well inside the catchment area of Southern Africa’s mayor High God cult, that of Mwali. Through extensive research by Richard Werbner, Terence Ranger and others4 we are now beginning to understand the cult’s history and organisational structure, its significance for the region’s rural communities, and its political significance in the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence. It is remarkable that the cult is hardly articulated in the public discourse on medico-religious complexes in Francistown. Only towards the end of a year’s fieldwork did I once see a group of Children of Mwali, Bawosana, in uniform (staff, black cloak, white or black-and-white skirt, white or red sash, and strings of black beads or a combination of black, black-and-white, white and red) out on a public road in town; but by that time I had already made contact with a few Francistown lodges where Mwali-related sessions of dancing, treatment and initiation would be held, on private yards which due to the nature of urban space in African towns would still be fairly open to the public eye and ear. Well-known Mwali cultic personnel does have an urban residence: Mr. Vumbu, who is the high priest of the cult’s southwestern encompassing the North-East District, and has an oracle inside Botswana’s border (cf. Werbner 1989: 278 and passim), has a house in Francistown’s area L and runs —— food for a commodification approach! -- a transport company; but a standard response of my urban informants was that Mr Vumbu had dropped his cultic activities, was absorbed in his transport enterprise, and was no longer considered a true representative of the cult. A similar image of past activities supplanted by present-day inertia was detectable when I confronted Francistown lay (and even a few specialist) informants with my increasing information on what went on in the lodges: the dancers there were interpreted not as actual Servants of Mwali at present incorporated in a regional network of cultic prestations and obligations, but as mere descendants of such adepts, emulating their ancestors’ dress and paraphernalia in a fragmented and localised cult which no longer bounds its present-day members in a viable regional network. Nonetheless, the extensive cultic network as described by Werbner (1989: ch. 7), spanning the entire North-East district, has far from ceased operation; the extent of urban-rural ties between Francistown and, particularly, the rural communities of northeastern Botswana ensures that a considerable number of urbanites may participate in rural forms of the Mwali cult.

       The urban invisibility of the Mwali cult appears to be partly due to the obvious seasonal element in the rain cult: from July to September, towards the end of the dry season, Wosana dancing sessions are staged in several townships of Francistown, by what the public discourse calls basangoma, at private residential plots which accommodate lodges — i.e. centres of divination, healing and the training of adepts. These sessions, which draw a lay audience of several scores some of whom join in the dancing, are rallying points for senior adepts and cult leaders from other lodges in town, but also for a dozen or more of the dingaka who are not basangoma and do not have lodges. Participants of the latter category include some of the most senior dingaka — chairmen of their local professional associations; while in attire and ritual practice they identify as Wosana during these sessions, contrary to the lodge leaders they are not Ndebele but Kalanga from the North-East district.

2.2. A cultic lodge5

Francistown contains a few communities (I use the word almost is the monasterial sense), situated on private plots in residential townships, where the day-to-day life of the members, under the leadership of a major sangoma who is an adept of the Mwali cult, revolves on the diagnosis and treatment of mental and psychosomatic disorders attributed to ancestral and demonic6 affliction, and, in the process, on the training to sangomahood of those patients who — according to the widespread model of the cult of affliction — can only be cured by becoming therapists themselves. I have studied in detail three such lodges; two or three more exist in. The discussion below concentrates on the lodge in the Maipaahela residential area.

       Maipaahela is a recently upgraded former squatter area. This offered the opportunity to secure a relatively spacious plot and to fill it (in a way which would be impossible in a more controlled site-and-service plot, such as owned these days by an increasing proportion of Francistown inhabitants) with all sorts of inexpensive structures as dwellings for adepts and as treatment rooms, store rooms for paraphernalia and medicines, and a relatively large area occupied by a shrine: a large platform made of tree branches The medico-religious emphasis is combined with secular economic pursuit: in addition to the lodge members (about half of whom are close relatives of the lodge leader) the plot houses two tenants, young working women who are not related to the lodge leader and who have nothing whatsoever to do with the ritual organisation of the lodge. A similar situation, but involving rather more tenants, obtains at the lodge in the Monarch residential area, run by MaShakayile, a classificatory sister (first cousin) of the Maipaahela leader MaNdlovu.

       The lodge is situated at the edge of the township, where complaints about ritual noise etc. will be minimal, relative privacy from neighbours maximum (further enhanced by the fact that the separate buildings are narrowly closed upon one another to form a secluded yard, which is very a-typical for Francistown), and finally as near as possible to a small stream.


3. ‘We are in this for the money’: Conspicuous traits suggestive of commodification in the sangoma mediumistic cult

3.1. Introduction

There is much to be said for an interpretation of the sangoma cult in Francistown in terms of commodification: as a context where religious prestations are turned into marketable commodities, or where, alternatively, a ritual response to the commodification of other aspects of contemporary Botswana life is offered. In earlier work I have been rather optimistic about the possibilities of a commodification perspective, e.g. in terms of the religious laundering of money and consumption items:

‘An understanding of the way in which such organisations create identity by imposing boundaries on the initially unlimited flow that globalisation entails, can for instance be gathered from the study of such a widespread phenomenon as the laundering of globally mediated commodities and of money in the context of contemporary religious organisations. Many African Christian churches appear7 as a context for the managing of elements belonging to the inimical domain of commodities, consumption and the market. But we should not overlook that very much the same process is at work outside world religions yet (inevitably, since the problem presupposes the clients’ extensive participation in the world economy) in a context of globalisation — among syncretistic or neo-traditional cults, which have their own forms of formal organisation. Here examples of such ritual laundering can be quoted from urban cultic practice among Surinam Creoles in the Netherlands and from an urban variety of sangoma cults widespread in Southern Africa. 8 (van Binsbergen 1998)

       The commodification aspect of the Francistown can be approached from a number of complementary directions.

3.2. Balance between old and new

In Maipaahela, the dominant structure on the plot is a fully-fledged modern four- roomed house, which would satisfy all the regulations and requirements of state-controlled urban building, and in appearance, capital investment, and elaborate furnishing testifies to a very considerable adoption of modern tastes and life-style, in no way exceptional in Francistown outside the circles of the very poor. What is exceptional, though, about the lodge is its perceptible balance between the old and the new -- in the midst of a Francistown where historic forms of rural life and symbolism have been virtually banned from public life and are surviving only implicitly, keeping a very low profile, having virtually gone underground. At the lodge, on the contrary, the constant attention for ritual activities and paraphernalia such as drums, cloths, beads and medicine (items which the leader constantly carries around in, significantly again, disposable plastic shopping bags) does not go hand in hand with a rejection of whatever the modern world has to offer in the way of furniture, clothing, utensils, child care requisites etc. Most of the food consumed at the lodge is bought in Francistown’s large supermarkets — the lodge emulates the symbolic but not the productive aspects of the rural socio-economic order. The beer consumed and libated in considerable quantities at the lodge, particularly during rituals, is not a ritual home-brew but the simple manufac­tured Chibuku, packed in cartons; the leader herself consumes endless series of canned beer of an unpopular brand called Black Label — the package in red and white against a basic black (cf. the Wosana costume) lends it a sanctity which its modern manufacture and purchase for money does not seem to affect negatively. By contrast to the sense of diabolical contamination with attaches to modern consumption and permissiveness in the idiom of the Francistown healing churches, at the lodge a carefree sense of immunity appears to reign — not in the least since money, that major contaminating agent, can be sanctified on the spot: by the leader’s handling it, storing it with the parapher­nalia in the shopping bags, and forwarding 5 — 10 % of it to the Manyangwa oracle with which she is associated. Fees for divinatory and therapeutic services range from P5 for a simple first consultation, via c. P100 for extensive treatment, to c. P1000 (not counting sacrificial animals, firewood, cloth and beads) for graduation to full sangomahood; by comparison, the average monthly wages in the formal sector in Francistown are in the range of P150 — P200.

       Of the other two lodges, the Monarch one is very similar to the one in Maipaahela — since their leaders are sisters, the Monarch lodge absorbed most of the Maipaahela adepts and patients when the Maipaahela leader died in 1989. The Monarch lodge however is situated not at the edge but more towards the centre of a township, a stream and bush therefore are not very near (although still not more than a few hundred meters away), and the plot is secluded from neighbouring plots and particularly from the main road by a dense growth of giant cactuses, which are exceptional in Francistown. Situated in the town’s most dilapidated and disreputable surviving squatter area, the Masemenyenga lodge, although subservient to the same Mwali oracle in Manyangwa, is different from the other two in that it has far fewer adepts (only three Kalanga women in addition to the Ndebele leader), who in ceremonies wear not the Wosana costume but instead emulate nineteenth-century Zulu dress. The main difference lies in the way in which space is sacralised: not primarily by an outdoor shrine made of branches but by fine white-washed one-roomed permanent building which is exclusively used for divination and treatment, carefully kept clean, the floor covered with elegant reed mats, the walls crammed with sacred cloths and other paraphernalia, and with two small decorated ancestral gourds as the mobile centre of the shrine. In the midst of the — in Francistown proverbial — filth and devastation of Masemenyenga, the place (occupied by the lodge leader more than twenty years ago) stands out as a beacon of purity and vital strength.

       A fictive family, the lodge has a firm style of leadership which makes it far from a democracy. Commodities clearly articulate the internal relationships at the lodge. The leader’s plastic bags contain everything that the adepts may ever need for treatment and initiation, and as such represent the constant generous flow of healing care -- which is also the transformation of externally bought commodities, via the leader’s shopping bags, into internally meaningful paraphernalia, uniforms etc. -- from the leader to her followers, but they also represent the almost total control which she exercises over the material and symbolic resources available at the lodge. Keys to the treatment and store rooms ensure her authority over the lodge’s drums, pilgrim staffs, consecrated divination tablets, animals waiting to be sacrificed, butcher’s knives etc. — and this authority is reinforced whenever she personally hands out these necessary items. Only fly switches and leg rattles made of spider’s nests (both indispensable for dancing), uniforms (for which the material has been bought by the adept personally, after which it is cut and sewn by the leader) and dummy exercise tablets for divinatory exercises, are kept by the adepts themselves. Similarly, individual adepts may administer the treatments prescribed by the leader, but she alone can prescribe a therapy, while she oversees all divination going on at the lodge except for the adepts’ daily exercises with non-consecrated, dummy divination tablets. This insistence on control is on the one hand in line with the immense responsibilities the leader takes upon herself, braving ancestors and demons in her efforts to restore the patients to health and preserve the well-being of the adepts despite the supernatural and psychological risks they run. On the other hand the pattern of leadership is in line with the managerial problems of the position of leader, the cleavages and rivalry within the family which controls both the Maipaahela and the Monarch lodge, potential tensions within the lodge (between senior and junior adepts, adepts who are the leader’s kin and those who are not), and the sharp competition with other Francistown healers, in which resort to such drastic means as they have professionally access to is taken for granted.

3.3. ‘We are in this for the money’

       It is an unmistakable fact that ritual services are being offered in exchange for substantial amounts of cash.

‘We are in this for the money’

is what two Francistown sangomas told me at the end of a long and deeply moving ritual which they had supervised in my Francistown backyard -- the first bloody ancestral sacrifice I was ever to make; and while I could scarcely believe that they were being so tactless at such a sacred moment, they mentioned once again how much I owed them for their services. Below we shall encounter these two men as Joshua (a failing ritual entrepreneur) and Albert (a highly successful one, head of a lodge patronised by the trading elite of Francistown, and owner of a first-rate motor vehicle.). We shall see that Joshua was propelled into sangomahood by the dynamics of Southern African aetiological categories -- becoming a sangoma was the only way for him to restore his health after a mental breakdown had destroyed his splendid intellectual career; sangomahood was scarcely his chosen profession, let alone a profession he had chosen because of its lucrative nature. Albert, an androgynous presence when in trance, successor to his father who was also a successful sangoma, proud lover of his three female adepts, and enthusiast for early nineteenth-century Nguni military attire which he and his adepts don during their trance performances -- Albert gets many more important things out of his sangomahood, than just money.

       I suspect that the blunt insistence on the payment of substantial sums at the moment when the client is still in the clutches of spiritual transformation, has one main purpose which North Atlantic psychiatrist may be ready to recognise (even although they themselves tend to bill their patient heavily): the money severs possible ties of lifelong dependence and transference which would otherwise develop; it is the one reminder that beyond the dream of a self-contained personal microcosm which the therapy pretends to restore, lies a world of impersonal, universalised value, calibrated and rendered infinitely exchangeable through the external, alien medium of money.

       Even so the commodity angle in the Francistown sangoma cult is conspicuous. Not only are the services heavily paid for. Also the majority of paraphernalia derives from the market, as commodities, and rather than by ritual barriers to consumption and money, life at the lodge can be said to involve a celebration of consumption and a sanctification of money. Among the sangoma’s clients are the most wealthy entrepreneurs of Francistown, and they do not come for personal bodily complaints, but for success medicine. The training as twaza border on exploitation, and the final fee which the lodge leader cashes upon the twaza’s graduation represents the equivalent of a few months’ income in unskilled formal-sector employment. In order to justify these expenses, as well as those of the repeated animal sacrifices, the sacrificial meal at initiation into twazahood and at graduation (at which literally hundreds of guests have to be fed at the expense of the candidate), the adept is constantly told: ‘You will all find it back with the people’, i.e. with your future clients, in the form of their fees.

       Sometimes the celebration of commodities may border on the criminal. One of the most prominent lodge members of the Monarch lodge spent the Christmas period of 1991 in jail, because she was found trafficking in soft drugs. In the same year,  was presented, upon my own graduation, with what looked like a gold nugget the size of a small egg; I was exhorted to sell the item abroad and share the proceeds with the lodge leadership, but it turned out to be a mere pebble daubed in gold paint. That lodge was in decline, had a large number of non-productive dependants and few clients for major, expensive treatments, which in combination with the high level of alcohol consumption produced a constant lack of cash.

3.4. Two historical models

Two, rather contradictory, historical arguments might be made in this connection.

3.4.1. the Francistown cult as recently corrupted by commodification

       On the one hand, from a commodification perspective one might be tempted to suggest that the Francistown sangoma cult represents an eroded, commodified, cosmopolitan form of a ritual tradition which elsewhere, in remote rural areas of Southern Africa, would be far more intact, and less polluted by the desire for money. The fact that the lodge members tend to come from many different countries, language groups and ethnic groups, already suggests that the cult does not reproduce some historic localised identity. Descriptions of sangomahood from more rural parts of Southern Africa (Berglund, Sibisi-Ngubane, Reis etc.) offer us a picture of a far less elaborate, more rustic, less lucrative and more cosmologically underpinned, local idiom, of which the activities in Francistown might appear to be somewhat virtualised and bricolaged transformations.

       In twentieth-century Southern Africa (ranging from Southern Zambia, through Zimbabwe and Botswana, to the Republic of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, with ramifications into Angola and Mozambique), the term sangoma has stood for any ritual-therapeutic specialist engaging in a combination of mediumistic trance, four-tablet divination, and herbalism. This cultic complex is found in various contexts which may vary from extreme, culturally specific localisation (homesteads in rural environments ethnically marked as ‘Zulu’, ‘Swazi’, ‘Ndebele’, ‘Kalanga’) to regional (by implication global), culturally fairly heterogeneous or unspecific, urban contexts. Important variations within this cultic complex can be mapped by a number of oppositions along the axis of the local/ global distinction:

     the nature and multiplicity of social and economic relationships between specialist and client;

     their being embedded in a shared mother-tongue supported discourse of causation and meaning — or their having to make shift with a lingua franca and vastly divergent initial cosmological positions; in the latter case, the progressive elaboration of a shared fantasy space between healer and client amounts to the client’s (re-)conversion;

     the extent, therefore, to which that discourse (esp. with a view on supernatural agents as structures of causation and legitimacy) is localised, integrated and unitarian — or globalising, eclectic, fragmented and diverse.

As structured by these and similar oppositions the sangoma complex, ramifying and kaleidoscopic, could be argued to constitute a fantasy space within which both clients and therapeutic entrepreneurs can pursue widely diverging options of imagery, a choice of repertoires of traditionalism or modernity, defining several modes of causation with varying detail, consistency and idiosyncrasy. in urban multiethnic settings such as Francistown, these options would then be only distantly informed by the time-honoured, local cultural models which they do, however, mimic in dress style and imagery. This creative variability with be set against the background of contemporary urban Botswana society, featuring among other characteristics:

     the snow-ball organisational format of the cult of affliction, and the great premium it lays on cultic and therapeutic competition for the public opinion i.e. for potential clients’ patronage

     the varieties of relatively new concerns (general urban insecurity and competition for jobs, housing and lovers; protection of large entrepreneurial and political capital for regional and national politicians and traders in an expanding market; the articulation of manageable tradition within a modernist nationalistic framework of politically controlled cultural production)

     the impact of cosmopolitan organisational formats (political parties, churches, healers’ professional organisations)

     the amazing extent to which the entire cultic complex is pervaded by the image of the market and of the commodity

From such a conception of urban or cosmopolitan sangomahood, it would appear to be scarcely a few steps to such virtualised global belief systems as New Age, UFO-cults, and vampirism. Below I shall argue that, whatever the ‘modern’, commodified environment in which the Francistown sangoma cult is embedded and which it manifestly takes for granted, it would be totally wrong to deny the very great extent to which that cult is itself in consonance with time-honoured, cosmologically anchored forms of therapeutic meaning. If commodification has to be brought in, it is -- as I shall argue at length -- a something whose effects the cult confronts, even though it has to a certain extent pervaded the cult itself.


3.4.2. the Francistown cult as a historic celebration of commodity trade

       Another frame of interpretation which presents itself is to look upon the Francistown sangoma cult as a historic form celebrating commodities -- to the extent that most paraphernalia and most sacrificial animals and other sacrificial matter (snuff, beads), cloths) emphatically has to be bought, and cannot come from one’s own supplies. Networks of long-distance trade have traversed East and South Central Africa for millennia, and they connected the royal an aristocratic courts of the interior with commodity flows extending all across the Indian Ocean, to Arabia, Persia, India, China, and Indonesia. it is very likely that the forms of the sangoma cult owe a great deal to these intercontinental influences -- the black cloaks, staff, short dancing-skirt in cloth, crossed bead scapulars, prostration as ritual gesture, the insistence on bare feet in the presence of the sacred -- all this suggests specific cultural forms which do not exactly root in African soil. After the middle of the second millennium, once splendid state systems of the interior declined greatly, and it is likely that then regional cults (such as have survived into the twentieth century, especially the Mwali cult) came to play an large role in the maintenance of interregional trade networks, with major shrines acting as nodal points. I find this a more convincing and attractive hypothetical model in which to cast the interpretation of the Francistown cult, than the first one (of an urban commoditised travesty of pure  rural forms). It also ties in with the marked commodity-mindedness of Botswana, with an elaborate value system geared to the accumulation and successful upkeep of wealth under condition of stability and social approval -- a system rather exceptional in Africa, where such levelling mechanisms  as sorcery, cursing, bridewealth, tend to dissipate and discourage entrepreneurship and the accumulation of wealth, while on the other hand many cannot resist the temptation of primitive accumulation based on uncontrolled access to state resources.


4. Beyond commodification in the sangoma mediumistic cult

Yet the ethnographic evidence concerning the Francistown sangoma brings out that the elements of commodification outlined above, must be considerably qualified.

4.1. An unaccommodating market

As a minor point, the idea of the cult as a celebration of commodification is scarcely in line with the actual experience of adepts who are faced with the task of fulfilling their sacrificial obligations though the market. They find that that market is extremely reluctant, difficult to operate, defective. Because of the history of White monopoly capital in the North East district, where Francistown is situated, the town is surrounded by a circle of commercial farms. Within a range of thirty kilometres, it is therefore virtually impossible to buy a goat. The ancestral demands in terms of uniforms, beads, other paraphernalia, are often very specific, and difficult to meet from the day-to-day supply in Francistown’s shop, where plastic hairpins are far easier to get by than white glass beads.

       But there are other, more profound arguments against the view that Francistown sangomahood essentially revolves on commodification.

4.2. Sacralisation of the landscape

Unmistakable, the lodge seeks to function as the centre of a viable, or restored, whole cosmology with rural referents.

       The Maipaahela lodge is situated near a stream. The stream’s banks covered with shrubs offer a place for ritual ablutions. Most important however about the stream is that it is (as streams in the surrounding rural areas) a place where ancestral spirits are supposed to be eminently present, and approachable; here novice adepts are chased across the river where they deposit offerings of bank notes or coins of the highest nomination (immediately to be retrieved by the adepts and forwarded to the lodge leader). The plot’s closed lay-out around a central yard, with only one very narrow entrance, is suggestive of a womb nurturing and protecting the humans contained in it. It may also evoke the symbolism (more than the actual physical form) of the Kalanga homestead and local kin group, the nzi; also, the demonic cult in which the cult leader specialises beside her Mwali connections has a decidedly Kalanga signature. Yet the language of communication at the lodge is Ndebele rather than Kalanga, and the two languages are not mutually intelligible. With its elaborate shrine and the adjacent river the lodge reproduces, in an urban setting where such is very exceptional indeed, a viable rural, kinship-based social order, a ritual microcosm where so many of the traditional elements of the symbolic life are represented. This sacralisation of space must be an important aspect of the healing potential of this urban community.

       In Francistown, architectural structures which dominate the townscape are those associated with the state and capitalism. Only an inconspicuous role is reserved for one category of structures which in European and American towns is so visually dominant: churches. Sangomas and baprofiti (‘prophets’, i.e. leaders of African Independent churches) are the African Francistonian community’s principal specialists in the articulation and manipulation of meaning. They are the only ones to actually sacralise the urban space in its own right through the creation of shrines and the staging of ritual and sacrifice in the urban context. It is true that the sangoma shrines to a considerable extent evoke a viable rural social and cosmological order revolving on ancestors;9 but at the same time items charged with cosmopolitan meaning (the lodge leader’s relatively luxurious town house, modern furniture, emphasis on cash and on cash-bought paraphernalia and sacrifices, reliance on manufactured food and drink, even the ubiquitous plastic shopping bags) are far from shunned, and they are sacralised in the ritual process continuously going on at the sangoma lodges. The baprofiti’s position is related but somewhat different: their reference is to the cosmopolitan repertoires of meaning much more than to the historic rural repertoire, and they impose severe limitations upon the selection from the modern society that their adherents are allowed to indulge in, yet they too offer ritual and symbolic ways in which the suffering and temptation engendered in that modern world can be alleviated and a person can return to it without being overwhelmed by it — ways which make that world once again an inhabitable place. In this way the baprofiti, too, sacralise and to some extent rehabilitate the urban space itself. Both types of ritual specialists offer a way out from the alienation which for most other Africans in Francistown is both an accepted fact and a major factor in their strictly utilitarian approach to the town as intrinsically devoid of (historic, rural) meaning, as anything but home. Here there is the spatial and bodily dynamics of group interaction to be appreciated. In many Independent churches this takes the form of a dancing chorus, a circular dancing movement, or even a ‘planetary’ movement with the dancers (as detached, impersonal ‘atoms’, once again?) turning both around their own axis and, jointly, around a common centre, where often the congregation’s new-born children, novices, baptismal candidates, sufferers or sick are placed as if to have maximum benefit from the energy unleashed by the frantic yet carefully orchestrated movement of the congregation. Among the Independent churches, and in the not unrelated sangoma dancing ritual, we can see the (attempt of a) group-wise appropriation and hence transformation of a small ritual space inside town, as an active way of confronting and exorcising the alienation which is paramount in the everyday living experience of the African workers in the urban space outside the ritual situation. 10

       The basangoma and baprofiti also specifically mediate between rural spatial symbolism and that in town. I have already explained how the town’s river beds, in the African pedestrians’ perceptions, are convenient passage-ways rather than boundaries. This is the place to point out that in the symbolism of the urban landscape they feature also in other capacities. The rivers (whose connotations of liminality may be obvious) have retained their historic rural symbolism as the abode of the ancestors, of territorial spirits and of the Great Water Serpent — even if they are dry most of the time. The urban rivers play an important part in the ritual of the town’s sangoma lodges in that every novice has to be chased across one of them, dropping sacrificial coins and being beaten by the senior lodge members. Lodge members ritually wash their bodies outdoors in the thicket adjacent to the stream, on the occasion of initiation and bereavement. The rivers also play a role in the baptismal rites of the Independent churches, whose symbolism is historically African at least as much as it is biblical.

       Hills are in a category akin to rivers. Nyangabgwe Hill does not only visually dominate the town. The etymology of this place-name contains virtually the only bit of shared historic collective consciousness among the local population: many Francistownians can tell you that the name derives from the Kalanga words for ‘rock’ and ‘to stalk’, and offer the nutshell myth of a hunter mistaking a rock for a prey he thought to be stalking. This hill is only the tallest of a system of about ten hills around the confluence of the Tati and Inchwe Rivers, and on the tops of several of these hills there are archaeological sites, with zimbabwe-type fishbone-pattern brickwork revealing these places to have been residences of regional minor rulers incorporated in a powerful state (closely associated with the Mwali cult and the Kalanga language) encompassing much of northwestern Botswana and Zimbabwe until only a few centuries ago.11 The contemporary ethnic consciousness of the Kalanga in and around Francistown lacks awareness of this glorious historical past and concentrates on their humiliation at the hands of the Ngwato (a Tswana sub-group) mainly in the colonial period. I suppose that in the technical legal sense these archaeological sites are national monuments, but in the sociological sense they are certainly not, since very few Francistownians are aware of their presence and significance. The hills do however feature in the ritual of the (mutually closely related) Mwali and sangoma cults and in that of the, somewhat more distantly related, African Independent churches, as places of theophany comparable with the rivers.

4.3. Sacralisation of the person

       At the Maipaahela lodge, the sacralisation of space goes hand in hand with the sacralisation of person. The lodge leader is seen as the incarnation of a major ancestral spirit, whose presence and sacred status is constantly to be acknowledged by a ritual greeting: whenever an adept or patient wants to enter the yard he or she kneels at the narrow entrance and loudly and slowly claps hands a few times; the leader then calls back ‘Yebó, yebó, you may approach, the spirit welcomes you.’ The constant awareness (reinforced by frequent divination in which more senior adepts attend to the junior ones under the guidance of the leader) that all adepts host ‘incarnations’ similarly as the leader albeit on a less exalted scale, lends an extra dimension of ancestral dignity to the adepts’ personalities. Whether from a sense of generational continuity reinforced by the constant emphasis on the ancestral dimension, as a reversal of the rejection of children which is attributed to demons (Werbner 1989), or simply as another enacting of the quality of rural family life, it is remarkable that the few young children at the lodge are at the centre of everyone’s attention, admiration and care. (Such a state of affairs is rather conspicuous in Francistown, where mothers often find themselves unable to balance the demands of maternal care with those of wage labour as a more highly valued activity). The lodge’s shrine is a focus for sacrifice and libation, which as elsewhere should be approached respectfully — without shoes and wristwatches, and with a ankle-length cloth wrapped around a woman’s legs even if she is in ritual Mwali-cult attire (with only knee-length plied dancing skirt) — but this does not preclude joking and laughter in the presence of this eminently homely epiphany of the sacred.

4.4. The lodge as a therapeutic community

       More even than a dwelling place and a shrine, the lodge is a therapeutic community: for the ‘outpatients’ who come and go regularly, but particularly for the adepts. Kinsmen and non-kin alike identify as children of the leader, despite their considerable variation in age, mother tongue and ethnic affiliation: the lodge leaders are Ndebele, but their co-residing adepts (in so far as they are not recruited from the leader’s close kindred) may derive from any ethnic group in and around Botswana. There is great emphasis on mutual warmth, understanding, assistance both in day-to-day domestic matters and in ritual and healing, so that an awareness of belonging and protection is generated (along with the awareness of engaging in something dangerous, exclusive, often despised and repulsive: the pursuit of sangomahood). The members are very much aware of constituting a solidary group, which is further emphasised by their donning the lodge uniform for ritual occasions which, however, occur almost every day. The lodge does not house all adepts permanently. Some of them have, after their graduation from the esoteric training at the lodge, moved to places like Tonota and Tshesebe, 30 to 40 km from Francistown; they visit the lodge several times a month. 12Although the lodge members may engage in secular activities, including wage labour (some adepts work as shop assistants, cleaners and bricklayers), even when not resident at the lodge they are supposed to spend almost all their free time at the lodge, for both ritual and social action.

       Throughout the day, but particularly in the afternoon, early evening and weekends, new clients may present themselves. Treatment sessions, during which the patient may be required to be clothed in nothing but a blanket, take place in the small treatment rooms, with only one adept in attendance; there is a strong sense of bodily integrity and privacy. Divination sessions however are a collective undertaking, when all the adepts gather around the leader in order to see an application to real-life situations, of the highly involved and technical divinatory principles which they have been discussing and practising on dummy exercise divination tablets during the day. While the lodge leader oversees all divination sessions and pronounces the main diagnosis and paths to redress, she often leaves it to a senior adept to cast the tablets, to name and offer a first interpretation of the combinations, and to question the patient in the initial stages. A large proportion of the sessions, meanwhile, concern not outside patients but the adepts themselves, and particularly the decisions that have to be taken at various stages of their progress to healing, graduation and senior status. In these cases, when all adepts intently bend over the tablets and try to read them as signs of misfortune and hope of their fellow-adepts, the nature of the lodge as a therapeutic community becomes particularly manifest. At the same time the training component of such sessions is unmistakable: while present the lodge leader may allow one of the more experienced adepts to go almost all the way in the diagnostic dialogue, showing her increasing mastery and gaining credit for it in the small circle of the lodge.

       Each day at the lodge begins with a ritual: in a small treatment room all adepts present as well as an occasional outpatient under special treatment (but never the leader) stage a ritual which in all details is identical to the one described by Werbner (1989: 311f) as the cooling ritual through which a Child of Mwali is initiated and which has also been adopted by the ZCC. While all present repeat the following chorus in Ndebele:

‘We black cows drink muddy water,

We black cows of the ancestors’,13

they take turns in partaking of the foam, and their conscious interpretation is not -- at least not explicitly -- in terms of the Mwali cult, but in terms of fortification through the handling of bitter and repulsive matter, helping the ancestral spirit in them to emerge. After the morning ritual, a few adepts may attend to out-patients, administering fumigation, steam baths, massages etc. Meals are consumed collectively. In the afternoons adepts often occupy themselves with the practising of divination, learning the basic combinations and improving their skills at spinning meaningful stories out of the chance sequences in which these combinations occur when thrown.

       Around the inner core of the lodge there is a very loose network of free-floating senior adepts: traditional practitioners still in the process of building up a practice and a following in Francistown; they have a their own source of esoteric knowledge and status independent from the lodge leader, but may appeal to the latter when needing expert advice and ritual. In addition the lodge sees a coming and going of Francistown lay patients, only very few of whom will ever be caught in to become trainees. Among the clients are members of Francistown’s principal trading and political family.

       Every urban lodge heavily relies on nearby (up to than 50 km) rural homesteads as sources of kin support, vegetable medicine, and as locations where such secret ceremonies for the demonic cult can be staged as are considered to be incompatible with the urban environment. This implies that the sacralisation of space at the lodge has its limits, not so much because the lodge is within the municipal boundaries but because its reproduction of the rural order is balanced by the pursuit of a modern life-style and consumption patterns.

       The leader is the only lodge member with a personal link with the Mwali cult, having visited the oracle at a critical point in life and having there received the guidance (not the specific training and healing) that led to betterment and ultimately to success as a healer. A junior adept may live at the lodge for years, and graduate as a fully-fledged sangoma, without ever making the journey to a central Mwali oracle, and apparently without developing any clear awareness of the interregional implications of his or her particular combination of cultic styles, idioms and paraphernalia.

       Within the general setting of life at the lodge as described above, the restoration of meaning and well-being is brought about by the movement back and forth between collective consumptive and didactic routine activities, and the heightened therapeutic situations of divination, performative ritual and sacrifice. Such topics cannot be dealt with in passing — they are too complex and raise too many theoretical questions each of which has a wide range of possible answers (cf. Devisch 1985). Yet a few remarks especially on divination are in order here, since they help to pinpoint the nature of the therapy the lodge has to offer (for instance, by comparison to the churches), highlight the role which commodities play in the process, and form a stepping-stone to the cases to be discussed below.

4.5. Divination at the lodge

       Divination at the lodges takes place with a combination of divination tablets and clairvoyant trance. The divining tablets, their names and associations are derived from the basic pattern of four as is widespread in the subcontinent. Most divining tablets are crudely made of freshly hewn wood by the lodge embers themselves; but it is also possible to buy sets, especially at the large section of the municipal market devoted to traditional medicine, in the major town of Bulawayo, just across the Zimbabwean border. Individual variations include exchanging or altering the shape and names of certain tablets and combinations, the use of more than one set of four at the same time, the addition of ‘joker’ tablets reflecting the diviner’s personal idiosyncrasies and biography, or the substitution of this system by the more abstract but essentially similar system of unmarked nutshells. Trance divination is supported by such physical requisites as drums, fly-switch, ceremonial dress comprising beads, ostrich feathers and rare skins, ceremonial spears or axes, manufactured cloths with mass-produced representations of sacred animals in prescribed colours, substances to be rubbed onto exposed parts of the body, and ancestral gourds. Most of these items are commodities, purchased from ritual specialists, from the formal-sector game-skin tanneries in Francistown’s industrial area, or preferably from the Bulawayo market. Both in tablet divination and in trance divination, the diviner tends to enter into a ceremonially restricted dialogue with the client, picking up minute clues volunteered or inadvertently offered by the client. If a divination apparatus is used the diviner dextrously juggles with the many vectors and complexes of meaning and association with which the physical apparatus is endowed according to a body of professional knowledge in essence shared by all diviners using this apparatus, combining this with the process of verbal exchange during the session. As a result the divination yields a coherent and often very detailed account, naming specific supernatural causes (often to the extent that the exact genealogical position of the ancestor involved may be identified, or the living evil-doer is characterised in terms of sex, age, complexion, and significant anecdotal details of the attack), their effects in the form of illness and other misfortune, and remedies in the form of sacrifice, retaliation, protective medicine, or ritual training as the case may be. The specificity of the message, its symbolic and verbal virtuosity, the generous attention for the patient’s predicament, and its being inadvertently guided by the client’s input, produces the effect of opening up an entire world hitherto hidden, and stipulating forms of redress which restore the patient’s grasp of his or her symbolic order: history, ancestry, obligations and future potential. The restoration of sense gives on (via performative ritual and sacrifice) to a restoration of self.

       The divinatory apparatus is essentially a machine for producing stories that are convincing, moving, redemptive, and capable of identification by the patient. The four tablets, the several aspects under which each combination may be read at the same time, and other imagery with its now overlapping now contradictory contents)14 provide the amazingly complex yet fairly systematic repertoire of possible interpretations. An essential stochastic element introduced by the throwing of the bones. Every new throw (and sessions consist of at least a dozen throws, sometimes up to thirty and forty) to the patient and onlookers carries the suggestion that some blind hand of fate and truth dictates the bones to fall in a specific manner and compels the diviner to interpret them in one way and no other — as if the net is further tightening around the evasive truth that is searched for. Yet in fact each new throw offers the diviner a new opportunity to page through the entire interpretative repertoire available and make his selection, taking a new bend or shortcut through the maze, developing a promising point, abandoning a dead alley, and triggering new reactions on the part of the patient. The deception of deliberate (although intuitive) selection posing as blind necessity could not be achieved without the appearance of objectivity achieved by the uncontrolled throwing of the tablets exactly as if they were dice. From a commodity perspective there is an important lesson to be learned here: the divinatory dice, and most other paraphernalia used at the lodge, may be commodities, but they are used to enchant or re-enchant, instead of disenchant, the modernised world of commodities that surrounds, and afflicts, the clients and adepts.

        The story-producing aspect was never clearer to me than when, at the Maipaahela lodge, I witnessed a small group of three adepts, young women, in their afternoon exercises of throwing the tablets and improvising interpretations. Fondly applying themselves to the task, as children absorbed in a board game, the women bend over the sacrificial goat skin spread out between them and tossed the dummy tablets in their hands. One of the women (Ma-Bigi) threw and the others (Kwani and Ellen) watched and checked whether they agreed with her interpretation. The combination to come up in the throw was Zwibili (sl),15 and Ma-Bigi interpreted:

        ‘The two children [Zwibili].... are at home,’.

using the complementary combination underlying Zwibili: Bango (kn,), in its most innocent aspect of the home (specifically the fence post). The next throw brought out Mpululu (sn), with its complementary down-facing combination Take (kl), and while the other women amusedly agreed Ma-Bigi continued:

      ‘They are playing happily,... running about,... and the yard is peaceful.’

And so the story went on, making the children tie two strings (Mithengwe, nl), deciding to go and rest on a mat (Mashangulu, ksnl), etc.— all very serene and of a charming simplicity, the adepts enchanted that their efforts to bring the tablets to life began to succeed. From then on I understood that the purpose of the hours of relaxed joint exercise with the tablets was not so much to memorise the correct meaning of every tablet and combination (although that proved difficult enough when, later, I went through the training myself), but to develop the ability to spin stories, of increasing depth, relevance and drama, on the basis the evolving sequence of throws. And in the professional sessions with real, medicated tablets, such as would take place a few times a week in the consulting room cum sitting room of the main house, one could see the leader and the most senior adepts display these skills to great heights of performative virtuosity.

This divinatory process, only loosely indicated here, offers the main turning points in the following two cases, which involve first an ‘outpatient’ and then a resident junior adept of the Maipaahela lodge. Their discussion will throw some further light on the career dynamics of sangomahood (Joshua) and on the very difficult question of the location, in social and historical space, of the pathogenic forces addressed in the lodge’s healing practice.

       Is the Francistown sangoma cult a commodified, eroded, urban transformation of a historic, more authentic, rural cult? Do the commodities which unmistakably and prominently feature in the cult, contain specific and articulate messages about modernity and identity, or may we take them for granted just as much as the lodge members themselves seem to do? Or do we have to read the message of commodities and commodification in the lodge situation at a number of distinct levels, admittedly as a coping with the modern world through the positioning of re-enchanted commodities in a process of revitalisation -- but let us not forget that such coping is a therapeutic response, to a process of dissociation and affliction which ultimately might well be characterised as commodification and its aftermath.


5. An abortive career? The case of Joshua

Joshua Ndlovu was born in southwestern Zimbabwe in 1937. A brilliant student, he finished secondary school and took a B.A. degree in English. Looking back he can detect in his adolescence one or two signs of an inclination to become a traditional healer, but these were eclipsed by his success in a modern career. In the wake of the massive migration from his region of origin to Botswana in the 1960s and 1970s, he settled in the southern town of Lobatse. There he married, had children, built a house, drove a motorcar, and was a successful secondary-school teacher for over fifteen years. In the early 1980s he had the opportunity to go to the USA, where he studied for a diploma in French.

        After a few months abroad he was struck by a mental disturbance (described in terms suggestive of agoraphobia) which made him discontinue his studies, and after months of profound distress and confusion he returned to Lobatse. His wife’s unfaithfulness and lack of understanding for his predicament aggravated his condition. He proved unfit to continue his teaching job, and resigned. A short course of cosmopolitan psychiatric treatment was soon discontinued when the patient realised, and with his verbal virtuosity brought home to the medical staff, that such therapy was irrelevant to his condition. Leaving his wife in charge of the house and the children, he returned to Zimbabwe in search of treatment, still in a state of severe mental disturbance.

        In Bulawayo he came in contact with a spiritual group comprising both Africans and Europeans, who combined Christian inspiration with a respect for African religion and medicine; these contacts he found inspiring but they did not in themselves restore his mental health. He was received as a trainee in a lodge in one of the outlying townships of Bulawayo, where his condition was divined to be due to affliction by his paternal grandmother seeking to emerge in him. He was duly initiated as a sangoma, learning a personal repertoire of dance and song, and receiving the beads, cloak, dancing-skirt and pilgrim’s staff of a Mwali adept — although so far he never accompanied the lodge’s leader and other adepts on their infrequent visits to the central Mwali oracle of Njelele.

        Restored to full health, having undergone in his late forties a metamorphosis from a drop-out western intellectual to a budding traditional healer, he returned to Botswana and settled in Francistown. Here he tried for a few years to establish himself as a trance diviner and healer. Business was generally low but he managed to secure in Francistown’s new Block VII a SHHA (Self-Help Housing Agency) plot on which he started to build a four-roomed house and, at the back of the yard, a surgery with such basic paraphernalia as a python skin, drums, ancestral calabashes with sacred honey, a limited selection of herbs, etc. He made every effort to identify as a professional, to improve and broaden his diagnostic therapeutic skills, and to move in circles of other healers where he hoped to make contact with clients. He was not yet eligible to join one of Francistown’s professional associations of traditional healers. With one of Francistown’s most reputed dingaka, hailing from the same region in Zimbabwe but not a sangoma, he began to study the casting of divination tablets, although his preference remained with trace divination.

        Although since the onset of his disease his sexual interest has been minimum (a condition said to be due to the fact that he is hosting a female ancestor, who must be placated for any — heterosexual — activity on the host’s part), after a few years he became involved with his neighbour Elizabeth, a female head of household around thirty years of age, likewise from Zimbabwe. The love and fulfilment that Joshua had missed for many years he found with her, and he looked upon this as an unexpected and undeserved gift. When she became pregnant it was as if a broken vital chain was restored.

        Yet Joshua was eaten by frustration. Elizabeth’s income from employment and rent had to support him when, through most of 1989, no patients turned up at all. Never very self-confident of his status as a sangoma, he began to consider another metamorphosis again, that towards the status of Christian church leader, which he thought to be a more sociable and less lonely profession, closer to the people and with more response from them. The Bible began to compete with Shakespeare as his favourite reading, for which he had more time than he cared for. The sacrifice of an goat to his possessing ancestor, to take place at full moon on his Block VII plot and to be followed a sangoma dancing session, was planned for August 1989, but it did not materialise, partly for financial reasons, partly for a feeling of ritual incompetence on Joshua’s part. In the same month, at a Wosana dancing session in Monarch, Joshua self-consciously dressed up in his ritual costume and volunteered a short performance, but without making any impression on the audience. However, at this session he met the leader of the Maipaahela lodge, and he was soon so impressed by her powers that he asked her to look into the stagnation of his practice. A long and dramatic divination session at the lodge revealed a combination of ancestral wrath and intrafamilial conflict as the causes of misfortune: earlier in 1989, Joshua’s sister’s son Aaron had asked him to accompany him to a church leader in Francistown’s Donga township, and on that occasion Joshua had been persuaded to accept some medicine, through which the diviner in collusion with Aaron had meant to transfer the latter’s misfortune to him; in punishment for this stupidity the possessing ancestor had tied up Joshua’s practice. Deeply moved by this exceptionally long and dramatic divination session, Joshua agreed that the leader and adepts of Maipaahela lodge would spend a weekend at Block VII and stage the necessary rituals of redress there.

        Immediately after a week at the branch’s Tshesebe rural outpost where in all secrecy (and to Joshua’s horror when he heard about it) two adepts of the lodge were initiated in the demonic cult, the lodge population came to Block VII on a Saturday evening in September. As could have been expected, the other senior Francistown healers which Joshua had invited did not turn up. After beer drinking and chanting a replica of the lodge shrine was built at night in front of Joshua’s house under the directions of one of the adepts; a goat was slaughtered there and its meat displayed on top of the platform, while its blood and selected intestines were buried beneath it. After the sacrifice a dancing session is staged behind the house, on which a relieved and triumphant Joshua entered into trance, as well (a rare event) the lodge leader herself. In the late morning dancing was resumed in the unroofed central room of the house; in a way supposed to be good for business, this attracted a considerable crowd of neighbours, who looked in through the openings where doors and windows were to be hung in a later stage of completion of the house and of financial success. Towards the evening the party returned to Maipaahela carrying some of the meat and, as an initial payment, three metal window frames which had been waiting to be fitted. The ritual, though expensive, was considered a great success until, at noon the next day, the lodge leader died suddenly and under suspect circumstances.

        Consultation with Albert, the leader of the Masemenyenga lodge (likewise Joshua’s home-boy) soon offered Joshua a coherent interpretation of the intrigues, involving both the deceased’s family and other Francistown healers, culminating in the leader’s death. A surer sign that Joshua’s sacrifice had been rejected was hardly possible, and at Albert’s advice the shrine was demolished; the latter considered it alien to Ndebele forms of sangomahood anyway. Accompanying two other patients of Ma-Ndhlovu who found themselves stranded because of her death (my wife and myself), Joshua soon travelled to Bulawayo to visit his lodge of initiation, and with the blessing of its leader and accompanied by a few of his fellow-adepts he made the journey to the Njelele oracle in the heart of the Matopos. The nocturnal experience at the oracle gave him a great sense of mystical fulfilment, and he was deeply moved to be one of the many supplicants united there before what Joshua claimed was called the ‘Mother of Spirits’. The oracle told him that despite recent setbacks he might yet have hope.

        A few months later a healthy child was born and Joshua resumed teaching at a secondary school.

       Having fled (or destroyed?) his modern world, Joshua for some years found refuge in the protective alternative world of sangomahood, but he could scarcely summon the self-confidence, virtuosity, obsession with power, fascination with the borderline between life and death, necessary for a successful pursuit of the career it offered him. The restorative effects of a new love and a new fatherhood (another inversion of the chain of filiation, back to normality, after ancestral possession had constituted the first inversion) made him less dependent on such a solution. A similar effect was brought about by his continued contact with alternative viable forms of symbolic production besides sangomahood: Christianity, Western literature, my own academic research which greatly interested him (thanks to his introductory reading of anthropology in the USA he could discuss my research with rare detachment and insight, and he made significant contributions towards it as a free-lance research assistant in the later stages of my fieldwork). The opportunity to resume a career as a well-paid employee within a modern formal organisation, rather than as a hand-to-mouth ritual entrepreneur (daily -- and with increasing sense of helplessness and incompetence -- exposed to the terrifying powers of the occult and of rival specialists), tied in with his new responsibilities. Having been restored to health by the pursuit of sangomahood, it was not necessary to continue to make his living as a sangoma.

       Although within the inner circle of the lodge and the professional organisation sangomas may take pride in their speciality, there is very considerable shame and fear involved: no one with an alternative course will become or remain a sangoma, and in many cases (perhaps with the exception of those belong to sangoma families, cf. diagram 4) adepts only yielded to the forces pulling them to this cultic complex after having exhausted all other possibilities. It is a choice one makes in utter desperation, when there really is no choice any more.

Joshua described a tangential orbit with regard to the Maipaahela lodge, although his case informs us of the lodge’s life in a particularly critical episode. More of a centripetal movement is seen in the case of Litopo, which for the rest displays striking parallels in terms of career and conjugal development.


6. Healing between intrafamilial conflict and modern society: the case of Litopo  

Litopo is a well-educated Mongwato,16 born in Shoshong in 1952. When I first met him he had spent four months at the Maipaahela lodge. Although by no means the youngest adept he is obviously the least senior, and it is he who performs many of the menial tasks such as killing and butchering sacrificial animals and digging up vegetable medicine. In dancing sessions his attire cannot not be distinguished from that of the others, but his movements are far more awkward, he has not entered in trance yet, and he does not know most of the songs which are in Ndebele; his only languages are Tswana and English. His esoteric knowledge of divination, sacrifice and healing practices is still minimal. He is still rather an outsider to the lodge, and looks with wonder at many of its practices, lacks the background knowledge to interpret them, and occasionally feels bullied by the lodge’s forceful style of leadership. He has a clear and coherent conception of what had brought him to the Maipaahela lodge; the following anamnesis summarises his own account:

Until 1983 Litopo worked for the government of Botswana as a highly successful co-operatives officer. He had been sent to Scandinavia twice for training. He owned a motorcar. (His former, high standard of living was still clear from the few personal belongings he brought with him to the lodge.) He was married, with a few young children. All this was wiped out when towards the end of 1983 illness forced him to give up his job. His complaints were very severe headache; impaired vision; and pain between the shoulders.17 Western medication only made these complaints worse. He went to a place in Malawi (100 km north of Blantyre) for treatment by a famous traditional healer. Here he stayed for two and a half years, but his complaints only got worse. He looks at his best remembered dreams of that period as revolving on the rejection of Western medicine:

In one dream, after taking two painkilling tablets, he vomits a huge quantity of such pills.

In another dream he goes to a hospital to be treated for toothache; the doctor is not in and the nurse tells him to come back some other time, and gives him two pain-killers. As he walks out of the hospital he drops the pills and they break in two; after some hesitation he decides not to pick them up since he has to come back to the doctor anyway.

Litopo’s Malawian healer advised him no longer to take Western medicines since ‘his spirits’ (still unidentified at that stage) apparently objected against them. Looking back Litopo feels that the Malawian failed because the treatment of the complaints was not combined with training through which the patient could become a sangoma  himself.

      After two and a half years Litopo gave up hope of being cured in Malawi, and requested his family in Botswana to sent money for the return journey. Meanwhile a letter reached him that his wife had had a baby. Back home he and his family staged a sacrifice of a goat and beer to his ancestors, and his complaints diminished somewhat. This convinced Litopo that he must look further in this direction.

      Still in Shoshong he placed himself under the treatment of a female healer who, convinced of the ancestral nature of his complaints, was confident that she could help him. She started on a course of treatment, but the patient ceased dreaming and became more and more confused. The healer claimed that this would get better with an adaptation of her therapy. As a rule, in the course of the therapy the healer or one of her adepts will dream of the specific type of garment which is favoured by the ancestor which is about to emerge in the patient. However, such dreams were not forthcoming. Later the healer dreamed of the patient wearing one type of garment, covered under another garment which however snapped off his body and fell on the ground. The healer could not make sense of this dream, and the treatment was discontinued.

      Meanwhile the patient checked with his relatives whether any of his ancestors had been a cult adept. None were found in the paternal line, but in the maternal line connections with the Tswana rain cult were found to have existed. Litopo than went roaming around Botswana looking for treatment.

      In May 1989, he ended up in Francistown where one of his brothers is employed, and here he found his way to MaNdlovu, the leader of the Maipaahela lodge. In her first divination session it was already ascertained that in addition to the maternal ancestor with the rain-cult connotations (whom MaNdlovu is confident to handle in view of her own association of the Mwali cult), there is a paternal ancestor who seeks to manifest himself as well. A struggle was said to be going on between the two spirits as to who will be allowed to emerge first. This struggle not only explained the dream of the two garments, but also Litopo’s entire illness. The treatment now consists in the training to become a sangoma. Further divination brings out that the paternal ancestor will be allowed to manifest himself first, after which the maternal ancestor will follow automatically.

      After a few months at the lodge Litopo feels much better already. He has not lost interest in his family and national affairs, and obviously misses his children a lot. He intends to go back to Shoshong for two weeks at the end of September, in order to cast his vote in the national elections, and to try and persuade his wife to return to him: she is aware of his treatment and understands what he goes through, yet she has returned to her parents.

       Litopo’s paternal ancestor must have been reckoned, by the Maipaahela leader, to have belonged to another cult than the Tswana rain cult, otherwise there could have been no difference in garments: the garments identify the cult. As we have seen she was preoccupied with the Kalanga-associated demonic cult. It makes sense to presume that it was this cult to which she was initiating Litopo, too: this being her speciality, it explains the rapid success of her therapy after so many years of suffering, and it also explains why Litopo had to come all the way to Francistown: it seems unlikely that this Kalanga-associated cult has senior representatives in Shoshong.18 The rain cult however, and hence his maternal ancestor, would indeed be taken care of ‘automatically’, because of the lodge’s nature of a peripheral Mwali lodge.

       Within the conceptual framework of sangomahood, Litopo’s case is straightforward and could be rendered in the following terms: ‘without himself or his senior kinsmen being in the least aware of this, the patient was torn apart between two rival ancestors each representing a  different cult; after a long process of trial and error he happens to find a specialist who pursues the same combination of cults, and who therefore for the first time can diagnose his predicament properly, and effectively cure him.’

       As analytical social scientists we are expected to reformulate the mechanism of illness and therapy in a different idiom; there is nothing against such reformulation, as long as it does not claim greater validity than the original one. A number of possibilities to make analytical sense of Litopo’s case present themselves.

       The first paradigm that comes to mind is one looking at the accumulative effect of social dramas spanning several generations. Marriage is a relationship between sets of people, who in and through the conjugal process get mobilised and articulate themselves vis-à-vis each other in ways which usually, in addition, are informed by other economic, political, ethnic, religious, kinship, residential etc. forms of structural opposition and conflict in the ongoing social process. The classic work of Turner and van Velsen has sensitised students of South Central African societies to this type of social process, the shifting, fictionalised alliances to which they give rise, largely in localised kin groups, and the social dramas that evolve around these themes, each involving a unique set of protagonists, events and trajectory, — a unique historicity — yet all displaying permutations of structural possibilities within the same social structure and culture. Often such a social drama can be shown to span decades, its disruptive tendency not spilt and dissipated within one generation but accumulated and (in the form of structural conflict within families, and in the form of mental conflicts within in the individual members) reflecting and re-enacting that unique historicity even if the participants are no longer consciously aware of its details — in fact, it is likely that the members of the family have considerable reasons for structural amnesia in these matters. It is in this sense that intrafamilial conflict, and individuals’ extreme mental reactions to it, may be said to become ‘hereditary’: not through genes, of course, but by response patterns which are peculiar to the members of a specific family which are repeated, for enforced and imitated, from one generation to another. In North Atlantic society, psychiatric research of family settings of neuroses as by Laing, or studies on the intergenerational cycle of parent/child incest, intrafamilial violence etc. converges with these ideas. The participants’ concept of ‘afflicting ancestors’ then forms an effective shorthand to bring these patterns of pathogenic response within the scope of culturally-patterned discourse, and of symbolic redressive action. The divinatory identification of the point in time or in the family tree to which the disruptive effect is traced, may be entirely spurious in some cases, but it is also quite possible (in fact a point of my repeated personal experience) that the patient, suffering under this burden of his family history, in his verbal answers and other non-verbal reactions to the therapeutic questions in divination inadvertently expresses, once again, manifestations or echoes pathogenic intrafamilial response patterns which made him ill in the first place. A talented and experienced diviner/therapist can scarcely fail to pick up these reactions. The abundance of possible paths through the divinatory forest, the proliferation of interpretative stories which with every progressive throw of the tablets can be further spun out, often allows the diviner to end up with an interpretation which is neither stereotypical nor trivial, but which takes aboard oppositions reflecting the patient’s conflict. Moreover such an interpretation becomes charged with authority as the awed patient witnesses how an apparently objective divinatory apparatus, in the hands of a stranger, tells a story which is totally new to him but which as it unfolds he is yet brought to believe is his unique life history. Thus reduced to recognisable and manageable proportions, the contradictions can then be resolved, and the patient absolved, through sacrificial ritual specifically built around the story which diviner and patient together have constructed during divination.

       According to this rough interpretative model, the story as told by the divinatory interpretation bears only a minimum relation with the reality of the patient’s pathogenic intrafamilial past: it only seeks to abstractly rebuild, in metaphoric material, a vectorial system of conflicts and contradiction more or less congruent with the otherwise unknown thrust of family history. The specific ancestors featuring in any divinatory story of ancestral affliction do not stand for real events surrounding the patient’s real ancestors. As far as Litopo’s case is concerned, the association of the maternal and paternal ancestor each with a cult of his own would be historically spurious as well. These ancestors, and their postulated cult associations, would be largely artefacts of the therapy situation, reflecting the lodge leader’s present involvement in several cults.

       While such an approach, once much further worked out, might appeal to the positivist intellect, the essential questions remain.

       If we accept that Litobo’s dream of the two garments (and hence the conflict between two cults), to which he and his therapist lend key status, was not just a post-facto projection of the insights from Ma-Ndlovu’s divination into the earlier years of his quest for therapy, then how do we account for a situation where an apparently totally westernised, successful young Mongwato, who knows very little of his family history, nonetheless comes up with a dream symbolism which could hardly be interpreted in other terms than that of conflict between cults? Could early childhood experiences of a cultic nature (perhaps an actual confrontation between paternal and maternal relatives on this point), repressed from memory yet lurking as a mental time bomb, be responsible? It seems hardly credible, although without information on Litobo’s childhood and adolescence it cannot be dismissed off-hand. It is important that at the time of this dream the patient had already for years been exposed to a cultic idiom in which distinctive garments are of great importance; a fundamental cleavage or conflict may therefore have expressed itself through this imagery even if it had a totally different origin than cult differentiation.

       Could it be that the familial domain as a locus of pathogenesis and redress is in itself too narrow? The existence, throughout Southern and South Central Africa, of ancestral affliction as a major model in the public discourse favours a participants’ interpretation of mental illness in the particularistic terms of family history (of ancestors!), rather than at the more comprehensive level of ethnic groups, societies, clashes of modes of production and world-views. There is no reason why as analysts we should accept such a limitation. Cults do not exist in vacuum, but have complex and far from straight-forward relations with political, economic and ethnic processes involving large sets of people and vast areas. Could it be that, despite the essentially trans-ethnic nature of cults today, such major historical processes as the aftermath of the Zulu mfecane throughout the subcontinent on the one hand, the imposition of Ngwato and in general Tswana hegemony over the Kalanga (processes which began in the nineteenth century but still make themselves felt today in the political reality of South Africa and Botswana), were also carried through at a cultic level in the form of interaction between for instance the Tswana rain cult, the demonic cult of Kalanga connotations, and perhaps the Isangoma complex of primarily Zulu/Ndebele connotations — in such a way that underlying ethnic conflict for some period found an expression in cultic opposition, symbolically and without the actors being fully aware of it? If so, such implicit cultic conflict would then be build into the structure of ethnic conflict in twentieth-century Botswana, — a lurking culture trait ready to come out in the symbolic expression of individuals. Here we may think especially of individuals whose (again) family history endowed them with double Ngwato/Kalanga identity or otherwise with conflicting loyalties along this ethnic boundary. We do not know yet if Litopo falls in this rather numerous category, and, if so, if this condition triggered his mental illness in the first place. But the emerging hypothesis has two advantages: it adds, to the narrow familial domain of a totally closed traditional world view, at least the wider scope of regional ethnic conflict — in a part of Africa where the ethnic dimension of possession and membership has been repeatedly argued; 19 and moreover it can account, whereas the first model could not, for the assumed appearance of the theme of cultic opposition in Litopo’s case prior to his contact with the Maipaahela lodge.


7. The case, yet, for a structural interpretation in terms of commodification

       But again, are we prepared to believe that this (confusing cultic refractions of ethnic conflicts that are rather remote time and place) is what made Litopo ill, to such an extent that everything he had so successfully achieved had to be sacrificed and destroyed in his modern career? Frankly, modern Botswana, or modern South and Central Africa in general for that matter, appears to have more potent pathogenic material to offer than just the precolonial past. And it is here that, albeit through the backdoor, a commodification perspective may yet be brought in.

       If the aetiology offered by the diviners could be assessed as if it were a scientific theory, we would immediately be struck by its parochial circularity: cults, ancestors and sorcery are the diviner’s stock-in-trade, so that has to be what the patient’s problem amounts to. The limitations of this position come out most clearly when expatriates from an (initially) largely alien cultural orientation -- like my wife and myself -- submit to the cult’s therapeutic apparatus and see their problems, too, scaled to the dimensions of the familial domain and ancestral wrath. The cults have no idiom to discuss the wider, modern world and its political, economic and existential predicaments in terms derived from that world or meaningful in that world. They have no discourse to explicitly articulate commodification and its implications. Yet we can safely assume that the patients’ problems at least partly stem from that wider world. For instance, a possible reading of Litopo’s earlier dreams about the throwing up of tablets is that they suggest that his basic conflict had to do with incomplete access to, and partial rejection by, modern Western culture, as only symbolised by cosmopolitan medicine -- which presents itself as one among several, more local and historic, alternatives in the market of commoditised therapeutic choices open to Francistownians, as we have seen in the introduction to this argument.

       We are now in a position to pinpoint more clearly what it is that the Southern African diviners do from a point of view of such major social and economic changes as we can capture under the heading of commodification. They artificially relegate all human predicaments to problems of the interpersonal microcosm, as endowed with historic meaning. These diviners ignore the input from the wider world, implicitly declaring it irrelevant and non-existent — from the same sense of immunity noted earlier on; instead the diviners re-introduce (or, in the case of the alien patient, introduce) the patient to a much more comprehensible, particularistic world, which essentially revives the archaic world-view of a small-scale society — and suggesting that the key to the patient’s personal past lies in a return to the collective past. Having thus led away the patient from his earlier, devastatingly painful confrontation with and in the wider world, the therapist then set out to convince the patient that his misfortune makes sense in the terms of that new cultic world. Next the therapists use the full skills of their symbolic and dramaturgical manipulation to address, and resolve, the problems once these have thus been totally dislocated and redefined.

       The ancestral dimension of this therapeutic model (which is the lodge leaders’ most cherished dimension, while the sorcery dimension is often presented by them as a poor men’s version of the aetiology of misfortune) suggests that the pathogenic moment springs from remnants of ancient symbolic vitality ineffectively encapsulated, again as an ancestral time bomb, in a life of modernity whose detailed analysis is unnecessary from diagnosis and treatment. Translated in sociological terms this is close to approaches in terms of cultural lag, of survival, of a fragmented and dislocated yet potent traditional culture which at all costs — including ethnicity, cults, and individual mental illness, and a combination of these — seeks to break through the modern ‘varnish’ of urbanism, capitalism, and the state. We can understand why the cults must take this position; but when posing as sociological, such views of the fossilisation of African culture are theoretically barren and politically paternalistic.

       So far this argument has concentrated on the therapeutic end, on which I have no lack of data. In the process we have perhaps, like others before us, identified one possible mechanism through which such disruptive elements could end up in the minds of apparently successfully modernising individuals: the intergenerational transfer of intrafamilial affects. But more important at this juncture is the discovery of the fundamental paradox of the cults: their capacity to cure patients from the modern world by ignoring it. The patients are cured, not because they are being restored to communion with some repressed pre-modern identity lurking at the depths of their souls, but because they are sucked away from modern commodification and the attending alienation, by the liberating force of a daring imagination, which selectively feeds on personal and collective historical themes. Along this line the radical difference between cults and Christian healing churches may be further explored: the latter, positively, take the modern world at least for granted and often for ideal, but reject and deny even that part of history (e.g. the basic concepts of sorcery and possession) which they did incorporate.


8. Cult, history and healing

The cultic phenomena discussed are difficult to place in social space: is their referent the microdynamics of intrafamilial conflict, and intermediate ethnic arena, or the make-up of modern global society in general? At the same time this opens up a field for historical questions. In the first instance questions concerning the history of specific cults, and what symbolic and organisational elements derive from what aspects of regional and distant cultures and societies. How have theories of causation and styles of cult organisation changed over time, with the appearance of new political and economic realities? How have the interactions between cults developed, reshaping the cults themselves in the process. While these are more or less obvious, ‘classic’ historical questions (well in the tradition of Ranger & Kimambo 1971), the most attractive questions in this context I find those which raise the historical aspect to the power two, exploring not so much the cults’ history, but their historicity. Can the dislocation and carrying-over of selected and no doubt transformed symbolic and ceremonial material, from a specific culture, and into new cultic ensembles which are essentially regional and non-culture-specific, be regarded as a means to come to terms with  history? Twenty years ago I proposed that

‘Among other things, religion seems to be a means for people to expose themselves to their collective history in a coded, de-historicised (fossilised?) form. And the scientific study, in other words the decoding, of religion is an undertaking which, among other disciplines, belongs to the science of history, not so much because religious forms have a history, but because religion is history.’ (van Binsbergen 1981: 74).

From this perspective, what does it mean when the members of the Masemenyenga lodge ritually dress up as Zulu warriors? When the lodges of Maipaahela and Monarch make their adepts dress in the Wosana costume although the personal link with Mwali oracles is confined to the lodge leader, and reproduce such Kalanga-associated cultural items as the demonic cult and branch platform shrines?

       Such elements may make for local and regional variations, and may be exploited by individual ritual entrepreneurs in their quest for ever more impressive and captivating idiosyncrasies in the ritual market (van Binsbergen 1981). But these particularistic elements do not preclude that the overall pattern of the cultic complex pursued by the lodge leaders is transcultural, capable of encompassing clients and adepts from a great many ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds in the region, and likewise capable of being mediated in a lingua franca and in an urban environment very different from the rural context in which the constituent cultic elements may have originated. For instance, we see members of the Maipaahela lodge of Khurutse, Ndebele, Ngwato and Sotho backgrounds engage in a demonic cult which from a Kalanga perspective may appear to be distinctively Kalanga, yet are not appreciated as such by these participants. Their involvement certainly is not aimed at ‘the cultural reconstruction of the domestic domain’ (Werbner 1989: 61 and passim) in which these adepts do not share, neither culturally nor in terms of their personal situation as women in town. Instead, they are simply concerned to complete the therapeutic trajectory identified by the lodge leader (whose own Kalanga affinities, despite speaking Ndebele, cannot be denied).

       Along with this dislocation from an original ethnic context, there is the basic cultic uniformity over large distances. It may be underpinned by a fundamental similarity between the cultures of the region, but it is also due to increased contacts, professionalisation, standardisation, the impact of mass consumption and the state, and even the recycling of written or audio-visual records of such cults.

       As such the cultic complex is far from being out of place in a Southern African urban environment — on the contrary, it offers solutions for some essential problems posed by that environment. Not being culture-specific, it can cater for the heterogeneity that is the reality of that situation. Not actively rejecting neither the modern matrix of capitalism, mass consumption and the state (but rather neutralising these factors in a more roundabout way), nor the traditional world-view which links patients to their individual histories as members of a family and lends meaning and hope to misfortune, — and not succumbing to the temptation of rendering this world superficially comprehensible in the cheap terms of a sorcery idiom — this cultic complex appears to be in at least as good a competitive position as Christian churches and cosmopolitan medicine to address the existential problems of contemporary urbanites.20

       There can be no doubt that the lodge’s cultic complex mediates elements which are meaningful because they are historical. After all, history is the only thing left if you want to ‘cure your patient from the modern world by ignoring it’. The complex does so at two connected levels, and part of its therapeutic effectiveness may derive from this very connection. On the one hand the complex mediates historical forms: a once viable and meaningful world-view of collective representations concerning power, causation, continuity, filiation, identity, and the material and corporeal vehicles of these concepts, which in other ways (certainly not in town, and only decreasingly in the villages) are only inadequately and fragmentarily reproduced in the lives of the people who are the potential clients of these cults. On the other hand the complex addresses the suffering individual as rooted in these forms through his personal history, and attribute his or her suffering to a temporary disruption of this rootedness.

‘Why have you left your traditional culture? Why did you deviate from the ways of your fathers? (...) There is a royal stave waiting for you, destined for you if you could only revive your link with your paternal grandfather!’

In these unexpected terms, spoken with force and full of reproach, the head of the Masemenyenga lodge began his trance divination for a client whose only conscious problem was the loss of valuable property.

Invariably the lodge’s cultic complex in its divination and possession stress the central position of ancestors, not mechanically as just another aetiological category next to the High God, the spirits of the wild, and humans who commit sorcery, but as the essential ingredients which went into the making of the individual: the lines of his or her personal history, with which one must come to terms. By precisely identifying irate ancestors, and by stipulating ways of redress, the complex creates not only clarity and hope, but also a sense of finality and inevitability, which enables the patient to overcome both resentment and guilt, and inspires one to start off in a new direction and with a regained vitality which, one feels, derives not only from personal resources but shares in the entire steam of generation flowing through one’s body. The divinatory reconstruction of the underlying conflict takes on such sophistication and profundity that it manages to reduce sorcery, however formidable it may appear at close range, to an almost irrelevant contemporary accident: the therapeutic question strssed by the Francistown diviners as eminently important is why ancestors allowed their descendant to be so vulnerable. And once the ancestral puzzle is solved the ubiquitous sorcerers will be forced to keep their distance. The historical forms proffered by the complex  are those of the times of the ancestors, it is the ancestors who allowed or caused the misfortune, and by acknowledging this sore spot and sacrificially acting on this knowledge, the patient gains a new freedom, not under ancestral oppression but with a restored sense of personal history. The sacrificial part is essential, because of the alchemy of identification and dissociation, violence and gift-giving which it entails: the sacrificial animal is at once the patient, the complaint, and the ancestor; the violent death it evokes both the suffering, its termination, the passage from living descendant to dead ancestor, and the patient’s resentment; and the incorporation of the remainders of the sacrifice (meat, prepared skin, beads) in the body and everyday life of the patient is not only a reminder and a reassurance, but also a sign of victory of the living over the dead.

       On the personal level this amounts to a psycho-therapy of evident effectiveness and beauty; but on a societal level what we have here is a model of cultural continuity and the reproduction of meaning. In a society like that of contemporary urban Botswana there is a struggle about the appropriation and transformation of historical forms which derive from the local region rather than from world-wide commodification and mass consumption. In everyday urban life these historical forms are scarcely tolerated in the urban setting, and they tend to exist vicariously: implied in the links urbanites continue to have with rural villages and cattle posts. In public life a narrow selection of stereotypified items of ‘our traditional culture’ has entered the official discourse: the traditional village kgotla — council, moot — meeting as a model for information transfer, mobilisation and decision making; the myth of the Urban Customary Court as constituting just another kgotla meeting; the folklorisation of music and dance in the school curriculum; the official policy favouring interaction between traditional and cosmopolitan health care. These and a few others are the symbols, stripped of historical form and political power, which lend a harmless sprinkling of heritage to bureaucratic and capitalist rationality which increasingly governs not only the state and the economy but also people’s personal life-style, especially in town.

       Christian healing churches have gone somewhat further in the selective adoption of historical forms, and on this basis they might to some extent be able to cater for forms of suffering which the public discourse interpret in terms of sorcery and spirit possession; but the cases we have discussed suggest that the churches’ approach of these elements revolves on rejection and dissimulation, which drives the suffering individuals back in the arms of a modern society, their problem of meaning still unresolved.

       In such a context the therapeutic potential of the cultic forms available at the Francistown lodges may be appreciated, not as commodified, but certainly as confronting commodification.


9. Conclusion

In their assessment of Appadurai’s seminal edited collection which features prominently in the present conference, the convenors wrote:

‘At the time, Social Life of Things highlighted several important developments in anthropology and cultural studies in general. Of crucial importance was the effort to break away from the unilineal implications of the term ‘‘commoditization,’’ as the inevitable and irreversible thrust of North Atlantic, and increasingly global, society under conditions of capitalism. Instead of contrasting commodities with things that are not (yet) commodities — the Marxian juxtaposition of exchange value versus use value — the attention was rather directed towards the varying commodity potential of all things. Whether things are turned into commodities or, inversely, withdrawn from commodification processes was argued to depend on their ‘‘social history’’ or their ‘cultural biography’21. The emphasis on possible shifts and reversals, and in general on cultural and historical aspects, indicated that ‘‘the politics of value’’ are as important as so-called economic ‘‘laws’’ for an understanding of the vicissitudes of commodification processes in various parts of the globe.

I have written, not so much of the politics of value, but of the therapeutics of value. My definition of commodification has remained largely implicit, and has retained pre-Social Life of Things features which may suggest something of a disagreement with that book’s main argument. Although imbued with commodities, and with commoditised practises, the Francistown sangoma cult  in itself does not seem to be commodified to the extent that one might be tempted to claim in the light of the current attention for commodification and consumption. Yet, beyond this denial there is a more profound affirmation, which seeks to explain the cult’s appeal against a background of commodification.





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1                 van Binsbergen, Hannerz, van der Veer passim

2                 Cf. Appadurai (1986: 57): 'It is in the interest of those in power to completely freeze the flow of commodities (...). Yet since commodities constantly spill beyond the boundaries of specific cultures (...) such political control of demand is always threatened with disturbance.'

3                 P1 ~ US$ 0.50.

4                 Cf. Werbner 1989; Ranger 1985, 1987; Daneel 1970; and extensive references there.

5                 In addition to participant observation and depth interviews, the data on Francistown cults and churches were collected in the form of video recordings. In this connexion I wish to acknowledge the generosity of the Board of the African Studies Centre which enabled me to have the necessary equipment at my disposal; and the contribution by Patricia van Binsbergen-Saegerman, who was largely responsible for the video recording. She and I are now working on a video presentation 'The cows of the ancestors drink muddy water', although frequent malfunctioning of the equipment which proved impossible to repair in the field makes it unlikely that our recordings will ever captivate an audience beyond the participants and ourselves.

6                 Demonic affliction is interpreted is terms of the possession by an ancestor who during her or his life was an adept of the much-feared Shumba  (lion) cult.

7                 E.g. in the context of the work, within the WOTRO programme on globalisation and the construction of communal identities, on Ghanaian Pentecostal churches by Birgit Meyer and by Rijk van Dijk; for a comparable case from Southern Africa, cf. the Zion Christian Church as studied by Jean Comaroff, which started a debate about the political significance of these churches. Cf. van Dijk 1992; Meyer 1995; Comaroff 1985; Schoffeleers 1991; van Binsbergen 1993; Werbner 1986.

8                 Cf. van Wetering 1988; van Binsbergen 1990.

9                 Van Binsbergen 1990a, 1991b.

10               In this respect I can now see sangoma and Independent Church ritual to be far closer to each other in the confrontation of urban alienation than I suggested in an earlier analysis (van Binsbergen 1990a).

11               Van Waarden 1986, 1988; Beach 1980; Tlou & Campbell 1984.

12               An amazing aspect of the lodge's location is  that two of the adepts are neighbours! Ma-Bigi, a woman in her late twenties, lives with her husband and his children at a distance of c. 75 meters; and the plot of Ellen's mother is adjacent to that of the lodge.

13                    'Zemyama zenatu danga inkomo

                        Zemyama za Amandhlozi'

14               A tentative analysis yielded the following basic aspects of all sixteen combinations: abstract, ancetral, bodily, generatioal, social, property and animal aspect. In addition, several combinations trigger standard interpretative exclamations from the diviner, while all have their specific praises full of symbolism. Finally, each combination of one, two, three or four tablets facing up implies a converse combination involving the remaining tablets which are facing down; manifest combinations are specified, qualified or reversed by their accompanying hidden combinations.

15               The four basic tablets are Kwame (K), Silume (S), Ntakwale (N) and Lingwane (L), each identified by different, although often rudimentary, markings. I use these letters in the text to denote the individual tablets in open, i.e. face upward, recto, position. If they are closed, face face, verso, I show the letters in strike-through format. If some out of the four letters are not specified, this means that they appear in closed position and are not counted towards the definition of the configuration at hand.

16               Bamangwato is the name of the dominant Tswana group under which the Kalanga region of Botswana falls; their capital is Serowe.

17               Such pain is the surest sign of ancestral affliction: the patient's body takes literally the standard phrase (the combination KNL of the divining tablets) 'you are carrying a heavy load'.

18               But not altogether impossible: as Campbell (1979: 65-66) says: 'To this day there are fairly large Kalanga populations scattered as far afield as (...) Shoshong'.

19               E.g. van Binsbergen 1981: 93, and references cited there.

20               With this qualification, perhaps, that one is struck by the intellectual, symbolic and emotive powers taken for granted among the members of the lodge communities, and sangomas in general. These are unlikely to be at the disposal of the average member in any society. This condition may limit the range of eligible patients and of applicability of the complex: the Joshuas, rather than the Kitsos, of Francistown.

21               Appadurai (1986: 34) proposes to distinguish the 'social history of things' from their 'cultural biography' (a notion developed by Igor Kopytoff in the same volume). The latter refers to the Werdegang of a specific thing, while the former is more general, referring to a type of things.




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