Thursday, November 04, 2010

African Diviners & Albino Body Parts

Karen, Kenya. A jacaranda petal fell into my cappucino.
An article in this week's cnn-world reads: "Albinos see hope for protective law in Tanzania." "In recent years, there has been an increase in Tanzania and neighboring Burundi in the deaths of albinos -- who have no pigmentation in their skin or hair -- by sorcerers who want their body parts to make charms that they claim will bring good luck." See here, e.g. - "11-year-Old African Albino Girl Beheaded at Behest Of Witch Doctors."

"An 11-year-old girl is the latest albino to be killed in a bizarre witchcraft ritual series of murders which has plagued albinos living in parts of Africa. Banele Nxumalo was washing clothes and bathing in a river with friends when she was grabbed by a man and then shot and beheaded. Her headless body was found floating upriver a short time later. The ritualistic killing occurred in Swaziland. Police believe she was slain because albino body parts and blood are believed to have magical powers. Earlier in the year another 11-year-old was killed in the same manner but her hand was removed. These types of killings are occurring more and more in sub-Saharan Africa... Authorities believe both children were targeted because witch doctors view the blood and body parts of albinos - who lack pigment in their eyes, hair and skin – as able to bring about good luck and prosperity in live, life and business when used in conjunction with other potions. Black magic practitioners and human traffickers often work together to obtain the hunted albinos."

How shall we understand this?

When I met with Steve Lichty in Nairobi over coffee I was taking notes as he introduced my friend Al and I to Kenya and Africa. Thank you so much Steve! And, BTW, there are no Starbuck's in Nairobi. But they have Java Houses. After coffee in a number of Java Houses Starbuck's looks and tastes dumpy.

We talked about religion in Africa. This is Steve's area of scholarly interest (though he's a polymath who connects to so many areas). He told me about the role of "diviners." I found myself so interested in this, especially when combined with my own Jesus-desire to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:1-3). Steve recommended some books. I've now got Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa (Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar), and Introduction to African Religion (John Mbiti). Both have sections on divination. Mbiti distinguishes between "medicine men," "diviners," "mediums," and "seers." The training of a medicine man can last up to ten years or even longer. (Mbiti, 155) The training "consists of learning the names and nature of herbs, trees, roots, seeds, bones, bird and animal droppings (excreta), and many other things which are used for the making of medicines." (Ib.) Diviners, says Mbiti, normally work also as medicine men. Mediums also resort to medicinal treatments.

John Pemberton, in "Divination in Sub-Saharan Africa," writes (I'm quoting a lot here for my own reference):

"For most sub-Saharan African peoples, divination rites are an essential part of daily life. An individual casts pieces of a kola nut or addresses questions to a friction oracle in the morning in order to determine what to do to make his or her way successfully through the day; a family consults a diviner to learn why death is repeatedly taking a mother's newborn children or to know the will of the ancestors for resolving conflicts within the household; a king seeks the knowledge of his diviners to make his position of authority secure. Diviners are also the agents of memory, the preservers of a people's history, or, in times of crisis, the creators of a "past" or a "vision" by which the living may endure. A person's status is often determined by what is revealed in rites of divination at the time of birth, coming of age, marriage, investiture to priestly or royal office, death, and other critical events.

The number and diversity of divination rites in Africa are enormous, varying in form among ethnic groups and even within the cultural life of a particular people. Among the Dogon peoples of the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali, village elders study fox tracks that cut across the pattern of squares they have inscribed in a field outside their village for indications of future events, especially such fundamental matters as births, marriages, harvests, and deaths.3 The Azande, who live in the southern Sudan and the northern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C., formerly Zaire), employ the poison oracle (benge) to address serious questions such as accusations of committing adultery or practicing sorcery, and use the friction oracle (iwa) to find out if witchcraft is being practiced against them or to determine whether to proceed with a journey.4 In the eastern part of the D.R.C., a friction oracle is also used by the Luba and Songye peoples.5 Among the Luba the rite is known as kashekesheke, and the friction device is called kakishi (the Songye equivalent of which is katatora; see cat. no. 20), a small, carved wooden object held jointly by client and diviner and whose movements provide answers to the client's questions. The Ding, Kuba, Lele, Luluwa, and Wongo in the central areas of the D.R.C. use the itombwa (see cat. no. 21), often in the form of a beautifully carved image of an animal (most commonly a crocodile, bush pig, or dog), the back of which is rubbed with a small handheld bulbous piece of wood; the movements of the latter provide "yes" or "no" answers to questions asked by a suppliant through the diviner.6 Sometimes, the jaw of a crocodile is substituted for the itombwa.

Among the Luba and Songye there is also a more elaborate form of divination, featuring the sacred gourd (mboko), in which the diviner tumbles a variety of natural and manufactured objects and then interprets the configuration formed by the objects that end up on top.7 Spirit possession, which is usually associated with this form of divination, appears to be of even greater importance among the Yaka (who live in the southwestern part of the D.R.C.) than among the Luba or the Songye.8 The Chokwe of Angola employ basket divination — a comparable method of interpreting the pattern formed among a group of objects (see cat. no. 23)—and spirit possession. In one Chokwe form of divination involving spirit possession, the reflective surface of water or a mirror enables the diviner to see the source of a client's affliction.9

Among the Lobi, who live in the southern part of Burkina Faso, a diviner sits next to his client and places small sculpted figures (bateba) on the ground in front of them.10 The bateba serve as witnesses to the divination, in which diviner and client join hands and address questions to the figures; the rising or falling motion of their clasped hands indicates positive or negative responses from the spirits (thila) represented in the sculptures. In northern Côte d'Ivoire, a similar rite is performed by Senufo female diviners known as Sandobele, 11 who use male and female sculpted figures to communicate with the powerful bush spirits and/or ancestors (madebele). In Banyang villages in Cameroon, a form of divination rarely seen today is the Basinjom masquerade, in which an individual wearing a wild, otherworldly mask and costume is endowed with clairvoyant powers capable of identifying people who have powers of witchcraft (see cat. no. 33).

Along the upper west coast of Africa, there are several types of divination that rely on "sixteen signs." Ifa divination among the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria and its probable derivative, Fa, among the Fon of the Republic of Benin, has been the most fully studied of these.12 It was brought to the Americas during the mid to late eighteenth century, at the height of the slave trade. The casting of sixteen palm nuts or cowrie shells continues to be widely practiced today by Caribbean and Brazilian people of West African descent in New York and other metropolitan centers in the United States, and is therefore the best known of African divination systems. The "sixteen signs" type of divination may have its origins in Islamic sand writing (khatt ar-raml), and its traces are found not only in Ifa and Fa but also in divination systems in the Mande cultural zone in Mali, in Madagascar, and among the Shona in southern Africa.13 While all the different versions of the "sixteen signs" have certain basic elements in common, the particular interpretation of the signs is almost entirely determined by the cultural values, oral traditions, and social experiences of the people who practice the divination rite.

Two other forms of divination involving the consultation of signs are mouse divination, employed by the Baule and Guro of Côte d'Ivoire,14 and spider divination, which is prevalent among the peoples of Cameroon.15 Here, the signs are not the result of human actions but are formed through the random movements of a mouse or a spider—the mouse scampering over bats' or birds' bones or sticks that a diviner has laid out parallel to one another, and the spider emerging from its nest in a hole in the ground and dislodging small, distinctively shaped cards that have been cut out of the rigid leaves of the "African plum" tree and placed neatly around the hole—in each case creating new configurations. These signs too must be interpreted by a diviner, one capable of "reading" the patterns of bones or leaves. While the procedure in every instance may seem random or accidental, the signs that appear are considered not at all random—and incapable of human manipulation—since they are directed by spiritual powers who communicate to the living by this means.

In all these societies, there is more than one system of divination. In addition to mouse divination, the Baule have the ritual of the "trance dancers," in which certain individuals—after being "chosen" by a nature spirit (asye usu) and a deity known as Mbra and trained in the performance of trance dancing—identify the causes of public and private misfortunes and then recommend solutions. As Susan Vogel has noted, "The largest, oldest, and most elaborate Baule figure sculptures are made as the loci for gods and spirits that possess their human partners and send messages through them in trance states."16 Among the Tabwa, in the southeastern sector of the D.R.C., the Luba friction oracle (kashekesheke) is employed; and in extreme cases, shamans (tulunga) are called on, for they know and can control the powers of sorcery.17 In neighboring Kenya, prophets (iloibonok) among the Samburu and Maasai have the power to "see" past, present, and future by using containers (enkidong)—usually gourds—filled with divination objects, and they also have the ability to cure misfortunes and practice sorcery using special substances (entasim). Though sought out for protection, the tulunga and the iloibonok are often feared and mistrusted and therefore occupy an ambiguous status in society.18 In addition to friction oracles of the itombwa type, nkisi figures and certain masks among several Kongo peoples have divinatory status, since they confer on those who utilize them the power to see hidden things.19 All these divination systems are largely concerned with understanding the present in terms of the past—near or distant—and its implications for the immediate future, as well as with healing or protection against witchcraft and sorcery. However, divination among the Dogon of the western Sudan and the Malagasy of Madagascar addresses questions pertaining to the future. The Malagasy want to know about matters of destiny and how what one does in the present determines what will occur, but whereas Dogon elders study fox tracks across patterns inscribed in the sand, the Malagasy often employ written texts and astrological calculations.20

When I was in Eldoret, Kenya, I asked two pastors "Do you have diviners in Eldoret?" The answer: "Oh yes, we have many. Some of them advertise by putting flags on top of their homes. Many people go to them and pay for their services."

"Albinos in East Africa fear for lives after killings. 10,000 displaced or in hiding due to demand for body parts, Red Cross says." (here

All of this is, for me, part of my beginning to understand Africa.