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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


A diviner at work

About twenty-five years ago a young Muganda was awarded a scholarship for higher study in Britain. On his way to the airport at the start of his journey, he suddenly went blind and his head began to ache terribly. He was taken home and consulted a diviner. He was told that he had been chosen by a spirit to be its medium and that, unless he accepted the choice, he might go mad. Many Africans - though not always so highly educated - have had similar experiences; and, in Buganda, their initiation takes some such form as follows.

On the appointed night, he and his relatives went to the shrine of a diviner, where a fire was kept burning throughout the rite. They were washed with water from Lake Victoria; and the juice of leaves was smeared on their heads. They were given branches and spears to hold. The diviner's assistants started to beat drums in a peculiar rhythm, shake rattles and sing special spirit songs. After this had been going on for some time, the initiand started to shake. The drumming and singing grew wilder. The shaking affected him more and more violently until he rose and started to dance wildly. The drumming and singing became more and more excited. He danced in the fire, apparently without being burnt, till at last he fell on the floor and started speaking in a strange voice. This was said to be the voice of the spirit which had chosen him. It said it had been neglected by the family and promised that, if all the right ceremonies were carried out, and the initiand set aside as a diviner, it would give to the whole family wealth, a successful life and many children. From now on, the initiand was to be known by a new name. Then it left him and he once again behaved normally.

Next day a goat and hen were killed and eaten at a feast. Then the whole party returned to the shrine. There was drumming and singing and the spirit again entered the initiand. But this time there were not violent movements. Since he was a Christian he was given a Bible to read to ensure that the spirit would have no objection to his going to church; and the spirit once again spoke of the good things it would bring to the family. On the third day the young man was given his equipment as a diviner - a bark cloth to wear, a knife and cowrie shells. He continued to live in his own home (and, as success has brought him wealth, he has been able to build a well-constructed brick house for himself).

For his work as a diviner he built a shrine of grass, where a fire burns day and night, whether or not he is in session. There, when he is being consulted, he sits on a goatskin with a bark cloth wrapped round him. Some diviners smoke a long pipe; some chew tobacco; some do neither. Stored in the shrine are parcels of dried plants which are used as medicines to anoint, or to be drunk by, the patient. There are also dry bones and other parts of animals and birds to be used as charms. Of one such diviner it was told that, every Saturday at midday, he would dismiss any patients whom he had not yet seen with the words, 'Now I must iron my clothes ready to go to church tomorrow.'

Of all ancient practices, that of divination has survived perhaps more actively than any other. It may be defined as the discovery of the psychic aspects of events. It may be used to find out whether or not the psychic forces are favourable to a proposed venture - war, a hunt, a proposed marriage, a business undertaking. But much more commonly it is used to discover why things have gone wrong - why this man is sick, that woman has no children, why X has lost his job or Y has failed in his examinations. It has already been said (Chapter Four) that a diviner may also be a medicine man. But his primary function, as a diviner, is to unravel psychic causes; and he may well hand over to another specialist for physical treatment. It is, perhaps, worth noticing that, in England, the common practice is to go first to a physician, who may refer a patient to a psychiatrist. In Buganda, it is the psychic expert who is the general practitioner. But the woman who gazes into a crystal ball at a fair or (for wealthier customers) in an Oxford Street office; the astrologer who writes columns in the newspaper; the spiritualist medium who investigates a haunted house - all these are catering to a contemporary British desire to get below the surface of physical events. Whether the desire is rational or irrational is entirely another matter.

In Africa the methods used by diviners vary very greatly, though most of them depend on the pattern in which certain objects arrange themselves. For instance in Buganda, nine flat pieces of leather may be thrown onto a cowhide. Cowrie shells or coffee berries might be thrown in the same way. powdered herbs, or nine twigs, might be thrown onto water in a pot, which was rocked and the arrangement then studied. The arteries in a hen's throat might be cut and the diviner counted the number of spurts till the blood stopped flowing. An even number was a bad sign, an odd number good. A hen might be cut open from throat to tail and the omens judged by examining the arrangement of the fat round the entrails and the marks on them.

From Ankole comes this detailed account of a session. The patient arrives. The diviner (who, in Ankole, is quite likely to work in the open air) spreads his hide on the ground and throws the cowrie shells onto it. He examines them to ensure that his spirit is favourable to a divination. ('He who divines', runs a proverb, 'begins with himself'). He tells the patient to spit on the shells. The patient does so and explains that she has a terrible backache and thinks she is going to die.

Diviner: She dies that her name may disappear. Her garden let another take. She is dead. These are her mourners. (Throws pumpkin seeds onto cowhide and examines them.) But you don't seem about to die. If you are dying, what is this heap of seeds for? Spit again. (Patient spits on seeds.) It looks as if you are troubled by a spirit.

Patient: It is the spirits! They broke my back. They want to take me out of this world. I die and go to the grave.

Diviner: It is the spirits! It is the spirits which intend to kill this child. But have you a guardian spirit, O woman? Spit! (Patient spits on seeds): It is Mugasha (one of the Ankole spirits), our Mugasha. It wants a cow.

Diviner: It is Mugasha and it demands a cow. (Throws seeds again and examines them). It is true! This seed is Mugasha. Go and give it its own. It wants beer. But that other seed seems to be yet another spirit.

Patient: Let me go and buy beer, call the people, men and women, We will sacrifice to Mugasha. I will bring a cow too, so that I am kept from my enemies.

Diviner: She is healed. (Throws and examines seeds). You are healed. Mugasha, go! It has agreed. Take this seed and say, 'Tomorrow I will bring sacrifice'. etc., etc.,

During the whole of this scene the diviner is supposed to be 'possessed' by his spirit. It may be that very often this 'possession' is feigned. But there are plenty of genuine cases where the diviner goes into a trance and may not remember, when he returns to normal, what happened while he was in the trance. Sometimes, in order to encourage the trance, diviners smoke strong tobacco or take a hypnotic drink. Others can become possessed without any physical help of this sort.

What is called 'possession' may, in fact, take widely different forms. At one extreme is that described earlier in this chapter, during the first stage of initiation, when the initiand behaved like teenagers at a pop-concert or new converts at a Pentecostal meeting. At the other extreme is the mild state of a diviner in action, similar to the effect produced by drugs or by sleep-walking. In contemporary Britain, conditions of this sort are normally described in terms of drugs or of a psychological disturbance - of something inside the individual. In many traditional African societies, they are attributed to a psychic force entering the individual from outside and taking over his body for its own purposes. When it enters a diviner, these purposes are good - they are directed towards healing his patients. But there are many other cases when it enters a person to show its annoyance at being neglected; and almost any unusual behaviour - talking wildly (as, for instance, when a person has a high fever), behaving strangely (as many people do under the influence of strong emotions), or simply a failure in muscular co-ordination - may be attributed to 'possession'. It is then the job of a diviner to discover which spirit is responsible and how it can be prevented from doing further harm.

Whether or not this form of diagnosis is acceptable to scientific thought, it is essential to remember that it is often successful in effecting a cure. One reason may be that a great deal of both sickness and lack of success in life may be due to psychological causes or to being on bad terms with one's relatives or acquaintances. The man (Chapter Four) who was constantly cutting himself at work was 'accident prone'; and this may well have been due to some anxiety or worry or quarrel. Western doctors are becoming increasingly aware of this factor in disease; and some of them spend a great deal of time in trying to discover the psychological causes of a physical trouble which no medicine seems to cure. A man may suffer from headaches because he is on bad terms with his wife. In Britain this may be very difficult to put right, without, at the least, many discussions by both parties with 'marriage guidance counsellors'. In Africa the headaches might be interpreted as due to interference by the wife's ancestral ghosts; and, because both parties believe this explanation, a ceremonial sacrifice might do the trick. On the other hand, it might be said that the wife was practising witchcraft against her husband; and that would be equivalent to advising divorce.

An example may illustrate this suggestion. A boy was sent to live with an uncle in Kampala in order to attend secondary school. Another uncle, jealous that his sons were not having the same chance, began to pin notes on the door of the house, saying that the boy would die if he continued to live there. Every time the boy returned to his uncle's house, he had severe stomach-aches till he could stand it no longer. In the old days, the solution would have been a charge of sorcery against the uncle. The contemporary solution was to provide the boy with a bicycle so that he could live at home and cycle daily to and from school.

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