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Diviner: The sangoma tradition of Southern Africa

THE SANGOMA TRADITION OF SOUTHERN AFRICA

Wim van Binsbergen

In addition to his scholarly and literary work, Wim van Binsbergen has been, since 1990, a certified spirit medium/ diviner/ priest in the sangoma tradition of Southern Africa. This page sets out the background, accesses Wim van Binsbergen's credentials as a sangoma, and enables you to initiate a private consultation with him

click on the icon to the left (representing the first tablet, Kwame, of the sangoma four-tablet oracle) if you require information as to how to consult Wim van Binsbergen/ Johannes Sibanda as a sangoma diviner-priest.

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proceed to the Shikanda portal in order to access all other websites by Wim van Binsbergen: general (intercultural philosophy, African Studies); ethnicity-identity-politics; Afrocentricity and the Black Athena debate; Ancient Models of Thought in Africa, the Ancient Near East, and prehistory; sangoma consultation; literary work
also a highly sensitive in-site search facility is now available at the overall Shikanda.net portal homepage, covering all Wim van Binsbergen's sites in a single search action

WHAT IS SANGOMA?
Sangoma is the term for a diviner-priest in the tradition of the Nguni-speaking peoples (Zulu,
Xhosa, Ndebele, Swazi) of Southern Africa. In the course of the twentieth century of the North Atlantic era this idiom of diagnosis and healing has increasingly spread over the entire Southern African subcontinent. The sangoma's powers are based on the fact that she/he is the incarnation of an ancestral spirit. Usually this spirit makes his presence known by inflicting on the host a serious disease which cannot be cured by cosmopolitan medicine. Diagnosis of such possession is the first step on a path which, for a minority of the patients, leads to a status of apprenticeship and incubation called utwaza. The real proof of election for sangoma-hood is when the spirit speaks through the patient's mouth when in trance, preferably in tongues or dialects unknown to the patient in ordinary life, and when it divulges messages to the living concerning ancestral election, imminent illness and death, and the breach of taboos. The majority of twazas graduate as fully-fledged sangomas by means of a public, festive and expensive celebration, which culminates in the ritual sacrifice of at least one goat (another was already sacrificed at the onset of utwaza) and the ceremonial consumption -- with the aid of make-shift chopsticks -- of the sacrificial animal's intestines. Being symbolically an unborn foetus herself, the twaza is not supposed to eat any 'inside' meat, and is also otherwise an unborn child.
Sangomahood is spread in the typical fashion of cults of affliction, i.e. through a chain reaction: each twaza who has graduated to become a sangoma has the right to diagnose and treat patients and to supervise them through utwaza and graduation. The cult is loosely organised in local lodges, headed by a senior sangoma. Often an extended family forms the core of a lodge, but every lodge comprises non-kin among its members, typically recruited from among a great variety of ethnic groups, nationalities, and language groups. In north-eastern Botswana and the adjacent regions of South Africa and Zimbabwe, sangoma lodges are associated with the Mwali cult, to whose headquarters in the Matopos Hills (Zimbabwe) a portion of their income from divination and healing is forwarded as tribute. Mwali is the name of the High God venerated in a large part of the Southern African subcontinent.
Being relatively scarce (e.g. in Francistown c. 1990, fewer than one in every 1000 inhabitants was a sangoma), sangomas are considered to offer a public service. They may be approached in public places -- where they are conspicuous by their bracelets and necklaces of white, red and black beads -- or in their homes and lodges. Sometimes they honour local and state festivals with their presence and ceremonial dancing. Clients may consult sangomas for physical complaints, psychosomatic and psychic problems, and for problems of a social rather than individual/physical nature, such as bad luck in business and amorous affairs, conflict and competition, bereavement in the family, major travelling etc. In their secluded ritual activities -- which centre on singing, dancing and drumming in gaudy uniforms -- mediumistic trance plays a central role. Yet usually the diagnosis and treatment of lay patients does not involve trance on the part of the sangoma herself. Here the sangomas use of combination of herbalism -- based on a considerable knowledge of the Southern African natural environment -- and divination with four tablets of wood, ivory or bone. These 10 cm long flat tablets (Hakata, Dithlao) are cast onto the ground, and since they are marked to be distinguished from each other and to tell front from back, they can take 2 to the power 4 = 16 different positions. These positions are named, interpreted according to several dimensions (ancestors; sorcery and witchcraft; the body; relations between living kin; wealth; travelling, etc.), using a detailed interpretative catalogue whose antecedents ramify into the Indian Ocean cultures, West Africa, Arabian ilm al-raml, and ultimately the Chinese I Ching.

sangoma power
The strength of sangomahood as an idiom of diagnosis and healing derives from a combination of:

CREDENTIALS

Click on this icon (representing MmaShakayile in ceremonial sangoma uniform, 1989) if you wish to view
  • the official license as issued to Wim van Binsbergen by the Kwame (Legwame) Traditional Association of Botswana, one of the few professional organizations of traditional healers to be recognised by the government of the Republic of Botswana;
  • photographs of Wim van Binsbergen's two principal teachers of divination in Francistown, Botswana: Mrs Elizabeth Mabutu ('MmaShakayile'), who was his mentrix initiating him into sangoma-hood, and the herbalist Mr Smarts Gumede.
  • photographs of two crucial moments in his graduation as sangoma (1991): the killing of a main goat at the ancestral shrine, and the first eating of intestines at the close of utwaza.
CONSULTING A SANGOMA
As a traditional healer in Botswana, Wim van Binsbergen is locally known as Johannes Sibanda -- Johannes as the incarnation of MmaShakayile's cousin who died in the 1970s, and Sibanda as the name of Wim van Binsbergen's divined adoptive totem. Sibanda is any clawed predator, but especially the porcupine, which features in his logo. The colours black, white and red are the sacred colours of sangomahood, of the Mwali cult, and of African religion in general.
click on the icon to the left (representing the first tablet, Kwame, of the sangoma four-tablet oracle) if you require information as to how to consult Wim van Binsbergen/ Johannes Sibanda as a sangoma diviner-priest.

The Shikanda domain is a goldmine of resources on sangomahood:

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This search facility provides a complete electronic index of the papers on sangomahood in the present website and all of Wim van Binsbergen's other websites in the Shikanda domain, and moreover enables you to search the entire Internet quickly and effectively; simply enter the word(s) you require into the blank search box, and press 'Search'

Moreover, the Shikanda domain provides the following popular or scholarly resources on sangomahood:

1 click here for a Web article on the organisation and therapy at Francistown (Botswana) sangoma lodges, with special emphasis on the complex and contradictory role of commodities in that connection 2 click here for a description of the process of 'Becoming a sangoma' as lived by a North Atlantic researcher
3 click here for an article discussing what it is to be a Southern African sangoma in the North Atlantic region today 4

click here for the Web article on the transregional and historical connections of the four-tablet sangoma oracle

5 click here for the Web article on the internal structure and dynamics of the sangoma four-tablet oracle 6

click here for a paper (PDF) on ‘Islam as a constitutive factor in African ‘‘traditional’ religion: The evidence from geomantic divination’’ (PDF, 1999)

7

click here for a popular article on 'Crossing the boundaries': From anthropologist to sangoma in search of an intercultural approach to health

8

click here for an expanded version, in Dutch, of the article 'Crossing the boundaries'with an lengthy philosophical extension /

klik hier voor een Nederlandse versie van het artikel 'Crossing the boundaries', met een uitvoerige filosofische uitwijding (PDF)

9

click here for a paper (PDF) on: 'The translation of Southern African sangoma divination towards a global format, and the validity of the knowledge it produces', read at the symposium ‘World views, Science and Us’, Brussels, Centre Leo Apostel, Free University Brussels, Belgium, 10 June 2003

10

click here for the introductory chapter (PDF) to Wim van Binsbergen's recent (2003) book Intercultural Encounters: African and Anthropological Lessons towards a Philosophy of Interculturality, in which his sangomahood is discussed and analysed as great length as an experiment in intercultural philosophy

11

click here for a very lengthy slide presentation 'The leopard's unchanging spots: Long-range comparative research as a key to enduring patterns of African agency' (2003), in which sangoma shamanism is situated in a world-wide comparative perspective centring on the wearing of, and symbolism of, leopard skins (pardivesture)

12 click here for a short statement on the improving aspect of the art of the diviner in Southern and West Africa
13 click here for a scholarly epistemological argument on the validity of the knowledge the sangoma oracle produces, as compared to the validity of North Atlantic or global mainstream science 14 click here for a comparative analysis of the sangomas' Four Tablet oracle and of mankala boardgames as two examples of time-honoured African formal symbolic systems
       

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proceed to the Shikanda portal in order to access all other websites by Wim van Binsbergen: general (intercultural philosophy, African Studies); ethnicity-identity-politics; Afrocentricity and the Black Athena debate; Ancient Models of Thought in Africa, the Ancient Near East, and prehistory; sangoma consultation; literary work
also a highly sensitive in-site search facility is now available at the overall Shikanda.net portal homepage, covering all Wim van Binsbergen's sites in a single search action

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page last modified: 09-04-04 14:37:01 Bravenet.com    
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