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Cupmarks, stellar maps, and mankala board-games (1)
An archaeoastronomical and Africanist excursion into Palaeolithic world-views

Wim van Binsbergen

with the astronomical collaboration of Jean-Pierre Lacroix

1. An anthropologist’s trajectory [1]

Born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (1947), I was trained at the university of my home town as an anthropologist specialising in religion. From my first fieldwork (1968), when I investigated saint worship and the ecstatic cult in rural North Africa, I have struggled with the problem of intercultural truth — which I am inclined to consider as the central problem of interculturality. With gusto I sacrificed to the dead saints in their graves, danced along with the ecstatic dancers, experienced the beginning of mystical ecstasy myself, and built an entire network of fictive kinsmen around me. Yet in my ethnography I reduced the very same people to numerical values in a quantitative analysis, and I knew, then, no better way to describe their religious representations than as the denial or North Atlantic or cosmopolitan natural science.[2] It was only twenty years later when, in the form of a novel[3] I found the words to testify to my love for and indulgence in the North African life forms which I had had to keep at a distance as an ethnographer; and my two-volume, English-language book manuscript on this research is still lying idly on a shelf, almost completed but not quite. After many years and several African fieldwork locations, always operating in the religious and the therapeutic domain, I gradually began to realise that I loathed the cynical professional attitude of anthropology, and that I had increasing difficulty sustaining that attitude. Who was I that I could afford to make believe, to pretend, and to take apart in my analytical writings, what yet constituted the undivided, serious religious and therapeutic commitment of my research participants? Several among them have played a decisive role in my life, as examples, teachers, spiritual masters, fathers and mothers, siblings, loved ones.

            During fieldwork on religion and local psychotherapy in Guinea-Bissau in 1983, I did not remain the observer of the oracular priests but I became their patient — like nearly all the born members of the local society were. In the town of Francistown, Botswana, from 1988, under circumstances which I have discussed at length elsewhere,[4] the usual form of fieldwork became so insupportable to me that I had to throw overboard all professional considerations. I became not only the patient of local diviner-priests (sangomas), but at the end of a long therapy course ended up as one of them, and thus as a believer in the local collective representations. At the time I primarily justified this as a political deed, through which I as a white man publicly distanced myself from a collective past in an society and region (bordering on then racist South Africa) which had been disrupted by white monopoly capitalism and racialism. Now more than at the time, I realise that it was also and primarily an epistemological position-taking — a revolt against the professional hypocrisy in which the hegemonic perspective of anthropology reveals itself. It was a position-taking which in fact expelled me from cultural anthropology (although I did go by my own choice) and which created the conditions for the step which I finally made when occupying, in 1998, my present chair in intercultural philosophy.

            This step meant a liberation, not only from an empirical habitus which, along with existential distress, has also yielded me plenty of intellectual delight, adventure, and honours; but also liberation from such far-reaching spiritual dependence from my mentors and fellow cult members are originally characterised by sangoma-hood. Becoming a sangoma was a concrete, practical deed in answer to the contradictions of a practice of intercultural knowledge production which I had engaged in for decades, with increasing experience and success. Becoming an intercultural philosopher means a further step: one that amounts to integrating that deed in a systematic, reflective and intersubjective framework, in order to augment the anecdoctal, autobiographical ‘just so’ account with theoretical analysis, and to explore the social relevance of an individual experience. For what is at stake here is not merely an autobiographical anecdote. If I struggled with intercultural knowledge production, then my problem coincides with that of the modern world as a whole, where intercultural knowledge production constitutes one of the two or three greatest challenges. If it is possible for me to be at the same time a Botswana sangoma, a Dutch professor, husband and father, and an adoptive member of a Zambian royal family, while at the same time burdened by sacrificial obligations, cultural affinities and fictive kin relationships from North and West Africa, then this does not just say something, about me (a me that is tormented, post-modern, boundless, one who has lost his original home but found new physical and spiritual homes in Africa). Provided we take the appropriate distance and apply the appropriate analytical tools, it also says something about whatever ‘culture’ is and what it is not. It implies that culture is not bounded; not tied to a place; not unique but multiple; not impossible to combine, blend and transgress; not tied to a human body, an ethnic group, a birth right. And it suggests that ultimately we (whatever this we may mean, after all) are much better of as nomads between a plurality of cultures, than as self-imposed prisoners of a smug Eurocentrism.


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[1]              The next few pages are based on a selection from my 1999 Rotterdam inaugural lecture: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘Culturen bestaan niet’: Het onderzoek van interculturaliteit als een openbreken van vanzelfsprekendheden, inaugural lecture, chair of intercultural philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam: Rotterdamse Filosofische Studies

[2]              Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1980, ‘Popular and formal Islam, and supralocal relations: The highlands of northwestern Tunisia, 1800-1970’, Middle Eastern Studies, 16, 1: 71-91; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1980, ‘Interpreting the myth of Sidi Mhâmmed: Oral history in the highlands of North-Western Tunesia’, in: Brown, K., & Roberts, M., eds., Using oral Sources: Vansina and beyond, themanummer, Social Analysis, 1, 4: 51-73; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1985, ‘The cult of saints in north-western Tunisia: An analysis of contemporary pilgrimage structures’, in: Gellner, E.A., ed, Islamic dilemmas: Reformers, nationalists and industrialization: The southern shore of the Mediterranean, Berlin/ New York/ Amsterdam: Mouton, pp. 199-239; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1985, ‘The historical interpretation of myth in the context of popular Islam’, in: Van Binsbergen, W.M.J. & Schoffeleers, J.M., eds., Theoretical explorations in African religion, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International, pp. 189-224.

[3]              van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1988, Een buik openen, Haarlem: In de Knip­scheer.

[4]              Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1991, ‘Becoming a sangoma: Religious anthropological field-work in Francistown, Botswana’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 21, 4: 309-344; available in the present website; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1998, ‘Sangoma in Nederland: Over integriteit in interculturele bemiddeling’, in: Elias, M., & Reis, R., eds., Getuigen ondanks zichzelf: Voor Jan-Matthijs Schoffeleers bij zijn zeventigste verjaardag, Maastricht: Shaker, pp. 1-29, available in English in the present website.


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