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Crossing cultural boundaries:

From anthropologist to sangoma in search of an intercultural approach to health

Wim van Binsbergen


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? 2000-2002 W.M.J. van Binsbergen Haarlem The Netherlands

This article was published under the title ‘Crossing cultural boundaries’ in: Compass Newsletter: For endogenous development, Number 3, July 2000, ‘Vitality, Health and Disease: In soils, crops, animals and people’, guest editor Sarshan Shankar, pp. 12-13. Below follows the authorised version.

In this article I share my personal experiences as an anthropologist, initiated African healer and intercultural philosopher. My experiences and reflections have led me to believe that North Atlantic science cannot claim to have the monopoly of truth. The knowledge and healing experiences of the many therapy systems outside the North Atlantic region must be taken seriously as authentic and valid.

 

How can we describe, understand and discuss local knowledge in different cultures without destroying it in the process? When analysing local therapy systems and their efficacy, do we have to submit to the conventions of present-day, North Atlantic social and medical science?

In the 19th and 20th century, Western medical science spread following the course set by Western colonialism. Social science, like cultural anthropology, defined its objectives, theory and methods. North Atlantic science claims to represent universality, with the suggestion that this universal truth is lacking in other scientific, therapeutic and religious traditions.

These other regional traditions, however, increasingly resent being relegated to an inferior position. But how can they assert their independent, original validity without being forced to look at themselves through the eyes of North Atlantic science?

 

Experiences of an anthropologist

Born in the Netherlands, I was trained as an anthropologist and specialised in religion. My first fieldwork was in 1968 in rural Tunisia, North Africa, where I studied saint worship and the ecstatic cult. This is where my struggle with the problem of intercultural truth, which I now consider to be the central problem of inter-culturality, began.

During this fieldwork I participated 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 anthropological writings I reduced the very same people to numerical values in a quantitative analysis. Who was I that I could afford to take apart in my analytical writings the undivided, serious religious and therapeutic commitment of my research participants? Several of them played a decisive role in my life as teachers, spiritual masters, fathers, mothers, siblings, and lovers.

At the time I knew no other way to describe their religious representations than as the denial of North Atlantic science. It was only twenty years later when, in the form of a novel, I found the words to testify to my love of the North African life forms that I had had to distance myself from as an anthropologist. Meanwhile, the two-volume English-language manuscript of my original anthropological research has lain idle on the shelf.

 

Becoming a diviner-priest

In 1971 I took up a teaching job at the University of Zambia. Soon I became deeply involved in standard-type anthropological fieldwork among the Nkoya people, a minority group in the western part of the country. I became increasingly drawn into the study of traditional healers.

I also studied local history and kingship, which brough me so close to the local king that I came to be considered a member of the royal family. This situation was formalised when the king died in 1993 and I inherited his royal bow and arrows, and a large piece of land.

I continued to work in western Zambia on and off until the mid-1990s. At the same time I also ventured into other fieldwork locations. Gradually I came to distance myself from the tradition of empirical detachment in which I had been trained.

As a result, in Guinea-Bissau in 1983, I did not only observe the oracular priests, but became their patient, like almost every other member of local society. From 1988 onwards I decided to throw overboard some vital professional, anthropological considerations. Not only did I become the patient of the local diviner-priests, or sangomas, but at the end of a long therapy course I became one of them. I had become a believer in the local collective representations.

Fellow-sangomas supersive one of the principal acts marking van Binsbergen's (left, squatting) initiation as a sangoma: the sacrifice of a goat at the male ancestors'shrine3 in Matshelagabedi village, Botswana

At the time I justified this as a primarily political deed. As a white man I was publicly distancing myself from white monopoly capitalism and racism. Now, more than at the time, I realise that mine was also a revolt against professional anthropological hypocrisy. It was a decision which in fact distanced me from cultural anthropology, and which paved the way for my present commitment to intercultural philosophy.

For me, this step liberated me from the narrow Western scientific framework. After a while, becoming a sangoma myself also liberated me from the far-reaching spiritual dependence on my mentors and fellow cult members that had originally characterised my sangoma-hood. Becoming a local diviner-priest was my personal answer to the contradictions of the practice of intercultural knowledge production that had occupied me for decades.

 

Intercultural philosophy

Becoming an intercultural philosopher meant taking one step further. It amounts to integrating one’s individual experience into a systematic and reflective framework in order to explore its social relevance. For what is at stake here is not merely an autobiographical anecdote. My struggle with intercultural knowledge coincides with a similar problem that faces the modern world where intercultural knowledge production is a major challenge.

It is possible for me to be a Botswana diviner-priest, a Dutch professor, husband and father, and an adoptive member of a Zambian royal family at the same time. This does not just say something about me, a tormented, post-modern, boundless person, who has lost his original home but found new physical and spiritual homes in Africa. Provided we take the appropriate distance, it also says something about what ‘culture’ is and what it is not.

It implies that culture is 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, or a birth right. And it suggests that ultimately we Europeans may be much better off as nomads between different cultures from all over the world, than as self-imposed prisoners of Eurocentrism.

 

Four wooden tablets

In the 1990s the route from anthropology to intercultural philosophy led me to a further exploration of the relation between cultures. Once I had become a sangoma, I had at my disposal a unique body of cultural knowledge and status as a local religious authority. But, could I find a new perspective from which my transcultural position could be combined with a some kind professional scientific knowledge production?

The wooden tablets which have played a central role in van Binsbergen's intellectual quest

I now possessed the four mysterious wooden tablets of the sangoma oracle. They seemed to represent a strictly local cultural phenomenon. It was as if they had arisen in this Southern African village society during some indefinite primordial age.

The local oracle of these tablets had already been described by missionaries some four hundred years ago. Each of the four tablets had a name: ‘The old woman like a stone’, ‘The old male witch like an axe’, ‘Itching pubic hair like a young woman’s’, and ‘The uvula like a youthful penis’. Their various combinations, when they are ritually cast, have connotations with witchcraft, ancestors, taboos, sacrificial dances, and all varieties of local animal totems. What could be more authentic and more African?

But, to my surprise, the interpretation scheme and the names of the sixteen possible combinations of the sangoma tablets could be compared to tenth century Arabian magic which had featured, just like the Chinese I Ching, configurations of whole and broken lines. At the same time their astrological implication had been elaborated much earlier in Babylonia. I had to accept that the tablet’s romantic suggestion of extreme African locality was a mere illusion. Beneath it lurked a reality with enormous consequences for my theoretical and existential stance as an anthropologist and world citizen

 

Distant offshoots

As a consequence the local cultural orientation in which the inhabitants of Botswana, had entrenched themselves, and from which I felt initially painfully excluded, turned out to be something quite different to an absolute, unbridgeable otherness.

Instead, like my own cultural background as a North Atlantic scholar, it was a distant offshoot of civilisations in the ancient Near East, such as Babylonia and Egypt. Morover, both North Atlantic scholarship, and Southern African sangomahood, had been effectively fertilised by an earlier offshoot from the same stem: the Arabian civilisation.

For years I had been struggling with the African cultureas if it had been an unassailable, utterly alien totality. Now parts of it turned out to be familiar, kindred, and available for respectful appropriation. This insight triggered the start of a comprehensive research project, which over the years has resulted in several publications including Black Athena: Ten Years After (1997) and a book manuscript entitled Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt and the World: Beyond the Black Athena thesis.

 

Another unexpected find

A few years ago I spent a year as an anthropological member of the Working Group on ‘Magic and religion in the Ancient Near East’ at the Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS), in the Netherlands. Here I was suddenly and quite unexpectedly struck by the various parallels between the ceremonies and mythologies of the Nkoya kingship in Zambia and those of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and South Asia.

These parallels were so striking and detailed that I was forced to seriously consider the possibility of cultural diffusion between these regions and South-central Africa. Once again there was the suggestion of cultural continuity in space and time; across thousands of kilometres and several millennia.

The tablets of the sangoma divination system in Botswana and Nkoya kingship in Zambia are two concrete examples of cultural convergence and diffusion across the Old World. This phenomenon has occupied a central place in my empirical research since 1990.

Supported by scholarly literature and the involvement with colleagues and research students I have developed the hypothesis that considerable correspondences exist between the different local cultural orientations. These can stretch far beyond the strictly local horizons of classic anthropology and far beyond ‘cultures’.

In many respects the scholarly work I produce today would still qualify as ‘anthropology’. However, it is a kind of anthropology that is far removed from the way I was trained. Thirty-five years ago my discipline prescribed that I gaze from a distance at the local other. The ]knowledge claims based on that distant gaze are now being increasingly questioned from the perspective of intercultural philosophy.

 

Crossing cultural boundaries

My ‘becoming a sangoma’ confirmed, on the level of personal thought, experience and belief, the possibility of crossing cultural boundaries in a local therapeutic context. The outcome of the subsequent historical and comparative studies has been even more striking, however. They have offered concrete reasons for believing that the boundaries between the seemingly unrelated therapy systems across the world are relative and porous. In addition to being rooted in the shared experience of the human body and mind, to some degree they share a common inspiration and intellectual past.

Sangomas in action: The younger sister expresses her genuine surprise at the particular fall of the divination tablets

As a result, I argue that North Atlantic science cannot claim to have a monopoly of truth. The experience of knowledge and healing in numerous other therapy systems should be studied seriously as authentic and valid, free from the constraints of North Atlantic models.

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