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3 Core Features in Ngoma Therapy
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Sickness And Therapeutic Initiation As A Phased Rite Of Passage

The first of the core features of the cult of affliction is the choreography of events over time. Throughout the region where ngoma affliction institutions are found, the process of sickness, labeling, healing, searching for answers, becoming well, and emerging as a healer is framed by rites that define the entry into, and exit from, the position of the ngoma sufferer-novice. These formal features and the spatial-temporal structure that results from them are distinguished here from the qualitative transformation of the individual (or group) as identified in another core feature, "the course through the white."

In the historic Lemba cult of the Congo coast and inland along the trade routes, this temporal framing was evident in all regional variants (Janzen 1982). To cite a specific example, after an nganga's initial identification of the sufferers' (in this case, a couple) condition as being Lemba-related, they were put in touch with a senior Lemba healer and, in the first event, purified and given the initial medicine. They were now Lemba novices under the supervision of their priest-healer. After sometimes years of counseling, of dream analysis, of song preparation, and collection of the funds for their final event, they were featured in a "graduation" event, after which they were fully qualified Lemba officiants.

In reading, and later in a comparative fieldwork project, I found that this same structure for the framing of ritual events was widely represented in ngoma settings. The events that open, close, and punctuate the therapeutic initiation are usually of a day-night-day sequence and duration. This was true in Kongo society, in Turner's accounts of Ndembu rites of affliction, in igqira initiations in the Western Cape, in coastal Cameroon rites (in contrast to the Grassfield area in the interior), and in Haitian voodoo, which carries a strong Central African institutional pattern. This pattern is commonly aligned with the preparation for meeting ancestors or spirits and bringing the novice into communication with them. Frequently the sequence of events also spatially


reflects this with a move in the ritual choreography from a profane to a sacred or auspicious place, moves that are announced with transition songs to move the sufferer-novice through an intermediary space (see fig. 8).

These opening, closing, and punctuating events of the ngoma initiation are marked as well by the preparation of medicines, the utilization of color-coded stages and ointments spread on the novice, and by the sacrifice of an animal that is ritually identified with the novice and is then slaughtered, cooked, and eaten as a common meal.

Despite the pervasive presence of the foregoing pattern that structures the ngoma rites, there does not seem to be a set of common verbal cognates that relate to this structure. The events that open, close, and punctuate the process are variously called nkembo (celebration), or mpandulu (initiation to or composition of an nkisi ) in Kongo; nthlombe (celebration, feast) in Nguni languages; ngoma in East Africa. These terms are all used fairly generally to speak of ceremonies, initiations, or rites of all kinds.

As in other widespread cultural patterns, these elements of Central and Southern African therapeutic initiation have been explained by authors utilizing several ethnological principles that go beyond the culturally particular and descriptive. Two major approaches that may be outlined here are those of the "rite of passage" and the "shamanic career." As with all ethnological explanations that are more general than descriptive, these have some value but they also remain problematic.

The elements of initiation in ngoma-type cults of affliction in Ndembu society were explained by Victor Turner as examples of Van Gennepian "rites of passage." They were opened by a rite of separation of the novice-sufferer from a prior social state. This was followed by an intermediary "liminal" or transitional state. The process culminated with a rite of reincorporation by the novice into society, as a full-fledged healer and member of the cult. Later, Max Gluckman argued for a more analytical approach to these rituals, especially in societies moving toward greater complexity and differentiation of roles (1962:1–52). Turner himself came to see the cults-of-affliction rites as more sophisticated and varied examples of ritualization in human society. However, it is useful to understand the African cult of affliction as a culturally specific case of the human rite of passage, on a level similar to that which sees the sick role and the encounter with the medical professional in the West as a "rite of passage." As in any therapeutic course, the outcome is not necessarily assured. Many are those who begin ngoma,


Figure 8. 
Synthetic configuration of spatial and temporal organization of
events in ngoma-type rites. This chart is to be read as a musical score. The
"time" line moves from left to right. The "space" score also moves from
left to right, but indicates the spaces in which activity is situated through
the rites.

or who participate in it, but who never complete it. For this reason it may not be like a strict rite of passage. The progression through the ritual grid is subject to the inner progress of the novice-sufferer.

Others have identified aspects of African cults of affliction with the "shamanic career" (De Heusch 1971), although this has been held to be problematic and inappropriate by most authors (I. Lewis 1986:78-93), for reasons that will be developed at greater length in chapter 5. In Lewis's analysis of the "career" of spirit possession, a series of stages moves the relationship of the novice to the spirit from a point where it is uncontrolled and involuntary to a point where it reflects greater control, indeed, voluntary interaction with the spirit through mediumship. This "career" is also defined by the subject moving from being a patient or sufferer to mastery over the source of affliction, and becoming a healer of that condition, although, as noted above, the process may stall. Some aspects of the shamanic journey may be seen in the choreographed move from profane to sacred space in every rite (see fig. 8).


And some novices do speak of having journeyed to the bottom of the river, or into the woods or wild bush to rescue a soul, or to commune with a spirit. Thus some of the elements said to universally define shamanism are also in keeping with ngoma ritual. However, rarely is the ngoma graduate or healer involved in classic shamanic journeys following the completion of the therapeutic initiation. Some, such as Botoli Laie in Dar es Salaam, admit freely to having been introduced to ngoma practice as an apprentice.

It thus seems clear that caution must be exercised in applying universalistic ethnological explanations to a phenomenon I have argued is historically and culturally particular, with its own distinctive vocabulary and significant variation within the region where it is found: for example, the day/night/day scheduling of the events; the use of white symbolism as the lengthy inner or middle passage; the role of percussion in setting the stage for passage; the spatial choreography that moves from profane space to sacred space and back.

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