no previous
next chapter


Discourse is central to the construction of knowledge about misfortune and healing. In Central and Southern Africa, discourses of healing take a number of forms: the evocation of distress and hope before others; prayers to God, ancestors, and spirits; songs both out of the cultural stock at hand as well as original compositions from the wellsprings of individual emotion; highly codified dress; instrumental accompaniment and dance; the creation and use of materia medica. All come together in the "doing of ngoma" that is the subject of this book. Discourse is the descriptive term of choice for this action "doing" because at issue is the mutual expression of feelings and ideas and the marshaling of knowledge and social networks required to bring about an acceptable solution to the range of ills addressed by ngoma-type movements and institutions.

The subject has been much examined in Central and Southern Africa by many authors under rubrics as diverse as divination, healing, health care, religion, epidemics, magic, ritual, cult activity, dance, song, folklore, and more. This book explores for the first time the possibility that some of this activity may in fact be a unique historical institution. Such a proposition is suggested above all by the presence, over a vast region, of similar words, names, procedures, and types of behaviors—discourses, in short—around the interpretation of misfortune and the treatment of affliction. For some time the use of language history has been a tantalizing vehicle for the study of the history of cultural do-


mains. Where the compilation of lexica and grammars has progressed far enough, it is possible to single out for special study terms and structures in language around particular domains. In the present survey work this analysis is applied in a relatively simple manner to some cognate terms of health and healing that are widely used in ngoma. The rigorous analysis needed awaits further collection of detailed local vocabularies and the identification of practices; this has not been done very widely.

However, as this book goes to press, the horizon of new research that will supersede it is already apparent. Great strides have been made with the use of linguistic history as applied to the history of selected cultural domains. The paragon of such work is J. Vansina's recent Paths in the Rainforest (1990), on the evolution of political institutions in the rainforests of Western Equatorial Africa.

New research on ngoma is already in progress, including fieldwork of ngoma in Tanzania, the documentation of revivalist ngoma in the aftermath of the civil war in Zimbabwe, and the mapping of the institution in terms of layers of historical language formation. The result of this work will take its place within a growing body of self-conscious literature on the subject. The present project is the first comprehensive study of the discourse on misfortune and healing in Central and Southern Africa in connection with the institution Ngoma.

I must acknowledge many and varied individuals and agencies who made possible, and facilitated, this project. The University of Kansas sabbatical fund permitted me to take a leave from teaching for research travel in Africa. A senior research fellowship from the CIES-Fulbright Program made it possible for me to travel to the four cities that the research plan suggested would be opportune. The University of Cape Town invited me to its distinguished professor series, which opened doors and made contacts possible that I otherwise would not have been permitted.

Research in Zaire, Tanzania, and Swaziland was greatly facilitated by CIES sponsorship. In Kinshasa, this included such necessary privileges as being picked up from and taken to the Njili International Airport and being helped in a variety of other ways by the people of the Cultural Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy, Acting Officer Phyllis Oakley and Nsumbu Ndongabi Masamba. Nsiala Miaka Makengo of the National Research Office, and Mabiala Mandela of the Centre de Médecine des Guérisseurs granted me much hospitality, time, and attention, as did Father Joseph Cornet and Lema Guete of the National


Museum of Zaire. I am also indebted to Kamanda Sa Cingumba and Nzimbi Nsadisi for their friendship and assistance.

In Tanzania, Emmanuel Mshiu and Dr. I. A. J. Semali of the Traditional Medicine Research Unit at Muhimbili Hospital were my formal sponsors. The National Research Council authorized the project, for which I am grateful. E. K. Makala, of the Music Division of the Ministry of Culture, and his colleague Yesia Luther King assisted greatly in making a number of contacts and by sharing their understanding of the research topic. Professor Ernest Wamba and Fidelis Mtatifikolo of the University of Dar es Salaam were friends to me while I was in Dar.

In Swaziland I had an excellent introduction and accompaniment to my stay from Ted Green, who was at the time working with the Ministry of Health and collaborating with Lydia Makhubu of the university in research on indigenous health-care resources, including tangoma (plural for sangoma : "healer"). Harriet Ngubane, a South African anthropologist who has worked with Zulu diviner-healers in Natal, introduced me in a marvelous way to many individuals in Mbabane and provided extensive interpretative help for my research. I am deeply indebted to these two friends.

For my survey research on ngoma in the Western Cape I am indebted to many people, including Professor Martin West, head of the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Cape Town, and the members of the university administration who helped me during my time in Cape Town as a visiting distinguished professor; Janet Mills, whose acquaintances with numerous amagqira helped me to make quick contact; Adelheid Ndika, igqira (igqira is "healer"; amagqira , "healers" in Xhosa), who graciously invited me to the nthlombe (feast) sessions of her cell, encouraged me to photograph and record the events, and explained what was occurring.

Following a policy begun in earlier writing, I have used the names of healers and other public figures associated with the rituals and subjects of this work, insofar as they granted permission for this. However, although the therapy sessions described are often open to the public, and in that sense very different from the confidential character of Western healing, I have used pseudonyms for the sufferer-novices of the ngoma therapies. Because they were sick or deeply troubled at the time of my encounter with them, they were often not in a condition to consider the question of permission.

Parts of this work, or perspectives forwarded in it, have had the benefit of reaction from a variety of scholarly publics. The section


"Lexicon of a Classical Sub-Saharan Therapeutics" in chapter 2 was first put forward in a paper prepared for the Hamburg, Germany, conference on "Ethnomedicine and Medical History," May, 1980, organized by Joachim Sterly and Hans Morgenthaeler, and subsequently published as "Towards a Historical Perspective on African Medicine and Health" in Ethnomedizin und Medizingeschichte (1983). The present interpretation of the Bantu lexical data benefits from an additional decade of important new analysis. The perspectives presented in the section of chapter 2 called "Social and Political Variables of a Complex Institution" were presented in two papers. The mandate to sharpen the ontological identification of ngoma came from Stan Yoder's discussion of my paper "Cults of Affliction: Real Phenomenon or Scholarly Chimera?" in Tom Blakeley's conference on African Religion at Brigham Young University, October 23, 1986. Another perspective in that section was aired in a paper entitled "How Lemba Worked, or, the Trickster's Transformation" at the African Studies Association, New Orleans, November, 1985. Ideas from this paper also appear in chapter 5, "How Ngoma Works: Of Codes and Consciousness." Some of the material in chapter 4, "Doing Ngoma: The Texture of Personal Transformation" was first given on February 9, 1987, before the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, in a Monday colloquium entitled "Words, Beats, Tunes: The Fabric of Personal Transformation in Ngoma Ritual Therapy." The relationship between kin, or lineage-based, and extra-kin strategies of health seeking were explored in a presentation to the Health Transitions conference organized by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Health Transitions Centre at Australian National University in May, 1989.

The nucleus for the book was set forth in a set of unpublished papers called "Indicators and Concepts of Health in Anthropology: The Case for a 'Social Reproduction' Analysis of Health" and "On the Comparative Study of Medical Systems: Ngoma, a Collective Therapy Mode in Central and Southern Africa." These were circulated in various ways as "Two Papers on Medical Anthropology." Chapter 6 grew out of the first of these papers, and further collaborative writing and thinking on the subject of the basis of health with Steven Feierman in preparation for an edited volume, The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa . The reader will find echoes of the perspective put forth here in several published articles, including: "Changing Concepts of African Therapeutics: An Historical Perspective," in African Healing Strategies , edited by Brian M. du Toit and Ismail H. Abdalla, 1985; "Cults of Af-


fliction in African Religion," The Encyclopedia of Religion , edited by Mircea Eliade, 1986; "Health, Religion and Medicine in Central and Southern African Traditions," in Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in World Religious Traditions , edited by Larry Sullivan, 1989; "Strategies of Health-Seeking and Structures of Social Support in Central and Southern Africa," in What We Know about Health Transition: The Cultural, Social and Behavioural Determinants of Health , edited by John C. Caldwell, et al., 1990.

I remain indebted to numerous others who have listened to my arguments or pointed out important issues as this work has progressed. Special thanks go to Nels Johnson, who reminded me of Mary Douglas's use of Bernstein's analysis as it appears in chapter 3; Thembinkosi Dyeyi of East London, South Africa, who interpreted the intricacies of the "doing ngoma" session presented in chapter 4 and translated its text into English; Stan Yoder, Richard Werbner, Terence Ranger, Henny Blokland, and several other anonymous readers who offered constructive criticisms; Sue Schuessler, who discussed ngoma in many conversations, and whose own work on this subject has helped me understand some of the issues in the literature; Gesine Janzen, who drew the maps and figures; and Linda Benefield, who copyedited the manuscript.

Finally, I am, as always, indebted to Reinhild for her critical encouragement of my research and writing, and to Bernd, Gesine, and Marike for their enduring interest in their father's seemingly endless project on African health and healing.


no previous
next chapter