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5 How Ngoma Works Of Codes and Consciousness
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How Ngoma Works
Of Codes and Consciousness

The music enchants the sufferer ... to reveal the spirit.
Isa Hassan, Dar es Salaam ngoma healer

This chapter and the next wrestle with the nature of knowledge—both personal and cultural—and the way it is utilized in ngoma. In previous chapters ngoma has been presented in a number of perspectives: the ethnographic present, the deep history of linguistic analysis and archaeology, and the close-up view of the core features and the main ritual, "doing ngoma." This chapter on "how ngoma works" seeks to understand how knowledge in this context is constructed and used. Indigenous theories of ngoma and a variety of analytical theories are brought to bear on the subject. The next chapter presents social and demographic perspectives and consequences on how ngoma works.

In evaluating the ngoma response to distress, scholars need to ask whether, and to what extent, our approach filters explanations in terms of the experience of individuals or of the cultural parameters that result from comparable outcomes among individuals within groups. For, although it has been established that there is indeed a widespread institution across Central and Southern Africa with distinct features, it is also clear that particular localized and regional foci of affliction may seem very disparate from one case to the next. The ontological problem of relating unique individual experience to cultural interpretation must now be confronted. This is particularly acute in regard to how the healer engages in intentional action toward the afflicted.

These questions take us to the heart of the issue of therapeutic "efficacy" as it has been debated in medical anthropology and related disciplines, which face the assessment of therapies studied comparatively


(Young 1977; Ahern 1979; Kleinman 1980; Devisch 1986; Csordas 1988). Since the test of efficacy depends greatly upon the criteria used, it is clear that there are many ways of claiming, as well as independently testing, efficacy. Some scholars have suggested that the pluralist array of therapies in the world is so vast that an assessment of efficacy is an impossible task (Sindzingre 1985:16). This relativistic perspective is consonant with another group of scholars who approach the question by stressing the cultural construction of efficacy, based upon people's beliefs, upon their fears of inefficacy of healing. The efficacy of a therapy may be established by studying therapeutic discourse on illness and the people's choices in seeking therapy. The present chapter deals with this type of efficacy of ngoma. A second group of scholars (Spring 1978, 1985; Corin 1979, 1980; Janzen 1980, 1989; Goblet-Vanormelingen 1988) insists that efficacy must be measured in absolute qualities of better health, which is defined in terms of survivorship, and mortality rates. We take up this perspective in the next chapter.

The questions of knowledge in ngoma and the efficacy of its actions come together in the sections of this chapter. We begin with a look at the distinction between individual and collective experience and knowledge. Most scholars who study African cults of affliction seem to dwell on the spirit phenomenon, around which there swirl many angles of interpretation. Some of the more important of these, for present purposes, are reviewed. Then we look at the conscious indigenous theories about ngoma, which are usually based on the hypothesis of spirit possession as the basis of the misfortune. From there, we turn to explanations that are more interested in the tacit or implicit knowledge of symbols and metaphors, and the way this allows for a more penetrating analysis of the rituals. Finally, because a number of the ngoma traditions demonstrate rather sophisticated knowledge about the empirical world, we must explore the relationship of scientific or empirical knowledge to ritual healing. The underlying leitmotif of this chapter and the next is that there are varied types of knowledge within ngoma; thus there are likely to be varying types of efficacy in ngoma as a ritual therapeutic enterprise.

Personal Experience And Cultural Reality

In a 1982 study of the Western Bantu cult of affliction, Lemba, I pressed to its ultimate conclusion the argument that the individual experience of each Lemba "afflicted" (individual or couple) could be


grasped best in the contradictions and stresses confronting that person or persons. This contrasted, I suggested, with some interpretations of cults of affliction as standardized manifestations of affliction that led to predictable initiatory therapies into specified cults. Symptoms in the cases reported in connection with Lemba varied from headache, skin rash, verbal hysteria (loss of speech), stomachache, and a variety of heart afflictions, to loss of potency and to chaos in the community—in other words, a vague and ambiguous array of signs and symptoms—all being interpreted as "the Lemba sickness" by diviners or family members. By the time such an individual (or couple, since it was the couple/household that was initiated to Lemba) had gone through the course of Lemba initiation, the most idiosyncratic manifestation of affliction had been subjected to a standardized set of cultural classifications and ritual routines. As the initial ritual of purification, and the long middle course toward the final ceremony progressed, much of the symbolism and liturgy could be understood in terms of culturally standardized dichotomies and categories.

In one body of material from the Mayombe region of Lower Zaire, the medicine chest of the graduate priestly couple, in the organization of its contents, aligned classificatory oppositions about gender, color, cosmological ordering, and plants. In the medicine's symbolic structure, the "domestic abode" was contrasted to "public space," the former containing male and female elements, as well as the priestly hierarchy integrating the couple with the public realm of Lemba. These social dimensions were, in turn, expressed or amplified by spatial, animal, and vegetable objects or locations. The medicine, in effect, expressed the human dimension by projecting its inner parameters out onto other domains. The etiological myth accounting for Lemba's origin devoted attention to the composition of the medicinal satchel on a journey of the Lemba husband in search of a solution for his wives' health problems. The satchel's contents thus served as a mediatory vehicle between the human realm and the supernatural (Janzen 1982:257–272).

The point I wish to stress in reciting these details about the rituals, medicines, and myths of Lemba is that they are part of a dynamically patterned cultural code easily amenable to structural analysis. However, the less patterned, chaotic realm of personal experience as seen in distress or disease must not be ignored in the process of identifying the cultural codes to which they are subsumed. I emphasized that it was necessary to reconstruct, from all available bits of evidence, the historical setting within which the cult of affliction—the Lemba solution—had arisen, and to identify the questions and paradoxes that had been


asked and encountered at that time, and continued to be asked and encountered as individuals were drawn into it. These questions, or moments of crisis, I called "difficult experiences."

In this analysis of the setting at the basis of Lemba's origin, I used Burridge's concept of the "true contradiction" (1967:105–106), developed in a critique of Lévi-Strauss's work on totemism. Burridge had argued that a Lévi-Straussian opposition, at the basis of totemic representation of society's distinct groups, was not the same as a contradiction. A contradiction arose from contrary and clashing social norms, conflicting goals or interests pursued by social segments, or conflicting interests within individual lives, leading to paralysis and stress. The distinction between contradiction and opposition seemed to be an important one to make in the evaluation of Lemba, particularly if one wanted to grasp the recurring existential context of distress of those individuals who were steered toward the Lemba resolution, that is, those who may have been involved in mercantile pursuits, who were possibly wealthy, and who came to fear the envy of their subordinates in the kinship arena. My analysis went out from the premise that there was a distinction between idiosyncratic, variable individual perception of chaos, distress, and anxiety, and the mechanisms of cultural order.

This point may be put another way. Just as experience constantly meets and shapes culture, history constantly encounters myth. The two are mutually shaped. Never is "living myth" a fixed canon. Lévi-Strauss acknowledged that mythic structures may accommodate, even generate, new elements and combinations. But he did not well explain how human experience continually generates new variations. His analysis lacked the dimension of the contradictory in experience; it lacked the dimension of the political manipulation of myth, which is commonly called ideology. Both dimensions are important in our analysis of African ritual and lead directly to an understanding of "how ngoma works." But we need to look at a range of theoretical approaches to how this is explained. We begin with a look at ngoma as religious and psychoanalytical explanations; then we turn to symbolist and metaphorical explanations; finally, in this chapter, we look at the possibility of other types of knowledge in ngoma, including scientific knowledge.

Spirit Logic And Therapeutic Discourse

This section will survey and evaluate a number of theories on and explanations of the relationship of spirits to the therapeutic process. Both scholarly and practitioners' views will be considered.


Spirits, A Scholarly Bugaboo?

The majority of writers about cults of affliction have simply subordinated the phenomenon to another called "spirit possession." On the subject of spirits indwelling people, scholarship itself seems to have been obsessed with a bugaboo—a peculiar fascination, a fear, a concern—a word perhaps derived from the Western Bantu notion buka lubuka , to divine, to treat.[1] So pervasive has been this fixation on spirit possession that it has apparently become a sui generis category of Western scholarship, one that has given rise to entire bibliographies on the subject (Crapanzano and Garrison 1977; Zaretsky and Shambaugh 1978). The Western bugaboo has certainly gotten in the way of clear understanding of the African institution.

A Part of the problem has been the use of the term shamanism , both in the use and in the breach. Although many authors on African spirit possession make a routine reference to the difficulty of using the term shamanism to refer to the African setting, the use of spirit possession tends to serve as a euphemism for shamanism. Authors such as I. Lewis (1986, especially his chapter "The Shaman's Career") and De Heusch (1971, especially his articles "Possession et chamanisme" and "La folie des dieux et la raison des hommes"), who do use African material in their general discussions on spirit possession, and use the term shaman , do not lay to rest the definitional issue. Other authors offer less charged descriptive distinctions in their writing on African spirits. Van Binsbergen and Schoffeleers (1985:39–40) distinguish between shamanistic and mediumistic divination. In the former, the diviner is said to go on a spiritual visionary quest from which he returns with his revelations; this is rare in Africa. In the latter, the diviner is locally considered to be entered or possessed by an external, invisible revelatory agent. This form is said to be prevalent in Africa.

A distinction between those societies that reflect possession belief and those that practice possession trance was introduced by Erika Bourguignon (1976:44–46) to account for another important dichotomy in relation to spirits. According to Bourguignon, the distinction between the two can be accounted for in terms of types of social organization. Less complex societies in which individuals take initiatives are less likely to utilize trance states than more complex societies in which religious expression is controlled or channeled.

Structural interpretations, such as these provided by De Heusch and Bourguignon, offer comparisons of differing valences of spirit presence


between entire societies. De Heusch's distinction between adoricisme and exorcisme emphasizes the alleged pattern that in the first case creates a permanent bond between human and spirit, and in the second leads to the cleansing, or casting out, of the possessing spirit. In the first case the sufferer becomes a vehicle, or medium, of the spirit; in the second the sufferer needs to be cured of possession (De Heusch 1971:235). The first is "good" possession; the second "bad."

In practice, what do these structural surveys of possession types reveal? How helpful are they? For De Heusch, the Kongo (in the Nkita possession) and the Thonga feature possession sickness and trance, thus calling for exorcism or healing. The Sukuma and Lovedu reflect sickness possession, from which therapy is the only solution. Mediumistic possession is found among the Sukuma, Kuba, Luba, and Nuba, thus approaching shamanism. But only the Vandau, a small group living among the Thonga, have what De Heusch calls "authentic shamanism" (1971:258–276).

This approach, which lumps entire societies into structural types, has been correctly criticized by a number of writers (e.g., I. Lewis 1986), who point out that these ideal types are in fact usually moments in individual "careers." The typologies are based on rather inadequate ethnographic information that generalizes to the entire society. They need to be given a more historical and contextual interpretation in order to explain why some sectors of a society, at particular junctures in history, are prone to possession.

Ian Lewis's earlier approach to this question, developed from his work among Somalian pastoralists in the Horn of Africa, has become widely known for its emphasis on the "marginal cult," which stands in contrast to the "central" or dominant cult in a society. Spirit possession, he argued earlier, was an expression of crisis, impasse, or confinement, and the only legitimate or permissible outlet by members of society—often women—in subordinate or marginal positions. Nature spirits, the source of their possession, were marginal in the cult of the dominant—that is, Islam, controlled by men.

Later (1986) Lewis elaborated on this hypothesis of the "epidemiology of possession" with a more dynamic model that stressed the individual course from "uncontrolled" to "controlled" mystical experience. In social sectors that were marginal, the career of possession led from membership in a cult of affliction by a peripheral spirit in the dominant pantheon to a kind of permanent accommodation with the mystical force. In social sectors that were more central to power in society,


possession led to control and even exorcism of the mystical force. If control, or channeling, of the force was the outcome, such holders of mystical power were generally thought to possess witchcraft—that is, mystical—power over others. This, of course, could lead to the use of this power in social control and government. For Lewis, the main difference between witchcraft (malefic mystical power) and possession had to do with whether it was handled "obliquely" in cult accommodation or "directly" through exorcism by the dominant religion or utilized in social control (1986:60).

De Heusch's and Lewis's approaches to possession in African religion offer a sketch of the work of a major school of writers who view it as a compensatory effort to come to terms with misfortune, suffering, and evil. There are many reasons why spirit possession might be a dominant hypothesis of difficult experience in Central and Southern Africa. In societies that are acephalous, either today or historically, individuals who claim original knowledge are vulnerable to envy and criticism. Thus, just as such individuals are often code-labeled as witches, in keeping with Lewis's approach, so cultural norms offset this by fostering as the source of all original knowledge and of change the realm of spirits, especially ancestral spirits or shades, the custodians of societal core values.

Other authors have questioned the wider applicability of Lewis's marginality model of possession cults. Linda Giles (1987) has studied the interface of ngoma and Islam on the Swahili coast of Tanzania, where there is a far greater interpenetration of the two than Lewis might allow. In any event, she suggests that not only are ngoma and related rituals practiced by Muslims but the Muslim waganga are often among the most devout adherents of Islam in Swahili society. A feminist scholar of Central African ritual healing, Anita Spring, who has studied ngoma rituals among Luvale women of western Zambia, offers that Lewis and other "marginalist" interpreters of cults of affliction have generally failed to consider the real presence of disease in connection with spirit possession and entrance to an ngoma order. Spring argues that the predominantly male scholars of ritual in Africa have imposed on African experience the nineteenth-century Western view of woman that accounts for women's mystical experience as their failure to cope with social conflicts (Spring 1978, 1985). I return in the next chapter to Spring's important study of the epidemiology of possession in relation to demographic and social profiles.

Whereas the former interpretations of African possession are charac-


terized by their reduction of the phenomenon to social or structural themes, other approaches take the explanation in the direction of psychological theories. Bührman and Gqomfa (1981–82) have studied Xhosa healers in the Transkei of South Africa and are persuaded that the amagqira of the Transkei, whose work in most respects resembles that of the Cape Town therapists presented in chapter 1, can best be explained by Jungian psychotherapeutic models, and that the "sickness" (twasa) that ngoma treats is largely psychopathology, with schizophrenialike symptoms of excessive dreaming (1981). The similarity of dreams and dream therapies, and the songs derived from dreams, to those of other cultural and civilizational settings offer Bührman what she suggests is convincing case material for a Jungian approach (1978).

Another type of psychotherapeutic interpretation is offered by psychologist Ellen Corin of the Western Bantu rite Zebola, reported in chapter 1 as an Equateur Province Zairian rite brought to Kinshasa. Corin relates her understanding of Zebola to the approach of the "Dakar group" working under Henri Collomb, with a generally psychoanalytic orientation. A major concern in African psychotherapy, suggests Corin, is the differentiation of the self within a tight kin setting. This leads frequently to a diagnosis of witchcraft, with the identification of a specific other as the source, such as a mother's brother in a matrilineage, or an uncle in a patrilineage. However, etiologies in African therapies are often presented in a chainlike sequence, such that culturally standardized etiologies such as witchcraft and spirit possession are invoked to explain quite a variety of particular signs and symptoms.

This is the case with Zebola, in which all cases are ultimately explained by possession of the spirit of Zebola, a type of upriver nature spirit. Yet, on studying the sign-symptom sets of particular members of Zebola in Kinshasa, Corin demonstrated that a majority were recommended for recruitment due to transgressions of social rules (28 percent) and interpersonal conflicts (55 percent), whereas witchcraft (8 percent), meeting an evil spirit (2 percent), and direct possession by the Zebola spirit (7 percent) were relatively insignificant immediate causes (1980:150).

Corin's method of relating the individual experience to the culturally standardized cause offers important correctives to the problems of the structural reifiers as well as the psychological reductionist explanations of spirit possession. Corin suggests, first, that there is a loose, accommodating, link between sign-symptom and etiology and, second, that the spirit possession nosology is, as I have suggested throughout this


work, a kind of cultural hypothesis about misfortune (Corin 1980:152; see also Crapanzano and Garrison 1977, whom she cites). The narrow psychopathological interpretation of ngoma offered by Bührman not only seems forced, it does not allow for the "recruitment to leadership" understanding of ngoma that appears in the indigenous model of the amagqira themselves.

Yet other approaches to spirit possession in Africa move away from the sociological and structural perspective entirely on the grounds that this fails to take into consideration the terms of the experience itself. These authors, such as Lambek (1981) and Comaroff (1981, 1986) work with an approach that is generally called "phenomenological" or "hermeneutical." Lambek's work on the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar especially typifies the approach. Rather than presenting spirit possession as a phenomenon to be explained in terms of society or its own cultural structure, this approach presents it as a text that needs to be "read" in its own terms and categories. As Lambek points out, on Mayotte possession is presented in terms of "curing," but it really has little to do with "disease." The spirits, who are for the most part spirits of the dead, are related to as separate, almost human, beings. Interaction with these spirits can be differentiated by distinctive codes of food and gesture exchange, incense, the topics of conversations, and the role of third parties (1981: 11). Although Lambek approaches the question of the "epidemiology of possession "—that is, the frequency of possession and social categories of the possessed, who are mainly women—he rejects any direct sociological inference to their roles as marginal to Islam or to their distinctive role in society. Rather, he insists that possession is a culturally autonomous domain that must be seen in its own terms and its own logic.

Csordas (1988) has recently provided a comparable picture of religious healing in a non-African setting, namely charismatic Christian healing in the United States. However, he goes beyond the mere phenomenological portrayal of healing to attempt to explain the criteria for "efficacy" in its outcome. With penetrating case study comparisons, he has identified the following criteria as important variables in predicting the outcome: the sufferer's prior disposition toward the treatment, whether positive or skeptical; the quality and character of the particular religious experience; the possibility in the mind of the sufferer as to the outcome; the occurrence of personal changes in incremental steps (Csordas 1988:138). Csordas's application of these criteria to charis-


matic Christian healing takes us directly to evidence for ngoma therapy's efficacy as established by healers and sufferers themselves. After reviewing the literature and my own fieldnotes on this point, I am amazed that so little is available. Also, those with personal involvement in ngoma and who are divined to be possessed do not speak with one voice. Still, it is important to discern an indigenous "theory of ngoma" that can be generalized from particular settings to the entire range of manifestations.

Healers' Views Of Ngoma Therapy

Muchona, the Ndembu doctor whom Victor Turner relied on extensively for his understanding of Ndembu ritual, including cults of affliction, is depicted as a veritable sage of esoteric lore of the Southern Savanna. There is not a ritual symbol or a gesture that he cannot interpret. Muchona's knowledge is the principal source of our extensive appreciation of Central African ritual color symbolism, of the choreography of the affliction cults, and of our understanding of the way individuals move through the stages of their therapeutic initiations. However, there are very few passages in the exegetical commentary of Muchona in which we actually hear him developing his own views on how the cults of affliction are supposed to work. Usually he is responding to Turner's questions about the interpretation of particular ritual symbols. The closest we come in Turner's Drums of Affliction to a theory of the system is in appendices in which a number of Ndembu men expound on the character of shades (mukishi ), shadow or reflection (mwevulu ), ghost (musalu ), and a dead person (mufu ), the constituent elements of a person, and how these elements can cause disease in others and need to be dealt with. Success in the hunt, according to one, should prompt the hunter to offer an offering to his ancestral shrine tree and to distribute the meat to others. Failure in the hunt may require one to take white clay (mpemba ) to the same shrine tree to invoke assistance from God through the mediation of the shade. Several others emphasize the serious consequences of dreaming (lota ) about the shades, who are normally invisible. Such a dream, or persistent dreams, will cause sickness and require the dreamer to seek out a doctor (chimbanda ) to help the person drink the appropriate medicine. To have identified one's shade is to have a mystical helper who can come to one's assistance. At other times the shades come in dreams and request beer or food offerings. If one does not satisfy these demands with appro-


priate responses, one will be stricken with disease. Usually a diviner is needed to identify the shade and what must be done about it. Becoming a shade is part of the process of dying and having the body, the ghost (mufu ), separated from the shadow and shade (1968:284–290). In this, the role of the ngoma cult of affliction is to be the organized effort to establish appropriate relationships between individuals and their shades. It is also the organized effort to restore health where disease or misfortune have been interpreted by divination as being caused through dreaming of shades. Obviously much is left to the diviner. It is important to note here that what other writers call "possession" or "trance" behavior is mentioned by Turner with reference to only three of the twenty-three cults of affliction: Ihamba, entailing the extraction of the ancestor's tooth; Kayong'u, in which the mode of affliction is respiratory disorders, and the patient dreams of a deceased diviner relative; and Tukuka, wasting or respiratory troubles, in which the patient dreams of spirits of Europeans and speaks with tongues, simulating European behavior (1968:300–302). Why has Western scholarship emphasized possession so much, when it is only a minor feature of the entire ngoma system, in the sense of trancelike or out-of-consciousness behavior?

Elsewhere, as well, demonstrative possession and trance are either absent in the overall system of shade or spirit involvement or they are one way among others of expressing communication with spirits. Or, possession on the part of mediumistic divining or in ritual therapies is a phenomenon that emerges in the context of ngoma institutions at a particular point in history, or declines similarly in other settings. Each of these possibilities needs to be reviewed to accurately understand what the shades or spirits in ngoma mean and how they are used as active presences in ritual.

The ngoma-related role of shades and spirits where demonstrative possession-trance is altogether absent is illustrated in the Western Cape, and perhaps in Natal, thus among most Xhosa, Mpondo, Zulu, and some Swazi settings. Not only is divination done without paraphernalia, there is no demonstrative trance expression of ukutwasa , the state of being "called" by ancestors.

The second condition, in which demonstrative trance-possession moves into a setting, is illustrated by the "red" takoza-sangoma method of mediumistic divining seen in Swaziland and apparently in regions of Mozambique. Most sources, as well as takoza such as Ida Mabuza, said the appearance of this type of divining is of recent origin, having come


from the Thonga, quite possibly the Vandau to whom De Heusch attributed "authentic shamanism."

In actual divination this meshing of the less demonstrative technique with possession-trance divining takes the form of a hierarchy of modes. Ascending from two to thirty-five emlangeni in price are ranged (1) the basic bone-throw divination, (2) bone throw with expert translation by a mediator between the diviner and client; then, in increasing expense and degrees of power, (3) the client's recourse to mediumistic divination with Swazi water spirits, victims of Swazi wars, and alien spirits. Having presented a Western-style family issue to levels 1 and 2 of this system, and having seen the hierarchy of level 3 in operation, I saw that counseling and problem-solving may go on alongside the more formal divination hierarchy. I have similarly seen various mechanistic methods of divining put aside for counseling and interpretation in Kongo settings. It is apparent, however, that although any mode of knowledge is recognized in this African context, ancestrally sanctioned knowledge often has greater legitimacy.

The third possibility, that of the decline of possession-trance in ngoma, may be illustrated in the Tanzanian context, where ngoma, although associated with groups of spirits, is usually done strictly as a dance and therapeutic technique. A form of routinization and control of the ritual, as well as a hierarchization of the organization of healers who practice a particular ngoma, has apparently contained, or controlled, open manifestation of the spirit.

The analytical thread that runs through all these "transformations of spirit" is that they are part of a worldview or ideology of order and misfortune, of health and disease, in which individual experience is brought together with culturally normative knowledge. It is not an exaggeration to speak of particular spirits as specific paradigms and the realm of spirits as a generalized paradigm.

Ngoma needs to be understood as the institutional form that frequently emerges as Central Africans pick up the pieces of their lives following a common and recurring misfortune. Part of this form has to do with the assumption that misfortunes may originate in the realm of human beings or former human beings and spirits, as understood in the proto-Bantu cognate dòg. The particular combination of causal imputations of misfortune and the social context with which this is dealt with does not rule out combining "empirical" or "practical" knowledge with spirit knowledge. Also, because of the social dangers of exposure of individuals with knowledge to envy and accusation, spirit legitima-


tion is a preferred legitimation of both new problems and new solutions. It in no way substitutes for common-sense knowledge or ad hoc problem solving. It is thus a serious oversimplification to restrict what I call the "spirit hypothesis" to possession and trance.

In several of the rare conversations I held with ngoma therapists in which the "theory" was discussed, emphasis was placed on the sufferer's acceptance of the condition and the calling, as interpreted by the diviner or healer, and upon the relationship between the sufferer's song and spirit. One of these accounts is from Cape Town, the other from Dar es Salaam. These lead us to look for other types of analytical models to understand "how ngoma works" than have been sought so far.

Adelheid Ndika, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking on various occasions about her work, spoke of the importance of understanding the sufferer's dreams. They could indicate the nature of the call, and of the spirits, as well as the appropriateness of the sufferer's choice of a sponsoring healer. The acceptance of the challenge, call, or sickness (uvuma kufa ) was the beginning of recovery. (This is similar to Alcoholics Anonymous rehabilitation, or to Csordas's "predisposition.") Physical symptoms such as headache and nosebleeding, and mental symptoms are often the expression of resistance to the sickness. Ndika was not willing to speak of them as the displeasure of the spirits. Acceptance, rather than exorcism, was the preferred mode in which she and other Cape Town healers approached "spirits."

Medicines in the first stage of the initiatory therapy, suggested Ndika, are usually intended to calm and purify the sufferer, to cleanse the thoughts, and to "drive away the darkness." This medicine, which may contain analgesics and hallucinogens, is usually "white," whether it is a plant-derived liquid (ubulau ) or white chalk (ikota ), because the ancestors are of a "white" disposition. Incense used in the early rites of initiation is intended to gain favor with the ancestors. She stressed the importance of the goat sacrifice in her work, in terms of the disposition of the sufferer and the relationship with others and the ancestors. Her theory of the songs emphasized the formation of a strong self through self-presentation in the ngoma sessions.

However, it was in Dar es Salaam, in conversations with the leaders of the coastal healer's association Shirika la Madawa, that a theory of ngoma in relation to spirits emerged. Song was stressed as central to the ritual. Omari Hassan, Muslim mganga and practitioner of ngoma Msaghiro for sufferers of chronic and severe headache caused by the coastal or beach spirits (sheitani) Maruhani, Subizani, Mzuka, and Kin-


yumakero and also of headaches caused by Warungu "inland" spirits of the hills, baobab trees, or mountains, offered this:

The aim of healing ngomas is to make the patient talk, to heighten emotions. If that fails, you go to the forest for roots, give them medicine. Either way, talking is important. The purpose of the drumming is to know the particular spirit, so it speaks out in the patient, so the healer knows how many, which, where they come from, what it wants. When the patient speaks, it's the spirit [speaking]. Spirit and person are one and the same. After medicine is taken, and ngoma is played, the patient must sing in increasing tempo, the song of the particular spirit. It's thus the patient who directs the healer on the type of treatment.

Isa Hassan, also a Muslim healer and officer of the organization, added that:

The spirits like the music, so they may make themselves manifest, so they may talk [through the sufferer]. A specific type of music is for a specific type of spirit; only this way will each spirit reveal ways of releasing the patient. Once the healer has established the type of spirit before him, in the person, he begins the corresponding type of music. The lyrics are the healer's [or sufferer's] own. It is impossible to give lyrics of a particular ngoma because there is so much improvisation and variation, so much depends on the individual case. How then does an ngoma help a person? The music enchants the sufferer so he can express himself better, and reveal the spirit.

"Accepting the sickness," "confessing dreams," "presenting one's self," "the spirits talking," "sufferer and spirit being the same thing," "patient directing the healer" are some of the expressions that get to the core of ngoma discourse. In terms of the communicative structure of this discourse, we have seen (in the previous chapter) how important is not only the two-way discourse between healer and sufferer but that a third pole, a third party, is also common. This may be the therapy manager of Kongo society, the diviner-assigned assistant who says "I agree," in Swaziland, or the small group in the ngoma session who listen and sing back to the sufferer the song just intoned. Spirit, here, may be considered another type of third party in the discourse, which may or may not be dramatically manifested. In other words, spirit is a manner of speaking, a hypothesis, a format.

Ngoma as Therapeutic Discourse

The analytical theory that seems to be most consonant with this view of ngoma ritual healing may be found in the recent writing of


Tullio Marañhao, Therapeutic Discourse and Socratic Dialogue . Marafihao is interested in finding out what it is about verbal therapy that cures. Is it a "science of the psyche" or a "rhetoric of communications"? To organize his inquiry he selects Freudian psychoanalysis and family therapy as two extreme opposed approaches on a continuum of approaches to language in therapy. The first, with its theories of transference, of condensation, of the subconscious and the libido, finds language as a surface manifestation of deeper psychic and physical forces in the individual. Therapeutic speech is to reveal and correct these forces. Family therapy, by contrast, is far more surface-oriented, with family members talking together, with the therapist's guidance, to reveal and to agree on problems, misunderstandings, contradictions, and approaches to common mutual reinforcement. Yet in family therapy there is a further element that is often blamed for contradictions and faulty relations, namely, the force of power and manipulation. Is it possible to bring the varied therapeutic schools together under one umbrella?

Marañhao (1986) sees the diverging strategies of verbal therapy—exemplified in psychoanalysis and in family therapy—as part of a Western cultural struggle that has gone on for several millennia between two fundamentally opposed approaches to public knowledge: the first, caught up in deep dark secrets of the soul; the second, in a struggle for consensus of knowledge that is out in the open. Socratic discourse, which appeared as Greek society was making the transition from a predominantly oral society to one that depended on writing, provided a method for working out many of the tensions that opposed, or contrasted, the two approaches to language use. Through the use of questions and answers—dialogue—these discourses showed public knowledge, and knowledge of the self, to be elusive, transitory, and bound up in socially embedded relationships.

There are just enough resemblances between African ngoma uses of verbal knowledge in therapy and what Marafihao is saying about Western verbal therapy, that we may disagree with him that this is a uniquely Western struggle. In ngoma there is knowledge of the spirits as found in dreams, above all. In order to identify which spirits are at work—which deep dark demons—it is necessary to "let the sufferer talk" (or sing). When the pattern or the mood becomes apparent, the appropriate drums can respond with appropriate rhythms. Psychoanalysis stops with the revealing. African therapy follows through


with the song-clarification. In family therapy knowledge is brought out through the grid of social relations. In ngoma the grid of discourse, through which knowledge is revealed, is quickly subjected to the test of agreement or disagreement, a kind of Socratic questioning and answering.

These are, then, the approaches to spirit in African and Western religious and therapeutic thought. They are an important point of departure for our understanding of how ngoma works. However, they are not the end of that journey for understanding. We carry some of these perspectives into the next section on symbols and metaphors in ngoma therapeutic discourse. This takes us beyond consciousness.

From Spirit To Song-dance: Articulating Metaphors Of Difficult Experience

Although we have now brought our understanding of ngoma therapeutic technique around to focus squarely on song and dance, which is to say a conscious verbal expression and performance, there is value in retaining something of the psychoanalytic appreciation for the "deep, dark forces" of the soul. Although we have relegated "spirit" to the status of a divinatory or diagnostic hypothesis, or paradigm, we must still try to account for the types of anxieties and perplexities, impasses and "intractable dilemmas," associated with the spirit hypothesis. Ngoma songs, especially the personal songs, make references to personal experiences, as in the songs cited in chapter 4: the "sickness all around in this place" of Mrs. T. in the Transkei; of lack of rain in historic Tanzania; of the pain of segmenting lineages in Kongo society; of the infertility of a close friend of Lambakasa, the Ndembu woman.

There are allusions to the natural universe, the cosmological grounding of images, metaphors, or tropes. The "animal calling me" of Mrs. T's song; the medium horse, Mr. T's Vumani; the sun and the moon taking and giving in the Lemba priest's special song; the whiteness of ancestral resolution in Lambakasa's song; the crab that scuttles back and forth from water to land on the Indian Ocean beach. The images in the Yaka version of the Nkita rite, as related by Devisch (1984), include numerous uses of natural metaphors such as chickens laying eggs and hippos rising from the water.

The manner in which experience is connected with these stock cultural figures has been persuasively explained in the work of such schol-


ars as James Fernandez and Renaat Devisch. Inchoate personal distress and feeling are pulled out, given valence and clarity through association with exterior images.

My favorite example of this process comes from a marvelous Lemba song, which weaves together inner personal images of pain with the path of Lemba opportunity, death of personal frustration with new life, and the allusion to the rising and setting of celestial bodies:

That which was a "stitch" of pain
Has become the path to the priesthood.
It has caused to rise
The sun of Lemba.
My death occurred
In the Lemba Father.
Now there is life in Lemba. (Janzen 1982:118)

The cosmological background knowledge reveals that the celestial bodies of sun and moon cycle endlessly in their courses, and that similarly, individual life may cycle from despair to hope, death to life. These cosmological images are part of a widespread Bantu-African use of threshold metaphors relating personal and social experience to nature, to the invisible forces in nature, especially as conceptualized in water, earth, and sky. The metaphoric operation may relate to the natural categories, as in this Lemba song:

Praise the earth
Praise the sky.

Or it may attach the experience to "movers"[2] within, or more commonly across, these categories, such as, again, the "sun of Lemba":

What Lemba gives, Lemba takes away
What the sun gives, the sun takes away.

Similar are Mr. T's horse medium, which brings him messages, or Lambakasa's "whiteness," which brings her friend fertility from the ancestors, or Mrs. T's "animals," which call her. In ngoma thought, some of these "metaphoric movers" are, of course, spirits, sometimes accepted (adored, in De Heusch's words), other times rejected (exorcised). The process is hardly mechanistic, nor is it fixed as positive or negative in an entire society. The question is, to cite Zairian philosopher Valentine Mudimbe, "how does one read and interpret these procedures as metaphorization?" (1986:280–281) That is, how might one


read the "mythologization of history and the historicization of mythical narratives"?

In Lemba, this process was the effort of individuals, kinfolk, and diviners to interpret the sufferer's intractable situation, that is, to find a metaphor in the stock of culturally ordered ideas to interpret and deal with that situation. Lemba did not force the experience of the Lemba sickness into a single mold. Rather, I suspect that the presiding Lemba father took as his point of departure the dreams, symptoms, complaints, and aspirations of the Lemba son—the patient—and his wives, and worked from there. Accordingly, there are important variations in song versions from the same region and period, suggestive of individualized ritualization. Thus, while the particular individual situation of the patient-novices varied according to their experiences and surroundings, the process of interpreting through the construction of metaphors was common to all.

Metaphor, as seen here, is a verbal or nonverbal—performed—process by which a given set of terms or figures is associated with another set so as to give the first ideational, emotional, or dramatic amplification contained in the second set, or in the combination of both. This process was at the core of the Lemba experience.

The song-dances of the "drum of affliction," which define the existential moment of the sufferer-novice, the psychological state of the sufferer, are aligned with another set of terms that vividly reflect the experience and cast it into a wider frame of reference.

The foregoing examples are relatively straightforward. Others, which are drawn from the vocabulary and prose of Kongo myth cycles, reflect a more grandiose manipulation within culturally standardized material and settings. Although Lemba's association at this level has been noted in every region, and with a series of mythic figures, I illustrate my point with the excellent case of Lemba's use of the Moni-Mambu trickster cycle.

As all who have read an African trickster cycle will know, this African figure plots many surprises and transformations, some with violent, others with socially redemptive outcomes. Many of the trickster's deceitful deeds are based on punning, with ambiguous verbal allusions, or on ambiguous social terms. In the Kongo trickster cycles there comes a time when the people, or their judges, rise up to take the villain trickster to court. At first they are inclined to forgive him because his intentions appeared to have been noble. Later, however, when it becomes


apparent that he has cunningly used cultural ambiguities—contradictions—to mislead and deceive and destroy others, he is regarded as a criminal and a witch. Ultimately he is killed. Thus the standard trickster cycles.

In a cultic setting, as in the trickster who brings Lemba, the trickster turns cultural hero, turning these same ambiguities around, fetching the appropriate medicine with which to resolve the dilemmas and contradictions of those caught in them. In the text presented in the book, much is made of the composition of the satchel in which are found the helpers who will aid Moni-Mambu gain the recognition of his father, God, who ultimately presents the Lemba medicine, just as the Lemba father extends the medicine to his Lemba son.

It would seem, then, that in a cultic setting such as Lemba, or of another ngoma, the consciousness found in lyrics is manipulated so as to create a positive, conjunctive, outcome to those dilemmas which, in noncultic versions, are given a negative, disjunctive portrayal. Or perhaps this manipulation in the interest of a positive narrative outcome is the mark of ruling class consciousness that seeks to contain or override contradictions that beset the society. This would have been a fitting analysis of Lemba performances because its ranks were filled with the mercantile and power elite of the society who sought to gain wealth from the coastal trade and at the same time maintain, through generous ceremonial distributions, the egalitarian ethic in North-Kongo kin-based society. Whatever the case, it is clear that this manipulation within Lemba of standard cultural narratives lends support to the hypothesis of Lemba's concern for social control, of its use of ideology.

Lemba's medicines and nonverbal rituals become important in seeing how "contradictions" were dealt with. I have shown, in detail, that the contradictions or social ambiguities that are edited out of the mundane version of myth for cultic purposes are in nonverbal metaphors associated with medicinal compositions, as in the Lemba medicine box (nkobe ). The contradiction metaphors are allowed to remain in all their antithetical forces, and are transformed and converted, in the Lemba rituals, into social power. In this sense one may speak here of metaphoric healing and transformation, or of the efficacy of ritual healing (see also Devisch 1984:140–148).

This scholarly understanding of metaphor as active agent is appropriate because allusion to spirits is, in the African setting, also a hypothesis, an analytical exercise. The misfortune of Lambakasa's friend is not made significant until it, and the solution, are contex-


tualized with reference to Chihamba. Mrs. T's sadness at the death of her son-in-law and her generally miserable situation are focused in the diviner's encouragement to join an igqira/ngoma singing group in the context of South African apartheid.

We know very little of the actual choreography of these metaphors of difficult experience, sung and danced out—that is, as performance. Ngoma as historical material, with the song text, dialogic though it may be, offers a bias of a cognitive model of ngoma therapeutic ritual. The transformation of the metaphor to a medicinal material level is a very tempting interpretation that shows the "power" or "efficacy" of the rite. However, from watching ngoma sessions in Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, Swaziland, and Cape Town, my overwhelming impression is that the song texts, in order to be effective metaphors of the difficult experience, must be staged in a context of support that permits the full release of emotional pain and tension. This may include the enactment of anger or tension, as with the young woman in Kinshasa who nearly beat her infant child's head on the concrete, or the young man in Cape Town whose pain at having to lead his song was visible in his taut face and body (see plate 12).

These metaphors or tropes, sung, thought, danced, and felt, are of course sometimes identified as the work of the spirits. It is important to emphasize that the outside analysis, just as the internal theory, recognizes that the spirit explanation of misfortune and its denouement is one available option, which comes in a compelling manner to some through dreams—which must be interpreted—and in a less compelling manner to others. Possession thus is an available hypothesis, a culturally learned behavior. Although it may be a major framework within which ngoma knowledge is couched, it is by no means the only one, and it should not be construed as overdetermining the content of ngoma knowledge.

Ngoma And Specialized Knowledge

The "working" of ngoma has been presented here as a format for generating, articulating, and applying knowledge about misfortune. Although spirit possession is often given as a framework for ngoma ideas and is then said to have come through dreams or in divination, at other times the knowledge of ngoma resembles more the working concepts of a profession, or the crafts of a specialized guild. Snake-handling


ngoma of western Tanzania illustrate this type of knowledge. It is loosely and formally associated with possession, but rarely with trance.

The western Tanzanian snake-handling ngoma must come to terms with technical recipes of venom and antidotes, handling snakes, and treating snakebite, as well as with hysteria and fear that accompanies, even in Tanzania, attitudes toward snakes and vipers. Historically, the Sukuma, Nyamwezi, and neighboring societies have had to cope with some of the world's most poisonous vipers and other frightening snakes. The bite of the black mamba, for example, will kill its victim within half an hour. The cobra can spit poisonous venom and blind its victim. Boa constrictors and pythons, which strangle their victims, are formidable creatures too.

The Sukuma approach to dealing with snakes is through ngoma-style dance groups. On one front, there are the societies, dances, and initiations. Carried by the ritual is the scientific knowledge of antidotes and snakelore. The members of the snake-handling ngoma make antidotes with venom "milked" from the viper's fangs and come to the aid of people who find snakes in their houses.

Norbert Chenga, novice of a Sukuma snake-handling ngoma and who works at the Ministry of Culture in Tanzania, related the character of the cultural knowledge of snake handling, although not its technical secrets, which are kept within the ngoma order. First, I was struck with his positive attitude toward snakes. "Tanzania really has quite nice snakes, you know," said Chenga. Second, in speaking about the snakes, he took their viewpoint. The black mamba is very lazy, he said, but has a very good poison. The snakes get acquainted with their trainers and recognize their distinct smell. If you've been good to them they know after a while that you won't harm them, so they can be handled. The snake-handling dance serves to lessen fear of snakes, since during the dance all types of snakes are handled, and in the one I saw, a "volunteer" allowed himself to be bitten.

How does this training and knowledge of snake venom and antidotes relate to the ancestor possession ideology of the ngoma organizational mode in general? We know little about recruitment to the snake-handling ngoma, nor whether recruitment fits the notion of a "call" by ancestors. However, the one account of a historic initiation into a snake-handling ngoma that we possess, namely the Sukuma Buyeye (Cory 1946), shows that the linkage between the experience with snakes and the conceptual order is handled through the juxtaposition, in the initia-


tory lodge, of three legendary cosmic serpents with the three ritual colors: red, white, and black (Cory 1946:165–166).

The songs of ngoma Buyeye, for snake handling, reflect the same fusion of existential concern for the "difficult issue"—here those "quite nice" snakes—the invocation to the ancestors, and a concern for the protection of special knowledge.

You mothers of the ant-hills [the snakes]
with the glaring eyes,
do not hurt us.
We are your children.
Look down, you ancestors of the Buyeye,
Look down at us.
Whoever looks at us with envy,
May they become blind.
Whoever pursues us, the Buyeye,
May die;
May he burst like clouds.

Possession, if this be it, backs up the normative codes that call for legitimation of skilled and esoteric snake-handling knowledge by the ancestors.

Given this integration of multiple modes of knowledge and evidence in a series of ngoma, the prospects for further evolution of the ngoma format, with application to a variety of "difficult issues," is likely. We should not be surprised to find in ngoma the possibility of a shift of legitimating ideologies from one mode of knowledge to another, or of the insertion of new knowledge into old legitimacy.


The efficacy of ngoma ritual therapy is, as we have seen, many-sided. In order to establish criteria for efficacy, we have had to identify some of the types of knowledge that are found at the basis of ngoma. These have been grounded in the different kinds of "difficult personal experiences," which have been interpreted through divination, diagnosis, and other procedures to fit culturally standardized categories and explanations. The "spirit" hypothesis is what brings the individual experience into the orbit of ngoma. However, spirit is not what it appears to be, nor is it equally strong in all expressions. This expression ranges from a mere divinatory hypothesis that may or may not be accepted to a


full-blown trance. This, in turn, may be long lasting and pervasive or fleeting in time and place. The consensual basis of knowledge is important, both in Western and African healing, as Marafihao (1986) has shown. This consensual basis of knowledge provides for a social handle, a social forum, for understanding the deep, dark secrets in the souls of individuals. It provides a framework to deal, publicly, with the things that individuals find fearful, with the ways they would manipulate knowledge—witchcraft, in the Africanist's idiom.

The consensus of knowledge in an ngoma format may also provide the basis for rational or technical understanding of the natural world, for the empirical application of techniques to common problems, as we have seen in the use of antidotes for venomous snakebites.

Song, which provides the format for public scrutiny of these secrets and a forum for remembering, also provides us with text that contains the metaphorization of these experiences into culturally standardized forms. Difficult experience, inchoate feelings, emotions, and hidden meanings are given standardized expression in the songs. If they are representative of the experience of many, they catch on, are sung repeatedly, and become part of the common culture.


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