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5 How Ngoma Works Of Codes and Consciousness
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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.

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