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1 Settings and Samples in African Cults of Affliction
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Ukufemba: Divination By Mediumship

We had been told that in Mabuza's school, divination by mediumship (ukufemba ) was held about every other day. The exact timing, however, depended on the spirits. One evening we arrived at Betani unannounced at about five o'clock. The resident novices were eating and drinking in front of Mabuza's house. One of them came to us and welcomed us and spoke with us, and another brought us a well-sifted container of beer. Another male novice came with a similar bucket of medicine (ubulau ) to an area before the seance house, and the entire group of about twenty novices gathered around him and the ubulau. He raised the froth with his stirring stick, then knelt over to take some with his mouth, spitting it out in the four cardinal directions as if forming a cosmogram. The others did the same one by one as the leader sang. Then they knelt in a circle and prayed.

We continued speaking with the novice who had come to us earlier. She spoke about her health (her sore foot, bilharzia) and health education, about age (our graying hair, her impression of our youthfulness), about doctoral degrees, including her sister's. A child walked by carrying a shirt on its head. She observed that when a child holds something on its head in that way, "someone will soon come." We had no idea what she was talking about. Suddenly one of the young takoza bellowed out from the seance house in the now familiar sound of spirit trance.[2] "There you are," said our companion, "the amadloti [ancestors] have


come." Others moved to the seance house and began drumming almost immediately. We were invited to sit down on a mat with them. Several of the male novices were grunting and spluttering and crying out, possessed, we were told, by the Benguni spirits of the victims of Swazi wars. Presently, to drumming-singing of six tigomene , four of the men who had donned white waist cloths and patterned loincloths over their other loincloths, began to rush in and out of the door. In the minutes that followed these Benguni-possessed men went through a threefold routine: (1) initial trance met by drum-song response; (2) suddenly rushing out and disappearing (to present themselves, we were told, to "him," i.e., Mabuza), then returning to greet those present. A definite call-and-response pattern was apparent here; the drumming-singing occurred only while the possessed entered the room.

When this was finished, four women followed suit in approximately the same way, also possessed with Benguni. Several other persons danced, including some very agile boys and girls, who apparently were not possessed. Each of the classes of spirits—the amadloti , Benguni, Manzawe, and Nzunzu—is said to have its distinctive dances and songs, although I could barely discern them. The drum rhythm was a heavy regular beat on six drums; the dance was a heavy pounding step a little like that of Cape Xhosa amagqira healers, only faster and more vibrant, interspersed with leaping jumps.

At the very close there entered a "senior" graduate sangoma-takoza, the woman who had done the pengula divinations. She was dressed in her full set of beads and carried her beaded baton and cow's tail whisk. She held a stick under one armpit and a knobkerrie under the other. Then the session was over and the group moved outside to go through a seance with Manzawe spirits. We left.

The next afternoon we drove to Mabuza's place again to seek a better understanding of the relationship between individualized pengula bone-throwing and the collective mediumistic ukufemba approach. The case we would see treated was that of a small child, several months old, who had been sickly and weak. Mother and grandmother were present with the child and all necessary diaper bags, aprons, clothing, even a bottle of diaper softener. They had taken the child to the hospital, as well as to an African independent Christian faith healer, but it was still sick and weak. They had come to determine what was causing its affliction, since hospital medicine in their eyes had failed.

Another case came to our attention after the femba session began. A young woman, a university student, offered to translate the proceed-


ings for us. She had had a nervous breakdown shortly after the term began. The hospital doctors had diagnosed her persistent headache, nosebleeding, vomiting, and nausea as due to "nerves" and "heart failure," although a further consultation with another doctor had revealed "nothing wrong." She came to Mabuza feeling miserable. After divination and treatment in residence she began to feel much better, saying she was now fine, although she continued staying at the center.

The sick infant was the final case of the evening, after several cases that kept them busy until about eight o'clock. Then the floor was covered with matting and the drums were brought in from the courtyard where they had been tightening in the sunlight. Children came in and sat down along the wall opposite the door. A pressure lamp had been brought in to illuminate the room. While another femba session was continuing in the other house, the mother, infant, and grandmother entered with their baggage and sat down. A young male takoza from Mozambique brought in the straw basket of medicines with which he would femba the case (fig. 5). Although the book definition of femba is that of trance or possession to identify the spirit cause of an illness, the beginning process here seemed more like positive medicine to prepare the patient.

At first the infant was held on the grandmother's lap; the mother sat aside against the wall, looking on. The diviner-healer began by kneeling before the basket of medicines. While praying, he took off his body beads and donned another set of necklace beads; he donned a new cloth and over all this put on a waistband of six cowrie shells, as well as a headband of two rows of cowrie shells. Then he took several small medicine containers out of the basket. From one he took a grease or ointment and rubbed his face with it. Nearby he had a pottery shard with coals of fire through which he passed some of the medicine. Then he washed his face in a bowl of water. Throughout the next stages he regularly partook of a snufflike substance that may have been hallucinogenic.

The diviner-healer then went to stand before the grandmother, his back to the door. He gestured with his hands to the child, then at one point rubbed medicine on various parts of the child's body soles of the feet, top of the head, temples, chest and back, wrists and ankles. He pulled the child's limbs out taut. He repeated some of this for the grandmother. Throughout this segment of the session a young female assistant brought him the ointment and helped him take the snuff substance. Then he seemed to go into a semitrance and gave the following expla-


Figure 5. 
The arrangement of participants in the ukufemba divination ses-
sion at Betani, described in text. Left diagram: (a) participants including
novices, family, and guests; (b) active trance performers, who enter and
leave as spirits; (c) tigomene (drums) in performance. Right diagram, in
same space: (d) healer kneeling before medicines during case of sick child;
(e) grandmother with grandchild; (f) mother of child.

nation of the causes of the illness, as translated to us by an English-speaking patient.

The first cause was put in the form of an exegesis of family history. The family cattle had strayed onto the fields of others, and those others had taken revenge on the child. Vengeful ancestors were working through living persons, who were trying to hurt the child and its mother. The falsetto voice in which the medium spoke, possessed by the spirit, was said to impersonate the one who was behind the injurious work. The clients would know from the sound of the voice who it was; the person could not be mentioned by name. A further cause was the vengeance of a war victim killed by a family member. Third, there was the matter of the unmarried mother and displeasure by spirits over this. The vengeful forces had already stolen the child's "soul," and unless the forces were neutralized the child would soon die. There followed the blessing of the child's effects, first piece by piece, then a whole bag full, and finally the bottle of diaper softener. The child was now moved to the mother's lap, and was given some emetic fluid to drink, as well as a bit of the snuff in its nose. At one point there was also a brief exorcism near the door, with the comment that the spirits were not all will-


ing to leave but wanted to hide in the room. Then for a while there seemed to be a calm.

A Manzawe spirit struck in the back corner of the room with a powerful cry through another young medium, who rushed up to where the mother was seated with the child. Several other novices and observers took drums in hand and quickly provided rhythmic accompaniment to the spirit's song. This was a "white" Manzawe, evidenced by the possessed medium's controlled gesture of donning a white cloth from the wooden cross beam above him, where all the cloths were draped.

After dancing about for a while in his characteristic manner, this "spirit" went out and came in several times. Then he came before the mother of the sick child and harangued her for several minutes, in a heavy, intense voice, about her case: She had sought help in vain from other places, including the hospital and "church"; she was the victim of dissatisfied spirits because of the family affair and the cattle; there was a victim of the family's involvement in past wars. He appeared to repeat some of the earlier findings. Perspiration poured down his face and body; it was a most impressive effort, for which another two or five emlangeni note was produced. Then this white Manzawe spirit left the room and the medium returned, composed.

Several other male diviners took up the work, donning this time red cloths over their shoulders. These were again Manzawe spirits, more bizarre and strange than the earlier ones. They voiced very strange, incomprehensible, animallike grunts. Their "dance" was as odd as their appearance; they "stood" on all fours before the door, tossing their heads about wildly, their long red clay dreadlocks thrown this way and that. These spirits left as they had come, through the open door. Each time a spirit-medium would enter the door, the drumming would begin anew; each time it left, there would be silence. Someone said the drumming was needed to "bring out the spirit."

Finally, the two mediums who had performed the "red" and the "white" Manzawe moved on to host Nzunzu spirits of those who had drowned. This time they danced upright, but their voices were so strange that our interpreter said, "if you don't know the words of the spirits you can't understand this." After a time the drumming came to an end, and all present dispersed.

I found interesting the decreasing involvement of the mediums with the case at hand, as if the latter spirits made their appearance simply to articulate their niches in the spirit cosmology. It was a kind of


"gloria" to the farthest-out spirit world. At an earlier point, the first Manzawe spirits had done battle with the lingering evil forces around the child. The final spirits proclaimed an uncontested victory over them.

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