Divination's Grasp: African Encounters with the Almost Said

Divination's Grasp: African Encounters with the Almost Said

Divination's Grasp: African Encounters with the Almost Said

Divination's Grasp: African Encounters with the Almost Said


Richard Werbner takes readers on a journey though contemporary charismatic wisdom divination in southern Africa. Beginning with the silent language of the divinatory lots, Werbner deciphers the everyday, metaphorical, and poetic language that is used to reveal their meaning. Through Werbner's skillful interpretations of the language of divination, a picture of Tswapong moral imagination is revealed. Concerns about dignity and personal illumination, witchcraft, pollution, the anger of dead ancestors, as well as the nature of life, truth, cosmic harmony, being, and becoming emerge in this charged African setting.


The rhino is standing in the sun,” runs the praise poetry in Botswana for the Tswapong divinatory tablets. “His shade is his ears. He flaps over those dwelling beneath.” As with that powerful being the rhino, so too with the ancestors, who provide the canopy. If you dwell in their shade, you are blessed and protected; your “shadowiness” is actually cast by them for you. Abandoning them leaves one bereft of powerful dignity, shunned by the dead and so shunned by the living, diviners argue.

In agreement with that, Tswapong insist that “shadowiness” or “shade” is innate. It is a mysterious gift of creation at birth; indeed, it is a blessing from one’s parents. What the person’s creators give, they can, as spirits or divinities of the dead, take away, so that the person is left in sefifi, “occult darkness,” without “shadowiness” cast upon him.

The area of disagreement among Tswapong lies in their views of how far, if at all, “shadowiness” can be deliberately remade to measure. They disagree about how, if at all, it can be generated or regenerated by the subject himself or others using magic or some powerful means of his choice. Doubt and skepticism are rife when it comes to a magical claim that anyone can not only tell but also provide the needed means for “shadowiness,” such as through the use of a diviner’s lamp or powerful herbs.

Nevertheless, in a great deal of ritual, including Christian services with candles, Tswapong seek to deal with the play of light and dark in their lives. This is the main reason diviners give for divining in the early morning or very late afternoon but never at midday. in midday, only one tablet among the lots, known as the Senior Woman, speaks; being Thwagadima, Lightning, she is in her element in the heat of the day. “The other tablets won’t speak in midday, they want shade, and the whole country goes according to shade,” the diviner Moatlhodi, my mentor, told me. What Tswapong hope for, above all, is the blessing and good fortune they associate with suitable illumination in the presence of good shade (figure I.1).

Tswapong have a popular, taken-for-granted theory of existence and intersubjectivity, which informs everyday life, and not only divination. This theory . . .

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