Academic journal article Africa

The Uniqueness of Nguni Mediumistic Divination in Southern Africa

Academic journal article Africa

The Uniqueness of Nguni Mediumistic Divination in Southern Africa

Article excerpt


Mediumistic divination is unique to the Nguni, as all other Bantu-speakers in southern Africa used a fairly 'objective' divinatory system involving a set of four incised bone tablets, or an assortment of astragals, shells and other objects (or a combination of both). Also, unlike non-Nguni, Nguni diviners were predominantly women. They were called to the profession through a life-transforming, ancestor-sent illness (thwasa) characterised by psychological and physical symptoms. The article discusses the nature, and possible correlates, of these differences. It is argued that the form of Nguni divination is connected with three related aspects of Nguni social arrangements that distinguish them from other southern African Bantu-speakers, namely the presence of strong patriclans, the conceptualisation of the ancestors as a transcendent, undifferentiated collectivity, and the marked subordination of women. In addition, there is evidence of both the borrowing of certain aspects of the San trance dance, as an appropriate expression of female tensions, and, especially among Cape Nguni, of the concept of divinatory animals. This San influence is much less evident among the Zulu. The importance of appreciating the essentially selective nature of cultural borrowing is emphasised.


La divination mediumnique est particuliere aux Nguni, toutes les autres ethnies bantoues d'Afrique australe utilisant un systeme divinatoire "objectif" comprenant un ensemble de quatre tablettes en os grave, ou un assortiment d'astragales, coquilles et autres objets (ou un melange des deux). De meme, contrairement aux non-Nguni, les devins nguni sont principalement des femmes. Elles sont appelees a cette fonction a travers une maladie transmise par les ancetres qui transforme leur existence (thwasa) et se caracterise par des symptomes psychologiques et physiques. L'article traite de la nature, et des correlats possibles, de ces differences. Il affirme que la forme de divination nguni est liee a trois aspects connexes de l'organisation sociale nguni qui les distinguent des autres ethnies bantoues d'Afrique australe, a savoir la presence de patriclans forts, la conceptualisation des ancetres en tant que collectivite transcendante indifferenciee et la subordination marquee des femmes. De plus, l'article denote a la fois l'emprunt de certains aspects de la danse de transe San, en tant qu'expression appropriee des tensions feminines et, notamment chez les Nguni du Cap, le concept d'animaux divinatoires. Cette influence San est bien moins evidente chez les Zoulous. L'article souligne l'importance d'apprecier la nature essentiellement selective de l'emprunt culturel.


A long-standing question in southern African archaeology has been the nature and extent of cultural borrowing from Khoisan (Bushmen and 'Hottentots') by Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists. As archaeological interest in 'contact' situations (rather than in exclusively 'pure' 'industries' and 'cultures') grows, greater clarity is needed as to the nature and extent of what has been, perhaps incorrectly, called 'borrowing'. Improved understanding of such matters is essential--but they must be approached with caution.

Inevitably, recourse must be had to what linguistic, historical and ethnographic evidence there is. This has its pitfalls, especially the use of ethnography. Ethnographic elements, torn from their context, can be misleading; the use of such evidence demands a degree of anthropological background and sophistication. Too frequently there has been uncritical reliance on (especially earlier) anthropological authors who themselves did not appreciate the complexity of the material with which they were confronted, thus leading subsequent scholars to dubious conclusions. Examples of this have included the uncritical use of the concept 'lineage', the inappropriate application of 'class' to the relationship of fathers to their sons, the finding of non-existent 'segmentary lineage systems' among Southern Bantu (Hammond-Tooke, 1985b) and the invoking of 'ethnic' distinctions in inappropriate circumstances (Hammond-Tooke, 2000). …

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