Why are African traditional medicine and divination items displayed together at markets in urban areas?

Why are African traditional medicine and divination items displayed together at markets in urban areas?

In Johannesburg, these are large sprawling affairs with premises extending over 200 meters. Durbans’ muti market has 700- 900 000 traders annually. All sell a plethora of dried animal parts and plants, catering to the needs of local communities, townships and the immigrants from the rest of Africa.

The trade in traditional medicine is a highly complex and under researched field.  A multi- million dollar industry, it forms a substantial part of the health sector. Statistics indicate that growth is dynamic across the population with 60- 80 % of the South Africans using some or other form of traditional medicine several times a year.Logically as the cost of hospitalization and pharmaceuticals increases, more people will inevitably utilize African traditional medicine as a cost effective substitute. 

There are 250 000 registered traditional healers in the country and the knowledge of using plants for medicine/muti is an ancient culturally based practice.  At these markets, all fauna and flora is collected in the countryside and travels considerable distance to these points of sale. These incredible bazaars serve as tentacles, tying the healing industry together.

The dichotomy is that today collection practices raise ecological questions, blurring the boundaries of what poaching is. South Africa’s economic downturn means self-employment is a necessity and the unmonitored sourcing of diverse endangered species, and over four thousand varieties of plants, plucked from rural areas, by anyone with a small spade, unfortunately defeats conservation efforts and concepts of sustainability.  

This table display is the intersecting node between the end of one journey as a commoditised object, and the beginning of another, as part of a remedy or divination set.

Divination is an age-old consultative practice performed all over Africa, in one or another form and is still used to dispel the insecurities and verisimilitudes of modern life.   It is a way to gain insight into a question or situation and re- interpret present problems by standardized ritual processes. This technology is compatible with African traditional medicine and healing processes, as it discerns health related and holistic issues and these services are central to the lives of local communities.

The use of divination and Indigenous medicine for healing, form part of an esoteric body of knowledge known as Ngoma. The objective of ngoma practice, here, is to transition patients through cleansing, catharsis and change, to a state of healing.  They do this through various rituals, therapy, medicaments, changing behaviours and movement.

(Western-style medicine doesn’t work for those needing ngoma).

Ngoma is a creative construct that is complex, nuanced, that grounds identity and is dependent upon the integrity of leaders in the field. Rooted in oral history, it is both philosophical and practical in implementation, being sufficiently fluid to lend itself to change and interpretation. So the techniques and associated methodology are prone to regional and ethnic difference and innovation over time.

Ngoma knowledge systems comprise groups of artistic activities inherently bound together. The most salient of these include:  ritual drumming, dance (with or without prophecy), divination, trance, spirit possession, prophetic singing or dreaming, working with herbs, trading medicine, holding of oral history and myth,  clairvoyance, clairaudience, making beadwork, costume and architecture and mastering systems of therapy, holistic treatment and healing.

To an audience, they appear as sensory, rich, vibrant happenings.

Diviner with necklaces made from horns and lions teeth, early 1900s.

In Southern Africa, divination is a skill taught as a requirements for becoming a traditional healer or sangoma. (an exponent of ngoma).

(Nyangas are also healers making medicine, but in my research amongst the Swazi and Shangaan people, sangomas often performed both functions).

Sangoma are recruited to their occupation through infirmity or suffering, caused by ancestors over extended periods of time, sometimes years. The physical and emotional torment is really the means to counter all resistance to this vocation and acceptance is the key, to unlock change.

But the calling requires an accurate diagnosis, by a specialist in the field. This is ascertained by using divination.

An initiate, with medicinal necklaces and skeins of white beads. Early 1900.

Accepting their calling and becoming initiates, they lodge with an existing sangoma/teacher, of their choice called a (gobela) to learn the trade.    They use the teachers divination set to practice with and learn the items significance, multiple meanings and possibilities in time and space.

Initiates learning to read the bones

During their stay, the initiate fulfils numerous practices associated with divination and the relationship to their ancestors is established and entrenched. Often the ancestral spirit dealing with divination is separate from those dealing with other functions.  (This may be a nature spirit).

The initiates’ training as a sangoma occurs over several years, a necessary time to heal, rest, process information, learn about herbs, sublimate the ego, undergo graduation (ukuthwasa) and offer sacrifice. Basically, this process operates on the premise that one has to heal (oneself) to be a healer. (Understandably, a different timeframe for each initiate) depending on circumstance.  Because ngoma processes are interlinked, the readiness of an initiate to graduate, besides mastering all skills, is usually discerned through movement and the body. Through the ability to loose oneself in dance and enter a flow, or altered state, easily discerned by an audience.  

The initiates’ relationship with their teacher extends throughout their lifetime returning for guidance, updates and future courses over time. Like all professions, some initiates, after graduation, drift off, to do other things. Those successful in the communities researched, had a high degree of visual aptitude and invested in aesthetic considerations:  They recognise the importance of developing visual language in themselves and their initiates as a way of honouring ancestors and cementing their relationship with them. They exhibit clear understandings of balance, proportion, harmony and colour, making beautiful things that are beaded, carved, painted or constructed (like altars).

They also use visual intelligence in another way, as an inherent part of therapy.  As visionaries they guide memorable interpretations and richly embodied meanings for clients to see themselves holistically, in their world thereby assisting recovery.

Male or female diviners, as intermediaries with the spirit world, (generically called the ancestors) are recognised experts, consulted by clients for authentic answers, originating from common belief systems. (But divination also works for those from other belief systems, requiring further research). Accessing information as mediums by channelling and transitioning spiritual worlds in this way, can also be perceived by the diviner as a liminal experience.

The ability to transition liminal states is a predominant theme in ngoma, pervading all methodology, The liminal is a realm of ambiguity, a schism, of between states, or of several states, of not quite knowing, where creative possibility exists and transformation happens in time, space and place. For an audience, this is visually evident as initiates mark the body with changes of coloured cloth or oxide application to the hair – For them, it is the time between recognising the wound and living the healing.  

The adepts’ ability to control or effortlessly straddle indeterminate states and transition them with confidence is crucial to their work.

The conceptual geography underlying ngoma is configured into regions or domains. Concurrently, dichotomies exist, opposing each other, creating tension and possibility. For example: Land vs sea,or forests vs grassland.  All of these areas have intersecting borders or schisms between and these thresholds can be liminal spaces needing to be traversed, harmonized and controlled by the specialist. Therefore sympathetically, creatures able to navigate different realms, like reptiles and water monitors, that live underground, on land and in water, are important symbolic animals to healers.

Categorization further divides regions of the wild from the domestic arena. Geographic locations, types of plants and animal habits, also encompass these concepts.   Therefore of necessity, urban markets for traditional medicine, display and sell a plethora of items and organic matter originating from all corners and types of geographic terrain.  So, when seen within this context, medicine, adornment  and divination pieces cannot be separated and are interchangeably crafted,  from these many cross-referenced domains, thereby enhancing mans’ possibility for health, balance and knowledge of how to negotiate life circumstances. 

But the shifting definition of medicine here, encompasses a greater framework than herbal remedies as it is layered by archives of inherited cultural meanings. Because of human exposure to situations of stress, conflict or infringement of ritual/social laws or contamination from death and defilement, people sometimes require functionally more from umuti.  Regular ritual cleansing may be the first step, but medicine also needs to prevent fear, bolster courage and offer different types of self-protection.

Wirework covered calabashes for muti kept indoors on altars.

Stronger or more effective medicine is made when similar or associated components from diverse domains (vegetable, animal and domestic domains) are mixed together. The natural worlds defence mechanisms like claws, teeth, horns, poisons, can be harnessed for man’s use and made to fortify and protect one against malign states, witchcraft and infertility.

Muti can be administered in many ways:  It can be ground for ingestion with liquid, suspended in solutions for cleansing, rubbed into cicatrices, poured as libations, anointed on gateposts, bound and kept at home, hand held, or worn on vulnerable parts of the body as protection.

Besides studying the healing properties of plants, those trading in African indigenous medicine are well versed in the subtlety and nuance of allegory and efficient components are often revealed to the maker through dreams or clairvoyance.

African traditional medicine has layered meanings, sympathetic connotations, and significance including time, space and states. Visual relevance is a contributing factor:  The colour and temperature of things, impacts medicine choice, production and ritual process. Similarly, moral attributes are ascribed to colour, temperature, and psychological conditions, for example: Coolness and calm is healthy, light and good.  Anger, agitation and heat is dark, symptomatic of disease and requires cleansing.

These methods differ from ontological and epistemological practice in Western medicine.

Market pieces are arranged monochromatically into stripes of brown, white and black colour for conceptual reasons and identification.  But it goes deeper than this. Dots, markings and colour on wild animal pelts, feathers and bones of particular animals often reflect that on the surface of shells, thereby linking different domains together by association and these become valid items to be used for divination and medicaments. In the same vein, their relevance is enhanced as they are reminiscent of patterns seen during the inception of trance like states.

These dots merge with the domestic domain, found on manufactured pieces, like dice and dominoes, used in games of chance and they are added to divination sets.  On the reverse side of wooden dominoes dating from the 1950s and 1960s (in South Africa) is the image of a lion in profile. (The properties of lions are alluded to in divination and traditional healing and the iconography is depicted on the cloths used for healers clothing). This lion image may be another historic factor or relevant visual ”layer” of why dominoes were originally included in divination sets.

Although scrying (the act of gazing into a reflective bowl of water and reading the images or seeds thereupon), is performed in Malawi and amongst some Venda people, divination is generally performed in South Africa, mainly with collections of: ” bones”, goat astragalus( knucklebones). These embody the domestic domain.  Other (wild) bones, seeds, shells and miscellaneous found objects are added to the astragalus for a wider representation of life.  These “bones” are all confined and carried in a small bag sometimes worn strapped across the body or hung on the wall of a ritual space. 

A set of divination bones

For millennia, across the world, in many diverse cultures, astragalus bones (from various animals) were associated with conduct considered creative and playful or sacred and divinatory.  For example amongst Siberian pastoralists astragalus are used for magical and fertility purposes. They were used by some American First Nations people for divination.  The Arabs, Babylonians, Indians, Turks and Persians used them as dice in games.  A silver coin from Tarsus Cilicae, In the 4th century. B.C, depicted a young woman handling these bones for divination.

The advantages of being used as dice or divination pieces are that astragalus have four distinct sides, are a suitable size and shape for the hand, and they roll easily.

In ancient times, goat astragalus bones and cowrie shells, (cypraea moneta), were used as legal tender in Africa and the Mediterranean.

“…Cowries were one of the major forms of currency across West Africa, from the Niger Delta to the empires of the Sahel and were used from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They were brought from the Maldive Islands on the dhow routes to East Africa, as well as through the caravan trade across the Sahara, before the Portuguese began to bring them by sea around the Cape of Good Hope in the sixteenth century..”  T. Green.  2020:17

Green further states, the importance of considering that “…hoarding trade goods created a different economic dynamic in which [the relationship between] economic accumulation and religious power were inextricable”.

Over time, these items came to denote religious value, wealth and fertility as they were included in dowries and worn as body adornment.  Through multiple significance, they found their way into divination sets.

The ”ndoro” was also legal tender.  The term ndoro applies to a slice cut from the helix-shaped back of the conus shell.  One of the most poisonous molluscs, the shell, significant of this, is also worn as protective ritual jewellery and used in divination. So sought after is this item to healers that today facsimiles made from ceramic with a white glaze are offered for sale in trading stores, in South Africa, making them affordable for initiates.

Divination in Madagascar, early 1900s.

Because of its links to diverse cultures and influences, it is challenging to fathom the derivation of South African divination, but oral history proposes that it originated with the Nguni tribes descent into Southern Africa from the great lakes region. Evidence may suggest this is accurate as the same divination structures exists today in most Nguni related tribes, with the exception of some Xhosa groups who only use clairvoyance.

woven bags made with a similar technique as the ones in the Madagascar picture above.

When divination is conducted here, it is often in an environment of established ritual practice.   This is an experience full of colour, interaction and metaphor, performed with the accompaniment of snuff and smoke from mphepu, a relaxant.  The action of divination unfolds as follows:

The diviner sits opposite the client with the mat between them. The collection of bones (tinholo) comprise some bones that replicate social life, representing characters paired into gendered counterparts. Others, that represent ideas, situations or things. The tinholo are intentioned with a question, or situation and the client’s breath is blown onto them.  The diviner then throws them with a gesture, onto a grass or plastic mat, where they fall in disarray according to spiritual intervention.  At this point, bones are not touched by hand, but a carved stick, horn or other pointer is used to indicate their relevance to clients.

Directionality, (evident in most ngoma practices), is important, establishing the conveyed message. This means, that what and who each piece represents and the side they fall on, their direction, configuration and immediate relationship to the main piece (signifying the client) and others, what they touch or overlap, leads proceedings. The diviner’s explanation of the bones provides multiple points of view and insight into complex changing relationships in the workplace.

Dialogue is engaged using a call and response technique and issues are picked apart and reconciled. Divination is part of the holistic treatment of the client suggesting how to cleanse the individual and how to rebalance and reintegrate them socially in family, community and wider world.

In this way divination is a verb, an action linking client to ancestors, via the bones and the interpretation of the healer.  This “revelation” is colloquially termed  ”Gods television”.

Historical divination sets from the 19/20th century, could have comprised ivory pieces or astragalus bones, nuts and cowrie shells. Today this differs.

After graduation, initiates choose and compile their own set of pieces with some items prescribed by indigenous practice and some holding specific meaning for them. This means that although divination processes are standardized, the actual symbolism and form of pieces is subject to change from area to area and over time, so no two sets are alike.  Pieces can be additionally empowered by shaping or notching pieces, with red iron oxide or beads or can be specifically marked by bits of coloured telephone wire, as prescribed by spirit.

Astragalus bones marked with pieces of telephone wire

Now, a theoretical set might include the following: various cowrie shells of different size. A ndoro ( conus shell slice) goat astragalus, gazelle astragalus,  bones from a hyena, crocodile, lion, a piece of tortoise shell, coins,  dominoes, dice, a red stone (bauxite), seeds, nuts, a key and small plastic items.

Initiates often start out as itinerant practitioners carrying their divination bag, mat and implements to the homes of clients. This changes when they become established in their profession at chosen locations and are able to create the relevant ritual spaces.

Divination is an ancient and fascinating art, inextricably tied to human behaviour, with many parallels in todays complex technological processess…but thats another story..

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© 4/3/2020


Green.T. A fistful of shells- West Africa from the rise of the slave trade to the age of revolution. 2020. Penguin. Random House UK.

Henry C. Koerper and Nancy Whitney-Desautels. “Astragalus bones: Artifact or ecofact”.  P cas.org vol1 35N 23/3523koerper.pdf.  Accessed: 21/01/2020.

Holgren.R. “Money on the hoof- The astragalus bone, religion, gaming and primitive money”. Pecus. Man and animal in antiquity – proceedings of conference at Swedish institute in Rome, Sep 9/12/2002. Accessed: 21/01/2020.

Simmons. F. 2010. Unpublished document: M.Tech Fine art. University of Johannesburg.. 1/07/08. Sangoma style. Photographic exhibition at African art centre, Durban. also current research.

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