This final blog for the series on sangoma wisdom will discuss "experiencing a divination." The blog will then recommence in September when I return from South Africa
Before throwing the bones, the healer invokes the ancestors by giving snuff, kneeling and clapping, and rattling or chanting a song. Sometimes more than one sangoma is present, and the others will chorus the reading of the diviner by chanting the word siyavuma (we agree) after each interpretation. First, a general reading is given and then specific questions are asked and answered. Each question is answered by a separate throw of all the bones.
Different traditions assign different meanings to the bones or objects and any particular teacher may have her own method which she passes on to the student. A agreement is made among the ancestor, the mentor, and the student during initiation so that there is an understanding of how each bone is assigned. Although there is an intellectual component to divining, the reading is for the most part highly intuitive and the bones act as a way of getting the rational left brain out of the way so that the right brain can do its clairvoyant work. The sangoma’s ego is put on the back burner since it is the ancestor, and not the healer, who is providing the information.
Dave learning divination from his mentor P.H. Mntshali
There is an understanding between the healer and the spirit as to the meaning of the bones and how they line up in relationship to each other. In fact when the bones are thrown, they do not fall in a random pattern but rather in a distinct arrangement which can be read by the sangoma whose training has taught him to diagnose past and present ailments and predict future occurrences with extraordinary accuracy. It seems that a mini-Field of attention, intention, and coherence is set up between the healer, the patient and the ancestors that allows the bones to lie in an intelligent pattern. The metaphor they represent can then be interpreted by the healer.
The reading is usually concerned with what is happening at that moment in the client’s life. Since the healer is reading a metaphor, she may get the wrong image and have to change direction. Divining is like interpreting someone’s dream, and only the "owner" of the dream will know if the meaning rings true. Hence the information is given humbly and democratically. The healer will ask the patient if she agrees and, if so, will continue along the same line of exploration. If the patient disagrees, the healer will read another polarity or look at the same polarity in a different way. Correct interpretation will come with the help of the ancestor, the patient, and with time and experience but it is seldom offered dogmatically. Usually the client is well aware of what is going on in her life. The bones will highlight or focus on a problem that requires attention and that may have been ignored or denied.
I once threw the bones for a relationship. The question from the woman (her partner was not present) was, “Should my boyfriend move in with me, and how does it look for our future together?” “His” bone fell directly on top of “hers,” and the two were balanced perfectly. When I removed “his” and tried to get it to balance again the same way I could not. The meaning was obvious even to her, they were meant to be together. He eventually did move in with her, and they married.
The healer is attentive to the fact that there is always free will and that anything can be changed. Rituals can be offered to the ancestral spirits to remove any black shadows that might be darkening the future of the relationship. Bone readings are usually concerned with helping people deal with their current dilemmas – marital discord, money trouble, and other problems. But the bones also can warn a person not to take an upcoming journey, and they can highlight a past event that has bearing on the present. The future can always change because of free will brought to bear on the present moment. Far-reaching and accurate prophesies therefore are always somewhat suspect since free will is ever-present to shift the variables and alter the future.
If one were to ask a sangoma how dowsing works, she would say that the ancestor or spirit guide was moving the dowsing stick in the direction of water. Similarly, sangomas will sometimes use special devices that “point,” or indicate direction, to help them glean information from the Field.
On another occasion I threw the bones in the Kalahari bush for a Western woman who had told me that there were only two children in her family, she and her sister. When I looked at the bones I noted a butterfly circling. It flew down and alighted on the bone that represented a male child. I asked the woman if there was something about a male child she was not telling me. She volunteered that her father, who had been adopted and had grown up in an orphanage, had wanted to adopt a child in similar circumstances as a way of healing his own past. He had located an adorable little boy and arrangements were underway to bring him into the home when the boy tragically died. This information proved to be pivotal to understanding the family dynamic and how the client had suffered from the event. When I looked down at the bone for a second time I saw the butterfly next to it. It was dead, and in extremis a tiny amount of yellow fluid had extruded from of its anus.
Among Africans, the charismatic sangoma is quite readily believed, and even if they feel she is wrong, her reading will be heard with attention and respect. For Westerners, it is often helpful to have a close friend or relative present when the bones are read. If the bones are very clear about a problem but the patient is in denial that it is so, a friend or relative familiar with the patient can speak up and confirm the truth of the reading.
It seems obvious that a sangoma’s reading of the bones might confuse a Westerner because of their vastly dissimilar cultural experiences. One example of an American woman was intriguing. The sangoma, who was known to be very skilled threw the bones and told her that unless she left her house she could die. He also suggested that it could be remedied if it was burnt down failing to understand that it was not just an adobe hut. She became quite disturbed by this prospect and asked me for a second opinion. My bones confirmed what the sangoma had seen in his display—that in the African context, her house was bewitched. It turned out that both she and her daughter as well as her daughter’s friends all thought that the house was haunted. In the West, the remedy would have been to exorcise the ghost. In the context of rural African custom it may have been safer to leave one’s hut, move away, and build another for fear of witchcraft or an intrusion. The bones should be interpreted in the context of the recipient’s culture. In order for the Western mind to make sense of the reading, there may have to be several layers of translation, first from the African language into English and sometimes from the direct English interpretation into a more culturally appropriate English that makes sense to the patient.
It’s an interesting reversal that, as more and more blacks in South Africa are drawn to a Western way of life, more and more whites are seeking out the wisdom of ancient Africa. Sangomas are ubiquitous in South Africa, and they continue to play a pivotal role in the health and wholeness of the post Apartheid South Africa.
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4.) Distant Healing, Noetic Science Review, no.49, August to November 1999: Targ Elizabeth.
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4.) Africa in My Bones; A Surgeon's Odyssey into the spirit world of African healing.
David Cumes M.D. New Africa Book Cape Town 2004.
5.) Norman Don, Gilda Moura. Trance Surgery in Brazil. Alternative Therapies, July 2000 Vol 6, No 4, 39.