UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG

The Function of Diviners

Misfortune, in all its more serious forms, was believed by the Southern Bantu speaking people of Southern Africa to be caused either by ancestral wrath, witchcraft or pollution and it was the diviner s function to uncover the exact cause and prescribe the appropriate actions to be taken (Hammond-Tooke 1998). However some forms of misfortune were believed to have natural causes i.e., to result from environmental factors (Ngubane 1977).

Hunter (1936) describes how the Pondo (Xhosa) have two classes of doctors the amagqira or diviner and the amaxhwele or herbalist but the term inyanga or doctor is used to refer to both healers. Their distinction is based on a difference in initiation rather than in function, for their functions overlap" (Hunter 1936:320). I have observed how diviners interchange these roles by fulfilling the role of doctor by diagnosing common illnesses, selling and dispensing remedies for medical complaints, while also divining the cause and providing solutions to spiritually or socially centred complaints. This blurring of roles is further supported by the Zulu diviner or Iisangoma which means "the drumming one" (Bryant 1966:13), also having the title of inyanga yokubhula, or the doctor that divines.

Diviners are often utilised when western medicine fails to provide a cure, when misfortune (often seen as having spiritual/magical causation) arises, or where health and fortune are to be maintained (prophylactic treatments e.g., the use of tonifying or protection muti).

Divination being one of the techniques the diviner uses to heal, usually functions as a treatment for social problems (Hirst, pers.comm.). I agree with this. An interesting hypothesis that could explain the function of divination is suggested by Andre Croucamp (Colloquium paper: Divination: Superstition or Technology). He states that "Divination is a technology that is used to deliberately initiate a process of accessing and collecting information, through the use of randomly arranged symbols and then, using the brain s capacity for analogical thinking, making associations that are ordinarily in accessible. Divination appears to be used to access what I would describe as the greater transpersonal field of information to gain healing knowledge

Many tribal societies consider illness and disease to stem from spiritual disharmonies (Schultes and Hofmann 1992). The Bantu-speakers belief in the ancestral spirits power to heal or afflict, has a powerful placebo effect that the diviner utilises to heal. This is supported by the often-made statement by diviners that "one must believe in the medicines and the ancestors for them to work." Generally speaking, it appears that cross-culturally, people find healing in religion and spirituality.

The diviner s forte is that of being an operator of various forces governing human life. By using, myth, spirituality, psychology and drama the diviner can sometimes provide a cure. Hirst (1990) sees the diviner functioning as a bricoleur, which is a Jack-of-all-trades. "The diviner is certainly an entrepreneur who not only works with his hands but renders various services in return for cash." Hirst (1990: 156). He goes on to say that, "the diviner combines aspects of the healer, the social psychologist, priest and the social worker?" Hirst (1990:157).


Women diviner performing a healing session.
Copyright Professor K.T. van Warmelo and Mrs Y. Iglauer

According to Hirst, the traditional healing ethic is to take action, to do something in the face of illness, practical solutions need to be activated for healing to occur. As is typical of traditional healers elsewhere, the isangoma perform healing of psychological illnesses masquerading as somatic disorders. Diviners make common use of ritual, that has a powerful healing effect, primarily owing to its placebo effect. Ritual allows for orderly behaviour in times of crisis. It converts the unknown into the known and controllable, and is a socially/culturally sanctioned way of exposing social stresses and problems in social relations which are often symbolised as illness in non-western societies. Healers can recreate the family through rituals and, by resolving social conflicts, they can foster group and community cohesion. For the ill, this often means reintegration into society (Hirst, pers. comm.). The tendency is for medical doctors to treat the medical or metonymical aspects of a disorder and the diviners its metaphorical aspects (Hirst 1990:99).

It is not in the diviner s interests to unsuccessfully treat patients, because a healer s status and proficiency relies much on word of mouth advertising. Malpractice claims can spread fast among the healer/patient networks and can weed-out charlatans. However "diviners are not all of apiece and their skill and ability in treating various afflictions differs widely" (Hirst 1990:72).

Traditional healers can accommodate different belief systems into their healing art, and thus have a syncretic approach to healing. They are therefore flexible in their methods of healing. They may agree with esoteric approaches or even a psychotherapeutic approach if necessary, and may make referrals to any number of different health care alternatives.

Diviners are by and large holistic healers who have the special ability to see deep into the human condition and a mystical connection with greater knowing. Diviners use this revelatory connection to guide people to live healthier and happier lives.