26 October 2013

The 'exposed being' and the 'augmented self': Apotropaic magic and the sangoma's patient in the southern African healer's practice

‘Exposed being’, and the
‘augmented self’:
Apotropaic magic and the sangoma’s patient in the southern African healer’s practice

The following is a brief presentation of a work-in-progress of the above title.  This is to be presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, "MOBILITY, MIGRATION AND FLOWS, November 21-24, 2013, at the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront Hotel, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.  

I propose here the term ‘exposed being’ as a label for a regionally specific concept of the person in southern African understandings of illness and disease. The ‘exposed being’— an existential condition of personhood—is vulnerable unless protected from illness, witchcraft, and misfortune. Under this concept, all persons are well unless protection fails. Person-like agents cause illness, but not all agents of this sort are human, and not all are tangible; thus, their agency can be given a ‘social’ account in all cases. By contrast, most current theory focuses on the agency of witches as ‘social causes’ of illness. . My argument seeks to go beyond ‘social causes of illness’ paradigm. This helps us to understand the pragmatic efficacy of logically incompatible medical beliefs under conditions of medical pluralism. These concepts—‘exposed being’, ‘protection’, ‘(in)tangible persons’—also helps to explain the relative non-specificity or generic quality of most traditional ‘therapies’ since they are understood less as specific treatments of disease (therapy), and more as protection from illness and misfortune, that is, as apotropaic magic.  In protecting the patient, the healer effectively seeks to add something to the person of the sufferer/patient.  Rather than seeking to therapeutically adjust some internal system of the patient, the southern African healer augments the person of the sufferer to prevent further attack.  In contrast to the ‘exposed being’, and the suffering patient, then, the sangoma attempts to create the ‘augmented self’.  Ethnographic support for these arguments derives primarily from long-term research work in eastern Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Much has been written about so-called ‘traditional healers’ in southern African societies.  Once called ‘rainmakers’ (Moffat 1842; Moffat and Schapera 1951), or witchdoctors (Livingstone 1857) especially by nineteenth-century missionaries, these designation continue to cast a shadow of misunderstanding and stigma on its practitioners, and on the people they treat: their patients.  The ‘rainmaker’ moniker is still used in the work of many contemporary archaeologists and historians (Huffman 2007), while ‘witchdoctor’ continues to be used in the popular press and imagination, and especially by Christians.  The term shaman has also been used in reference to the distinctive practices of the southern African healer, especially in the work of David Lewis-Williams (1996; 2012; 1981) and his students (for example Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1996; Dowson, et al. 1994) in the study of rock art.  In general and anthropological literature, the sangomas is often called a ‘traditional healer’, but this also is misleading.  The sangomas does many things.  While ‘healing’ is certainly part of the sangoma’s activities, supporting other healers through drumming, dancing, knowledge exchange and travel often consumes more time than actual healing of patients.  The sangoma spends a good deal of time, too, collecting and preparing muti, ‘medicine’—vegetable, animal and mineral substances—from the bush or from markets and other healers.  In this it is possible to see the sangomas as a contemporary hunter-gatherer.  In fact, they share many aspects of healing practice with the ‘classic’ hunter-gatherers of southern Africa, the Bushmen, or San, including trance, trance dance, and use of magic from the ‘bush’ that is collected and hunted. 

Thus, it is not entirely correct to call sangomas ‘healers’.  Nor, are they particularly ‘traditional’.  They absorb and adapt to the many ideas that are around them.  They are one aspect of the medical pluralism that characterises the southern African cultures of health, wellness, and healing.

They refer to themselves as ‘sangoma’ in English, Afrikaans, and in South African indigenous languages—Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, Tsonga, Sotho, Tswana, Venda—using some declension of this linguistic form.  This is word that I use and that should be used for this group of ‘traditional healers’. 
The word sangoma derives from an ancient Bantu word, current across most of Africa where this family of languages is spoken.  The root, -ngoma, refers broadly to ‘drum’, ‘song’, ‘music’, and ‘dance’, or rather, to the social institution that includes all of these as a mode of knowledge-practice.  

The connection between drums and drumming, song and dancing is pretty clear. It is not ‘entertainment’, but reflect a kind of poetic construction of language, music, knowledge, and above all altered consciousness.  Across the Bantu-speaking region it refers to—or rather evokes in sensory and emotional terms as well—a kind of gnosis that can be termed ‘trance’ or trance-knowledge.  It is akin to dreams, and the knowledge of dreams, and especially to deep social insight experienced while in the dissociated state.  The sangoma in southern Africa, then, is a practitioner of a specialised knowledge-practice, and one who is initiated into a guild, ‘college’, or ‘secret society’ of other healers.
While virtually all southern Africans accord them some respect for many reasons, there is also widespread fear and scepticism about them.  The South African government continues to attempt to bring them into formal government-regulated organisations, but most healers who are serious about their art and practice continue to resist this.  While their public rituals of dancing and drumming are generally well known, especially in the townships of small and rural towns in southern Africa, their peculiar dress styles, hairstyles, and some aspects of their practices are often recognised by most South Africans.  In other words, the figure of the ‘traditional healer’, shaman, sangomas, ‘rainmaker’, ‘witchdoctor’ is reasonably well known and well documented, at least in its more public aspects, especially those performed for clients.  The characteristics of the clientele of traditional healers is much less known. 
This discussion is concerned with the ways in which the sangomas themselves understand their clientele.  Since all sangomas have also been clientele of some other sangomas, this ‘clientele’ also includes all sangomas.
One outstanding element of belief that is attributed to the practice of bungoma, and the art of the sangomas, is the notion of witches and witchcraft.  ‘Witchcraft’, ubuthakathi, or ‘sorcery’, and the idea of the ‘witch’, umthakathi or umloyi  [isiZulu; also ubutsakatsi, mtsakatsi (siSwati), boloyi, moloi (Sotho/Tswana)], is more or less universally understood and feared among virtually all South Africans.  Different degrees of knowledge, scepticism and belief exist across all southern African people of all races and ethnicities, however.  Although the depth of commitment to such beliefs cannot in fact be inferred from race, skin colour or ethnicity, most South Africans believe that this is an element of an ancient African cultural heritage.  Witchcraft accusations are prohibited by law—a legal intervention inspired primarily by South Africans of European ancestry—but is also discouraged by all practicing sangomas that I have spoken with.  Nevertheless, the practice of witchcraft and the existence of witches is held to be a fact of South African life (see especially (Ashforth 2005; Geschiere 1997; Niehaus 2005; Niehaus 1998; Niehaus, et al. 2001).  These authors seek to understand the political and economic contexts and causes of witchcraft accusations.  Niehaus remarks that while it is “essential to interpret occult beliefs in the framework of political-economic changes” (2005:206), it is not sufficient to do so because of the multidimensionality of meanings, practices and subjective experience associated with them.  All agree, more or less, that witchcraft can be understood in terms of the social causation of illness model, in which broadly social causes—political change, social stress, globalization, capitalism, and social change—create the context in which believers-in-witches interpret their misfortune in these terms.  In other words, the figure of the witch as social imaginary, and discursively-determined subjective experience, is the central concern.    

I will argue here, somewhat to the contrary, that the primary issue is not (necessarily) the existence (or non-existence) of witches and witchcraft, or even the subjective experience that is labelled and translated as ‘witchcraft’, in healing practices and concepts of health and luck in southern Africa.  Rather, it is the nature of the person, or personhood of the patient in southern African health beliefs that deserves attention.  I wish to focus attention on the cultural understanding of the person who suffers, in other words, not the social imaginary of the cause of suffering.  Paradoxically, both healer and client are effectively ‘patients’ in this system, since the healer feels, smells, or otherwise receives a diagnosis by experiencing the pain of the patient.  Healer and patient are co-sufferers. 
To a degree, the person of the sangomas has already been characterised in terms of Carl Jung’s notion of the ‘wounded healer’, as archetype of the healer, especially the psychologist or psychiatrist.  But the southern African healer might better be characterised as the patient-healer or healer-patient, in that the healer’s
By taking the personhood of the sufferer as the primary anthropological issue, we are able to ask useful empirical questions about the nature of healing and protective magic or muti that is used to protect against witchcraft and to heal those who believe themselves to be suffering from sorcery or witchcraft.  Asking questions about the ‘existence’ of witches or witchcraft is misleading since this cannot ever be a valid empirical question.  By exploring concepts of personhood, however, we are able to ask useful—that is answerable—questions about the cultural construction of the person who is vulnerable to and can suffer from witches and witchcraft. 

This intellectual strategy shifts attention away from evaluative questions about why ‘Africans’ believe in witches (which don’t exist), and towards the phenomenology of personhood, that is, towards an enquiry into the kind of person that is vulnerable and suffers.  This is a valid question in medical anthropology, whereas the question of witches is not.  It also allows us to account for the similarity of effect attributed to ‘ancestors’, ‘spirits’, ‘medicine’/muti, and magic/sorcery. In other words, it is not the unseen ‘cause’ that is in question, but the visible effect on actual people that is my focus. 

I use the term ‘exposed being’ as a label the person who is vulnerable to witches, and also to other intangible but similarly socially constituted forces.  I understand the role of healing in the southern African cultural systems as a way of protecting the exposed being—the vulnerable person, as culturally constructed—from the range of threats that such a person experiences.  The ritual and practical processes of protection constitute a type of ‘magic’, that is, ‘symbolic’ interventions that are primarily intended to protect the person-as-exposed-being.  This form of ‘healing’ can be called apotropaic magic, that is, magic that is intended to ward off, or turn away bad influences or causes of illness, ill-luck and disease.  These interventions are often realised through ritual means, but also through use of materials and objects such as beads, amulets, ingested substances, scarification, or other forms of injection (enema, rubbing into cuts, vaginal insertions, etc.), but can also be accomplished through invocation, song, prayers, and other linguistic or conceptual means. 

The aim of most of this magic is to strengthen the exposed being, or suffering, vulnerable person.  This is often talked about today in terms of strengthening the ‘immune system’, increasing the ‘energy’ of the patient, or simply as ‘protection’. In all cases, this involves adding something to the sufferer to make the patient ‘strong’ and able to resist, or ‘battle’ against the witch, illness, disease or misfortune.    I propose to call the patient so protected the augmented person.  The augmented person is able to be strong, and to resist the witch, or even turn the attack against the attacker.  The return of the attack will cause the witch, the sorcerer, or even the ancestor, or the spirit, to suffer their own malevolence.  The augmented person is therefore the exposed being who has been strengthened in a way that allows their ‘immune system’ to repel the evil influence that has afflicted them. 

Thus, the healing cultures of southern Africa are primarily concerned with protecting the suffering person, the exposed being, by augmenting the person in a way that allows them to resist.  The central concepts of the person then are the vulnerable person as exposed, and the healed person as augmented.  
The work of the sangomas, then, is not primarily therapeutic, but protective, that is,  apotropaic.  Through healing, the sangoma attempts to create an augmented person, the ‘augmented self’.