Grasping, trust, and truth-on-balance

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Frederick Klaits. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.028


Grasping, trust, and truth-on-balance

Frederick KLAITS, State University of New York at Buffalo

Comment on Werbner, Richard. 2015. Divination’s grasp: African encounters with the almost said. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Divination’s grasp: African encounters with the almost said (2015) is an ethnography of extraordinary richness, an outcome of Richard Werbner’s close involvement with Tswapong diviners in northeast Botswana in the early 1970s and subsequently since 1999. The book makes a forceful case for looking to vernacular expert discourses for evidence of how the moral imagination, when confronted with misfortune, operates beyond ordinary language and consciousness. Werbner shows how the tactile and visible qualities of small objects (in this case, the diviners’ lots) can foster reflection and arouse emotions about a wide set of past and present life circumstances. Over the course of séances, diviners juxtapose the microcosms displayed in their tablets and dice with musical praise poetry derived from an oral archive that expresses ancient wisdom about self and other. Diviners are archons, keepers and directors of a corpus of oral poetry that has been handed down over generations; Werbner documents close parallels between the praise poetry recited by the diviner Moatlhodi in the 1970s and that of Natale, a diviner who worked with Isaac Schapera in southeastern Botswana during the 1930s. The poetry is esoteric and eludes transparency. It brings to mind disorienting imageries of metamorphosis, of sets of circumstances in the process of shifting from one configuration into another. Hence Werbner’s emphasis on the “almost said”: divination involves sifting through the ambiguous evidence of the lots to find “truth-on-balance,” aspects of a hidden reality that only the ancestors can truly see. In fact, as Werbner makes [414]clear, the term “divination” is an unavoidable ethnocentric imposition on a process that bears close affinity with litigation. Participants in a séance wish to locate relevant evidence under the direction of the archon and of the lots, which are known as ditaolo, instructions or precepts. Throughout, the presumption is that people cannot know themselves without help from things and mediating experts. In wisdom divination, as in Freudian psychoanalysis, “another meaning is both given and hidden in an immediate meaning” (Ricoeur 1970: 7, quoted in Werbner n. d.).

I would like to couch my own appreciation in terms of the meanings of “grasping” (in Setswana, go tshwara), which might help us rethink some aspects of our analytical languages and comparative frameworks. I have in mind in particular the concept of trust, which Peter Geschiere places at the foreground of his important book Witchcraft, intimacy, and trust: Africa in comparison (2013). Geschiere draws on Freud’s treatment ([1919] 2003) of the uncanny (das Unheimliche) as a distortion of familiar or intimate domains (das Heimliche). Witchcraft, Geschiere writes, is a way of imagining the transformation of the intimate into the uncanny. Where such transformations take place, trust becomes a problem for which a range of solutions has historically been offered. Such solutions have ranged from the attitude expressed in the Duala proverb “You have to learn to live with your witch” (Geschiere 2013: 205) to “efforts to completely eradicate das Unheimliche in order to establish an absolute form of trust that leaves no room for doubt” (2013: 202), such as early modern European witch hunts and contemporary Pentecostal crusades against witches that have ironically affirmed the uncanny as an omnipresent danger. “Focusing on trust,” Geschiere concludes (2013: 179), “can help us translate different ways of dealing with the uncanny into more concrete proposals for research.”

In parallel fashion, Werbner argues that “moral peril” is a condition intrinsic to “situations in which people worry about a concern over just anger in wrath or its antisocial contraries, including pollution and witchcraft” (2015: 19–20). Crucially, Tswapong diviners’ principal concerns center less on witchcraft than on ancestral wrath provoked by violations of patriarchal standards of respect. “Instead of arbitration in an adversarial process,” Werbner writes, “the turn in the séances was to supportive mediation with regard to moral peril and faults as causes of danger to well-being. . . . Perhaps the most striking outcome was not the spread of odd rumors or even shouted complaints about witchcraft . . . but the stoic effort to fend off the dead. Again and again, the dead were asked not to trouble the living and to be assuaged by the pious ritual of blowing water” (2015: 168). Most often, “witchcraft-as-usual” was understood as a byproduct of the ancestors’ anger and their withdrawal of protection. Yet notwithstanding Werbner’s and Geschiere’s shared concerns with moral peril, the term “trust” does not appear in the index of Divination’s grasp. All the same, Werbner’s book is a remarkably sensitive ethnography of trust.

In the context of diviners’ microdramatic and poetic forms of communication, that which is “almost said” does indeed give rise to “a state of mind . . . which is both more and less than knowledge,” to quote Georg Simmel’s ([1900] 2011: 191) pregnant formulation of trust. For his part, Geschiere draws on sociologist Guido Möllering’s (2001) conception of trust as “suspension of doubt” to argue that the main challenge witchcraft raises “might be to discern when one should suspend the doubt that stems from this knowledge [that the most dangerous form of aggression comes from inside], so as still to be able to collaborate” (Geschiere 2013: 32). Yet [415]to equate trust with “suspension of doubt” would certainly not do justice to the qualities of the “almost said.” During séances, acts of questioning and praising the lots communicate the doubtful nature of the knowledge of the living as compared with that of the deceased, and above all the fundamental opaqueness of personal knowledge, both of others and oneself. At the same time, doubtfulness does not necessarily foreclose collaboration, quite the contrary.

To illustrate, let me turn to the vernacular meanings of “grasping” documented by Werbner: how something seizes or pulls on something else in such a way that it affects or expresses its condition. In colloquial Setswana, illness conditions are articulated through metaphors of grasping or seizing rather than ownership. “I have the flu” is Ke tshwerwe ke flu, I have been grasped by the flu, and “I have stomach pains” is Ke tshwerwe ke mala, I have been seized by the stomach. In addition, grasping is a common idiom for understanding: O a ntshwara?, literally “Do you grasp me?” means “Do you understand me?” In divination, assessing truth-on-balance is not best understood as a matter of “interpreting” the falls of the lots, in the sense of locating a one-to-one correspondence between symptoms and underlying conditions (Werbner n. d.). Rather, there is an ongoing questioning through poetry and microdramatic performance of how bodily parts are being grasped by one influence or another, and of how the lots themselves—as prosthetic parts of the diviner’s and client’s bodies—grasp this very process.

Consider the following course of questioning in a séance for a sickly infant (chapter 5). The diviner Moatlhodi was concerned that the child had become ill as a result of having been taken by his mother on a trip to town, against his own objections. One of the configurations in the first fall of the lots is known as Little Sandal. Moatlhodi remarked, “You see, this Little Sandal is a fault, because it grasps his journey. . . . They come Biter [another configuration]. It is the Biter that grasps a person of the night. That is, it bites and it also grasps the bowels that bite and bite” (Werbner 2015: 126). In the second fall, there was a configuration known as Reed.

Moatlhodi continued his comments about the aggrieved, now seen to be [people who were] bereaved: “But it grasps the bereaved, according to Reed.” [Here Moatlhodi recited the praise poetry pertaining to Reed.]

“That is grasping one who is bereaved. Now, I don’t know the one from whom we can start.”

Mosweunyane’s wife [the infant’s MM] asked, “You mean, the one whose husband or child is dead?” Moatlhodi replied, “They [i.e., the lots] may even grasp a child or a husband. From whom shall we start? . . .” (Werbner 2015: 127).

In this exchange, the lots are said to “grasp” in the sense of identifying those who are aggrieved, those who have committed an act of pollution, as well as the suffering body’s parts. The Little Sandal grasps the faulty journey, Biter grasps the infant’s bowels together with a possible witch, and Reed grasps those who might have violated a prohibition associated with bereavement. In a later session concerning the same case, Moatlhodi addresses the lots, asking about a certain widow: “Is she the one that troubles? Is she the one who pressed him down with this bofitlha (hidden pollution)? For this [configuration of the lots] grasps bofitlha” (2015: 130). The [416]widow, Moatlhodi wonders, might have “pressed down” on the child through a polluting act.

In a different séance, Moatlhodi makes even more explicit reference to the power of ill will to grasp someone’s body. After letting fall the lots for a distressed labor migrant, he spoke as follows: “They grasp your darkness of face. It is dark even while you go about as you do. . . . I do not know whether you stepped on this blackness [RW: i.e., whether a trap was prepared on the path through witchcraft]. . . . The very one who works on you has killed your forehead [RW: i.e., ruined your fortune] so that we can say she has grasped your head” (2015: 57).

In short, a felt need in divination is to make an attempt at grasping who has grasped or pressed upon whom. These séance exchanges suggest that persons are constituted through the grasps they have on one another’s somatic conditions and moral imaginations. An image of personhood as mutual grasping dovetails with the Tswana concept of seriti, the shadowy aura of dignity that is bestowed by the ancestors and that one apprehends in oneself insofar as it is reflected in the eyes of others (Werbner 2015: 1–3).

But what do the séance conversations indicate about trust among the relevant parties? Central to notions of grasping, as of trust, are moral concerns about entailment: how to determine and evaluate the manner in which a given circumstance follows on another. The consciousness that arises from efforts at grasping is, in Simmel’s phrase, both more and less than knowledge: less because what emerge are tentative truths-on-balance; more because the overwhelming praise poetry and the visual cues of the lots induce an “intimate awareness of oneself as another” (Werbner 2015: 59). That is, a client is induced to identify his condition with that of “dead animal bones, the tablets, with their evident darkness, with their loss of illumination, and with other threatening images of animal and corporeal interiority” (2015: 59).

If nothing else, the séance conversations reveal the poverty of an analytical vocabulary that relies on a dichotomy between trust and mistrust (which might in fact not be the opposite of trust, but rather its uncanny twin). I would speculate that such dichotomous thinking has antecedents in Protestant tendencies to equate belief with sincere assent to propositions (Asad 1993; Keane 2007): within such frameworks, trust is a matter of considering others truthful. Geschiere formulates the relation between trust and the uncanny in a manner suggesting that one precludes the other: “The possibilities or impossibilities of bringing closure to an experience of the uncanny through cognition might be vital for the establishment (or nonestablishment) of trust in situations of inherent danger” (2013: 179). Yet Tswapong diviners like Moatlhodi do not attempt to regenerate trust by establishing an alignment of truth between what is said and what is in the heart. Their aim instead is to bring about transfers of beneficial sentiment (as is the case in some Apostolic churches in Botswana, even those that reject the kinds of questioning associated with divination; see Klaits 2010). According to Moatlhodi, to ask the aggrieved person, the one whose heart is red, to blow water to assuage illness would be to add “more danger and trouble to what is already there. Whiteness from those who are white-hearted, without anger, has to be ritually transferred. The occasion mobilizes an inner circle of close relatives and coresidents. . . . They must join [417]together and have mutual amity, not pelo ee buthuka, a ‘grieving heart.’. . . Above all, the attribution of wrath elicits an avowal of moral concern and mutual responsibility within an inner circle” (Werbner 2015: 20). Statements of shared concern, not suspensions of doubt. In this regard, Werbner (2015: 45) recalls the Azande proverb related by Evans-Pritchard (1937: 117): “one cannot see into a man as into an open-wove basket.”

After all, to suspend doubt would be to forestall the impulse to question. Geschiere is right to draw attention to the importance of collaboration in shared projects, but we should not lose sight of the fact that an important aspect of collaboration and mutual concern often consists of ongoing questioning (Whyte 1998). Shared commitments to questioning are abundantly documented in Divination’s grasp, which meticulously chronicles prolonged series of séances held to locate the sources of physical affliction, as well as collaborations among diviners to grasp the reasons for a failure of rain.

The forms that these collaborations take depend largely on the directive imagination of the archon. During a Bible séance held for the infant described in the above case, Moatlhodi made a formal speech to the effect that he had objected to the baby’s traveling into town. The baby’s grandmother, present in the same setting, spoke bitterly that it would have been better that the mother had been prevented from having children in the first place than that this suffering should occur. Moatlhodi’s response was to remind her that life and death are in the power of God, and to rebuke her for suggesting that women’s duty to bear children should be refused (Werbner 2015: 133–35). In this case, the diviner’s efforts to sustain collaboration took the form of an affirmation of patriarchal values.

This approach is to be distinguished from that of the charismatic diviner Morebodi, whom Werbner describes as a “born-again post-Christian” (2015: 242) in that he regarded Christianity as having lured the people away from the order of nature and tradition (tlholego) established by the ancestors. In controversial fashion, Morebodi mixed modes of insight derived from hooved-lot divination, Christian prayer, call-and-response flows, and the oracle of the Tswapong Sedimo cult. In a series of séances, Morebodi subjected Njebe, a sophisticated urban villager and the diviner Moatlhodi’s grandson, to searching examination of his own masculine failings. Morebodi attributed these failings to Njebe’s ostensible abandonment of the tradition of the ancestors for the pursuit of material things (Werbner 2015: 256). In this instance, the nature of the collaboration has been directly ethnographic, in that Njebe has served as Werbner’s research assistant on a series of films, one of which (Werbner 2007) focuses on Morebodi’s practice. Werbner speculates (2015: 285) that Njebe’s intense commitment to work on the films might have stemmed in part from a desire to recover his sense of self-worth and dignity following Morebodi’s searching examinations.

Werbner clearly envisions his own directive imagination as an ethnographer and filmmaker in terms paralleling those of the Tswana archons, both diviners and Apostolic prophets, whose work he has described here and elsewhere (2011). In multiple senses the work of a lifetime, Divination’s grasp makes a forceful argument for attending to the aesthetics of questioning developed through prolonged engagement with situations of moral peril.[418]


Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. 1937. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1919) 2003. “The uncanny.” In The uncanny, edited by David McLintock and Hugh Haughton, 121–61. London: Penguin Classics.

Geschiere, Peter. 2013. Witchcraft, intimacy, and trust: Africa in comparison. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Klaits, Frederick. 2010. Death in a church of life: Moral passion during Botswana’s time of AIDS. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Möllering, Guido. 2001. “The nature of trust: From Georg Simmel to a theory of expectation, interpretation and suspension.” Sociology 35 (2): 403–20.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1970. Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Simmel, Georg. (1900) 2011. The philosophy of money. Translated by Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Werbner, Richard. 2007. Shade seekers and the mixer. London: Royal Anthropological Institute, Ethnographic Video Online: Alexander St. Press.

———. 2011. Holy hustlers, schism, and prophecy: Apostolic reformation in Botswana. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2015. Divination’s grasp: African encounters with the almost said. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. n.d. “From Freud’s couch to the diviner’s lots.” Unpublished manuscript.

Whyte, Susan Reynolds. 1998. Questioning misfortune: The pragmatics of uncertainty in eastern Uganda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[419]


Frederick Klaits
Department of Anthropology
State University of New York at Buffalo
380 Fillmore Academic Center-Ellicott Complex
Buffalo, NY 14261-0026