What did I almost say?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © David Coplan. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.029


What did I almost say?

Divining Werbner

David COPLAN, University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg

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

As this review is part of a larger online “symposium” of reviews, I am tempted to attempt something different, even though I shan’t see the other reviews until this has been submitted. But I believe, like Richard Werbner’s subjects in Divination’s grasp (2015), that I can divine them. With this study, Werbner reinforces (as if that were necessary) his position as one of the most thorough and insightful ethnologists and gifted narrators of African ritual divination. Here he is, and was, partnered by his wife, anthropologist Pnina Werbner (what a marriage of true minds!) in east central Botswana on and off for four decades, divining what divination is and is for among the Tswapong, a branch of the Batswana who claim descent from the Bapedi of northern South Africa.

What the Werbners spent countless hours observing and recording is the actual real-time process of Tswapong divinatory analysis and healing. Their purpose was to comprehend how such magical therapy is made, conducted, accomplished in performance. Underlying this performance is a cultural weltanschauung, an interdependent set of ontological principles, encoded in an archive of esoteric poetic stanzas. These verses, the oral manual of the professional diviner, are memorized in training and then referenced, mobilized, and interpreted therapeutically in dialogic performances enacted by diviner and client. I do not feel compelled to reproduce or analyze these verses and emergent performances (Werbner calls them “séances”) here, as the reader must encounter them directly through the microtextual focus [420]of Werbner’s narrative, or fail to comprehend them entirely. Nor am I competent to comment analytically or critically on Werbner’s exegesis or philological explanations. I was not present, and I’m not that smart. Suffice it to say, with the Tswapong, that this is the poetry of “wisdom divination” (2015: 7–8), offering an interpretation of the “ambivalence of life” (115).

What I might attempt to expatiate upon is the point of Werbner’s intense, career-long effort to understand the process through which diviners ministered to existential-physiological-moral crises and conundrums. I would not say “solved” because, after the manner of Western psychiatry, they offered hope and confidence rather than “solutions.” Through persuasive reasoning, their patients are enabled to search for “well-being in one’s destiny” (2015: 305), and so at last, to feel right. Their observations, diagnoses, and prescribed courses of action are not based on the logic of experimental science, although their methods owe much to the guidance of induction.

Roughly (an understatement), this is what takes place: clients, many of whom belong to the extended cognatic kinship network of the diviner, come for treatment due to a condition of illness or unease. These afflictions can take physical, mental, emotional, and or spiritual manifestation. In Setswana cosmology, all these forms may be interrelated and have the same or allied sources. Most significantly, the causes of a particular complaint can have any origin from biomedical disease as a physician would diagnose it, to the active or passive witchcraft of kith or kin, to displeased ancestor spirits, to social and moral failings and faults of the clients themselves. Uncertainty as to immediate and underlying causes is what sends the client to the diviner. Characteristically, sufferers may simply feel, with Hamlet, that the time is out of joint, and they are cursed until they set it right. This feeling can be the result of broken relationships in the client’s immediate social field, in a context in which social harmony supports a cosmic order. In that sense, the supplicant is potentially both victim and perpetrator, and divination is a tonic for an entire community (Werbner 2015: 176).

Werbner offers a key concept to encompass what is wrong, in an overall sense, with the patients: they are in “moral peril”; the danger of retribution from the aggrieved, living or dead. The source of this peril may be within or without the patient, the result of actions or inactions that take place in the devil’s workshops that constitute life, whether before birth, on the world’s stage, or beyond the grave. As a diviner put it, “poisonous remainders from long ago are stuck inside” (2015: 301). And the client is not only in danger, but observably suffering the effects. It might be said that the maintenance of the system of belief requires the connectedness of kinship and community that continue in Werbner’s village field site and in Botswana more generally. As described by Werbner, these relationships are much more gemein than the situational and conditional relationships characteristic of urban South Africa, or the ill-feeling among members of disjunctive and spatially attenuated social and residential linkages I found in Lesotho. This is in part why the poetic songs of the male Basotho labor migrants (near neighbors and historical relatives of the Batswana) that I studied (Coplan 1994) are never about family or community or moral responsibilities. Rather, they are the anthems of the outcast, of the lonely, perilous road, of the hell under earth of the mines, of the fickle women of the taverns.[421]

But even in the kinship-oriented villages of Botswana, the effect of the suspicion, mistrust, fear, and ill feeling among members of social networks generated by divination therapy in the context of witchcraft exerts a malignant influence. The transference of blame from fate, coincidence, inadequacy, or error to a sufferer’s kith and kin is a powerful force for insecurity and enmity, and one of the reasons why in “face-to-face” communities, so many people live back to back. As we Basotho (ahem) say (in Sesotho, of course), “the village looks pretty from the outside.” Among the finest ethnographic narrations of this tragic transference is Witchcraft and a life in the new South Africa, by Isak Niehaus (2012). The central character’s self-imposed descent into a hell of terror, sickness, and death at forty-one in the handbasket of the occult makes horrific but fascinating reading. Niehaus wisely offers no moralizations, no accusations, no solutions; except to show that in many African communities, as existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre famously commented, “Hell is the Other ” (Sartre 1946).

Diviners study for years to memorize revelatory poetic verses, and then to interpret them through performance as they signify in a series of “falls” in consultation. These “falls” indicate causes of affliction by the dropping of a set of small, incised ivory, bone, or hoof tablets or fragments on the ground before the assembled diviner, client, and other participants directly concerned. The marks and patterns incised have names, and stand in signifying contrast to one another, as do the positions or arrangement in which they lie upon the ground. The named tablets, their markings, and their relative positions point the way forward in therapeutic discovery by association with specific verses, which are known as the “praises of the falls.” Metonymically, the position of the lots reflects the client’s social situation in relation to familiar others, revealing intimate fears (Werbner 2015: 6–7). The successful, that is to say plausible analysis of the meaning of the falls requires wisdom and the “heightened consciousness . . . that grasps the inner person” (55) that only many years of professional tutelage and practice can confer. As Basotho also say, “The human heart is not a skin bag, that you can just shove your hand into it.”

As Werbner is at pains to emphasize, the falls have no predetermined meanings or revelations. The wise diviner must serially, incrementally divine what the falls indicate through “the microdynamics of performance.” The skeptical reader might consider these as manipulative theatrics, meant to convince the hopeful and desperate of the efficacy of the divination process and the clairvoyance of the diviner. But doing as Werbner does, taking the technologies of poetics and ritual performance at “face value,” allows for and facilitates an understanding of what the dialogic and the incremental accumulations of the séances are intended to achieve, and by what means they achieve it. In brief, the serial application of therapeutic “wisdom” to the revelations, or is it illuminations, of the falls and their verses has ethical implications. What are the patient and his unknown tormentors hiding? The séances are a determined, intensely concentrated search to divine what is wrong, who is responsible, why, and what remedial action must be taken. Such interpretation is guided by the falls and circumscribed by the cognitive ground of belief, the “cultural rationale” as James Ferguson (Gupta and Ferguson 1992) calls it. A patient’s lack of conviction bespeaks an alienation from his origins in Setswana, and can make it difficult to interpret the meaning of the process within the culture’s virtual framework.[422]

It may appear that by the old Malinowskian distinctions, this is magic, not religion or science. Werbner observes that many of the praises of the falls are elaborated in the form of chiasmus: “an inverted relationship between the syntactic elements of parallel phrases” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). But the famous chiasmus composed by Thomas Szasz (1974: 128) does not adequately express the relationship:

Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak,
Men mistook magic for medicine;
Now when science is strong and religion weak,
Men mistake medicine for magic.

Divination is not alternative medical “science.” As Werbner tersely notes, if the affliction appears to be of a merely physiological origin, curable by allopathic treatment, the client is sent off to the pharmacy to get some aspirin and told to call the diviner in the morning.

This is an alternative process intended to discover harmful disjunctions and oppositions in social relationships and personal character defined with reference to the cultural rationale of Setswana. This raises the hoary question in the study of African “traditional medicine” as to whether (and in what ways) this therapeutic system can be said to “work.” Is the patient “cured”; and if so, of what? On the face of it, the cure is effected if the client and the diviner are satisfied of it. Werbner steers entirely clear of such overwise, gainsaying contextual issues. He gives us Tswapong divination ethnographically, in its profound theory and practice. It is a Setswana recognition of the inadequacy of human understanding, like those expressed in the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, or 1Corinthians 13:12 in the New Testament: “For now we see as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known.” This is the manner in which appearances camouflage reality, preventing hidden realities from being fully revealed but perpetually “almost said.” Tswapong divination is thus an inquiry of the moral imagination, an effort to comprehend peril and affliction amid the incomprehensibility of life.


Coplan, David B. 1994. In the time of cannibals. Johannesburg: Wits and Chicago University Press.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond ‘culture’: Space, identity, and the politics of difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6–23.

Niehaus, Isak. 2012. Witchcraft and a life in the new South Africa. Cambridge: International African Institute.

Sartre, Jean Paul. 1946. The flies, and in camera. London: Hamish Hamilton. Szasz, Thomas. 1974. The second sin. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Werbner, Richard. 2015. Divination’s grasp: African encounters with the almost said. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.[423]


David Coplan
Department of Social Anthropology
University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg
Private Bag 3, WITS, 2050
South Africa