The expert interpreter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Sónia Silva. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.030


The expert interpreter

Sónia SILVA, Skidmore College

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

A collection of dice and small tablets falls from a small, civet-cat skin bag. Each fall is paired with a metaphor, which the wisdom diviner further interprets by drawing upon a corpus of verbal poetry widely shared in the vast region of Southern Africa. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the central district of Botswana since the 1970s, Richard Werbner shows that the Tswapong wisdom diviners juxtapose the language of small things with archaic poetry, “[playing] off the poetics against the microdramatics, the verbal against the visual” (2015: 7). Divination’s grasp is an important contribution to the study of divination and praise poetry. It reveals how the wisdom diviners bring a wealth of oral literature to bear on their clients’ problems and predicaments. It also shows with great clarity that the Tswapong divinatory verses belong in the established canon of oral literature in postcolonial Southern Africa.

In his book, Werbner also raises broader questions of interest to contemporary anthropologists: the role of ethnography in anthropological theory and theorizing, the current fascination with the uncanny in anthropology (and related questions of representation), and the place of the vague, elusive, and almost said in ethical imagination.


Werbner would like anthropology to recover its ethnographic pulse and vitality. To better exemplify the kind of ethnography-based, anthropological project that he envisions, Werbner returns to the anthropology classics. In Divination’s grasp, Werbner traces his intellectual genealogy to the British anthropologist [426]E. E. Evans-Pritchard, author of Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande, first published in 1937. Widely considered a masterpiece in ethnographic writing, this classic is perhaps best known for advancing the idea that the Zande religious beliefs in South Sudan (then Anglo-Egyptian Sudan) are well described as an explanatory idiom. Seen from this perspective, the Zande beliefs in magic, witchcraft, and the poison oracle are perfectly reasonable and rational. Werbner, however, offers a fresh reading of Evans-Pritchard’s masterpiece, highlighting two important cornerstones on which he built Divination’s grasp: the value of textual sources and ethical imagination.

Similarly to Evans-Pritchard, Werbner values the “textual method” (2015: 27). His book includes lengthy transcriptions of praise poetry and séance dialogues. Thanks to wisdom diviner Moatlhodi, his mentor, Werbner was able to collect a rich textual archive over a period of four decades. Morebodi, another wisdom diviner, allowed Werbner to film-record one séance in great depth and detail. Such extended cases are a precious contribution to the study of divination and oral literature in Africa. Werbner wishes that anthropologists would more often employ similar methodologies (textual method along with exegetical accounts and extensive observation of actual séances) in the study of divination. Based on my own research on basket divination in northwest Zambia (Silva 2011), I testify to the value of these methodologies.

In Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande, Werbner also encountered the concept of ethical imagination, particularly the idea of witchcraft as an ethical discourse. At this juncture, Werbner distances himself not only from the old tendency to associate divination with witchcraft accusations but also from the newer trend to associate Africa with witchcraft—a kind of witchcraft that reaches everywhere with the same intensity, from the tiniest of villages in a rural district to highly urbanized capital cities, and explains everything from death to wealth. Werbner’s target is what he calls the modernity of witchcraft paradigm, spearheaded by Peter Geschiere (1997). Werbner rejects what he calls the “witchcraft myopia among Africanists” (2015: 18), claiming that this myopia does a disservice not only to anthropology but also to Africa, which is now represented as a land of chaos, tragedy, and fear. We are back to “the Conradian image, the sensational Heart of Darkness image of Afro-pessimism,” (47) Werbner writes.

Wherever we stand in this debate, Werbner’s critique raises fundamental issues of representation, audience, and reception. We need to develop a greater awareness of the images we paint in our writings, the way they might be received both in the place of fieldwork and at home, not only by academics but also by college students who may be introduced to Africa through books such Geschiere’s Modernity of Witchcraft.

What about witchcraft, some readers might ask? Do we not misrepresent contemporary Africa by ignoring witchcraft or defining it as a rumor? Do we not, in the latter case, entirely miss our subject of study as it is lived and experienced in Africa?

These difficult questions led me to write an essay on the topic of witchcraft from the perspective of the bewitched in northwest Zambia, arguing that bewitching is well described as an extreme form of interpersonal violence and systematic dehumanization. Rather than conjuring another Conradian image of Africa, however, [427]I hoped to turn the supposedly “African phenomenon” into an apt example of a universal reality. The overall picture is still negative, and even ghastly, but it is not specifically African. This approach to witchcraft also contributes to the broader discussion of the boundaries of the ethical as they are framed by diviners and court officials, for example, and reported by those who describe themselves as victims of bewitchment. Are we, as Werbner states, “to focus once again on moral passion that affirms not denies our shared humanity” (2015: 47)? Or are we to consider the entire spectrum of intersubjectivity, a spectrum that includes both moments of mutual recognition and moments of mutual encroachment and objectification?

Werbner’s stance in this discussion is clear: he does not ignore the reality of witchcraft rumors or the enduring feelings of distrust and hostility—witchcraft-as-usual, as he puts it. To Werbner, the solution to the anthropological problem of witchcraft is to place witchcraft in a moral spectrum. In Moremi village, where he conducted most of his fieldwork, the list of problems taken to wisdom diviners includes, in addition to witchcraft, ancestral wrath and pollution. In family divination, for example, many clients are asked to blow water to appease wrath, building a sense of protection, mutual trust, and togetherness. Reducing divination cases to witchcraft alone is reductive and unwarranted. When the topic of witchcraft comes up in a séance, as it occasionally does, wisdom diviners turn to “alternatives in moral responsibility,” letting the witchcraft discourse remain suspended in the webs of the almost said. Werbner concludes: “the truth about the self and other that wisdom divination establishes is known to be negotiated as truth-on-balance, a matter of if-and-maybe; it is part of the pragmatic search for the understanding of suffering, the grasp of client’s moral dilemmas in the face of uncertainties” (2015: 10).

Evans-Pritchard found in the theory of witchcraft a well-developed ethical system. Werbner came to a similar conclusion in his study of wisdom divination. “Moral peril” looms large in wisdom divination. “The divinatory poetry has a lesson to tell—which is a moral lesson” (2015: 18).


In addition to underlining the social value of moral imagination by contrasting it to the witchcraft myopia, Werbner also distances himself from what he calls the paradigm of practice, a paradigm he himself sponsored (1989) along with David Parkin (1991) and Michael Jackson (1989). In this approach, divination is described as a way of knowing that enables the consulters to make sense of their predicament in novel ways and move on with their life. Werbner now believes that this paradigm needs revision. He explains: “We saw séance practice too simply as a passage from confusion to understanding, in my own terms from ‘baffling complexity’ to ‘intelligible complexity.’ . . . All of that cries out for a new paradigm of configured discovery and interpretive deliberation in divination” (2015: 293). This new paradigm, Werbner adds, “puts in relief [the diviners’] creativity in the hermeneutic search for personal knowledge; and it documents their deployment of social intelligence and persuasive rhetoric in the culturally specific interpretation of meaning in everyday life” (293).

The weight has shifted from diagnosis to interpretation. In this new vision, the diviner is no longer a mere vehicle for spiritually-authenticated knowledge to be delivered in plain words at key points in his séances; he is the expert interpreter [428]of praise poetry. By portraying wisdom diviners as accomplished interpreters, Werbner empowers these men. He also achieves the complete reversal of the old, colonial portrait of diviners as men of cheap tricks who shamelessly deceive and live off their fellowmen. Werbner’s wisdom diviners are nothing of the kind. They are highly respected patriarchs in their communities, men of enhanced dignity, or seriti, and acclaimed experts in the verbal arts of argumentation and persuasion.

I would suggest, however, that Werbner’s hermeneutic approach is still rooted in the same pragmatic, phenomenological, and existential ideas associated with the so-called practice approach to divination, an approach I espoused in Along an African border (Silva 2011). In basket divination, the existential movement from darkness to clarity, and inertia to resolution is effected through the divination speech itself, a poetic speech rich in metaphorical allusion and innuendo. The delivery of truth requires a rejoining of epistemology and interpretation, knowledge and the verbal arts. It is therefore not surprising that both basket diviners and wisdom diviners cultivate a poetic imagination. In both cases, as Werbner writes a propos of wisdom divination, “the poetic imagination reaches beyond itself; the practical is powerfully infused with the poetic, and their separation overcome. This creative fusion confers knowledge not for its own sake, but for the even more highly valued pursuit of well-being in one’s destiny and with that, prosperity” (2015: 305). If anything, the diviner’s hermeneutics helps facilitate this creative fusion, enriching our understanding of divination as both text and healing.

Werbner ends his book by placing wisdom divination along a spectrum of African divination systems. In his model, mimetic or analogic techniques in which small things are shuffled in a container, such as basket divination, are distinguished from textual systems in which a rich oral archive is under the care and protection of an intelligentsia, such as Ifa in Nigeria. Along this spectrum, wisdom divination is located in the middle, sharing mimetic elements with basket divination, and a formal archive of poetic verse with Ifa. Werbner’s classification of the divinatory arts by technique—tactile, mimetic, and textual—is original and thought provoking. It also helps scholars of divination to place specific divination techniques in a broader context, bringing up new questions for debate.

Based on my research in Zambia, I would describe basket divination as a hybrid technique. Basket divination is both mimetic and textual. I would also suggest that we slightly modify Werbner’s spectrum by placing, at one end, tactile or sensory divination (word-free divination) and, at the other end, textual divination (word-heavy divination). Basket divination would lie somewhere in the middle of this modified spectrum. Basket divination is both sensory (because the diviners feel pain in their heart when the truth emerges inside the basket) and textual. In comparison with wisdom divination, basket divination lacks a formal archive that holds up independently of its enactment in particular séances. Yet this fact does not compromise its textuality and poesis. In other words, while textual traditions vary in their degree of formality, archival weight, and professionalization, they all rely on a conventional speech to reveal truthful messages. The category of the textual should signal the point along the sensory-textual spectrum in which speech is no longer a simple means to communicate, as in tactile divination, but takes up a performative and constitutive role. In order to enable a movement from darkness to clarity, the basket diviner draws on a conventional, highly metaphoric speech full [429]of poetic imagery. In addition, he also draws on the thirty or so divinatory pieces inside his basket, the small things that Werbner calls mimetic analogs. While the creative interplay between microdramatics and poetics occurs in both wisdom and basket divination, the cultural tendency toward formalization and crystallization has developed differently in both cases. Wisdom diviners have created an archive of archaic praise poetry that extends across much of Southern Africa. Basket diviners have assembled a treasure of small, meaningful things that is widely shared in the Congo region.

Werbner’s classification brings to light the multiple ways in which truthful knowledge is made known in Africa: sensorily, mimetically, textually, verbally, imagetically. His description of wisdom divination in terms of an interplay of microdramatics and poetics points in the same direction. Embedded in the divinatory arts is a deep appreciation of the power of mediation, multiplicity, and performance, and maybe even a clear understanding that people learn in different ways.


Interestingly, researchers of divination are rarely contented with a description of diviners as healers. Even though divination is located at a key juncture in the search for healing, and many diviners see themselves as healers, anthropologists have typically favored foreign analogies in an attempt to salvage the topic of divination from the ever-present risk of misrepresentation. Victor Turner (1975), for example, saw the basket diviners as judges; Michael Jackson (1989) portrayed the Kuranko pebble diviners as social scientists. Such analogies are heuristically valid. Not only do they draw attention to undeniable similarities across lines of difference, helping anthropologists familiarize the unfamiliar, but they also bring up those facets of divination deemed positive by anthropologists and their readers.

In this context, Werbner’s description of diviners as hermeneutic interpreters is a valuable contribution to a long tradition of analogism in divination studies. By depicting the wisdom diviners as expert interpreters, Werbner is able to replace Afro-pessimism with Afro-optimism, refocus attention on cultural expertise and achievement, highlight the importance of text in divination practice, and promote the inclusion of divinatory praise poetry in the canon of Southern African oral literature. The wisdom diviner, he writes, resembles the ancient Greek archon, the keeper of a textual treasure (2015: 7–8).

The wisdom diviner is also remindful of several anthropologists: Werbner first of all, but also, through Werbner’s interpretive voice, two classic anthropologists: Evans-Pritchard (1962), who saw anthropology as interpretation and translation, and Clifford Geertz (1973), the great master of interpretive anthropology. Each time Werbner speaks of truths that escape grasping, the power of persuasion, culture as text, and webs of significance, Geertz comes to mind. The following passage on praise poetry is remindful of Geertz’s oft-quoted definition of culture: “Indexed and catalogued,” Werbner writes, “the wisdom texts form a web of significance that is spun and spun from séance to séance” (2015: 8).

We know that such matters as identity and positionality influence the type of research we produce and the points we make. But we know significantly less about the subtle ways in which we gradually identify with our subjects of study during fieldwork and long-term research. According to Ernest Gellner (1981), [430]Evans-Pritchard’s portrait of Zande subjectivity is strikingly similar to his own. Werbner’s long-term research in Botswana and his enduring relationship with wisdom diviners, particularly Moatlhodi, offer another window into the give and take of these very special and complex relationships.


Werbner also developed close relationships with other anthropologists, dead and alive. Werbner was a student of Victor Turner and Max Gluckman, and a mentee of Isaac Schapera. Divination’s grasp is a book proudly anchored in the history of anthropology. At a time when anthropologists are increasingly engaging in high-altitude theorizing only remotely connected to human life on the ground, Werbner asks his colleagues to appreciate the ethnographic vein of their discipline, and to recognize the value of theorizing from within the ethnography (and here Clifford Geertz returns to mind). Engaging in deep dialogue with and through ethnography yields superior theory. It also leads to the recognition of excellence when we see it. Werbner reminds us of the good work done by Godfrey Lienhardt, Victor Turner, Marcel Griaule, and Germaine Calame-Griaule. These anthropologists produced ethnographies that celebrate expertise and excellence in Africa. And, although we must carve our own path, Werbner seems to be saying, might we not engage in a broader discussion of ethnographic representation and the role that anthropologists play in the postcolonial present.

Werbner arrived in Botswana to conduct fieldwork in the 1970s. First, as Moatlhodi put it, he was a youth in short pants, and now he is a man in trousers. Werbner became a patriarch, an elder with a “white head” and enhanced dignity. Divination’s grasp is both a study of wisdom divination and an account of Werbner’s commitment to the arts of divination in Botswana; hence Werbner’s words of admiration for the interpretative art of expert diviners, and his deep appreciation for the wisdom received and now given back in a book of praise.


Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1962. Essays in social anthropology. London: Faber and Faber.

———. (1937) 1976. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture.” In The interpretation of cultures, 3–32. New York: Basic Books.

Gellner, Ernest. 1981. “Introduction.” In Edward Evans-Pritchard: A history of anthropological thought, edited by André Singer. New York: Basic Books.

Geschiere, Peter. 1997. The modernity of witchcraft: Politics and the occult in postcolonial Africa. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Jackson, Michael. 1989. “How to do things with stones.” In Paths toward a clearing: Radical empiricism and ethnographic inquiry, 51–66. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.[431]

Parkin, David. 1991. “Simultaneity and sequencing in the oracular speech of Kenyan diviners.” In African divination systems: Ways of knowing, edited by Philip M. Peek, 173–91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Silva, Sónia. 2011. Along an African border: Angolan refugees and their divination baskets. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

———. 2015. “Political evil: Witchcraft from the perspective of the bewitched.” In Evil in Africa: Encounters with the everyday, edited by William C. Olsen and Walter E. A. van Beek, 29–42. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Turner, Victor. 1975. Revelation and divination in Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Werbner, Richard. 1989. “Tswapong wisdom divination: Making the hidden seen.” In Ritual passage sacred journey: The process and organization of religious movement. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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


Sónia Silva
Skidmore College
Anthropology Department
815 N. Broadway
Saratoga Springs, NY