Sunteți pe pagina 1din 251

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Faculteit Psychologie en Pedagogische Wetenschappen Departement Sociale en Culturele Antropologie

The Emergence of the Present

A Phenomenological Study of Divination, Time, and the Subject in Senegal and Gambia

Proefschrift aangeboden tot het verkrijgen van de graad van Doctor in de Sociale en Culturele Antropologie door Knut Graw o.l.v. Prof. Dr. F. De Boeck


The Emergence of the Present

A Phenomenological Study of Divination, Time, and the Subject in Senegal and Gambia

Knut Graw, 2005

Promotor: Prof. Filip de Boeck

Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the degree of Doctor in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Catholic University of Leuven (K. U. Leuven), Belgium.

The importance that is attributed to divinatory consultation in Senegal and Gambia is so wide-reaching that hardly a sphere of life is exempted from it. Drawing on the description and analysis of the cultural and phenomenological properties of Senegambian divinatory praxis, as well as the study of the content of divinatory consultations, life-histories, and the general ethnography of the Senegambian lifeworld, this study shows that divination is not just an abstract search for knowledge but forms an encompassing performative and generative hermeneutic cultural technology of hope and prospect that affects the subject in ways that arel most fundamental. The significance of divination in the Senegambian context lies in the opening up of an intentional cultural space that allows the subject to realize and confront the issues which are at the core of his or her concern or affliction (Chapter 1). By naming and referring to different aspects of reality such as the body, the house, the family, or the dreams of the person, the concrete articulations of the divinatory enunciation resonate with the personal and cultural lifeworld and reshape the way it is experienced (Chapter 2). As the diviner succeeds to address the issues and questions that are most significant for his client, different paths of thought and reflection appear and start to complete and reshape the subject’s understanding of his or her own personal situation in an atmosphere of trust and intersubjective nearness (Chapter 3). In the attempt to gain insight and spell out the possible developments of the client’s future, Senegambian divination is in itself chronopoetic, time-making, i.e. shaping and re-shaping the subject’s personal time consciousness (Chapter 4). The significance of divination’s time- making quality is further explored in relation to one of the most frequent topics of divinatory consultation: the wish for and possibility of migration (Chapter 5). It is argued that even if divination does not always lead to the fulfilment of the person’s wishes, it continues to unfold significant transformative and empowering dimensions by recognizing the subject in his or her full subjectivity, responding to his concerns and afflictions, and providing the force for an alternative, ritual form of (political) struggle for recognition, self-realization, and a prospectful future. Paralleling the sequential structure of the divinatory process, the study ends with the description and analyis of the praxis of sadaa, the charitable distribution of ritual offerings which has to safeguard or at least positively influence the predicted developments, and which allows for the ritual reinscription of the individual subject into the larger intersubjective lifeworld (Chapter 6).






Research History


Divination and West African Maraboutic Praxis


Anthropological Perspectives on Divination in Sub-Saharan Africa


The Phenomenological Orientation of this Study




Chapter One Locating nganiyo: Divination as Intentional Space

Geomantic Categories and the Location of Nganiyo


Structure and Development of the Divinatory Encounter




Nganiyo, Yeene, Niyya: Semantic Meaning and Phenomenological Implications of Divinatory Terminology


Heart, Self, Mind, and the Person:


Ramalu: Introducing Islamic Geomancy


Niitooroo and the Origin of Nganiyo


Niitooroo as Trauma


Metaphors of Uncertainty: Subjunctivity, Intentionality, and the Existential Significance of Divinatory Consultation




Chapter Two Structure, Content, and Significance of the Divinatory Enunciation:

Divination as Resonance Kuuringo/Petaw:


Introducing Senegambian Cowrie Shell Divination Positions in Cowrie-Shell Divination:


their Names and their Meaning


From Technical Knowledge and Linear Interpretation to Force and Intuition


Immediacy and Emphasis as Modalities of Divinatory Signification The Emergence of the Noematic Correlate:


Divinatory Enunciation as Ontogenetic Resonance


Chapter Three Divination as Hermeneutic Encounter: Reflections on Understanding, Dialogue, and the Intersubjective Foundation of Divinatory Consultation


Understanding Divinatory Enunciations


Divination and the Hermeneutic Situation


Divinatory Consultation and Dialogue


Elements of Dialogue in Senegambian Divinatory Praxis


Dialogue as Relation


Reflections on the Intersubjective Foundation of the Divinatory Process


The Atmosphere of the Divinatory Encounter


Recognition and Trust in the Divinatory Encounter


Cultural and Interpersonal Significance of the Cultural Persona of the Diviner


Theoretical Consequences of the Dialogic and Intersubjective Dimensions of Divinatory Consultation


Chapter Four Divination and Time




Considerations of Time and Temporality in the Anthropological Study of Divination


Divination and the Phenomenology of Time


Divination and the Phenomenology of Time Consciousness


Divination and Existence


Nyaatotaa: Advancement as Object of Divinatory Inquiry and Personal Aspiration


Divination as Hope


Chapter Five Divination as Access to the World? Reflections on Globality, Locality, and the Path of Travel in Senegambian Divinatory Praxis


A.’s Case (I): History


Why Travel? Globalisation as Absence and Psychodynamic Process


A.’s Case II: The Pronouncement


Divination as Hope and Prospect (Return)


Divination as Access to the World


Chapter Six The Logic of Giving: Sadaa and the Ritual Insistence on Intersubjectivity in Senegambian Divinatory Praxis


Sadaa as Subjactivity


The Logic of Objects


Sadaa and the Significance of Colour


Sharing Sadaa and the final Duwaa


Closing the Ritual Process: Sadaa as Integration


Comparative Glossary of Divinatory Terms





My foremost thanks go to the diviners and their clients who shared their knowledge and experiences with me. Without their openness and amity this research would not only have been impossible, it also would have made no sense. In the Casamance, I thank the Khalifa Ibrahima Souane, his brothers, and the other

people of Medina Souane for welcoming me and my family in their midst. I especially thank Abdoulaye Karamba Faty who gave me and my family a home in his house, and his son Kabiru for his help and friendship.

I thank Aziz Diatta for teaching me Mandinka and for assisting me on several, often

difficult research excursions. Without his dedication, social talent, and linguistic abilities I doubt that this research would have worked the way it did. For their hospitality in Sedhiou and Dakar I am grateful to Enrico and Christina Cesanelli, Morena and Ricardo Barbieri, Adama Souane, and Katherine Kilroy- Marac.

I thank my advisor Prof. Filip De Boeck for the best supervision I can imagine, for

visiting me in Senegal, and for the careful and appreciative reading of everything I wrote. Dating back to before the beginning of this doctoral research, I thank both him and Prof. René Devisch for their most inspiring teaching during the Master’s program in Social and Cultural Anthropology in 1998/1999 and the Advanced Master’s program


My colleagues at the Africa Research Centre Ann, Katrien, Johan, Koen, Peter, and Steven make it a pleasure to work in Leuven.

I gratefully acknowledge the financing of this project by the Fund for Scientific Research-Flanders (FWO).

I thank my parents for their unconditional support as long as I can remember.

My warmest thanks go to Ilse. Not only for tolerating the long periods of absence that came with this research, but for everything that is there to come.


The present study offers a phenomenological analysis of Senegambian divinatory praxis. The structure of the study follows the sequential structure of the divinatory process, starting with the initial silent articulation of one’s personal intention or concern onto the objects used in the divinatory procedure, and ending with the execution of the prescribed ritual remedies.

Research History

The original research proposal of my doctoral research project was entitled ‘Dream and imaginary as cultural space of mediation: an anthropology of local dream experience, interpretatory praxis, and globalisation among the Mandinka of southern Senegal’. The main theoretical interest behind that proposal consisted of the question in how far one could speak about dreaming as a mediating space between different cultural and experiential dimensions, and how this mediation through dreams could be seen as contributing to the formation of individual subjectivity and the experience of the contemporary lifeworld. One of the main ethnographic starting points was the investigation into the relation between dream experience and interpretation on the one hand, and divinatory praxis on the other. Another important aspect of the original proposal concerned the question in how far dream experience and interpretation would prove to mediate not only individual experience but also the general sociocultural experience of the processes of globalisation and economic marginalisation that increasingly mark the condition of the subject in the contemporary, postcolonial lifeworld. During the course of the field research, carried out in southern Senegal (Middle Casamance), Gambia (Serekunda), Thiès and Dakar from February 2002 till March 2004, it became clear, however, that in the Senegambian context the most important cultural space of mediation does not consist of dream experience or interpretation as such but rather lies in the divinatory encounter in which personal experiences (and dreams regularly surface), intentions, longings, and expectations can


be articulated, confronted and dealt with. In other words, it turned out that dream experience and interpretation were included into, encompassed, and even transcended by the divinatory encounter. As a result, the topic of divination, that from the beginning of this research formed an important ethnographic entry to the study of subject formation and cultural mediation through dreams and their interpretation, became this study’s main focus. The field research took place in several phases. A preparatory phase of two months for language tuition by a qualified teacher in Thiès, some 60km east of Dakar, in order to acquire a basic knowledge of the grammar and a first vocabulary of Mandinka, the language of my host community and lingua franca for large parts of inland southern Senegal (and Gambia), and for logistic preparations in Dakar (Feb. - March 2002), was followed by a first phase of ethnographic research in a Mandinka village in the Middle Casamance, some 45km west of the regional centre of Sedhiou (April - July 2002). The main purpose of this first phase of research was to meet the people I was going to live with for the time to come, to familiarize myself with the general social and economic conditions, to get acquainted with the language, and to start first ethnographic research activities. In the beginning, these consisted of simple observation and the attendence to local festivities and ceremonies such as baptisms (kungliyo), marriages (futuwo), the commemoration of the martyrdom of Ali (muskuto salo), and the celebration of the birthday of the prophet Mohamed (gammo). Later on, my research activities became more extensive and included, for instance, a number of interviews with the khalifa, the religious and de facto political head of the village, on (religious) healing (jaraarloo) and divination (juberoo), activities for which he was known far beyond the confines of the village and in which he had long-standing experience. At that time, however, given the emphatically private and secret character of maraboutic, divinatory consultation it was impossible for me to be present in actual séances.

This period was followed by a second extensive phase of explorative field research in the Middle Casamance, Thiès, Dakar, and the Gambia (December 2002-


Introduction Illustration 0.1: Al Khalifa Ibrahima Souane (centre), at the moment of the distribution of mungko

Illustration 0.1: Al Khalifa Ibrahima Souane (centre), at the moment of the distribution of mungko, a paste made from rice flour and sugar, prepared for and consumed during most religious ceremonies.

August 2003). A breakthrough for the research was achieved by following local patterns of knowledge transmission and to establish a personal relationship with ritual specialists such as healers and diviners. I choose not to insist upon the statute of seemingly neutral observer but adopted the position of a student (karandingo). Following the local pattern of apprenticeship and transmission of ritual knowledge, a pattern that always includes payments and donations (even between father and son), the status and value of divinatory and other ritual knowledge was recognized. At the same time and as importantly, by acknowledging the value of and paying for the knowledge one receives, not only the status of that knowledge but, and this is what is really at stake here, the status and authority of the ritual specialist are acknowledged in the proper way. This proved to be crucial, for only from this position of ritual and moral authority it was possible for the diviner or healer to explain and justify the presence of a third party (i.e. the student) to his clients in a convincing and legitimate way. In 2003 and a third period of research in the spring of 2004, this way of


integrating oneself into local structures of authority and apprenticeship lead to very fruitful relationships with more than ten different diviners in Senegal and Gambia. These cooperations resulted in an intensive apprenticeship in Islamic geomancy (ramalu) and cowrie-divination (kuurungfayo), extensive interviews with specialists and clients, as well as the documentation and recording of more than 60 consultations.

Divination and West African Maraboutic Praxis

The importance that is attributed to divinatory consultation in Senegal and Gambia is so far-reaching that hardly a sphere of life is exempted from it. Issues of health, fertility, conjugal and financial well-being, professional and electoral success, business and sport performances, the realization of one’s plans for examinations, job applications, as well as travel and migration are often felt to necessitate the prior consultation of a divination specialist. In Senegal and Gambia divination in many cases forms an integral and prerequisite part of the larger field of maraboutic consultation and ritual intervention. 1 Despite the centrality of maraboutic services and divination in Senegambian everyday life, West Africanist scholarship has for the most part focused on the historical, political, and/or socioeconomic dimensions of maraboutism rather than on the in-depth analysis of maraboutic consultation, esoteric praxis and the meaning that these practices unfold both for the individual subject taking recourse to maraboutic consultation as well as for society as a whole. As a result, we are well informed about the political and economic role of Islamic ritual specialists in Senegalese society, especially there where maraboutism and religious life articulate itself in one of the—in Senegal particularly prominent and often highly organized—Islamic brotherhoods (cf. e.g. the classic studies of Cruise O’Brien 1971 [and, more generally, 2003] on the Mouride-brotherhood and Villalón 1995 on the

1 In the Senegambian context, persons specializing in the autochthonous and/or Islamic arts of divination and healing are commonly addressed with the same terms of respect as those used to refer to a person renown for his religious education and his learnedness in the Islamic literary tradition. It is these titles or names of respect (such as mooroo in Mandinka, serigne in Wolof, or thierno in Pulaar) which are commonly translated into French and English as ‘marabout’.


Tijaniyya). With regard to the social and political role of these Islamic brotherhoods, the relation between marabouts and their followers (next to the respective section in Cruise O’Brien and Villalón cf. also Diop 1981: 297-319) and the general iconic and religious function of maraboutism have also received considerable attention (cf. Hecht & Simone1994: 97-118, and especially Roberts & Roberts 2003). Despite this well developed scholarly body of work for the sociopolitical, religious, and cultural role and significance of Senegalese maraboutism, we still know relatively little about the personal and cultural experience that maraboutic consultation constitutes for the individual subject outside the more institution-bound and formalized marabout- disciple relationship. In order to develop an understanding of why people take recourse to private maraboutic services, i.e. e. outside strict religious or ethnic affiliations and public ceremonies, and why this is of such a central importance to most people in Senegalese and Gambian society, this study looks at these ritual specialists not as political and economic f/actors but as the causal agents and mediators of highly performative and generative hermeneutic processes and ritual action. In terms of ritual analysis, this emphasis on the generative and performative dimensions of maraboutic consultation implies a necessary change in perspective, away from the person of the marabout/diviner and his abilities as centre of the divinatory process, towards an analysis of the experience and existential involvement of the subject who turns to divinatory consultation.

Anthropological Perspectives on Divination in Sub-Saharan Africa

Until the early 1990s, most studies of divination in Africa and elsewhere focused on either the cultural-historical, social, or cognitive properties of divinatory procedures. In this regard at least three different approaches can be distinguished: First, studies that concentrate on the ethnographic and historical description of the textual (mythology associated with the origin of divination, sacred texts, divinatory manuals etc) and material basis (figurines, divination boards, astrological instruments and calculation tables etc) of the various forms of divination in historical and


contemporary African societies (cf. for instance the pioneering works on Ifa and related form of divination by René Trautmann [Trautmann 1939] and William Bascom [Bascom 1969 & 1980], but also more recent studies such as the different contributions to Langer & Lutz 1999 or LaGamma 2000). Generally, the analyses in these studies are concerned with the ways in which divination manifests itself textually or materially in different cultural contexts. Second, (structural-) functionalist studies that focus on divination as a social practice and highlight divination’s significance as a central and often decisive instrument in the directing of (micro-) political processes and the formation, maintenance and transformation of economic, political and parental power relations at local levels (Turner 1975 [1961], Mendonsa 1982). In these studies, the significance of divination is primarily seen in its capacity for (re-)organizing kinship and other power relationships in a local social environment. And third, investigations that concentrate on the principles and rules of the technique of divination and the epistemological and etiological assumptions that lie at the basis of the divinatory procedures (in this regard cf. for instance Jaulin 1957 on Islamic geomancy). From the 1990 s onwards, and advocated in an earlier, seminal and programmatic article by René Devisch (Devisch 1985b), the literature on divination in sub-Saharan Africa has experienced a shift in perspective and theoretical orientation away from the levels of ethnographic cataloguing and external social analysis, towards an approach that explores the ‘internal’, semiotic, semantic and/or praxeological dimensions intrinsic to the divinatory process. Rather than denying the value of (structural-) functional approaches to divination for the analysis of social formation, transformation and micro politics, these more internal approaches aim at the understanding and defining of the phenomenological and cultural properties that are specific to divination and that distinguish it from other, non-divinatory cultural practices of investigation and decision-finding. Following in the footsteps of the program outlined by Devisch, recent investigations into the art of divination are less concerned with cultural origins, technical procedures, and questions of social functioning than with divination “as a system of knowledge in action” (Peek and contributors 1991), embodiment and world-making (De Boeck & Devisch 1994), the performative qualities inherent in the divinatory apparatus (Pemberton and


contributors 2000), and the relation between divination and other therapeutic traditions (Peek & Winkelman and contributors 2004). Following these recent investigations into the synthesizing and generative dimensions of divination, I will argue in this study that one of these fundamental generative dimensions of divination, and maybe its most specific one, consists in its shaping influence on the formation of subjective time consciousness and the situatedness of the subject in time. More specifically, I will argue that divinatory praxis should not only be viewed as an instrument of solution-finding for a variety of individual and family-related problems but that it can, in a more encompassing perspective, also be understood as a cultural praxis that is apt to apprehend and counter the possibilities and alterations that open up and occur in the spatio-temporal order of the contemporary life-world. Next to being explicitly subject-oriented, the approach that is followed throughout this study is internal and semantic, and aims at disclosing the specific qualities of Senegambian divinatory praxis from the inside of its own structure and terminology. My approach is pronouncedly phenomenological and hermeneutical in so far as it tries to analyze different aspects and details of the divinatory process in their constitutiveness for the specific subjective and cultural experience that is generated within and through the divinatory encounter. I hereby intend to avoid the treatment of divination as a kind of cultural artefact or epistemic object that may be described by the researcher as if existing apart from the hermeneutical situation and existential concern of the individual cultural subjects involved in it. Instead, and here I follow a hermeneutical tradition of understanding rather than explanation that reaches from Dilthey to Heidegger and Gadamer, the analysis of Senegambian divinatory praxis presented in this study aims at an understanding of the existential significance that divination unfolds for the persons involved, not just as a search for knowledge but as a source of transformation, empowerment, and hope. The subject-oriented approach in this study takes its departure in the phenomenological and existential analysis of certain key-notions of divinatory praxis. On the other hand, the attempt to consider cultural praxis not just as a closed symbolic system but as a means and environment for dealing both with individual situations of affliction and longing as well as contemporary sociocultural alterations and disjunctures, has much in common with the concerns of postcolonial theory (Fanon


1968, Bhaba 1994, Mbembe 2000 among others), contemporary attempts in

philosophy striving to reconsider the position of the subject as a prerequisite for

political action (cf. Zizek 1999), and recent anthropological studies of individuality

and postcolonial subjectivity in Africa (Marie 1997, Werbner 2002). 2 Independent of

the particular status that is ascribed or denied to the subject in different strands of

sociocultural theory, divinatory praxis, as well as the bodies of literature referred to

above, indicate that human existence cannot be thought of without a certain degree of

agency, self-determination, and biography. Without recognizing another person’s

individuality, his subjective concerns, and his involvement in an existential

biographic trajectory, the understanding of other people’s lifes and lifeworlds is

impossible. Independent of the particular status that is ascribed or denied to the

subject in different strands of sociocultural theory, divinatory praxis, as well as the

bodies of literature referred to above, indicate that human existence cannot be thought

of without a certain degree of agency, self-determination, and biography.

Consequently, I would argue that a minimal definition or understanding of

subjectivity should not only refer to the reflexive self-awareness that characterizes

human consciousness bio- as well as ontologically, but it must also entail a notion of

what I would call ‘subjactivity’, that is, activity and situated being-in-the-world

motivated by specific concerns, self-understandings, and ideas, as well as by

sociocultural and economic conditions.

In its endeavour to consider cultural praxis in relation to the existential

situatedness and concrete experiences of the contemporary lifeworld, the present

study also has strong affinities with Susan Reynolds Whyte’s work on divination and

uncertainty (Whyte 1989, 1990, 1997, 2002) and, also ethnographically, Michael

Jackson’s phenomenological and existentialist essays on Kuranko divination and

sacrifice (especially 1978 and 1998). In this context it is also instructive to compare

the aim of the present study with the work of Rosalind Shaw. Writing about the role

of divination in the lifeworld of Temne speakers in Sierra Leone, Shaw has argued in

a recent study that the imagery of Temne divination reflects and has been shaped by

experiences of suffering from slave trading and the perpetuation of these experiences

2 For a recent review of works on subjectivity, selfhood, and embodiment cf. also Van Wolputte 2004.


during colonial oppression (cf. Shaw 2002). I would argue that the present study complements the work of Shaw in at least two regards: On the one hand, simply because the techniques used in Sierra Leonian and Senegambian divinatory praxis are closely related and can be seen as forming part of a larger transregional West African cultural repertoire. 3 More fundamentally, however, her and my study may be seen as complementing each other in the sense that where Shaw emphasizes the extent to which the divinatory symbolism and repertoire of different forms of divination used by Temne in Sierra Leone form a kind of non-verbal ritual memory and respond to periods of crisis brought about by slave trading and colonialism, the present study highlights how today similar practices employed in the Senegambian context contribute to the process of dealing with and healing of moments of longing and experiences of crisis and exclusion relating to human existence in general as well as to the alterations and disjunctures occurring in the contemporary, postcolonial lifeworld. Seen in such a way, the retrospective and mnemonic as well as the prospective and generative dimensions of West African divination come into view as fundamental cultural means to respond to and deal with the predicaments of life today and in the face of history.

The Phenomenological Orientation of this Study

Throughout this study, I refer to phenomenological theory in order to understand and bring out the different qualities and dimensions of meaning intrinsic to the divinatory encounter. Three main reasons account for this phenomenological orientation. Already in the first chapter of this study it will become clear that the use of phenomenological thought for the analysis of divinatory praxis had its initial reason in certain unexpected parallels between divinatory and phenomenological terminology. Another reason for the phenomenological orientation of this study is methodological. Especially Husserlian phenomenology is primary concerned with the constitutional analysis (Konstitutionsanalysen) of certain basic fields of experience such as space, time, intersubjectivity. The methodological emphasis placed by Husserl on the

3 In this respect, also compare Shaw 1985 and 1991.


concentration on reality as it shows itself to and is lived by the subject, and the explicit suspension of inherited scientific and metaphysical preconceptions (cf. for instance the famous phenomenological epoché and the technique of phenomenological reduction) 4 , is something that informed my approach to the understanding of the experience constituted by the divinatory encounter throughout my research. A third reason lies in the attention that phenomenological thought devotes to the analysis of the experience and existential significance of time (cf. e.g. Heidegger 1989: 20-25), aspects without which divination, as I will argue in this study, can not be understood in its full relevance.


Drawing on the description and analysis of the cultural and phenomenological properties of Senegambian divinatory praxis, as well as the study of the content of divinatory consultations, life-histories, and the general ethnography of the Senegambian lifeworld, this study shows that divination is not just an abstract search for knowledge but rather an encompassing performative and generative hermeneutic cultural technology of hope and prospect that affects the subject in several very fundamental ways. In the following paragraphs I will give an overview of the results of the processual analysis that gives the present study its main structure. The significance of divination in the Senegambian context lies first of all in the opening up of an intentional cultural space that allows the subject to realize and confront the issues which are at the core of his or her concern or affliction (Chapter 1). Chapter 1 also includes an introduction to the method and logic of Islamic geomancy (ramalu) which represents one of the most common and most highly regarded forms of divination practised by Mandinka and other Senegambian

4 For a good introduction to Husserl’s thought and the notions of epoché and reduction cf. Bernet, Kern & Marbach 1996. For general introductions to phenomenology in German, English, and French cf. e.g. Waldenfels 1992, Moran 2000, and Lyotard (2004 [1954]). For a more specific discussion of the usefulness of certain phenomenological notions for anthropology cf. Jackson 1996.


specialists. By naming and referring to different aspects of reality such as the body, the house, the family, or the dreams of the person, the personal and cultural lifeworld originates anew as it emerges from and reveals itself through the concrete articulations of the divinatory enunciation (Chapter 2). As the diviner succeeds to address the issues and questions that are most significant for his client, different paths of thought and reflection appear and start to complete and reshape the subject’s understanding of his or her own personal situation (Chapter 3). In the attempt to gain insight and to spell out the possible developments of the client’s future, Senegambian divination is in itself chronopoetic, time-making, i.e. shaping and re-shaping the subject’s personal time consciousness (Chapter 4). The significance of its time- making quality is shown in detail through the analysis of the wish for migration that frequently surfaces in divination today (Chapter 5). It will be argued that even where divination fails to bring about the changes the individual person wished for, it continues to unfold its transformative and empowering dimensions by recognizing the subject in his full subjectivity, responding to his or her concerns and afflictions, and providing the force for an alternative, ritual form of (political) struggle for recognition, self-realization, and a prospectful future. Following the sequential structure of the divinatory process, the study ends with the description and analysis of the praxis of sadaa, the recommendation and charitable distribution of ritual offerings which have to safeguard or at least positively influence the predicted developments, and which allows for the ritual reinscription of the individual subject into the larger intersubjective moral lifeworld (Chapter 6).

Chapter One Locating nganiyo: Divination as Intentional Space

The importance that is attributed to divinatory consultation in Senegal and Gambia is so wide-reaching that hardly a sphere of life is exempted from it. Issues of health, fertility, conjugal and financial well-being, professional and electoral success, business and sport performances, the realization of one’s plans for examinations, job applications, as well as travel and migration are often felt to necessitate the prior consultation of a divination specialist. In order to inquire into the difficulties and possibilities of the client’s situation Senegalese and Gambian diviners employ a wide range of different divinatory techniques. One of the most common forms is the divination with cowrie- shells (kuroo in Mandinka, petaw in Wolof 5 ). Shells are cast onto the floor or mat where one is sitting. After every cast the diviner examines the position that the cowrie-shells have formed for meaningful patterns or constellations that can be interpreted and that will guide the diviner’s assessment of the consulter’s situation. Another widespread form of divination is geomancy, or ramalu, as it is called in Mandinka, a term derived from the Arabic darb ar-raml, the beating of the sand, or khatt ar-raml, sand writing, indicating the original execution of this technique on a surface of sand, a material basis that most marabouts today replace with writing paper on which they work with a filt or ball pen. This technique consists in the drawing of a number of random lines consisting of little stripes or dots from which the diviner then derives distinct divinatory geomantic patterns, which are called ‘doors’ (bungdaal) in Mandinka, or ‘houses’ (buyut) in Arabic, and possess distinct divinatory connotations

5 If not nearer specified, foreign words in the text are in Mandinka (Mand.), a variety of the Mande-languages which are widespread throughout West Africa. Other foreign words are either in Wolof which is spoken in and around Dakar, in most cities, along the Gambian coast, and along the major traffic routes, or in (Classical) Arabic (Ar.), in which many of the ritual specialists that I worked with achieve high levels of literacy. French and German expressions are not specified as such.

Chapter 1

that can be interpreted by the diviner. Still another form of divination that I had the chance to witness entailed the use of a little mat made of thin sticks, red cotton threads and equipped with a number of amulets (safee). Folded once in the middle and held motionless between the thumb and index finger of the right hand, the diviner asks series of questions that might be relevant for his client. Despite his attempt to keep his hand motionless, with certain questions the mat will unvoluntarily open up and close again—a movement that indicates either a positive answer to the question posed or the possibility that what the consulter is looking for will realize itself. While there are many more forms and techniques, including the casting of other objects such as roots (suluufayo) or groundnut shells, the counting of prayer beads, dream divination, and forms of not materially mediated ‘direct’ voyance, each form with its specific logic and technical requirements, the question arises what all these different methods have in common? What is the specific quality that all these different forms of divination share? What is divination in the Senegambian context and what does it bring about?

Structure and Development of the Divinatory Encounter

The structure or development of a divinatory consultation can be shown as consisting of several consecutive steps: First, the pronouncement of the nganiyo, i.e. the client’s question or concern. The client who approaches a diviner with a specific uncertainty, difficulty or wish will never inquire directly about these issues. Instead, the question that concerns the client is silently pronounced onto the objects that the diviner will use during the procedure. Thereupon, it is the task of the marabout to locate the issues which are at the core of the client’s interest and concern through the means of divinatory procedure. This locating of the client’s nganiyo represents the first and main emic criterium of the ‘succes’ of a consultation. Will the diviner talk about things that really concern me, will he see what I am looking for, will he really see me in the patterns of the cowrie-shells, the geomantic signs, his dreams? Second, the execution of the divinatory procedure and the subsequent interpretative action itself, which is refered to as jubeero in Mandinka and seet in Wolof, literally an act of

Locating Nganiyo

looking at, regarding, or viewing that should not be understood as if limited to direct visual perception but entails an encompassing consideration of the client’s condition through both, the divinatory signs appearing in the shells, the sandwriting, or dreams, as well as through the diviner’s insight into the client’s economic, social, and existential situation. 6 At this stage of the divinatory process, depending upon the technique or method employed, different but intersecting metaphorics and terminologies come into play. They construct a specific ritual environment, relate the divinatory encounter to other sociocultural fields, and structure the emerging divinatory pronouncements, all of which brings about a complex proces of poiesis, poetic ‘world-making’ (De Boeck & Devisch 1994) and emerging speech and dialogue that sets the divinatory space apart from other, non-divinatory cultural scenes. Third, the pronunciation and prescription of ritual recommendations and remedies to the issues at stake, primarily in the form of sadaa (Mnd.) or sarax (Wlf.), derived from the Arabic sadaqa, a term designating voluntary alms that in Islamic thought are seen in contrast to the obligatory alms of zakat. And fourth, the execution of these ritual recommendations through the ‘taking out’ of sadaa (sadaa bondi), i. e. the distribution of objects that range from sugarcubes and candles to cloth or food, to individuals or groups of people who have either been indicated by the diviner or chosen by the client himself, so that the predictions can realize themselves and the predicted developments can be positively influenced. Each of these consecutive phases of the divinatory process bears very specific qualities that together provide for a highly performative cultural praxis that effects the individual on several fundamental phenomenological levels. In this apter I will concentrate on the first moment or gesture of the divinatory process: The articulation and subsequent locating of the nganiyo. The gesture that opens up the

6 The emphasis on the ‘viewing’, contemplating aspect of visual activity, seems to contrast with the emphasis on the ‘seeing’ or perceiving quality of divinatory action in terms such as voyance or clairvoyance, derived from the Latin videre through the French voir, to see. One possible reason for this different semantic emphasis might be related to the question of who is conceived of as the author of the divinatory pronouncements: the diviner, either in his/her own clairvoyant capacity or as a medium, or the divinatory apparatus itself, i. e. the shells, the writing on the sand, etc.

Chapter 1

divinatory space, draws the subject into its hermeneutic dynamics, and allows the consulter to actively engage with her/his problems in a changing and challenging contemporary lifeworld.


In Senegalese and Gambian cultural settings divinatory consultation starts with the silent utterance of the nganiyo, i.e. the subject’s central motive, reason or question for coming to the consultation. In many cases, the diviner will not explicitly ask the client to pronounce their nganiyo but will simply give him or her some of the cowrie-shells that he will use during the divinatory casting procedures, or the pen that he will use for drawing and calculating the geomantic patterns. As the client is generally already acquainted with the normal proceedings of a divinatory consultation, he will take the cowries or the pen to his lips without a word and silently pronounce the reason for his coming for consultation onto the divinatory paraphernalia. The pronunciation of the reason or motivation for the consultation is, thus, in fact not directed to the diviner but to the divinatory apparatus (or to the agents that might be considered to be ‘behind’ the clairvoyant potential of the divinatory proceedings). While the client concentrates on pronouncing his/her intention, the diviner, in anticipation of the beginning of the session, will study his tools, rearrange his cloths, or change into a more comfortable sitting position, always avoiding to leave the impression that he might be trying to catch a word of what the client is saying. The fact that it is in most cases sufficient just to give the client the shells or pen without explicitly asking him to pronounce the nganiyo, combined with the seemingly casual way of dealing with this moment by the diviner and the simple fact that the pronunciation is inaudible for the diviner and any other person present, makes that this particular phase of the divinatory process, if noticed at all, is easily overlooked by the observer. During the course of research, however, I have come to consider this moment as one of the most crucial single clues to the understanding of what is at stake in the divinatory encounter, what divination in the Senegambian context actually is, what it does, and brings about.

Locating Nganiyo

The pronunciation of the nganiyo by the client is not ‘simply’ an opening gesture but a most decisive structural moment of the divinatory process. Drawing on the analysis of the semantic meaning and the phenomenological implications of this divinatory term, I will argue in this text that already with this very first ritual gesture, divination shows itself not as an abstract search for knowledge but as an encompassing and highly performative cultural praxis with very specific phenomenological qualities and cultural consequences. More specifically, I will argue that with the articulation of the nganiyo, Senegambian divination becomes immediately performative by opening up what I will call an ‘intentional space’—a performative cultural space for articulating and dealing with personal intententions, hopes, and desires. A cultural space that not only reflects the intentional nature of the human being but performatively responds to, negotiates, and transforms the cultural subject’s intentional situatedness in the lifeworld. For this purpose, I will look at the relation between the notion of nganiyo, a number of geomantic categories, and certain concepts, notions, and understandings of the motivational grounds of divinatory consultation that could be understood as the place or condition from which the nganiyo originates. I will argue that it is only in a combined understanding of these interrelated dimensions that the divinatory encounter comes into view in its fundamental relation to the intentional and subjunctive being-in-the-world of the cultural subject. Furthermore, I will argue that it is only in this relation to the intentional and the subjunctive that Senegambian divinatory praxis can be grasped in its full existential significance.

Nganiyo, Yeene, Niyya: Semantic Meaning and Phenomenological Implications of Divinatory Terminology

By Francophone Mandinka speakers the term nganiyo is most commonly translated as l’intention (intention) or, less frequently, as desire (desire). When I first noticed the important role that this term plays in the divinatory terminology, I was struck: a Mandinka term employed by diviners that let directly to intentionality and desire - central concepts of phenomenology and psychoanalysis? Not metaphorical speech but

Chapter 1

a direct and almost technical terminology? A (too) overt link between divinatory

terminology and phenomenological theory? The Mandinka term itself is derived from the Arabic niyya, a term which again is most commonly translated as intention. Intention in the form of niyya plays, for instance, a crucial role in the Islamic doctrines and practice of obligatory prayer

(Ar. salaat). These doctrines hold that a prayer that is spoken without the articulation


the niyya, i. e. one’s proper intention to fulfill the obligations of salaat, is invalid.


the context of Senegambian maraboutic divination the term takes on a more general

meaning and can refer to what one wants to do, obtain, pursue, or, simply, to what the consulter wants to know. Sometimes, instead of nganiyo, another term, hajoo, is used when giving the cowrie shells or another divinatory instrument to the client. This term, however, equally derived from Arabic, is not normally synonymous with the term nganiyo. In daily speech, hajoo does not translate neither as intention nor desire but refers to an affair, issue, or undertaking that needs to be taken care of by the individual. But why, then, can these terms be used alternatively when employed at this crucial beginning of the divinatory encounter? When I inquired about the seemingly synonymous use of these two terms, most diviners that I worked with insisted that while hajoo could be used, the correct, technical term would not be hajoo but nganiyo. However, both terms are used because the affair that preoccupies someone is finally what causes that person’s intention. The intention, in turn, reflects the person’s affair and is directed to its solution. Almost apodictically, one of the diviners that I worked with stated, ‘your affair is your intention!’ (ila hajoo wolum ila nganiyo leti). What such a statement points to is that nganiyo and hajoo are not only used synonymously but that they are, in a certain sense, actually the same. In referring to the intentional situation of the consulting individual from different, somehow interdependent directions, one might say that hajoo and nganiyo appear to be positioned in a relationship of dialectical rather than direct synonymity in that the meaning dimensions of both terms extend and reaffirm, rather than substitute each other. In the strict technical sense, however, most diviners that I worked with insisted that the correct divinatory term to describe what this situation is about is not hajoo but only nganiyo, the intention/desire of the consulter.

Locating Nganiyo

What, then, is the meaning and significance of divinatory praxis if the first act of the divinatory process consists in the pronunciation of the consulter’s personal intention? What is the cultural sense and logic of divination if it characterizes itself through its own terminology as dealing with a person’s intention, and if the first task of the diviner is conceived of as finding out or locating his client’s intention? How should divinatory praxis be understood if it presents itself as responding to the nganiyo of the client or, more broadly formulated, as a response to the consulter’s intentionality? Intentionality is regarded as one of the central and most fundamental concepts of phenomenological theory (Bernet, Kern & Marbach 1996: 85-96). First in his Logische Untersuchungen (Husserl 1975 & 1984 [1900 & 1901], especially in the fifth and sixth investigation) and later in his Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie (Husserl 1976 [1913]) Husserl emphasized that acts of consciousness (Bewußtseinsakte) are never empty, without content, but always including something that is intended by and within the act. An act of perception, for instance, never takes place ‘as such’ but is always necessarily perception of something. The object of a perceiving act can, therefore, not be separated from the act itself but is in itself always already part of that consciousness of which it is the object. From such a perspective on perception it becomes clear that if every single act of consciousness can be characterized as intentional, human consciousness in general is defined and structured by intentionality. In how far can this characterization of consciousness as intentional help us to understand the significance of divination in the Senegambian context? It should be clear that the nganiyo of the consulter in the divinatory encounter cannot be directly equated with intention in the sense of Husserlian intentionality. Intention, in the Husserlian sense, is the main characteristic of intentionality as a structure that underlies all action and consciousness. As a structure it is in itself abstract, an a-priori characteristic of consciousness that can only be deduced from the normal phenomenal reality in an operation of what Husserl used to call an ‘eidetic reduction’, a kind of stripping off of the phenomenon of its concrete but incidental properties to its bare essentials. Nganiyo as the intention with which the consulter approaches divinatory consultation is, instead, not abstract but necessarily specific, always already concretized by the specific hopes, questions, and

Chapter 1

predicaments of the respective cultural subject. The significance of the phenomenological notion of intentionality for the understanding of the concept of nganiyo lies thus rather in the general implications and consequences of the Husserlian insight for our understanding of human nature than in a possible identity between the two concepts. The Husserlian notion of intentionality allows us to recognize that the cogito is never self-sufficient but always already and necessarily intentionally related to its lifeworld. Divination seems to know this. By directing itself to the intention of the client, divination shows that it is aware that the person who takes recourse to it is not interested in abstract knowledge but primarily in what concerns her/him in her/his own personal situation, conflict, or predicament. The interest of the divinatory search lies not in obtaining neutral information but in bringing out something of what is most relevant and urgent for the consulter. In this sense, divination can only be and is only meaningful and significant in so far as it is responding to the issues the consulter is really concerned with. At this point it is useful to come back to the observation of the synonymous usage of the terms hajoo (affair, concern, issue, etc.) and nganiyo (intention) at the beginning of the divinatory encounter. Tentatively, I have characterized the relationship of these two terms as one of dialectical rather than direct synonymity in order to express that while these terms do not mean the same, both seem to be interrelated, if not correlative, in pointing at the same phenomenon from two different but complementary directions. What could be said about this relation of dialectical synonymity between hajoo and nganiyo if looked at from a Husserlian perspective? In Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie Husserl introduced the terminological distinction between noesis and noema to emphasize the fact that the distinction between intending act and intended object is not meant to portray something like a subject-object relationship in the physical world but to describe the intentional structure of consciousness itself (Husserl 1976 [1930]: esp. 200-224). What is crucial here is that the intentional act (noesis) and the intentional object (noema), are not experientially present as two seperate entities, but the intentional lived experience itself always comprises already both, noesis and noema, at the same

Locating Nganiyo

time. 7 Extrapolating between Husserls phenomenological reflections and the question of the significance of the articulation of the nganiyo or hajoo at the beginning of the divinatory encounter, the phenomenological implications of this first moment come into view: In so far as an intentional act as noesis necessarily comprises a noematic correlate, one could say that the articulation of the nganiyo by the consulter as an intentional act always necessarily entails an issue (hajoo) that noematically corresponds to the subject’s intention. This has a number of consequences which, I believe, are fundamental to understand the full scope of this first moment of the divinatory encounter. Or, in other words, without recognizing the full phenomenological connotations and implications of this first act of the divinatory encounter it would be difficult to avoid the tendency to consider the divinatory process only in terms of either its formal properties (method, mathematics, cognitive requirements, etc), its symbolism, or only on the level of the explicit meaning of the different divinatory statements that are expressed during the consultation. What are these consequences? First, the consulter is not just the adressee of divinatory discourse. From the beginning he or she is fully implied in it as an intentional human being. This does not mean that the client necessarily has to engage actively in the divining process or to enter into a dialogue with the diviner (although the divinatory encounter will often lead to such a dialogic situation). Full implication here means phenomenologically implied in the sense that what most characterizes the person when she or he comes for consultation, i. e. the wish and the urge to come to know something about his/her personal predicament, is fully recognized not only by the diviner but by the structure of the divinatory encounter itself. At the very moment that the client receives the divinatory objects in order to pronounce his or her intention upon it, the client cannot remain in the position of a neutral observer (unless

7 The question remains if with this distinction between noesis and noema Husserl really succeeded in disentangling the experiential knot (cf. e. g. the critiqual remarks by Bernet in Bernet/Marbach/Kern 1996: 93ff.); for the purpose of the present analysis of divinatory praxis, however, it appears more constructive and useful to me just to follow the epistemic direction that is implied in this terminological struggle in order to recognize and better understand the nature of the intrinsic link between the articulation of the nganiyo as intentional act and the issue at hand (hajoo).

Chapter 1

he would, for whatever reason, consciously attempt to distance himself from the whole event). Instead, the client is forced to become aware that it is his or her personal and often secret concerns that form the central object of the divinatory inquiry. Consequently, through the articulation of the nganiyo, the subject is forced to open up to the inquiry. Simultaneously, he or she thereby undergoes a change in the way the inquiry relates to her/his own situation. In a way, one could say that it is already at this very early stage that the situation of the client becomes inevitably (at least potentially) transformed. That which, until then, the person had kept largely to himself and what was his most intimate secret (kungloo) is suddenly put under the scrutiny of divinatory procedure. We can see that this transformation works noetically as well as noematically in so far as the new intentional situation entails an attitudinal change towards alertness, curiosity, expectation, responsiveness, etc. which is not abstract but defined by the object of its intention, its specific hajoo, i. e. its concern, desire, or whatever takes the position of the Husserlian noema. Through the articulation of an always already concrete intentional issue, the necessary presence of the noematic correlate in the intentional act makes that the subject is enabled and forced to open up and to become responsive both to his or her own motivations and motives, as well as to the divinatory process. Seen from the perspective of the divinatory process, one could say that the moment of the articulation of the nganiyo becomes phenomenologically transformative in taking the subject towards and into the consultational situation that can no longer be approached in a neutral way. Rather, the subject has to confront his or her own intentions and is forced to open up towards the different ritual and discursive dimensions that will unfold in the further course of the divinatory encounter. The analysis of the notion of the articulation of the nganiyo thus indicates that the significance of divination can not be fully understood if it would just be considered in the light of its final predictions and their outcome in the future. Instead, this analysis shows that the divinatory encounter, independent of its outcome in the future, becomes immediately transformative in (re)shaping and (re)orienting the subject’s intentional situatedness. Strictly speaking, the interpretation of the gesture of the articulation of intention at the beginning of the divinatory encounter as an expression of intentionality does not depend upon the explicit use of a term such as nganiyo. The

Locating Nganiyo

intentional dimension is pre- or extra-terminological in the sense that it is already present in the gesture itself. However, the existence of a specific technical term within the divinatory terminology to identify this inaugural intentional act gives weight to the analysis. It shows that the analysis actually parallels and is predated by the understanding and logic of the divinatory praxis. In this sense, intention and intentionality are present both implicitly, in the gesture of the articulation of a specific intention, wish, or issue by the consulter as a prerequisite of the divinatory process, and explicitly in the concept of nganiyo that is referred to and acted upon by the diviner and his clients. The validity and pervasiveness of the intentional logic of the divinatory encounter is also reflected in the fact that it is not limited to a single ethnic or linguistic context. Wolof speaking diviners, for instance, refer to the same situation with the term yeene which appears equally to be derived from the Arabic niyya and is employed in exactly the same way as the Mandinka notion of nganiyo. Divinatory terminology and its conscious use and understanding by diviners thus moves beyond the only implicit dimensions of meaning in habitual praxis and represents a conscious and explicit attempt to give words to the complexities of divinatory experience. In other words, one could say that the specific use and systematic of the divinatory terminology does not just present us with ‘ethno-phenomenological’ notions from which one could derive an emic model of the understanding of divination but already formulates in itself the beginnings of a phenomenology of divination that looks beyond the confines of what Husserl used to call the ‘natural attitude’, i.e. moving beyond the non- or pre-theoretical position in which we normally act and think and towards a way of thinking that attempts to reflect on the fundaments, insights, and assumptions that underlie its own implicit logic.

Heart, Self, Mind, and the Person: Geomantic Categories and the Location of nganiyo

I have argued that the pronunciation of the nganiyo by the consulter is not only an opening gesture but actually creates the opening up of an immediately performative divinatory space with very specific phenomenological qualities. Seen as such, the

Chapter 1

notion of nganiyo is presented as perhaps the most important and central single clue to the understanding of Senegambian divinatory praxis in general. The danger of attributing such an importance to one single notion within an epistemic, ritual, and discursive praxis that contains a multiplicity of different elements and dimensions lies of course in constructing a systematicity and coherence that does not exist as such in the observed praxis itself. Consequently, it should be asked how the notion of nganiyo relates to the other elements that make up and underly the divinatory praxis, its logic, terminology, and its further processual unfolding. In how far is this notion present in the rest of the divinatory process, i. e. apart from being the conceptual basis of the gesture that opens up the divinatory encounter? In how far can this notion be shown as underlying the more general logic of the divinatory praxis? More specifically, one could ask where exactly divination locates the intention, desire, and ambition of the subject that it seems to be concerned with? Where is it that the nganiyo originates? The following excerpt will form the basis for the analysis of the location and origin of the intention of the subject in divinatory praxis. It is taken from a longer interview/lesson with Bamba Camara, a young Mandinka marabout (mooro) in Thiès. Bamba Camara had agreed to teach me some of the basics of ramalu, the art of Islamic geomancy, a widespread and highly complex divinatory method that, in 2003, he had been studying since more than ten years, first under the auspices of his father and then by himself, through reading, discussing certain points with other marabouts, and, most importantly, through his own practice. He had shown me how to derive the ‘houses’ (Ar. buyuut) or ‘doors’ (bungdaal) from the random divinatory patterns that have to be drawn at the beginning of every ramalu session. Sitting in front of a sheet of paper that by now was covered with dotted lines on the top half and the sixteen divinatory houses at the bottom, both separated from each other by the name of the Prophet Mohamed written in Arabic script, I asked him where he would start to talk to his client? With which sign would he begin? What would he say?

Before turning to the excerpt where Camara refers to the process of identifying the nganiyo of the client, it is useful to note how the geomantic technique generally works.

Locating Nganiyo

Locating Nganiyo Illustration 1.1 : Bamba Camara, Thiès, Senegal. 27

Illustration 1.1: Bamba Camara, Thiès, Senegal.

Chapter 1

Ramalu: Introducing Islamic Geomancy

Islamic geomancy or ramalu, as this form of divination is called in Mandinka, is a wide spread form of divination in Islamic sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic geomancy is a technique that can be traced back to the beginnings of Islamic civilisation in the seventh century. Even beyond the boundaries of Islamic Africa, it seems to have inspired and influenced divinatory traditions in many regions that came in contact with but not necessarily fully embraced Islamic religion or culture as a whole (cf. Brenner for a discussion of this aspect with reference to the existing literature on various traditions, and van Binsbergen 1995 & 1996 for the relation between Islamic geomancy and four-tablet divination in South Africa). Overall, this specific divinatory technique seems to have adapted well to local circumstances and requirements (cf. Brenner 2000, Kassibo 1992). Due to its remarkable geographical expansion, and probably because of the intellectual appeal of its formal and cultural complexity, Islamic geomancy is arguably one of the forms of divination that has received most attention from researchers, especially if one includes the derivated and integrated forms such as sikidy and Ifa that feature prominently in the ethnography of divination in Madagascar, Nigeria, Togo, and Benin (for Senegal and Mali cf. Kassibo 1992, Sow 2001, Eglash 1997; for West Africans marabouts in Paris cf. Kuczynski 2002; for sikidy cf. eg. Vérin & Rajaonarimanana 1991 with further references; for Ifa and related forms cf. Trautmann 1939, Bascom 1969 & 1980, Abimbola 1976 & 1977, de Surgy 1981). Next to questions of historical development, distribution, and local adaptation, these studies have focused on the interpretative catalogue and literary corpus upon which these divinatory traditions draw (Trautmann 1939, Bascom 1969 & 1980, Abimbola 1976 & 1977), its methodology and symbolism (Sow 2001), or the formal and/or mathematical properties of the geomantic system (Jaulin 1957 & 1966, Eglash 1997).

The Mandinka term ramalu is derived from the Arabic darb ar-raml, or khatt ar-raml, the beating or writing of the sand, denominations echoing the fact that these techniques were originally executed on a surface of sand, a material basis that most marabouts today replace with writing paper on which they work witt a filt or ball pen.

Locating Nganiyo

Locating Nganiyo Illustration 1.2: Example of a geomantic calculation made by Bamba Camara, Thiès, July 2003.

Illustration 1.2: Example of a geomantic calculation made by Bamba Camara, Thiès,

July 2003. Note that Bamba Camara wrote the name with the letters in isolated positions:

mim-ha’-mim-dal. This is an unusual but accepted way of proceeding. Most diviners, however, prefer to write the name in the normal, connected way linking the different letters up in the way that is typical for Arabic writing.

Chapter 1

However, some diviners still use a sand surface to work on and it is due to this original material basis that this form of divination, and its European and African derivatives, are refered to as geomancy in Western historiography and anthropology. The technique itself consists in the drawing of sixteen random lines of little stripes or dots from which the diviner then derives distinct divinatory geomantic patterns, or signs (tamansee) to be interpreted. The preparation of the drawing usually starts with the writing of the formula bismi-llah ar-rahman ar-rahim (in the name of God the Merciful and Compassionate) on top of the sheet of paper used for the execution of the divinatory drawings and calculations. This formula should according to (Arabic-) Islamic convention should start any written or oral presentation. Again in Arabic script, the diviner writes the name and surname of his client, sometimes accompanied by the fame of his father, mother, or both. Further down the page, the diviner then writes the name of the prophet Mohamed in Arabic letters (mim, ha’, mim, dal) and it is above these four letters that the 16 random lines are drawn from right to left, forming four clusters of lines, each containing four single lines. Yafay Mané, one of the four geomantic specialists that I worked with, referred to this line of writing, that seperates the upper from the lower half of a geomantic sheet, as Muhammad kungo, head of Mohammed. He pointed out that the writing of the name Mohamed in Arabic script resembles a person lying on his back. The fist mim forming the head, and the following ha’, mim, and dal, forming his chest, stomach, and feet, almost as if the geomantic signs are emanating directly from the figure of the (sleeping or dreaming?) Prophet. Responding to my question why he would write the name Muhammed at the beginning of the session, Yafay Mané explained:

Ate le mu Nabiyomoo foloo ti, ate le mu Nabiyomoo labango le ti. Puru nying kama la, wo horomoo kang, puru Allah si i deemaa, i be kuma kango meng fola, fo baraka se ka jee, wo le yaa tinna, wo daliloo le yaa tinna, í ka a safee.

‘He is the first messenger and the last messenger. For his honour, that God may help you, that the word that you will say may be a good word, it’s because of that, for that reason, that one writes it [i. e. the name of the Prophet].’

Locating Nganiyo

Here the writing of the name of the Muhammad is not symbolic simply in the sense of representation. It is perceived by the diviner as a possibility to safeguard the quality of his pronouncements, thereby reflecting the ethical obligation of the diviner towards his client to say what is true and right (fo baraka). Ultimately, the diviner’s concern is thus not about the question whether the figure of the Prophet can be seen as symbolizing the source of the signs of ramalu, or whether the Prophet is the source of the geomantic signs (although symbolically the drawing seems to indicate this). In other words, the writing of the name Muhamad is not understood or used as a legitimisation of the practice of geomantic consultation. Rather, it forces and allows the diviner to submit and inscribe himself into the same moral tradition of righteousnes and integrity towards the other that many Muslims consider to be one of the main characteristics and qualities of the Prophet. After having drawn out all sixteen lines, the diviner derives from these lines the signs that will occupy the first four ‘doors’ or’houses’ of the geomantic lay-out. This happens by ticking off, from bottom to top, the dots or stripes of each line in pairs until either one single pair or a single dot or stripe is left. This is done for all sixteen lines. The dots or pairs of dots that remain after this procedure are then transferred underneath the name of the prophet Mohamed that divides the geomantic sheet in two halves. Here, the dots or stripes will result into four geomantic signs (1- 4), corresponding to the four different clusters of lines above, each sign being composed of four elements, i. e. four of the single dots or pairs of dots that have been derived from the ticking off of the lines on the top half of the sheet. From these four signs another group of four is derived by adding up the different elements of each sign horizontally, two single dots making a new pair, a single dot plus a pair resulting in another single dot (4-8). The next four signs are derived in the same way by combining the first, the second, the third and the fourth two of the first eight signs (1+2=9; 3+4=10., 5+6=11; 7+8=12). The 13th and the 14th ‘door’ are derived from the combination of the 9th and the 10th and the 11th and the 12th, respectively. The 15th from the combination of the 13th and the 14th. The 16th and last one from

Chapter 1

combining number 15 and number one. The result of these operations is a geomantic lay-out consisting of 16 signs, each of which has distinct divinatory connotations. 8 It is crucial for the understanding of geomancy as divinatory technique to note that the divinatory connotations of the 16 signs that can appear in a geomantic lay-out are not fixed, i.e. not independent from the position in which they appear. They are dependent upon the meaning context of the ‘door’ or’house’ in which they are found at the end of the geomantic calculation. The derived signs are not interpreted linearily or in isolation from each other but within the grid of houses/doors and their distinct connotations. The remarkable complexity of geomantic divination rests mainly upon this feature. One could say that, in a way, the lower, empty half of the page where the signs are written down is not empty but pre-structured by a system of 16 slots, the so called, ‘doors’ (bungdaal in Mandinka), or ‘houses’ (buyut in Arabic), which again possess distinct divinatory connotations. What the diviner does when he derives the divinatory signs by the above described procedure is filling up these unoccupied but meaningful positions with specific signs whose connotations are not fixed but dependent upon the position in which they occur. In other words, the geomantic lay-out is constructed in two dimensions: First, a system of sixteen ‘doors’ or ‘houses’ each of which is associated with a specific region of meaning (person, wealth, health etc.) and second, 16 signs which each carry a specific name and divinatory connotations. Most of these refer to certain prophetic figures of the (Abrahamitic-) Islamic tradition (Yousuf, Ayuba, Mousa, etc). The difficulty for the observer consists in the fact that each of the houses is already associated with a specific sign/figure, and at least partly reflects the sign’s connotations. Moreover, during sessions, the houses are often referred to with the personified name of the sign rather than with its more abstract, categorial name. This two-dimensional structure of the geomantic system is represented in the following table that was written and drawn by Bamba Camara. The table shows all sixteen signs, each of which, for the sake of convenience, is numbered at its bottom. The Arabic name of the sign is written on top of it; underneath, also in Arabic, is

8 The basic procedure of deriving the geomantic signs has been described in the same way by Jaulin 1957, Eglash 1997, Brenner 2000, and Sow 2001.

Locating Nganiyo

written the name of the house. All signs are arranged in the order of the houses with which they are normally associated with.

of the houses with which they are normally associated with. Illustration 1.3: Instructive table giving the

Illustration 1.3: Instructive table giving the names of doors and houses (Bamba Camara, Thiès, July 2003).

Transcribed and translated the table reads as follows: The first two columns giving the transcription of the Arabic designations of the different signs and houses in Latin letters, the third column a translation of the names of the houses. The fourth column gives the Mandinka equivalents of the Arabic terms that Bamba Camara mentioned orally but which he did not include in the above table. The fifth column gives the translation of the Mandinka terms. The additions in square brackets give variations in the Arabic designation of the different Houses and Mandinka equivalents there where equivalents where not mentioned in Bamba Camara’s account. They stem from a

Chapter 1

similar table and corresponding explanations by Yafay Mané, Medina Souane, January/February 2004.

The Geomantic Signs and their Houses:

Name of Sign

Houses (Arabic)


Doors (Mandinka)


1 Yusufu

Beit an-Nafs

House of the Self

Sondomoo Bundaa

Door of the Heart Door of Wealth/ [Door of Chance] Door of Paternal Relatives Door of (Paternal) Brothers Door of the Son

2 Adamu

Beit al-Mal

House of Property

Naafuul Bundaa/


[Harjee Bundaa]

3 Muhamadu

Beit al-Aba’i

House of Fathers

Faalaa Bundaa


4 Idris

Beit Ikhwa

House of Brothers

Faading Bundaa/

5 Ibrahim

Beit Banin

House of Sons/ Descendants

Dingo Bundaa

6 ‘Isa

Beit Marid

House of the Ill

Jankaroo Bundaa/

Door of Illness/ [Room of Illness] Door of Marriage


[Kuurango Bungo]

7 Umr

Beit Nikah

House of Marriage

Futu Bundaa/


[Futuwo Bundaa]

8 Ayub

Beit Qubur/

House of Graves/ House of Death

[Kabuuru Bungo]

[Room of Graves] Door of Death Door of Travel/ [Room of the Path of Travel] Door of the King/ [Room of Kingship] Door of Hope Door of the Enemy Door of the Place Door of the Question Door of Judging

Beit al-Maut

Saayaa Bundaa

9 Allahu Ta’ala

Beit Safr/

House of Travel/ House of the Path

Taamoo Bundaa/

[Beit at-Tariq]

[Taama Siloo



10 Suleiman

Beit Sultan/

House of the Sultan/ House of Kingship/ Sovereignty

Mansa Bundaa/

Beit al-Muluk

[Mansayaa Bungo]

11 ‘Ali

Beit Raja’i

House of Hope

Jikoo Bundaa

12 Nuhi

Beit ‘Adu

House of Enemies

Jawoo Bundaa

13 Yunus

Beit Majalis

House of Places

Siidulaa Bundaa

14 Hassan wa

Beit Mas’ul

House of the Demander




15 ‘Uthman

Beit Quadi/

House of the Judge/ House of Judgement

Kiitii Bundaa

Beit Hukm


16 Beit ’Aquibatu House of Outcome/


Labang Bundaa

The Last Door


Locating Nganiyo

While each of the different geomantic signs is thus conventionally associated with a specific door within the geomantic lay-out, in an actual consultation signs appear in different houses due to the random procedure explained before. As each sign can appear in any of the sixteen houses, and as the meaning of a specific sign changes depending upon the position in which it appears, the geomantic system provides for a high degree of variation and flexiblity. The number of possible lay-outs depends upon the first four signs which are generated from the random lines of dots, drawn at the beginning of each session. As such, the geomantic procedure first combines a first sign out of sixteen with another set of sixteen (16²), and repeats this a third (16³) and a fourth time (16³ multiplied by 16), arriving at a total of 65 536 possible lay-outs (cf. Jaulin 1957: 44-46). Even if we look at each door-sign combination separately rather than contextualized by a complete lay-out, we find 256 different possible combinations. ‘Ramalu’, Bamba Camara pointed out to me during our lessons ‘is an extensive knowledge’ (ramaloo londoo fanuta le), the study of which continues throughout a diviner’s life and basically never ends. In order to get a better idea of the nature of these proceedings, it is, however, interesting to note an example of how signs and houses interrelate in an actual consultation. In the geomantic sheet that is reproduced above (cf. Table 1) as a general example of how such sheets can look like, one finds, for instance that Nuh (Noah) ‘stands’ (be looring) in the House of the Self which is normally, i. e. with the system being at rest, associated with the sign of Yusuf (cf. table 3). This was interpreted by Bamba Camara as a sign that the client had faced difficulties in her first marriage or engagement. A fact that he was aware of from her first consultation the day before but that he found confirmed by the sign of Nuh, that, in geomancy, is generally associated with enmity and adversality, pointing to the fact that her central concern had been affected by the malintentions of others, probably her own parents and relatives. This situation was evaluated by Bamba Camara in combination with the significance of the constellation in the second position, Hassan wa Hussein standing in the House of Chance or Wealth (beit al-mal), indicating ambivalence or being of two minds, the urge to move elsewhere, or the loss of valuables. The sign of Yusuf in the House of Marriage (beit an-nikah), indicated that the client had been dreaming about someone

Chapter 1

for a long time. The sign of Idrisa in the House of Hope was perceived by Camara as pointing to the realization of her hopes in the near-by future. This was indicated not only by the conventional meaning of the prophetic figure but also by its consisting out of seven points, which meant that the affair at stake had already started to realize itself in the present. The sign of Hassan wa Hussein in the House of Wealth also indicated that for safeguarding her chance she should distribute two chicken of the same weight as sadaa (or sarax in Wolof), a ritual offering, charity, or sacrifice, that is considered to be the most important ritual means to influence the development of one’s personal affairs and situation. Besides the two chickens, Camara explained during the consultation, another sadaa of six meters of cloth or two meter of black cloth were suggested by the combination in the first position. A day after the consultation Camara explained to me that there were further details that had been revealed but that he had been hesitant to address them during the session in order not to upset his client. At a certain place in the geomantic lay-out her ‘virginity’ (viergo) had appeared and by the means of another, additional combination of signs, outside the 16 doors that form the basic geomantic lay-out, he had seen that ‘she knew’, meaning that she had already had experience with men despite the fact that she was not yet married. As her first marriage had been resisted by her family, it appeared likely that she probably had intercourse with her potential partner before the conclusion of the marriage contract. Circumstances, however, that he had not wanted to address in order not to embarass or upset his client unneccesarily. What she had told me the day before, right after the session and without Camara being present, confirmed these interpretations. There had not only been a sexual relationship between her and her friend (something that she of course did not mention as such) but her relationship had resulted in a pregnancy and the birth of a little boy who by the time of her visit with Bamba Camara (July 2003) had already reached two years of age.

Divination by geomancy shows itself here as a complex process of interpretation in which the different signs are not read neither stereotypically or in an isolated manner but as interrelated within the distinct lay-out of a specific consultation. Beyond the interpretation of the meaning of the different signs in terms of their conventional divinatory connotations and their appearance and association

Locating Nganiyo

with the different ‘Doors’ or ‘Houses’ of the geomantic system, signs can be

associated with a male or female persons, the different physical elements, or with

different times (past, future, and present).

What distinguished Bamba Camara’s actual way of presenting his findings to

his client from other geomantic consultations that I witnessed was the often explicit

reference to the signification of the different signs and doors of ramalu. Something

that allows the client to get a glimpse of the multiple elements appearing in the

geomantic lay-out. However, this very open and explicit way of presenting the results

of a geomantic consultation seemsto be the exception rather than the rule. In most of

the cases I witnessed, divinatory pronouncements only rarely referred to the

constitutive elements of the geomantic proceedings. Instead, results were presented in

a much briefer and more closed way. The primary reason for this is that these details

are considered of no importance for the client. The latter is thought to be primarily

interested in clear, unequivocal statements and ritual prescriptions. This

straightforward way of presentation shortcuts much of the symbolic tissue that could

otherwise furnish the discursive space of the divinatory encounter. On the other hand,

due to this lack of explicit symbolism in divinatory speech, the message becomes

clearer for the client. It also forces the analysis of the divinatory praxis to abandon its

focus on symbol and metaphor and to move to the consideration of other, different but

equally fundamental properties and dimensions of the divinatory encounter. One of

these dimensions concerns the significance of the articulation and locating of the

nganiyo at the beginning of the divinatory encounter.

Example 1.1: Bamba Camara, Thiès, Senegal, July 2003. (The original Mandinka

appearing in the left column).

Saaying dung, i yaa long ramalu, silool le be ala a siyaata. Kuwool fanang be jee le iye meng long janni i be kuma-wo-kuma fola, i ñanta jee jubeela le, fo i yaa long,

Now, thus, you know, ramalu, its ways are many. There are issues, too, where you know, before saying anything, you have to look there. You have to know,

Chapter 1

moo meng naata mune be a sondomoo to. Kon, foloo-foloo, siloo fanang be jee le, iye meng long, ning, iye woo juubee, ning, iye wolu composé wo kaa yitandi, iye le ko ñing, de a naata mune la, mune mu a hamee kuwo ti. ( )

Dool be jee í si naa,

í taa fola,

iye fo dung, ala probleemoo mu mung ti,

a taa fola.

Wo ka naa le a saa fo iye a jubee nñe,

Yaa long wo siifaa nak

i taa noola i yaa ñininkaa.

Sinon a baa fola nte lafita le

iye kuwool juubee. Ite maa long, c’est inconnu.

Nte ye meng noo wo le mu rek, ngaa juubee silool, bungdaal be jee nka mennu composé puru [pour] ka long ñing au fond mune yaa batandi. Aye niitooroo, ala niitooroo be looring mune to? Nsi woo fanang jubee,

the person that has come, what is in their heart. First, thus, there is a way of which you know, if you look at it, if you compose it, it will show you, you will say, this [person], why s/he has come, what is the issue of her/his ambition. ( )

There are those that when they come, they don’t tell you [their reason for consultation], thus, you tell, what is their problem, they don’t tell you. He comes and says regard me [i.e. divine for me]. You know, this kind [of people], you cannot ask them. Sinon, he will tell you ‘I want you to regard [my] affairs’. [But] You don’t know, c’est inconnu.

What I can do is just,

I regard the paths,

there are doors that I compose in order to know, this [person],

au fond, what has tired him, His niitooroo, what is his niitooroo 9 standing on?

I can regard that as well,

9 Literally, the ‘injury of the soul’. The term will be analysed more closely.

n saa jee, ñing de a la niitooroo be looring ñing ne to.

Locating Nganiyo

I see, This [person], his niitooroo is standing on this.

Bamba Camara’s explanations were highly instructive. As a matter of fact, at

that stage of my research, to me, they were pathbreaking in so far as he seemed to

touch upon fundamental notions that until then I had often only been guessing at. And

this although, at first, our relation had not been easy. I had been directed to him by a

friend and informant of mine who, by the usual rules of hierarchy that structure social

relationships among Mandinka-speakers from the outset, as well as by biological age,

was to be considered his elder. Due to this hierarchical relationship between Bamba

Camara and this friend, he felt obliged to work with me but resented the fact that he

was not in full control of the situation. At the same time, he himself would have

considered his relationship with our contact person not only as a hierarchical one but

also as one of mutual respect and, possibly, as one of friendship. Otherwise I guess it

would have been impossible to work together. Fortunately, the situation worked.

Sitting together in the small room at the entrance of the family compound where he

receives his clients, his voice would fill with passion for his own work, and he would

present me with a fast-flowing stream of explanations on the fundamentals of

geomantic divination. In order to appreciate his explanations fully one should keep

several things in mind.

First, the most urgent questions of the ethnographer are most regularly not

those that are most urgent for his informants. A situation that is symptomatic for

much of the ambivalence of the anthropological project of searching for meaning

there where other people are mainly concerned with making it from day to day with

little or no financial resources but nevertheless enmeshed in a dense net of necessities

and demands. 10 Second, in most cases the explanations that are offered focus

exclusively on describing the mechanics of the different divinatory methods that are

employed. For most diviners there seems to be no meta-level to their work, no

10 Or to paraphrase Artaud: anthropology always entails the danger of artificially directing thoughts towards culture where the only concern is hunger (Artaud 1964).

Chapter 1

‘ethnotheory’ on divination.What they know is predominantly what they do and vice versa. This is mainly due to the fact that the different forms of divination are above all seen, learned, and employed as instrumental techniques rather than as procedures that require any specific theoretical knowledge behind or beyond the knowledge of the rules and mechanics that govern the divinatory procedures. What you have to know for divining is how it works, the technology of it. How to draw the divinatory patterns in ramalu and how to read them. How to throw the cowrie-shells and how to interpret their positions. What verses to speak before attempting listikaroo or how to count the beads of a chaplet (tasabayoo) in order to find the right passages in the Koranic text. Effective divination, in other words, does not necessitate further ideas or conceptualizations about why these methods work, what particular terms ‘really’ mean, or why certain things have to be done in one way, and not another. For effective divination, correct execution of the typical action pattern suffices. In contrast, Bamba Camara’s explanation did apparently contain a more theoretical dimension resulting, on the one hand, from his own very conscious study of geomancy and, on the other hand, from his many years of study of the key works of the Islamic tradition reaching from Quran, Hadith, and Sunna, to the wide field of Islamic thought and commentary. In the first paragraph of the excerpt cited above Camara refers to the necessity to find out, through divinatory procedure, ‘what is in the heart’ (mune be a sondomoo to) of the person that comes for consultation. In the second paragraph he further explains the situation in which he finds himself when divining, stating that most of his clients would not tell him why they have come so that it is he himself who has to find out the person’s reason for consulting him. In the third paragraph, Camara adds a new dimension to his explanations by characterizing and identifying the general nature of what pushes people to seek recourse in divinatory consultation as that ‘what has tired’ a person (mune yaa batandi) or, more concisely, as niitooroo, a term that generally refers to feelings of sadness, sorrow, grief or distress (cf. e.g. W. E. C. 1991 [1989]: 239). As a compound noun, however, it links the word niiyo, soul, and tooroo, wounding, which stems from ka toora, to injure or to wound, both physically and emotionally. According to this compound nature, niitooroo could thus

Locating Nganiyo

be translated more literally (and more dramatically) as ‘soul-injury’ or ‘wounded soul’.

At first sight, it is not so surprising to assume sadness, distress, or some kind of affliction as marking the condition of someone who seeks divinatory consultation. Especially not if the heart (sondomoo) is considered the bearer or origin of what pushes the client towards the diviner. But doesn’t this description of the client’s condition contrast sharply with the insistence by most diviners on the centrality of the

client’s intention (nganiyo)? Isn’t there a certain contradiction, if, on the one hand, the subject is considered as a consciously intending individual, connotating volition, self- reflexivity, and autonomy, and if he is on the other hand seen as afflicted, connotating

a more passive condition of suffering and pain? What this characterization of the

client’s condition conveys is, in my opinion, a deep sensing of the nature of intention, desire, and the general predicament of the subject. Rather than being contradictive in itself, the signifying chain of heart (sondomoo), mind (hakiloo), intention (nganiyo), need (hajoo), and affliction (niitooroo) seems to insist upon an intrinsic link between niitooroo and nganiyo, between the subject’s affliction and his intention. This becomes clearer if we look in more detail at how these different notions are related to each other in the geomantic system. In Arabic, the first House/Door that is derived from the lines that are drawn above the name of the Prophet on the top half of the page, is called ‘the House of the Self’, beit an-nafs. 11 It was this first position in the geomantic table that Camara alluded to when he refered to a place in the ramalu where you have to look first. In Mandinka two terms are used synonymously: moo la bungdaa and sondomoo la bungdaa, ‘Door of the Person’ and ‘Door of the Heart’. In Arabic-Islamic theory nafs

is conceived of as one of three components that make up the non-material reality or

being of the human person: Nafs, ’aql, and ruh. Nafs, which is usually translated as the ‘self’ of the person, is the locus and origin of human drives, self-interest, emotions, etc. ‘Aql instead designates the faculty of reason; it is the locus of mind,

11 For more general descriptions of the formal, mathematic, technical and symbolical aspects of the functioning of Islamic geomancy cf. also Jaulin 1957, Eglash 1997, Brenner 2000, Kassibo 1992 and Sow 2001.

Chapter 1

cognition, rationality, and ethics, and seen in opposition to the nafs. In Arabic-Islamic thought, it is this opposition between nafs and ‘aql that marks the human being. Especially in Sufism, the person’s spiritual life or challenge is often perceived as a struggle between these two principles. Ruh, third component of this triad of consciousness, is commonly translated as ‘soul’, the entity that leaves the body at night when the person is dreaming and that survives when the person’s physical existence is terminated by death. What does it mean, then, if in the translation of the Arabic-Islamic system of geomancy into Mandinka ritual praxis, the ‘House of the Self’ becomes ‘the Door of the Heart’? Or, more specifically, what could this semantic shift from nafs/self to heart or person mean in terms of the relation between nganiyo and niitooroo? On the one hand, one could think that by replacing the notion of self (nafs) with the notion of person or heart the resulting Mandinka model simply ignores the distinctions between self, mind/reason, and soul that are characteristic for Arabic- Islamic thought. In that case, one could only compare both models as almost unrelated, as somehow having been separated from each other in the act of translation from one symbolic/signifying system into another. On the other hand, one could pursue the idea that the Mandinka notion of the heart is actually synonymous with the Arabic-Islamic notion of self/nafs, just using a more somatic, body-related idiom while the Arabic-Islamic notion is perceived as more abstract, more theoretical. 12 In my opinion, there is little real evidence for assuming that the Mandinka system has seperated itself from the Arabo-Islamic geomantic model. Neither Bamba Camara nor any of the other specialists whom I worked with expressed ideas in this direction. At the same time, they were very aware of the different terms that should be employed to speak about the geomantic system depending upon the language one uses. While speaking about geomancy nafs (self) is translated as sondomoo (heart), but this translational move is not reversable. When using Arabic, a Mandinka diviner would never use the Arabic term for heart (qalb) to translate or to impose the Mandinka notion of the heart (sondomoo) back into or upon the Arabic system. In my view, this,

12 An opposition that is not even necessarily present as it could be argued that nafs is etymologically related to nafas, breath or breathing (cf. Wehr 1980: 984-986), and could thus also be seen as having its origin in a somatic experience.

Locating Nganiyo

together with the fact that Mandinka (and Wolof) diviners perceive of themselves not as practising a different type of geomancy but as practising the original (Arabo-) Islamic geomancy in their respective native language, clearly indicates that the relation between the Arabic and the Mandinka model of geomancy should be considered as a relation of continuation rather than of separation or disruption. The question then is, again, how exactly should we understand the synonymous usage of nafs and heart/person if we perceive this semantic shift as occuring within the internal logic of geomantic divination rather than as breaking away from it? And why, one could ask, do we have two terms that can be used in Mandinka to replace the original Arabic notion of nafs? The crucial point here is probably to keep in mind that translation rarely works in exact one-to-one linearity but entails a search for equivalence, an attempt to translate what can never be fully translated. Translation, then, is a coming-nearer, an Annäherung or approchement, not a full identical replacement. Seen as a movement of coming-nearer to something that is perceived as the original meaning, it could be argued that the Mandinka model translates the notion of nafs from two directions simultaneously. First, from the inside or core of the self/nafs, i.e. the heart (sondomoo) as the locus of emotion, drive, volition, desire, etc. And second, from the outside, i. e. as the person (moo) who comes for divinatory consultation. Nafs, thus, contains a double dimension that is correctly captured in the Mandinka translation: The person that is present in the divinatory encounter as nafs (self) is the person (moo) but not as actor or neutral consulter but in his full subjective presence, as bearer of emotions, afflictions, desires and hopes, all of which can be (symbolically) located in the heart (sondomoo). How does this relate to the analysis of the notion of nganiyo and the significance of the concept of intentionality for the understanding of Senegambian divinatory praxis in general? What can we learn from these terminological details about the understanding of intentionality and desire that is implicit in Mandinka divinatory praxis? According to Bamba Camara and other diviners, to locate the nganiyo of the consulter, to find out his intention/desire, is the first, most difficult, and unavoidable task of the diviner. The place where this intention can be localized is in the first door or house of the geomantic system, i.e. the Door of the Heart (sondomoo bundaa)—the Door of the Person (moo la bundaa) as ‘self’ (nafs). In this

Chapter 1

sense, intention is grounded in the heart, the most intimate and, as we will see, at the same time the most open dimension of the subject. Against cognitivist or rationalist assumptions, the geomantic system insists that ‘the person thinks with his heart’ (moo ye miiroo ning a sondomoo). Consequently, when I asked Bamba Camara explicitly what he meant by the word ‘heart’ he replied, ‘the mind is the heart’ (hakiloo wo le mu sondomoo ti). But would this equation of mind and heart not be in contradiction to the opposition between nafs and ‘aql, self and mind/reason, in Arabic-Islamic thought?

At this point, it is crucial to realize that geomancy as praxis is not bound to extra-ritual, conventional conceptualizations. Rather, it gains its coherence through its own internal, practical logic. In such a perspective, one could argue that Camara’s statement ‘the mind is the heart’ is not contradictive but actually reveals a radicalization of the conventional (and in this form perhaps over-simplified) Arabic- Islamic view of the human being as primarily a bearer of reason that is only then hampered by drives and emotions. 13 In geomancy, and in Senegambian divination in general, this conventional relation between self and mind, nafs and ‘aql, sondomoo and hakiloo, seems to be reversed. At least as long as the person is subjecting him/herself to divinatory consultation, s/he is not considered as primarily governed by reason but is first and foremost considered in his/her relation to his/her intention (nganiyo) and heart (sondomoo). One could say that here the intentional, emotive, and desiring dimension is not seen as a secondary or even negative side of the human being but is actually that what makes a person. At this stage it becomes also clear why Francophone Mandinka speakers translate nganiyo sometimes as intention (l’intention) and sometimes as desire (desire). While in European languages the term ‘intention’ may have acquired a more cognitive connotation and ‘desire’ may be seen as related to the emotive, the notion of nganiyo that underlies the logic of divinatory praxis seems to entail both dimensions without the necessity of further dissection.

13 Cf. for instance Werbner (2003, ch. 9) for an account of a much more complex notion of nafs and the corresponding conceptualizations of the human self among members of the Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood in Pakistan.

Niitooroo and the Origin of nganiyo

Locating Nganiyo

So far I have analysed the relations between the notions of sondomoo (heart), hakiloo

(mind/reason), and nganiyo (intention/desire). What has somehow stayed out of sight

is the relation between the subject’s intention (nganiyo) and what Bamba Camara

called niitooroo, the ‘soul-injury’. While the heart/mind is seen as the bearer of the

subject’s intention/desire (nganiyo), in the third paragraph of the above excerpt

Bamba Camara points out that the specific condition of the heart/mind that gives rise

to the individual’s intention is always a condition of niitooroo, i. e. sadness, sorrow,

grief, affliction, and that it is this condition that he has to come to know and to

understand through a further consideration of the geomantic lay-out. Not mentioned

in the excerpt is how exactly the substance of what makes out the niitooroo of the

individual consulter in a specific case can be identified. Bamba Camara did, however,

explain this point at a later stage of our lessons:

Example1.2: Bamba Camara, Thiès, Senegal, July 2003.

Saaying, nko le ning a yaa tara moo naata bii,

puru yaa long mune be ate sondomoo to, mune be a fango coeroo to [from the French ‘coeur’], puru yaa long manaam mune yaa tooraa, nko iye, i be foloo la ning seyoo le kafula.


I say that

comes today,

in order to know what is in his heart,

what is in his very heart,

if it happens that a person

in order to know what has wounded him,

I said to you, you have to start with adding the eight [i.

e. the eighth house or door of the geomantic lay-out].

According to Bamba Camara, ‘that what has wounded the person’ (mune yaa tooraa),

i.e. the niitooroo upon which the person’s intention seems to rest, can be identified by

combining the first and the eighth house or door of the geomantic lay-out, i. e. Yusuf

and Ayuba, the Door of the Heart or Person (sondomoo or moo la bundaa) and the

Door of Death (Sayaa bundaa). What does this point to?

Chapter 1

In the same way as the notion of the heart (sondomoo) as location of the subject’s intention/desire (nganiyo) indicated a non-rationalistic understanding of intentionality and the subject, the relating of the Door of the Heart/Person with the Door of Death as revealing the niitooroo of the person, points, in my view, to an understanding of the individual cultural subject’s condition and predicament that emphasizes the existential and emotive over the cognitive dimensions of human existence. In emphasizing the relatedness of intention/desire (nganiyo), death (sayaa), and affliction (niitooroo), the geomantic logic seems to reveal something fundamental about the condition of the human subject in general, something that goes beyond the confines of the divinatory encounter. The idea that the intention of the subject who takes recourse in divination is fundamentally, au fond as Bamba Camara said, rooted in a condition of affliction, indicates that niitooroo, rather than only designating an accidental and passing psychological state, refers to a fundamental human condition or, in Heidegger’s terms, an existential of Dasein, i.e. a modality of being that characterizes the being-in-the-world of the individual subject. As a condition referred to in divinatory discourse for describing the situation of the client, niitooroo is, however, at the same time necessarily specific and concrete, in the same way as the nganiyo of the person is, as I have argued above, never only an empty act of consciousness, a pure vector without content, but always already defined by its noematic correlate, the hajoo of the person, the issue at hand. But still, and in the same way as the notion of nganiyo and its employment in divinatory praxis seems to contain a fundamental insight into the relation between subjective intention and the self or ‘heart’ of the person, the notion of niitooroo seems to contain an insight into the relation of nganiyo as intentionality/desire and the experience of affliction or loss as a human condition, almost as if resonating with ideas such as Hegel’s description of self-consciousness as emerging out of and being constituted through desire (Hegel 1988 [1807]: 120-127); the Lacanian notion of desire as rooted in the impossible attempt to retrieve what has been irretrievably lost; and Zizek’s (Lacanian) reflections on desire as the subject’s attempt to recompensate itself in the realm of the Symbolic for ‘the loss of the immediate, pre-symbolic Real’ (Zizek 1999: 35). Following this resonance between geomancy on the one hand and Hegelian-Lacanian-Zizekian theorizing on subjectivity on the other, couldn’t one argue that the idea of nganiyo

Locating Nganiyo

(intention/desire) as being based in a specific and concrete condition of affliction (niitooroo), entails at the same time the idea of niitooroo as the foundation or prerequisite reason of subjectivity in general? However, geomantic/divinatory praxis as such is not concerned with abstract theorizing about subjectivity but is interested in providing advice in and a solution for the concrete and immediate situations of the person who comes for consultation. And still, niitooroo does seem to possess exactly this double dimension of being, forming, on the one hand, a concrete condition of affliction related to a specific personal need or social conflict, and, on the other hand, representing a much more encompassing, existential condition that exists prior to consultation. A condition that is neither necessarily referred to during consultation nor necessarily part of the subject’s conscious motivation/intention but that is still to be considered, according to the logic of the geomantic system, as its real source. May be this double dimension can be better understood if we translate and conceive of niitooroo not only as sadness, grief, or affliction, but, more specifically, as trauma.

Niitooroo as Trauma

Drawing on the Lacanian insight into the three orders that structure all processes of the human psyche (the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real), Slavoj Zizek has argued that what is most relevant about trauma in psychoanalytical terms is not the event as such but the structure that underlies it. Traumatic experience represents, for Zizek, not only a specific personal psychological situation but the relation between the Symbolic Order that tries to symbolize, understand, and make meaning out of reality, and the Order (or better even, the chaos) of the Real that predates and escapes it. What re-emerges in trauma, or what becomes actually causative in a traumatic experience in a deferred action is not the overt content of the event but the event as part of the Real that escapes symbolization. Zizek examplifies this by re-analysing Freud’s famous case of the Wolf Man:

Chapter 1

the cause, of course, was the traumatic scene of the

parental coitus a tergo - this scene was the non-Symbolizable kernel around which all later successive Symbolization whirled. This cause, however, not only exerted its efficiency after a certain time lag; it literally became trauma - that is, cause - through delay: when the Wolf Man, at age two, witnessed the coitus a tergo, nothing traumatic marked this scene; the scene acquired traumatic features only in retrospect, with the later development of the child’s infantile sexual theories, when it became impossible to integrate the scene within the newly emerged horizon of narrativization-historization-symbolization.’

‘In the case of the Wolf Man (


(Zizek 1994: 31; cited in: Myers 2003: 26-27)

But does this understanding of trauma fit the notion of niitooroo? Where in the condition of niitooroo could one identify the moment of conflict between the Symbolic and the Real? The difficulty here lies first of all in the fact that, while the condition of niitooroo is refered to as the condition of the client that has to be understood in order to develop any further geomantic pronouncements, this condition is not necessarily explicitly refered to during the divination session itself. Instead, the client’s affliction might only be implicitly present in so far as it is reflected in what the client intends or desires. In this case the question would be if there is a kind of direct symmetry between the affliction/trauma and the articulated intention that would allow to identify the content of this affliction? This could be seen as problematic at least in so far as intention/desire, according to Lacanian theory, articulates itself in the Order of the Symbolic and the Imaginary and thereby covers rather than exposes its relatedness to the Real. Or, in more conventional Freudian parlour, the real cause of the person’s wish would remain invisible because it is repressed. At the same time, however, one could argue that in this situation it makes even more sense to translate niitooroo as trauma: The fact that niitooroo is normally not explicitly referred to in the divinatory encounter indicates that while the real conflict of the subject remains (or must remain) buried in the subject itself, geomancy is despite (or may be even because of) niitooros apparent invisibility aware of it as the unconscious source of the subject‘s nganiyo, in the same way as psychoanalysis is aware of the unconscious position of the trauma as the cause of neurosis.

Locating Nganiyo

Leaving psychoanalysis aside, one could, however, also argue more pragmatically, that in so far as niitooroo is a metaphor rather than an explicit theoretical notion, the adequateness of the translation of niitooroo as trauma does ultimately not rely on its exact coinciding with trauma as a psychoanalytical notion. What is more relevant is, in my opinion, that both notions, the niitooroo in divination and trauma in psychoanalysis, point at the fundamental rootedness of intention, desire and subjectivity in an experience of loss, split, and affliction—an insight that is most dramatically reflected in the fact that, as we have seen above, in order to identify the ground and substance of the subject’s affliction the geomantic logic requires to consider the nganiyo (intention/desire) of the person in combination with the dimension of death (sayaa). Additionally, it is interesting to note that both terms, trauma and niitooroo, literally refer not to inner conditions of the person but to the experience of wounds, injuries, and physical, bodily pain, and it is only in referring to these fundamental somatic modes of experience that these terms become meaningful and enable to speak about the afflictions of the subject in general. In this regard, the notion of trauma in psychoanalysis is as metaphorical as is the notion of niitooroo in divination. Consequently, as trauma niitooroo can thus be understood as both, a real condition of affliction and, at the same time, as a central metaphor to reveal the deep hermeneutic and existential dimensions of divination as a cultural praxis that is not primarily a cognitive or epistemological operation but rather a praxis concerned with the inevitable and intrinsic difficulties and conflicts of human existence. In this regard, however, it is important to realize that the traumatic condition of niitooroo is not perceived to be the end. It is not only what has tired the subject (mune yaa batandi) but it is also what has caused the person to stand up (mune yaa wulindi).

Chapter 1

Metaphors of Uncertainty: Subjunctivity, Intentionality and the Existential Significance of Divinatory Consultation

In different divinatory traditions, feelings of uncertainty, ambivalence, and insecurity as a result of the experience of misfortune and affliction have been identified as one of the main reasons for divinatory consultation (cf. eg. Jackson 1978, Whyte 1997). By consulting a diviner people aim at coming to know what is at the core of their predicament, what caused their problem, and how it can be solved. By developing answers to these questions, divination is perceived as helping people to make choices and alleviate uncertainty. Not surprisingly, metaphors of uncertainty also play an important role in Senegambian divinatory discourse. One of the first positions that I was taught to recognize in cowrie-shell divination, for instance, consisted in a pair of shells that lie side by side, pointing into opposite directions, one ‘closed’ or ‘lying on its belly’ (Wlf. dafa dep), and the other one ‘open’(Wlf. ubeku). This position, I was told by Samba Nguer, a Wolof-speaking diviner in the Gambian urban agglomeration of Serekunda, just south of the Gambian capital Banjul, had many names. 14 The designations that I noted were unrest (jaxle), something unpleasant (nakhar), ‘two minds’ or ‘spirits’ (xel ñaar) (indicating hesitation), a disputing mind (xel bu werente), or, simply, ‘zigzag’ (sikisaka). Samba Nguer would point to where the shells had fallen into one of these frequently occuring positions, look at the client and tell her or him that the cowries showed that s/he was of two minds or feeling restless, demonstrating to his clients that the cowries were showing their situation and that he, the diviner, was able to read the cowries’ messages in their various lay-outs. In most cases, the person would simply nod or make a confirming sound by clicking his/her tongue. Sometimes, the client would add a little piece of information, alluding to the issue at the bottom of this feeling, giving the diviner an additional hint about where to direct his divinatory inquiry next. ‘Zigzag’, ‘two minds’, and other metaphors of

14 Samba Nguer was the first to introduce me to cowrie-shell divination (petaw). Next to the many hours of tuition that we spend together he alone made it possible for me to assist to more than 20 consultations.

Locating Nganiyo

uncertainty thus play an important role in Senegambian divinatory discourse both in describing the client’s condition as well as in allowing the diviner to show his understanding and empathy for the client’s situation. But despite the central importance of these metaphors of uncertainty, the main reason for consultation is, as I have emphasized above, not seen in ‘uncertainty’ as such but in the client’s intention or desire (nganiyo). In my opinion, the parallel existence of these two apparently supplementary rather than exclusive views of the client’s condition and motives indicates an assumption and conviction about what divination is. This conviction is not only shared by diviner and client, but also reflected in the implicit logic of the divinatory systematic and logic that I have tried to bring out: The afflicted subject that turns to divination in his/her search for a solution, is not just a passive, uninvolved, or indifferent adressee of the divinatory pronouncements. Rather, with pursuing divinatory consultation, the client has already moved, or at least started to move, from a more passive state of uncertainty to a more active way of dealing with her/his situation. In part, one could say, uncertainty and hesitance seem already to be alleviated even before the session starts just by the simple fact that consulting a

diviner already necessitates a prior decision by the client. But how exactly can this transition be grasped in more abstract terms? If divination is seen as a way to alleviate feelings of uncertainty, how exactly does this happen? What does this transition mean in terms of the phenomenological properties of the articulation of intention and the larger divinatory process? Writing about the situated concern (her emphasis) of the subject in divination, healing, and medicine among Nyole speakers in Eastern Uganda, Susan Reynolds Whyte has recently argued that the mood in which cultural ways of dealing with and reacting to feelings and conditions of uncertainty are situated can best be grasped by applying the notion of subjunctivity (cf. Whyte 1997: 22-25, and 2002). Defining the subjunctive first by quoting from a dictionary as ‘that mood of the verb which represents an attitude toward, or concern with the denoted action or state not as

fact but as something either simply entertained in thought, contingent, possible (

) or

emotionally viewed as a matter of doubt, desire, will, etc.’, she continues that subjunctivity can be conceived of ‘not just as a form of language and narratives, but

Chapter 1

as an attitude informing people’s responses to affliction’ (1997: 24). Further on she writes:

‘The approach to the study of misfortune in terms of pragmatism, possibility, and hope is a key to understanding the position and intentions of both healers as well as sufferers. ( )

The emphasis on intentions, hopes, and doubts (

actor’s situation. We are drawn to the practices of people positioned in the midst of the desires and difficulties of their actual lives. This is fundamental for a humanistic and open-ended anthropology. It allows the researcher and reader to experience the sense of resonance that allows understanding. It opens important questions about intentionality and fits well the concern of late-twentieth-century anthropology to recognize agency and the creative self.’

(Whyte 1997: 24-25, references omitted)

has the virtue of attending to the


What is interesting in this statement for the further analysis of the notion of nganiyo is not just their programmatics (that to a large extent run parallel to the motives for the subject-oriented approach to divination that I have been pursuing throughout this paper) but also the fact that, in the praxis of a culturally very different divinatory tradition, Whyte recognizes the same relatedness of misfortune, uncertainty, affliction on the one hand, and intentions, hopes, and desires on the other, that are found in the semantics and praxis of Senegambian divination. This demonstrates, I believe, that the terminological and semantic properties of Senegambian divination are not only essential for understanding divination in this specific cultural context but that they reveal important aspects of divinatory praxis in general. The question that remains, however, is whether the notion of subjunctivity can actually help to understand the nature of the link between affliction, uncertainty, and intention/desire, or if it proofs only analytically effective in so far as it brings the existence of this link more into focus? Ultimately, this may depend upon the possibility to grasp and define the exact phenomenological properties of subjunctivity in the linguistic and practical modes of being-in-the-world that are reflected in divinatory praxis and semantics (an almost impossible task, I would add). It seems interesting, however, that although the subjunctive relates to desire, intention, and the expression of wishes, in a simple French phrase such as ‘Je veux que tu fasse’ (‘fasse’, from ‘faire’= to do; the verb that here appears in the subjunctive mood), it is not the verb that characterizes the subject

Locating Nganiyo

of the main clause that expresses this intentional attitude (‘je veux

expressing the action that describes the subject of the subordinate clause, i.e. the

tu fasse’). Doesn’t this mean that on the

linguistic level the subjunctive does not express or evolve out of the subject’s intention but rather projects a veil of uncertainty onto the object of that intention? I would argue that the divinatory subjunctive is not only a result of the affliction that relates the subject to the past, but also and more specifically to the endeavour of the divinatory encounter, the uncertainty that results out of the awareness of the final unpredictability of the future realization of what is intended, desired, and longed for. What this seems to indicate is, in other words, that intentionality and subjunctivity can not be equated as such. One consequently realizes that the notion of subjunctivity cannot fully describe the nature of the intentional being of the subject in divination. In an attempt to further specify (but, I think, not opposing) Whyte’s use of the term subjunctivity, I would argue that the subjunctive should be understood as the main modality neither of divination nor of intentionality in general. Instead, subjunctivity seems to describe and characterize a specific aspect of intentionality that is related to the intrinsic temporality or time-orientation of the intentional being-in-the-world that marks the subject in divinatory praxis and beyond. 15 A specific prospective

adressee or object of our intention (‘

but the verb



15 The time-relatedness of intentionality, and the fact that different modes of being play different and specific roles in relation to time, is an idea that has been expressed and explicated most clearly in Martin Heidegger’s epochal analysis of the relation of being and time. In a footnote that seems to be the only place in Sein und Zeit where he refers explicitly to Husserl’s notion of intentionaliy, Heidegger states that the intentionality of consciousness grounds (gründet) in the ‘ecstatic temporality of Dasein’ (Heidegger 1993 [1927]: 363) and promises to demonstrate this in a following section that, unfortunately, was never published. However, Sein und Zeit as a whole deals with the question in how far and in what way temporality characterizes and marks the being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt- sein) of existence as Dasein. In this sense, one could argue that Sein und Zeit as a whole is a prologue to the question of the groundedness of intentionalty in the temporality of human existence. A prologue that shows that intentionality is not per se the most fundamental dimension of being. Instead, intentional being is in itself the result of the existential In-sein, In-der-Welt-sein, and Sorge of the subject (a term that Heidegger, for a number of reasons, prefers to avoid)—modes of being that can only be fully understood when grasped not as static but as embedded in time, and bearing specific modes of

Chapter 1

temporality that results out of the fact that what is looked for in (Senegambian) divination are solutions to problems of the present that have to be solved for and in a future that can never be predicted or foreseen with absolute certainty. This final uncertainty is unavoidable and regularly acknowledged by both diviners and their clients. In requiring the articulation of the nganiyo at the beginning of the consultation, divination, however, bases itself on the decision making capacity of the subject. And decisions are decisions of the now and here that must be situated in the realm of the indicative, contrasting with mere possibility. In requiring decision and responding to the subject’s decidedness, divination, thus, relates to the indicative, turning the subjunctive of mere possibility that could still be seen as a continuation of the original state of afflictive uncertainty into real, future possibilities that wait to be realized with the help of the divinatory inquiry. The subjunctive, thus, rather than capturing the full divinatory experience, foregrounds and frames the indicative dimension of divination that wants to be realized through the articulation of the nganiyo, the gaining of a deeper insight into the probabilities of one’s personal situation, and through the prescription and execution of post-consultational ritual remedies. If Senegambian divination can thus be seen as a cultural praxis that necessitates and asks for the ‘decidedness’ of the subject in the form of ‘intention’ (nganiyo) to deal with the subjunctive nature of life, it becomes also clear why most diviners insist that although hajoo (as the necessity, issue, or concern of the person) can be used at the beginning of the session for demanding the person to articulate why s/he has come, the correct, proper technical divinatory term is nganiyo. This is because divination in the Senegambian context does not only offer solutions for personal difficulties but also entails a claim towards the subject in so far as the consulter is supposed to move out of the passivity of mere hesitance and suffering by expressing him-or herself, to say what s/he wants and to act. In this sense, divination

temporality. More specifically, Heidegger writes about the importance of Dasein as ‘a possibility of being’ (Seinkönnen) and temporality as the ontological sense of care or concernedness (Sorge) (Heidegger 1993 [1927]: 301-333). Being is, thus, perceived by Heidegger primarily, i.e. ‘firstly’, as possibility which is then dealt with in decidedness (Entschlossenheit).

Locating Nganiyo

does not merely reflect the intentional being of the subject (which it also does). More important for the understanding of the specific performative properties of this praxis, the structure, discursive elements, and ritual components of the divinatory encounter also construct and shape the intentionality of the subject in very specific ways. Seen in such a way, divination comes into view as a specific cultural means to change the (subjective being-in-the) world through a healing of the self and through the empowerment of the afflicted.


Rather than attempting to describe and analyze the whole of the divinatory encounter at once, in this chapter, I have concentrated on the question of the articulation and location of the ‘intention/desire’ (nganiyo) of the subject at the beginning of the divinatory process. This is the first of several elements which I consider to be crucial for both the working and the experience of the divinatory encounter. In concentrating on this first phase of the divinatory encounter the scope of this chapter is deliberately limited. The focus on the notion of nganiyo, however, is, I believe, justified by the inaugural and founding significance of the articulation of the nganiyo for the development of the divinatory process in its totality. As I have argued throughout this chapter, it is from this first moment that Senegambian divination unfolds and starts to provide a cultural space that allows the cultural subject to articulate, deal with, develop, and realize his or her own concrete and situated subjective intentional being- in-the-world. And at the same time, it is from this first decisive moment that divination starts to reveal itself as an expression of the ecstatic apriori temporality of the subject as one of the most fundamental aspects of human existence. It is in this double sense that the notion of ‘divination as intentional space’ should be understood:

On the one hand as a possibility to approach ‘real’ (i. e. noematically defined and specific) intentional situations of longing, uncertainty, desire, or suffering through a specific cultural praxis and, on the other hand, as a culturally institutionalized response to the prospective temporal being of the subject. It should be clear by now that against a conventional conception of ‘intention’ as a merely cognitive position or

Chapter 1

action that originates in the individual as autonomous cogito, both the notion of nganiyo as well as the (Husserlian) notion of intentionality acquire their meaningfulness not only through the recognition of the subject as bearer of agency but equally through the recognition of the subject as being existentially tied into a concrete (inter)subjectively constituted sociocultural lifeworld. Understood in this sense, the concept of intentionality allows to grasp the existential significance of divinatory consultation as a means of relating, as well as an expression of the subject’s being related to the world. Moreover, in responding to the intentional subjective being of the person divination offers a cultural space that allows and demands the subject to move from a more passive or waiting situation of suffering or longing towards an active approaching of his or her own afflictions and expectations. The formation and articulation of nganiyo at the beginning of the divinatory encounter comes into view not only as volition but as a gathering and focusing of expectations and longing that in the pre-consultational situation were marked by ambivalence, uncertainty and hesitance.

Chapter 2

Structure, Content, and Significance of the Divinatory Enunciation: Divination as Resonance

After the articulation of the nganiyo by the client, the diviner starts to execute his art. Cowrie shells are cast, geomantic patterns drawn and calculated, prayer beads are counted, wooden sticks are thrown into bowls of water. After each motion or, depending upon the technique used in the particular case, at the end of the divinatory procedures, the diviner pronounces his findings. When I first witnessed a session of cowrie shell divination I was impressed by the atmosphere of the event, its sincerity, rhythm, and steady speed. The white shells fall on the hard surface of a woven plastic mat with a light and characteristic rustle. Every new cast is throwing a new caleidoscopic image before the eyes. A second, parallel rhythm is set by the diviner’s voice, counting some of the shells in Wolof according to principles unknown to the uninstructed observer. Ben, ñaar, ñet,

Each count is followed by interpretations, instructions,

ñeent, juroom, juroom-ben

sometimes questions, solliciting the client’s response to the messages of the cast shells. The diviner pronounces what he sees, moves on in his interpretation, elaborates upon specific points, and responds to the reactions of his or her client by recasting the cowries for further detailing. Every gesture, every word forms yet another element in the diviner’s search for the nature and development of the client’s predicament. Every interpretation completes the diviner’s analysis of his client’s situation, indicating the crucial aspects of the issues at stake and eventually leading to the formulation of the necessary ritual prescriptions.

For the outside observer several questions arise from such a first witnessing of a cowrie divination session. Considering the fact that, in Mandinka and Wolof, divination is literally referred to as an act of ‘viewing’, ‘looking at’, or ‘looking for’ (jubeeroo in Mandinka, seet in Wolof), the first question is: what is there to be seen in the seeming disorder of the cast shells? What kind of signs or messages appear in the constellation of the divinatory paraphernalia that allow the diviner to discern the

Chapter 2

concerns of his client? Where does the diviner’s gaze find its hold? Is there a method or technical basis to cowrie (and other forms of) divination that can be described, studied, and may be even learned? Or does the diviner’s clairvoyant capacity elude an outward description from the very beginning? Are there actually things to be seen or can the signs and messages of the cast shells only be perceived in an altered state of mind?

Kuuringo/Petaw: Introducing Senegambian Cowrie-Shell Divination

Historically, and throughout the African continent, cowries (kuuringo in Mandinka, petaw in Wolof) have been significant objects in ritual as well as trade. While their significance as means of payment has ceased throughout the African continent with the introduction of ordinary coins and bills during the colonial era, their ritual significance persists in fields such as divination and the making of protective amulets against diyamoo (Mand.) or catt (Wolof), i.e. the ill-intended speech of others. 16 Outside the explicitly ritual context, cowries are frequently used in the production of jewellery (where they still may have ritual connotations next to their aesthetic appeal) and in tourist art where they function as a powerful token for

16 The material which I present on the art of cowrie-shell divination draws on the collaboration with four different diviners specializing in this particular technique. The first to instruct me in this technique was Samba Nguer, a Wolof speaking diviner from inland Gambia, now based in Serekunda, who made it possible for me to assist at more than twenty consultations (June to July 2003). The second specialist who instructed me in cowrie divination was Cherif Keita, a marabout originally from a Suku ethnical background in Guinea but based in Thiès, Senegal, since several years, and fluent in both Wolof and, to a lesser extent, in Mandinka (July 2003). The third specialist was Ndeye Diop, a Wolof speaking diviner, also from Thiès, and the only woman diviner that I had the chance to work with (January 2004). The fourth specialist was Samba Diallo, a Peul diviner based in the village of Kokumba in the Middle Casamance region, some fourty kilometres from Sedhiou, working mostly in Mandinka (the lingua franca of that part of Senegal), but also in Peul and Diola depending upon the linguistic origin and preference of his clients (January and February 2004).

Divination as Resonance

authenticity and Africanness, almost as if, in the realms of tourist art, cowrie shells reacquire the commercial significance they once had in traditional trade. While their general ritual significance probably contributed to why cowrie-shells have been considered adequate instruments for divination, the exact historical origin of cowrie- shell divination remains, at least to my knowledge, unknown. While the origin of cowries and cowrie shell divination was never referred to by any of the specialists that I worked with, several people pointed out to me that the power of this form of divination was due to the fact that cowrie shells were related to spirits that were somehow thought of to be attracted to and associated with these objects. In some cases, the active presence of spirits in cowrie divination is explicitly reflected in the ritual speech and environment of the divinatory encounter. During consultation, Cherif Keita, for instance, would often pronounce the names of spirit entities like jinoo Musa, literally the spirit or jinn Mousa (from Mand. sing. jinoo, pl. jinool, derived from the Arabic djin). Futhermore, during divination Keita’s voice would often change its pitch. This did not just add yet another element to the atmosphere of the event but seemed to suggest that during consultation he was somehow in contact with these spirit entities, listening to them, receiving messages, and being instructed how to read the patterns of the shells. The impression that the process of divination did not rely solely on the person of the diviner but also upon other entities was in his case enhanced by the presence of two small altars or shrines to his right, consisting of several animal horns covered with a black patina and encrusted with cowrie shells. Both altars were usually covered with a piece of cloth and thus invisible for the client. Every now and then, Keita would reach sidewards in order to touch one of the altars as if trying to establish or reestablish his contact with the entities he was trying to communicate with. The link between spirits and cowries did not only show itself in their implied or claimed presence during consultations, but was also referred to at other occasions. Bakari Sajo, a middle aged owner of a road side tyre repair shop in Serekunda and one of my hosts in Gambia, told me, for instance, that one should not handle cowries too often, and surely not without wanting to use them, as jinn were entities that one should not play with.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 Illustration 2.1: Cherif Keita, Thiès, Senegal. Demonstrating the use of cowrie shells. Yet another

Illustration 2.1: Cherif Keita, Thiès, Senegal. Demonstrating the use of cowrie shells.

Yet another indication for this link between cowrie divination and spirits can be found in the ritual preparation of shells to be used for divination. Samba Nguer, the cowrie-shell diviner who first introduced me to this form of divination, explained that shells could be prepared by letting them soak overnight, either in goat milk or in the juice of a red cola nut chewn into pieces because both goats and cola nuts were associated with the realm of jinn and would thus enhance the power of the shells. 17

17 In the preparation of the set of cowries that I received at the end of my lessons so that I could continue to practice in the future, Samba Nguer had pragmatically combined both modalities: The shells had been soaked overnight in both goat milk and the juice of a red cola nut (cf. Illustration 2.2). There are also other ways to provide for the effective preparation of a set of cowrie-shells, unrelated to the realm of spirit entities. One alternative way of preperation was explained to me by a friend in Dakar. Before using the shells, and before starting to practice cowrie-shell divination, they should be deposited in a

Divination as Resonance

Divination as Resonance Illustration 2.2 : The set of cowrie shells Samba Nguer gave me at

Illustration 2.2: The set of cowrie shells Samba Nguer gave me at the end of my apprenticeship, soaked in Kola juice and goat milk.

The exact reasons for these associations of spirits with cowries, goats, and cola nuts are difficult to discern. In the case of goats I was told they were associated with jinn because goats freely roam around in the forest savanna that surrounds settlements and villages in this part of the world and in which jinn are thought to be especially numerous. In the case of cola nuts, no specific explanations were offered except for the affirmation that jinn, being similar to humans in their desire for certain objects and substances, are attracted to these objects as they like their consumption. On a more pre-semantic, symbolic level, however, other aspects may play a role as well. One of

little pool of sea-water between some rocks. The knowledge contained in the water of the sea, which exists since times eternal and touches the shores of the whole world, would be passed to and reactualized in the shells that found their origin in the same environment. Shells prepared in such a way would serve well. At the same place, and with the same water, one should wash his face so that one’s eyes would be able to see the things the shells would reveal in the future.

Chapter 2

these aspects concerns, for instance, the link between cola nuts, their consumption, and sociality. When breaking a cola nut into halfs with the purpose of eating it, one should offer pieces of the nut to all persons present before taking any of it in one’s mouth. Eating it alone in the presence of others could result into subsequent misfortune, misery, and even death. But why is the individual consumption of cola nuts considered to be dangerous? The reason for this seems to lie in the fact that cola nut consumption, and consequently also the object of the nut itself, is linked to a complex and much wider cultural logic of exchange, reciprocity, and sharing, that lies at the core of the cultural ideology and praxis of sociality that must not and cannot be ignored by the individual subject engaging in social praxis. Seen from such a perspective it could be argued that the reason for the ritual significance of cola nuts lies not in their association with spirit entities (jinool) as such but in their practical and symbolic relatedness to sociality. In other words, jinn are not only non-human creatures populating a local imaginary but objectified inversions of sociality, embodying the negativity of non-social behaviour. Although far from being exceptional, as the above examples show, explicit allusions to jinn or other spirits, or a somehow altered state of mind, are not the rule. Most diviners act and present themselves during consultation in ways that do not differ markedly from situations outside the divinatory encounter. Their conduct and demeanour mainly incite the impression of dignity, respectfulness, and balancedness that is commonly associated with the person of an elder (kebaa) or a religiously learned person (moro in Mandinka or serigne in Wolof), without explicit indications of non-human or super-natural forces at play. However, the absence of visible signs or explicit allusions to spirits in a specific consultational situation does not necessarily mean that this dimension of divinatory praxis could not play a hidden or secret but nevertheless important role in the consultational event. Given the relative wide distribution of stories relating maraboutic and divinatory activities to the realm of spirit entities, it is, for instance, quite possible that a client assumes, almost by convention, that the diviner is in contact with spirits during the divination procedure without there being a particular indication of this in the specific consultational situation. In such a situation, the a priori assumptions of the client concerning the

Divination as Resonance

powers at play in divination almost inevitably have an impact on the client’s specific experience of the divinatory encounter. In another case, however, it is possible that while the client feels unconcerned about the kind of agencies intervening in the divinatory process, the diviner himself may be convinced that his ability to divine depends upon his relationship to a tutelary spirit that has to be respected and maintained in specific ways, necessating specific ritual precautions. Despite the frequent refernces to spirit entities and esoteric initiations in the context of cowrie (and other forms of) divination, most diviners that I worked with emphasized that cowrie divination, in the same way as Islamic geomancy, rests upon a technical basis that can be learned and aquired. Samba Nguer, for instance, told me at the beginning of our cooperation that due to his instructions I would be able, at the end of our lessons, to understand most of what the cowries would tell me, without going through any kind of initiation, trance experience, or any other ritual measure aiming at establishing a relation with the spirit realm (apart from the ritual preparation of the shells described above). And even where diviners refer to contacts with jinn or other non-human spirit entities as mediators, extrasensory capacities, or a highly specialized knowledge (londoo) of ritual secrets (sing. kungloo) revealed through dreams or acquired from other specialists at high costs and/or long periods of apprenticeship, the technical basis referred to by Samba Nguer is agreed upon almost without exception. Specific positions or configurations of shells within a particular lay-out are perceived as signs (tamansee) that indicate the course of development of specific aspects of the subject’s immediate social and economic environment and allow for the understanding of the inquiring subject’s personal state of mind and emotional condition. The following section of this chapter explains a number of frequently encountered positions, their names in Wolof, and their signification in Senegambian cowrie divination.

Positions in Cowrie-Shell Divination: their Names and their Meaning

The following examples of frequently interpreted positions in cowrie divination were explained to me by Samba Nguer, in Serekunda, Gambia, in June/July 2003. The

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 Illustration 2.3: Samba Nguer, Serekunda, Gambia. 64

Illustration 2.3: Samba Nguer, Serekunda, Gambia.

Divination as Resonance

illustrations are photographic reconstructions of the positions that Samba Nguer considered relevant for me to know and memorize. The positions are rearranged according to sketches I made during the lessons I received. All terms and names are in Wolof.

One of the most basic distinctions necessary for the reading of the different poistions in cowrie divination is that between those shells that fall with their white concave outer surface pointing upwards and those who fall on their backside. The former were referred to by Samba Nguer either as fermee (closed, from the French fermé) or as dafa dep (lying on its belly) (cf. the top shell in the picture underneath), while the latter were referred to as ubeku (open) (cf. the lower of the two cowries). In many lay- outs, the closed shells would be conceived of as symbolizing male persons while open ones would be seen as relating to women. Samba Nguer would apply this distinction at the beginning of the session when identifying, through several preliminary casts, the shells upon which he would ask his client to pronounce his intention or concern. In the case of male clients, he would select four closed shells pointing towards the client, while with female clients he would choose four open shells pointing in the client’s direction. 18 In other situations, however, open and closed shells would be distinguished without being interpreted according to their male and female connotations. So would Samba Nguer, for instance, count the closed shells in certain lay-outs in order to identify the number of objects that should be distributed as sadaa. In these instances, the indication of sadaa would be their only interpretative value and their otherwise assumed male connotation would not come into play. Many of the significant positions or signs are formed by not more than two shells. This does not only mean that great attention has to be paid to the exact position of many single shells within a lay-out, but also that a single lay-out easily contains two or three signs that can and often will be read in relation to each other.

18 All cowrie diviners would pass some of the shells to their clients in order to pronounce their intentions. However, not all of them would follow the same procedure of carefully selecting the appropriate shells according to their orientation.

Chapter 2

An important example for a position containing only two single shells consists in two either open (female) or closed cowries (male), lying side by side but pointing in opposite directions. This position is interpreted as a sign of long life (gudd fan) and good health (wër):

a sign of long life ( gudd fan ) and good health ( wër ): If

If one of the shells lies with its open side upwards, the same position signifies a state of hesitation, uncertainty, ambivalence, and undecideness called xel ñaar ([being of] two minds), xel bu werente (an arguing mind), nakhar (something disliked or unpleasant), or sikisaka (zigzag):

two minds), xel bu werente (an arguing mind), nakhar (something disliked or unpleasant), or sikisaka (zigzag):

Divination as Resonance

If in the same position both cowries point into the same direction, this indicates a calm and untroubled mind (xel mu dal):

this indicates a calm and untroubled mind ( xel mu dal ): Two open shells pointing

Two open shells pointing towards each other with their ‘back’ (taat, lit. the bottom) indicate a good marriage (sey bu nex):

pointing towards each other with their ‘back’ ( taat , lit. the bottom) indicate a good

Chapter 2

A similar position where both cowries seem to move away from each other is called sey butas, ‘a dispersed marriage’, indicating divorce:

sey butas , ‘a dispersed marriage’, indicating divorce: Both positions are related two the position of

Both positions are related two the position of ngoro, lit. ‘engagement’, indicating concern for a person of the other sex either in form of a love affair or in form of an actual concern for making first arrangements towards marriage; metonymically, the same position also often indicates a possibly conflictual relationship with one’s in- laws, i.e. those people towards which one has obligations through marriage:

conflictual relationship with one’s in- laws, i.e. those people towards which one has obligations through marriage:

Divination as Resonance

Two cowries pointing at each other with their heads (bop), and lying in one line, indicate an agreement (waxtan) between two parties:

line, indicate an agreement ( waxtan ) between two parties: If the two heads overlap, the

If the two heads overlap, the position indicates khoulo (quarrel) or japante (dispute, discussion, fight):

khoulo (quarrel) or japante (dispute, discussion, fight): If the two cowries still seem oriented towards each

If the two cowries still seem oriented towards each other but one of them seems to diverge in direction, the position indicates a disagreement (illustration missing).

Chapter 2

If one cowrie (open or closed) is covering another, open shell, the position is called bir, the belly, indicating pregnancy (embe). The relative position of the upper cowrie indicates the position of the fetus.

of the upper cowrie indicates the position of the fetus. If the top shell seems to

If the top shell seems to glide off the other, the position indicates the act of giving birth (wosin).

of the fetus. If the top shell seems to glide off the other, the position indicates

Divination as Resonance


closed shell partly covering up an open one is seen as indicating the state of being


(feybar). If, as in the illustration below the head of the lower shell is covered, this


understood as a sign of grave illness that may even lead to the death of the person:

grave illness that may even lead to the death of the person: The exact prognosis of

The exact prognosis of the development of a person’s illness becomes only evident through the contextualization of the position by the rest of the lay-out. In the example below, the position indicating the person’s illness (upper left) is specified by a line of four open shells lying parallel to each other (right):

of four open shells lying parallel to each other (right): If we assume that the client

If we assume that the client sits to the right side of the lay-out, so that the shells would

appear to be moving away from him or her, this would either indicate the soon

recovery of the patient or the fact that the illness is a matter of the past, rather than the present. The possible development of the client’s illness is further specified by signs

of good health (wër) and a long life (gudd fan) appearing in the lower left half of the

Chapter 2

lay-out. In order to safeguard the positive development of the subject’s health condition, the client would be advised to distribute two white objects as sadaa (candles, white kola, chickens, etc), indicated by the two closed shells on the top and buttom of the open shells that indicate his or her recovery. In a way, the context of the position indicating a grave illness is, in this case, nullified by the rest of the lay-out. This results in a total lay-out that would usually be commented upon with expressions such as ‘peace only’ (jamm rek), or bakhna (it is allright, lit. good), both expressions indicating an ultimately positive state of affairs.


closed cowrie covered by another closed shell at its broad end is usually referred to


poliis (police) but may also include military personel as it is generally conceived of


representing any person wearing a uniform. In most cases, this position indicates

arrest, trouble with state authorities, or other legal conflicts in which the intervention of the police might be expected. In the illustration below, the person in uniform (right) can be seen pursuing a single individual, indicated by the single shell turning towards the upper left half of the picture. This individual will most likely be understood as representing the inquiring client himself, a male member of the family,

or a close friend.

himself, a male member of the family, or a close friend. An open cowrie covering a

An open cowrie covering a closed one indicates betrayal (wor). If the pointed ends of the cowries lie above each other in one line the attempt of betrayal is likely to

Divination as Resonance

succeed. If the directions of the pointed ends diverge, the betrayal is likely to be in vain and will not harm the person concerned.

A closed or open cowrie half leaning over another open shell is perceived as

representing a person washing him- or herself over a bowl of water, indicating ritual ablutions (sangu):

over a bowl of water, indicating ritual ablutions ( sangu ): A position in which a
over a bowl of water, indicating ritual ablutions ( sangu ): A position in which a

A position in which a cowrie almost stands on its head is understood as indicating

shame (rus). In most cases this points towards the fact that someone is acting against the client’s interest but will not succeed. A situation which, ideally, should cause that person to be ashamed of his or her actions.

but will not succeed. A situation which, ideally, should cause that person to be ashamed of

Chapter 2

A single cowrie lying on its side (jaasi) is often referred to as kibaar, lit. news (from

the Arabic khabar, pl. akhbar), indicating the arrival of a letter or the receiving of a telephone call.

arrival of a letter or the receiving of a telephone call. A few signs are composed

A few signs are composed of three or four cowries. This is for instance the case for

the sign indicating a person of the night (niti guddi) or sorcerer (dëm). The sign is perceived as ressembling a vulture (tan) with wide spread wings:

as ressembling a vulture ( tan ) with wide spread wings: In most cases, Samba Nguer

In most cases, Samba Nguer referred to it as niti guddi, person of the night, rather

than dëm in order to make clear to his clients that they were not confronted with occult non-human entities but with other people using maraboutic magical action against them. Their actions however, he always assured his clients, would have no effect as long as the client takes the recommended ritual measures (distributing sadaa, using ablutions that could be prepared for the purpose of protection, perhaps wearing

Divination as Resonance

a protective amulet, etc.). In the illustration below, the sorcerer/person of the night/vulture can be seen attacking a person already heavily ill:

Other signs are composed out of a larger number of shells. A circle of cowries surrounding another single shell is for instance perceived as representing the house (kër), reflecting the enclosure surrounding the building or buildings forming a compound in rural architecture, even if today many compounds show a rectangular structure. The same constellation of shells can also indicate plas (derived from the French place), i.e. a job opportunity, or a position in an institution or company.

job opportunity, or a position in an institution or company. If, however, the surrounding shells point

If, however, the surrounding shells point towards the person encircled in the middle, the same position does not indicate the house or a possible opportunity for salaried work. Instead, it reveals the danger of catt, the ill-intended speech of thers (also referred to as lamiñ, the tongue), a notion comparable to the cultural concept of ‘the

Chapter 2

eye’ (al-’ain) in North Africa and the Middle East which, in the same way as catt, is often interpreted as indicating the injurious influence of social envy.

as indicating the injurious influence of social envy. A position in which a single shell is

A position in which a single shell is found at a considerable distance from a cluster of

shells and positioned as if moving away from where the client is seated, is referred to

as yoon, the path, or yoonu tukki, the path of travel, indicating entrepreneurial travel or migration to Europe or elsewhere. If the cowrie moves into the direction of the client rather than away from him, the same position is understood as indicating the arrival of a ‘foreigner’, gan, i.e. a visitor or guest.

of a ‘foreigner’, gan , i.e. a visitor or guest. A cluster or pile of closed

A cluster or pile of closed shells is referred to as xalis, money, or bagaas, from the

French bagage, luggage, in both cases indicating (the reception of) wealth and


Divination as Resonance

Divination as Resonance Four cowries positioned in the corners of an imaginary quadrangle would traditionally be

Four cowries positioned in the corners of an imaginary quadrangle would traditionally be interpreted as the four feet of a cow or bull, embodying the promise of an increase in property useful for household and family. Today, the same position is usually referred to as woto, derived from the French voiture, indicating the acquisition or gift of a car, embodying the promise of income (if used, for instance, as a taxi) and a more affluent and comfortable life. 19

as a taxi) and a more affluent and comfortable life. 1 9 1 9 To have

19 To have the expectation of receiving a car as a gift may seem unusual to the outside observer. In the Senegambian context, however, although few actually have the luck, to be given a car by a relative or friend living abroad, in Europe or the US, either as a gift, or in order to work with and with the promise of a reasonable share in the expected profit, is, in the light of chronic unemployment and very poor payment for most kinds of work to the average person, often the only realistic hope to ever obtain a car.

Chapter 2

All of the here listed configurations of cowrie-shells or ‘signs’ (Mand. tamansee) occur regularly during sessions of cowrie divination and can be interpreted by the diviner. The direction and spatial coordination of single shells or specific clusters of shells indicate in how far and in what way different positions refer to the subject or may be related to other persons within the subject’s environment. Additional information can be derived from counting the number of open and closed shells in a particular lay-out. With female clients, Samba Nguer counts the shells that fall with their open side pointing up (ubeku, open), while with male clients he counts those with the open side down, i. e. lying on their belly (dafa dep) or being closed (fermé). An even number of shells (matna, lit. ‘it is enough’) indicates positive developments, while an uneven number (dafa manqué, lit. ‘there is a lack’, from the French manquer, to lack), indicates obstacles or difficulties in the predicted course of events. Regardless of being even or uneven, a lay-out showing a large numbers of open or closed shells forming a single cluster, is read as indicating a heap of money (xaalis) or luggage (bagaas), signs that announce good luck and the acquisition of material wealth. When such a cluster of shells appeared, Samba Nguer would indicate it explicitly to his client. He would then ask his client to touch the cowries with the open palm of his or her right hand, and then touch his or her own forehead and heart with that same hand so that the blessings contained in this particular position of the cowrie shells will be accepted and safeguarded. In this context, it is interesting to note that most of the Wolof expressions used to describe the different positions and signs have exact equivalents in Mandinka and vice versa. 20 As with the terms and categories used in Islamic geomancy, the existence of equivalent designations in several different West African languages shows that these divinatory technologies are not restricted to single linguistic or ethnic groups but provide for an interethnic and interregional technology. This has both practical as well as more theoretical consequences. As far as clients speak the language of the diviner in question they can and do consult diviners from other ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Diviners, in turn, will provide their services to clients from different linguistic backgrounds and often

20 Cf. the comparative glossary of divinatory terms in the appendix of this study.

Divination as Resonance

be able to communicate in their respective language. Most people in the Casamance and the Gambia are bi- or multilingual. They are often not only proficient in the language of cohabiting or neighbouring communities, but also master the lingua franca of near-by (regional) centers (for instance Créole or Wolof in the region around Zguinchor, or Wolof when staying or living in Dakar). Not surprisingly, diviners do not feel restricted in terms of the geographical radius where they are able to operate. Many specialists often undertake journeys to the bigger cities for access to a larger clientele, even if they do not feel particularly confident with the dominant language of that area. In that case, diviners often rely upon the help of a relative or friend who is sufficiently familiar with both languages. These journeys can last from a few days up to several months, for instance when immediate assistance is requried for a client with whom one already has a long established relationship. Although based and firmly rooted in the Middle Casamance, Abdoulay Karamba Faty, my host in the village where I started my research in 2002 and himself a specialist in geomancy, used to spend several months in Dakar each year, often during the dry season when there were little agricultural activities to be supervised on the fields, and especially before banna saloo, the annual Islamic slaughtering feast, in order to be able cover for the considerable extra-costs of that feast consisting, for instance, in a ram to be sacrificed in the family’s compound, extra food supplies in order to be able to welcome guests, and, if possible, new cloths for the members of the family. Other diviner-marabouts undertake trips to or take residence in other African regions (several times I heard e.g. of specialists working in Gabon), in the Gulf area, Europe or North America where they provide their services not only to the members of West African migrant communities, but also to other African migrants, as well as members of the autochtonous population of their host countries. 21 On a more theoretical level, the fact that most divinatory terms and categories have equivalents in the different languages spoken in the Senegal and Gambia shows that maraboutic divination cannot be

21 Sometimes pioneering migration to certain areas, sometimes following currents of migration already under way, today West African marabout-diviners operate in many European and North American cities (cf. e.g. Kuczynski’s extensive study on West African marabouts in Paris [Kuczynski 2002]).

Chapter 2

reduced to a single local hermeneutic tradition but must be considered as a translocal technology with a common ritual repertoire. It is due to this translocal, translinguistic, and transethnical structure of Senegambian divinatory praxis that it actually makes sense to speak about ‘Senegambian’ rather than ‘Mandinka’, ‘Wolof’, ‘Peul’, ‘Serer’, ‘Balant’, ‘Mandjak’ or ‘Diola’ divination, even if one’s research mainly draws, as is the case with this study, on material in only two of the mentioned languages (Mandinka and Wolof). At the same time, it is important to note that in some of the mentioned ethnic and linguistic contexts there may be divinatory traditions that do not pertain translocal tradition of maraboutic divination which I describe here but are part of earlier, non-Islamic, local cultural traditions, often linked to other sociocultural fields than the personal difficulties and endeavours that are characteristic for maraboutic consultations. Among Lebou and Wolof, for instance, divination plays an important role in the ancestral religious and therapeutic praxis of possession rituals (cf. Zempléni 1966: esp. 329-340), while divination among Manjak speakers in Guinee-Bissau and Senegal has been described as being primarily concerned with issues of witchcraft and the protection from it (cf. Teixeira 2001)? a topic that has also been described as being central to the concerns of most central and southern African divinatory traditions.

Considering the large number of different positions that the cast shells can form, and remembering Samba Nguer’s emphasis upon the necessity of learning how to recognize and interprete them, it becomes clear that, technically, cowrie shell divination operates through the process of grasping the meaning of significant patterns and constellations of shells within the larger lay-out into which the shells fall with each cast. The interpretative process concentrates on the identification of relevant topics (social relationships and conflicts, personal projects such as marriage, work, migration, etc.) and conditions (unrest, ambivalence, illness, etc.). By translating the figurative and symbolic signs found in the divinatory lay-out into statements about the client’s personal situation and/or affliction the diviner is able to gain insight and to develop a first understanding of the specific case. This process of identifying the issues most urgent and relevant for his client is complemented by a parallel interpretative move of identifying the specific value or tendency of the issues

Divination as Resonance

indicated by the divinatory signs. As described above, this complementing interpretation often draws on the potential meaningfulness of the number of closed or open shells within each lay-out. Another way of identifying the specific value or tendency of the issues appearing in the configurations of the cowries lies in the possibility to interprete the spatial position and orientation of the signs in relation to the place where the client is sitting during the consultation. Shells pointing away from the consulter can for instance be understood as indicating that the problem in question is about to dissolve (perhaps already being a matter of the past) while shells pointing towards the client can indicate that the developments predicted still lie ahead of the subject (may be showing developments in the more distant rather than near-by future).

From Technical Knowledge and Linear Interpretation to Force and Intuition

Somehow, at the moment one has understood and described the technical basis or method of this type of divination, everything seems to be said. In a way, this is also what happened during the process of my apprenticeship with Samba Nguer. Once I had learned to distinguish (and memorized) the different positions that can be identified in the divinatory lay-out, the enigmatic veil of the divinatory proceeding being lifted and its technical properties layed bare, there seemed little more to say. Although this did not happen abruptly: next to the instructions that I received, I had the chance to assist at many consultations which we then discussed, and there were many other issues to talk about ranging from those aspects of his work that were not directly related to divination (such as healing techniques, the making of protective amulets, etc.), to his life-history, and other, more personal issues, touched upon in increasingly informal conversations. But one could feel that the end of our cooperation was approaching. At the same time, however, (and it is here that my personal experience, I believe, echoes an experience familiar to many novices of esoteric or otherwise complex professions) I knew that despite the knowledge I had aquired, I would not be able to divine in the same way as I had witnessed Samba Nguer doing with such certainty and success so many times. The reason why the novice doubts his ability to succesfully apply the knowledge he acquired is, of course,

Chapter 2

not to be found in the novice’s incompetence (although it can feel that way) but in an evident lack of praxis. In other words, what characterizes the situation of the novice after having acquired the technical basis of a particular divinatory technique is the necessity to attempt to gradually apply in praxis that what he has learned only in theory and through observation. Accordingly, when, at the end of our cooperation, Samba Nguer gave me the set of cowries he had prepared for me, he encouraged me to use them regularly, to practise the casting movements as often as possible in order to get comfortable with it, and to trust their messages and my own understanding of what the shells would reveal. Gradually, he said, I would be able to divine successfully and everything I would tell someone asking to throw the cowries for him, that person would see. The necessity for the novice to move from theoretical knowledge to applying the outlined interpretative techniques practically and personally shows that the process of learning how to divine is never fully identical to the transmission and acquisition of formal procedural and interpretative principles. In other words, while it remains crucial for the future practitioner, as well as for the cultural analyst, to learn and to understand how a specific technique ‘works’, the description of the technical principles can never describe the totality of (the doing of) divination as the actual divinatory performance is necessarily mediated by the personal agency of the diviner. The fact that the actual process of divination is necessarily mediated through the person of the (individual) diviner has important implications. It can, for instance, account for many of the particularities and idiosyncrasies that can be observed among different practitioners. Why does one diviner, for instance, carefully select, by several preliminary casts, the shells most suitable for the articulation of the nganiyo by the client, while another diviner would just take a number of shells regardless their position in the lay-out, may be even without first having specifically cast them? While the origin of such differences between different diviners is not even necessarily be located in his own decision but is perhaps just a reproduction of what was explained to him during his apprenticeship or revealed in his dreams, it is easy to imagine that, historically, such differences have slipped into praxis due to individual changes of habit and/or personal preference.

Divination as Resonance

Furthermore, the necessity of applying schematic interpretatory models to specific consultational situations that are never fully identical leads not only to differentiations in the outward way of applying and executing a specific divinatory technique among different diviners but also necessarily entails a kind of internal differentiation within the person of the diviner himself. As shown above, many positions in cowrie divination can be interpreted in different ways: a circle of shells appearing in a particular lay-out can be conceived of indicating the house or compound of the person (kër), the family and relatives living with the consulter, ill- intended speech of others (catt) likely to neccessitate ritual protection, or a place or job opportunity within an institution or company (plas). When asked how one could know in which case this or other signs that have multiple interpretative values would carry which of their possible meanings, the diviners I worked with said unanimously that in most cases, they would just know, without having to rely upon specific further indications within the particular lay-out. What this points to in my opinion is, on the one hand, that the meaning of a particular sign is not only derived from its position or direct semiotic context within a particular lay-out but that it is also understood from the context of the consultation, i.e. from his understanding of his client’s situation arrived at prior or during the consultation, as well as from his general insight into the material and psychosocial conditions of his clients. One the other hand, however, when a particular lay-out or sign has several different or ambivalent meanings, the ability of the diviner to actually identify the intentional concern of the client, to assess the possible developments of the issues at stake, and to prescribe the necessary ritual remedies, depends not only upon referential knowledge but also on other, non-inferential forms of knowing that draw neither on the explicit value of the signs appearing in the shells nor on the diviner’s knowledge of his client’s plans, situation, or affliction. Mandinka-speakers refer to this general abiltity of the diviner to come to know and reveal what could not be known from the consultational context itself as ‘having force’ (ka semboo soto). On the one hand, this is a metaphorical expression that transfers the phenomenon of physical force to the domains of knowledge and understanding. On the other hand, however, ‘ka semboo soto’ can also be understood in a more direct sense in so far as it denotes a force that, although may be not

Chapter 2

physically tangible, is nevertheless conceived of as a real quality of the diviner, manifesting itself with every succesful divinatory performance. The difficulty here lies of course in the fact that while from the perspective of the client a quality such as semboo is perceived as deriving from the authority of the diviner’s interpretatory performance, a notion such as ‘force’ is difficult to describe and grasp in itself. This is especially true because the expression of ‘having force’ as a description of the diviner’s ability seems to stand on its own without further symbolic detailing or characterisation of neither the force itself nor the act of divination. Unlike in other cultural contexts where the diviner’s revelatory ability is for instance compared to the ability of the hunting dog to sniff out what cannot be seen with the human eye (cf. for instance De Boeck & Devisch 1994, and Devisch 1999: 93-116 for a detailed discussion of the multiple symbolic and cosmological dimensions at play and elaborated upon in Luunda basket divination and mediumnistic divination among the Yaka in southwest Congo), the notion of semboo is generally not described in more detail and does thus offer little additional hints as to the nature or character of the diviner’s ability to divine. Pragmatically, this ability of the diviner to know how to interpret certain signs in a specific situation even without having contextual knowledge about his client can perhaps best be attributed to and described as an intuitional insight into the meaning of the divinatory patterns of the cast shells. An intuition that is gradually developed through the practitioner’s growing experience and his increasing trust in his own immediate apprehension of the nature of a specific case. Of course, such a pragmatic construction of the force of the diviner as divinatory intuition just replaces one unfamiliar notion (force) with another, may be more familiar one (intuition), without actually being able to reach to the core or possible origin of the phenomenon, let alone arriving at some kind of scientific explanation of it. In this context, it is also interesting to reconsider the fact that in the Senegambian context, as well as in countless other divinatory traditions, the diviner’s ability to reveal the causes or probable developments of the issues at stake is conceived of and explained in terms of his ability to communicate with spirit entities. Could it not be argued that the fact that the ability of the diviner is so often coined in terms of contact with spirits or the divine results from the fact that divinatory insight

Divination as Resonance

has always been felt and experienced as originating outside of one’s own consciousness? Or, in other words, could it not be argued that the cultural assumption of the existence of an external agency involved in divination is the result a historical- cultural process of postcognitional and postexperiential rationalization of an experience of knowing for which even the practitioners themselves had often no words? Such a hypothesis is of course highly speculative and basically impossible to prove. It is, however, interesting to note that a certain inclination to assume an external rather than internal origin of certain types of knowing cannot only be found in the context of divination but is also refelcted in the etymological connotations of many of the words used in different European languages to describe intuitional insight in general. An ‘inspiration’, for instance, derived from the Latin inspiratio, and understood as a sudden, unexpected idea, is, literally, not the product of the mind but that what is ‘breathed into’ it. Similarly, the German term ‘Eingebung’, usually translated as a sudden idea, inspiration, or intuition, literally refers to something ‘given-into’, i.e. put into one’s mind, apparently from the outside.

Summarizing the above, it becomes clear that the divinatory performance, although referred to in the Senegambian context as an act of ‘viewing’, ‘looking at’, or ‘looking for’ (jubeero in Mandinka, seet in Wolof), should not primarily be understood as direct visual perception nor does it consist in a linear reading of the divinatory signs appearing in the cast shells. 22 Instead, divination forms a complex process of interpretation and understanding based upon the individual diviner’s technical ability, his general as well as case-specific insight into the client’s moral and material life conditions, his experience, and intuition. I would argue that this description of the interpretative process as based on both inferential (contextual knowledge, reading of signs, interpreting the client’s

22 It is interesting to note, however, that the term ‘intuition’, derived from the Latin (in-) tueri for ‘looking at’, ‘gazing at’, ‘contemplating’, refers to a visual mode of perception as the basis of its working in the same way as the terms that designate the act of divining in Mandinka and Wolof. In this sense, the term ‘intuition’ cannot only serve as a technical term to describe the mode of consciousness that lies at the basis of the divinatory process but could even be used as a literal translation of the Mandinka and Wolof terms for divination: jubeeroo and seet.

Chapter 2

individual reactions during consultation, etc) as well as more intuitional ways of knowing is useful for at least two reasons. First, by indicating that cowrie divination (and most other forms of divination) draws upon a technological basis and method that can be learned and aquired, one avoids an overly mystifying reading of divination as if it were a way of knowing uncomparable to other, ‘normal’ modes of cognition. And second, by that the insight developed by the diviner during the consulation can neither be reduced to the result of a schematic application of its underlying method, nor to prior contextual knowledge about his client, one avoids the over-rationalization of the divinatory art. At the center of the divinatory process as a whole will always remain an enigmatic kernel that can not be fully grasped, neither by the observer nor by the diviner himself; an enigmatic kernel, however, which is not necessarily a sign of complete epistemic alterity but which is, on the contrary, an essential characteristic of all forms of intuitional knowledge. Understood in such a way it becomes clear that as a specific form of culturally institutionalized intuition, divination reflects modalities of consciousness that are not restricted to the field of divination alone but also play an important role in the experience of creativity in artistic and scientific production, as well as in the lived experience of interpersonal praxis. 23 In this sense, the construction of the diviner’s force as intuition may at least serve to de-exoticize the phenomenon and to reveal the probably universal familiarity of those modes of consciousness that underly the praxis of divination.

Although the above offers a useful starting point to get an idea of what divinatory praxis is, I would argue at the same time that the exclusive description of divination in terms of its formal principles and how the diviner is able to apply these principles, however nuanced and detailed, must always remain incomplete. It overlooks the fact that what is most relevant about divination for the persons involved in the divinatory encounter is not the artistry or nature of the diviner’s performance but its consultational quality. Divination, in other words, is subjectively significant primarily because it responds to the inquiry of the client or patient about his most urgent personal concern or ‘need’ (hajoo), and allows for the identification of the ritual

23 Cf. for instance the important role played by intuitional understanding in the context of midwifery and homebirth in the United States (Davis-Floyd & Davis 1996).

Divination as Resonance

remedies required for its solution. Consequently, from the perspective of the client, how a specific technique has to be used, how the divinatory instrument is read, and whether this interpretative process depends upon technical, intuitional, or other forms of knowledge is almost irrelevant as long as the diviner is able to locate his client’s concern, to analyze his situation, and to point out the necessary ritual remedies. An approach that focuses on divinatory method and the person of the diviner helps to understand divination as a(n) (extra)cognitive epistemic activity but it falls short to understand how divination actually affects the subject in his or her personal situation as a consultational and potentially therapeutic encounter. In order to understand the significance of divination as consultation it is thus necessary to move away from questions concerning the technical aspects of specific methods, the person of the diviner and the nature of divinatory cognition. Instead, one has to ask how divination works in relation to the subject that takes recourse to it. What kind of experience is constituted by the actual unfolding of the divinatory performance? How can the immediate unfolding of the divinatory process as consultation be considered in itself, i.e. apart from the interpretatory agency of the diviner? What characterizes the discursive landscape that is generated in the divinatory event? What kind of world comes into being through the divinatory performance?

Immediacy and Emphasis as Modalities of Divinatory Signification

Drawing on the pioneering works concerning religious symbolism by Durkheim, Freud, and Jung, but also on French and American semiology (especially De Saussure, Peirce), the works of Lévi-Strauss (structuralism), and symbolic anthropology (Geertz, Schneider), one of the central insights of anthropological studies regarding the working and efficacy of ritual has been the recognition of the important role played by symbol and metaphor in the way ritual creates meaning and brings about the transformational changes it aims at. While different authors have focused on different aspects of symbolic meaning production, ranging from the orectic/emotional, the unconscious, and the somatic, to the ideological and social,

Chapter 2

there seems to be a consensus amongst most authors that much of the efficacy of ritual action depends upon the power of symbols and metaphors to influence and shape reality by transferring aspects of meaning from one area of signification and experience to another. 24 Confronted with this pivotal importance of symbolism and symbolic mediation for the understanding of ritual processes, one of the main difficulties in understanding how divination unfolds its meaning in the Senegambian context lies in the relative scarcity of symbols and metaphors in the unfolding of the divinatory process. Although the language of the cowries remains symbolic in that the lines of shells appearing in a particular lay-out may be conceived of as symbolically representing paths or barriers, circles representing the house or the family, etc., these ‘symbolic’ configurations seem not to mediate different dimensions of reality, although they do transfer certain obvious observations made in the realm of physical objects (a physical barrier) to the realm of social relations or individual action (a barrier in the divinatory pattern signifying a blockage in one’s social relationships, indicating possible disputes, conflicts, and enmities). This more immediate and direct rather than symbolic way of signification in Senegambian divination is enhanced by the fact that the patterns or constellations that the diviner observes in the lay-out of the cast shells are only very occasionally brought to the attention of the client. In other words, while divinatory interpretation as a process of reading the signs (tamansee) that appear through the manipulation of different divinatory instruments (cowries, roots, geomantic drawings, etc.) relies upon the diviner’s ability to grasp the meaning of symbolic constellations, these semiotic constellations are almost never brought into the dicursive space of the divinatory encounter as such, i.e. as symbols or metaphors, but merely tend to be presented in their derived, divinatory meaning. Although it is possible that a diviner points out a certain position within the lay-out to

24 The bibliography on this classic field of anthropological analysis is vast. Important ethnographic studies in Africanist anthropology include for instance Evans-Pritchard 1956, Turner 1967, Fernandez 1983, and Devisch 1993. For good reviews of the different theoretical developments cf. for instance Ortner 1973 and Devisch 1985a. For more references and a useful didactic introduction cf. the first section of the second part of Lambek 2002.

Divination as Resonance

demonstrate to the client that what he states is not his invention but is revealed by the cowries themselves, most clients are not able to recognize the position referred to, to distuinguish it from other signs, or to attribute a specific meaning to it. On the level of the explicit divinatory pronouncement it seems that the mode of signification of the signs referred to is more indexical than metaphorical, simply indicating the category of the issues at stake without necessarily bringing other dimensions of meaning into play.

A similar observation concerning a relatively direct rather than symbolic mode of divinatory signification can be found in Turner’s famous account of Ndembu basket divination (Turner 1975 [1961]). Citing C.G. Jung’s distinction between “signs as analogous or abbreviated expressions of a known thing (…) and a symbol as the best possible expression of a relatively unknown fact, a fact, however, that is none the less recognized or postulated as existing”, (Jung 1949: 602, cited by Turner), Turner stated that ‘the objects of divination [i.e. the objects used in Ndembu basket divination] have many of the characteristics of signs’ (Turner 1975 [1961]: 207-8). He continues that while, according to Jung, symbols are “alive” and “pregnant with meaning” because of being attempts to express that what seems to escape more direct, non-symbolic wording, the ‘symbols’ or objects used in basket divination ‘approximate to the status of signs (…) become objects of cognition and cease progressively to be objects of emotion’ (Turner 1967: 208-9). Against this description of Ndembu basket divination as primarily cognitive activity, De Boeck and Devisch have argued that the significance of Central African divination is far more situated in the realm of the symbolic than Turner’s account suggests (De Boeck & Devisch 1994). De Boeck and Devisch demonstrate in great detail how in the Central African divinatory traditions of the Luunda and Yaka of Zaire, divination initiates and unfolds as a highly complex symbolic process in which the person of the diviner, the materials and objects used for divination, and the diviner’s speech all allude to and evoke different dimensions of the cosmological, social, and bodily orders that make up the cultural lifeworlds in these contexts. The symbolism employed and manifesting itself in divinatory initiation, action, and speech among Luunda and Yaka is thereby of such a profound order that it can best be described as an encompassing process of ‘world-making’ that ‘performatively

Chapter 2

generates relationships with bodies, people, and the cosmos which cannot be fully captured by discursive, representational and cognitive levels of interpretation.’ ‘In this sense’, according to De Boeck and Devisch, ‘the divinatory praxis and the sequential analysis of the particular anamnesis in the séance bring forth in a highly corporeal and sensory way the meaningful creation of a new integrative order which interlinks body-self, social body and cosmos.’ (De Boeck & Devisch: 128). A ‘world-making’ that, as Devisch writes in another text, seems to finally aim at the creation of an ‘original matrix-like space’ that echoes and reenacts the ‘primordial oneness of the cosmos’ (Devisch 1999: 94). How does this account of divination as symbolic world- making relate to the rather direct, and almost a-symbolical mode of signification that seems, at least from the perspective of the client, to characterize Senegambian divinatory praxis? Maybe this direct and referential rather than symbolic way of signification is restricted to cowrie-divination? Or is it also apparent in geomantic (ramalo) and other forms of divination used in the Senegambian context? In the short introduction to Islamic geomancy as practised by Mandinka diviners in Senegal and Gambia which I presented in the first chapter, it was shown that each of the different geomantic signs, as well as their positions in the geomantic chart, bears a specific name, often referring to prophets ackknowledged in the Islamic tradition (Yusuf, Adamu, Muhamadu al-Mahdi, etc.). At the same time, each of the signs, as well as the positions in the geomantic system they are usually associated with, is attributed a specific field of divinatory meaning (the heart or Self of the person, paternal relatives, wealth, illness, death, etc.). Not surprisingly, the divinatory meaning of a specific sign often relates to the hagiographic properties of the prophetic character that gives it its name. The sign of Isa (Jesus), for instance, is associated with illness because of his ability to heal. Ayuba (Job), in turn, is associated with death as he almost died when put to test by God with severe illness, while Suleiman (Salomon) is commonly seen as representing wealth because of the wealth and prosperity he was granted by God. 25

25 In the case of Isa, Ayuba, and Suleiman, the relation between the divinatory meaning of the sign and the hagiographic connotations of the prophetic figure whose name it bears seemed to be common knowledge for most diviners. In the case of the other thirteen signs, the relation between the divinatory meaning of the sign and the connotations of its name

Divination as Resonance

The same relation between the name of a sign and its divinatory meaning can be found in certain charts used in divination by the use of a string of prayer beads (tasabayo la jubeeroo). In this form of divination, the client is asked to choose one of the beads (keso) from a string of prayer beads (Mand. tasabayo, derived from the Arabic tasbih). After the client has chosen a bead, the diviner will count the remaining beads back to the beginning of the string (which is indicated by a larger bead in the middle of the loop). The diviner hereby counts in rounds of sixteen so that the result, independent of the absolute numerical position of the bead that has been picked out, will always be a number between one and sixteen which then corresponds to a chart of sixteen sections (cf. the Illustration 2.4) that closely resembles the system of sixteen signs, and sixteen Doors or Houses characteristic for Islamic geomancy. What is striking in the application of such a divinatory chart, as well as, more generally, in geomantic divination, is that although most diviners are aware of the relation between the meaning of some of the signs and the life-history and theological importance of the prophetic figure whose name it bears and whom it represents, the relation between the sign and the figure it represents is hardly ever mentioned, let alone elaborated upon during consultation. In other words, the appearance of a specific sign does not normally unfold its potential symbolic meaningfulness as an examplary or paradigmatic life-history allowing the client to identify with the respective prophetic character and to be drawn into the dynamics of its religious connotations. Instead, the diviner will directly refer to the meaning of the different signs or, in cowrie divination, to the meaning of the different positions resulting from the casting of the shells. In this sense, in the Senegambian context the meaning of the divinatory enunciation is neither mediated by specific metaphors engulfing the subject’s consciousness, nor is it based upon a specifically coherent or encompassing symbolic universe re-enacted through the diviner’s words. No cosmology is enacted apart from the occasional reference to spirit entities as mediators of the divinatory messages (jinno, ruhano) or as agents that somehow interfere with the client’s affairs (jinno or, in Wolof-speaking contexts, rab). Instead, in most cases, the divinatory

did not seem to form part of the usual canon of ritual knowledge that most specialists would be familiar with.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 Illustration 2.4: Divinatory chart of sixteen signs used for divination with a string of

Illustration 2.4: Divinatory chart of sixteen signs used for divination with a string of prayer beads. The chart was drawn and explained to me by Solo Sissé, Mandinka diviner/marabout and head of the village (alkaloo) of Karantabaa Dutoo Koto in Eastern Gambia, February 2003.

Divination as Resonance

Divination as Resonance Illustration 2.5: Solo Sisé. In front of him the divinatory chart reproduced on

Illustration 2.5: Solo Sisé. In front of him the divinatory chart reproduced on the previous page.

Chapter 2

enunciation refers directly to the social, economic, psychological, and medical situations and conditions of the inquiring subject. Little or no symbolic elaboration is involved. What characterizes the divinatory enunciation most is it’s immediacy, the fact that what the diviner perceives of his client’s situation does not need to be mediated by complex symbolic or metaphorical cultural structures of meaning but can be pronounced as directly as it seems to show itself for the diviner in the divinatory signs.

In this context, one has also to bear in mind that the diviner’s succesful identification of one’s concerns forms the main emic criterium for the success and quality of a consultation. Successful divination is not only, as often assumed by outsiders, a question of whether the predictions made by the diviner will actually realize themselves in the client’s personal future (although the fact that things turned out as predicted is of course a point often highlighted when people give an account of their personal experience with divinatory consultation in retrospect). As an expression and result of the diviner’s ability to identify certain relevant issues within the unavoidably much larger field of his client’s subjective, lived reality, the divinatory enunciation can, in this regard, be understood as a process of epistemic emphasis; a process of gradually making visible of those areas of life most relevant for the client in his or her current situation. But what exactly is the quality of this process? What is its significance? And how does the divinatory enunciation unfold its impact?


Ontogenetic Resonance









In the previous chapter I have argued that through the articulation of the ‘intention’ (nganiyo) by the client at the beginning of the divinatory consultation, and the identification and consideration of this intentional concern through divinatory procedure, Senegambian divination constitutes an intentional cultural space that implies and responds to the subject in relation to his or her specific and situated

Divination as Resonance

personal intentions, longings, expectations, plans, concerns, and predicaments. Through subsequent explorations into the internal logic of Islamic geomancy as practised by Mandinka diviners in Senegal and Gambia, it became apparent that the inquiring subject’s reason for divinatory consultation should be understood as being deeply rooted in a motivational background of subjective ‘woundedness’ or trauma (niitooroo). What is the consequence of the pronouncedly phenomenological and subject-oriented perspective on Senegambian divination, pursued in the first chapter of this study, for the understanding of the immediacy and presencing quality of the divinatory enunciation? How does the interpretation of divination as intentional space relate to the general significance of the form and content of the divinatory pronouncement? The answer to the above questions comes into view if we look at the divinatory enunciation in ways similar to the internal logic of the divinatory encounter, i.e. precisely as a response to the subject’s intention, desire, wish, longing, or affliction, or, in other words, to the nganiyo of the subject noematically defined by the concern or need (hajoo) to which it refers, and as a response to the motivational background of niitooroo that forms the basis of the client’s inquiry. As an answer and response to the noematically defined intention of the subject, the divinatory enunciation can be understood as the discursive emerging of the noematic correlate of the subject’s intentional concern that, pronounced silently upon the divinatory parapherenalia, formed the main reason for and object of the divinatory inquiry from the onset. Formulating this relation between the initial intentional condition of the subject and the significance of the divinatory enunciation in a less technical and abstract manner, one could say that an inquiry concerning, for instance, a medical condition, plans for migration (travel), or conjugal difficulties, becomes meaningful for the client only in so far as the this intentional concern actually reappears in the divinatory signs, is brought out by the diviner, and elaborated upon in such a way that it contributes to the answering of the client’s questions. If health, travel, and conjugal relationships would not be referred to in the divinatory enunciation, althoughthey are, in the particular case, the client’s primary concern, the statements of the diviner would be of little or no importance to him. Unless, of course, the client has the

Chapter 2

impression that the issues addressed by the diviner refer not to himself but to someone else he knows well, or that he touches upon issues that were not taken into consideration at the beginning of the consultation, but which form nevertheless an inextricable part of the subject’s wider existential sphere of concern, but maybe in an unconscious way. The crucial aspect here is to realize that the divinatory enunciation is not just significant as a cultural document reflecting important social or symbolic structures of a particular culture, but because it is significant for the client in his or her individual concern. Although this aspect is evident, it remains crucial to fully acknowledge this point in order to be able to grasp the significance of the divinatory enunciation not only as a cultural institution or tradition but as a concrete possibility of experience that realizes itself with every succesful consultation. In more phenomenological terms, ‘significant for the client’ means that the meaning of the divinatory consultation must be seen in its relation to the specific intentional concern of the subject as a result of the subject’s specific actualization of intentional being, or, in terms of Heidegger’s existential analytics, as a result of the being-in-the-world and ‘concern’ (Sorge) of the subject as the main ontological characteristic of human existence (cf. Heidegger 1993 [1927]: esp. §§ 12, 13, and 39-41). The consequence of this subject- or Daseins-relatedness of divinatory meaning for the phenomenological analysis of the significance of the divinatory enunciation is at least twofold. On the one hand, and this summarizes what has been said in this subsection of the text so far, the significance of the divinatory enunciation depends upon whether it is able to locate, articulate, and bring into view the subject’s intention, and to concretize those aspects of the subject’s concern that were unclear and unsure for the client at the moment he or she decided to take recourse to divinatory consultation and which were thus central to the expectation of the subject when entering into the divinatory encounter. In this regard, in order to be meaningful for the inquiring subject, the divinatory enunciation has to respond to the specific personal longings, expectations, anxieties, concerns, and predicaments that make up the concrete intentional situation of the subject. It is this subject-related specificity that makes the enunciation immediately significant for the inquiring subject. The question that arises here, however, is whether a focus on the specificity of the enunciation, while perhaps

Divination as Resonance

adequately accounting for the importance of the details of a concrete enunciation, does not at the same time inhibit us to grasp the experiential quality of the divinatory enunciation as a whole? In regard to the broader meaningfulness of the divinatory enunciation, it is crucial to realize that even those topics and aspects that are perhaps not answering directly to the subject’s specific intentional concern do nevertheless simultaneously evoke and reflect a complex topography of issues, situations, and concerns that alltogether make up the subject’s cultural lifeworld in a much more encompassing sense. Following this line of thought, I would argue that the general meaningfulness of the divinatory enunciation can be described as the result of the unfolding of a specific discursive process which is simultaneously mimetic, poetic, and ontogenetic. The term mimetic is hereby used in a twofold way. On the one hand, the notion of mimesis is not meant to indicate that the divinatory representation simply represents reality as it is (which is, ultimately, impossible) but that it situates itself in continuity with the world as it is perceived, understood, presupposed, and generally experienced by the individual subject requesting divination. Characteristic and a prerequisite for the meaningfulness of the divinatory enunciation is, in other words, a certain continuity between the subject’s cultural lifeworld and the content of the enunciation. On the other hand, and here I follow recent insights in literary theory (cf. for instance Spariosu 1984 and Scholz 1997), the term mimetic also implies that, as a discursive process, the representation that is taking place in divination is not just an imitation of reality but posits the world in a distinct way, i.e. in a way that is specific to the cultural logic and experience implicit to the divinatory praxis. By positing the world in a mimetic motion that is not fully identical but nevertheless necessarily in continuity with prior conceptions of the lifeworld, the divinatory enunciation has the potential to renew and reshape the subject’s understanding of reality without breaking away from the subject’s lived experience. This potential of the divinatory enunciation to add to, modify, and potentially enlarge the subject’s understanding of a whole range of important areas of experience can be understood as its poetic dimension. Poetic not just in the sense of being evocative of certain aspects of reality in certain ways, but in the more literal sense of poiesis as a making, i.e. a bringing-into-presence and revealing of realities and aspects of reality that are maybe already consciously

Chapter 2

part of the subject’s life world, while at the same time also providing new perspectives to and renewing familiar realities. Seen in such a way it becomes clear that, constantly oscillating between a static reproduction of the world as it is known and the dynamics of renewing and remaking reality, the divinatory process makes that the subjective and sociocultural representation and understanding of reality gradually start to encompass previously unrealized aspects and dimensions. 26 In this regard, divination constitutes a discursive praxis in which by naming, referring to, and articulating different ontological regions, fields of action, and personal conditions such as the house, travel, work, illness and the body, dreams, or the heart and the mind of the person the already existing reality is not only reflected but also shaped in decisive ways. Phenomenologically, these two dimensions of the meaningfulness of the divinatory enunciation as both intention- as well as lifeworld-related response to the subject’s situated concern, do not represent opposed principles but form complementary actualisations of the same ontological disposition of enmeshedness in and openness to the world that forms one of the central tenets of phenomenological theory, both in Husserl’s writings on intentionality and lifeworld, as well as in Heidegger’s existential analytics. Both these bodies of work share an emphasis on the being-in-the-world of the subject as the main ontological characteristic of human existence. 27 In other words, the general meaningfulness of the divinatory enunciation

26 The fact that the relation between the intentional concern of the subject and the general representation of reality in the divinatory enunciation is dynamic rather than static, already indicates that part of the significance of the divinatory encounter lies in its relation to (the growth of) the subject’s understanding of his or her personal situation. The hermeneutic quality of the divinatory encounter will be dealt with in more detail in the following chapter. 27 Husserl developed the notion of the lifeworld in Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie (1976 [1954]), as a critique towards the subject-irrelative, objectivist logic of the natural sciences. Husserl argued that the seeming objectivity of scientific reality is the outcome of specific prereflective, and prescientific modalities of experiencing and action (such as for instance the bias towards object-ivity in visual perception and in the instrumental use and making of objects as tools) and is therefore necessarily linked to the subjective nature of human reality and history from which, in order to avoid and counter the loss of sense (Sinnverlust) that lies at

Divination as Resonance

as a mimetic and poetic discursive field, as well as the specific meaningfulness of the divinatory enunciation as response to the client’s intentional concern (the nganiyo of the subject and its noematic correlate [hajoo]) both rest upon the embeddedness of the subject in his or her own lifeworld precisely because lifeworld and subjective intentionality are not separate entities but correlates. Divination, in this sense, constitutes an encompassing lifeworld-poiesis or –genesis, an ontogenetic response to the intentionality of the subject as an apriori disposition that concretizes itself in the specific questions, longings, and afflictions that lie at the basis of the subject’s motivation for divinatory consultation. In this regard, the meaningfulness of the divinatory enunciation can be conceptualized as the result of the interplay between the content of the enunciation and a continuum of varying densities of subjective responsiveness that characterizes and results out of the subject’s varying degrees of intentional enmeshedness in the world. Seen as a field of meaning that unfolds in the interstitial space of lifeworld and subjectivity, both of which already imply each other, divination comes into view as an ontogenetic resonance. A resonance between the subject and the lifeworld in which the intentional concern of the subject is identified and located, and in which, at the same time, the lifeworld reoriginates in its meaningfulness precisely because of its being articulated not in an abstract way but in relation to and for the subject.

the basis of ‘the crisis of the European sciences’, it should not be severed. Combined with Husserl’s earlier reflections on the intentional nature of human consciousness, the concept of the lifeworld comes into view as a specific phenomenological notion that is able to describe the immediacy and wholeness of the subjective world as the totality of the possible noematic correlates implied in the intentional being of the subject. In this sense, the notion of the lifeworld demonstrates that the world that we live in should not be conceived of as a separate entity, an object that may somehow be located outside of the conscious subject. Instead, from a phenomenological perspective, the world that we live in is not ‘objective’, but subjective-relational and can only be experienced in this way, i. e. by ourselves through our selves. For Husserl (and phenomenological theory in general), the world as lifeworld (Lebenswelt) is, consequently, not the object but ‘the ground and horizon’ of all consciousness.

Chapter 2

In this and the preceding chapter I have focused on the locating of the force of the divinatory encounter in the phenomenological and cultural quality of the divinatory process as intentional space (Chapter One) and resonant field of cultural signification (this chapter). In the following chapter, it will be shown that the process of responding to and resonating with the subject’s intential concerns and personal lifeworld is not mechanical or predetermined but realizes itself in a deeply hermeneutical and dialogic praxis that is based and relies upon the active personal and intersubjective involvement and engagement of both client and diviner.

Chapter Three

Divination as Hermeneutic Encounter: Reflections on Understanding, Dialogue, and the Intersubjective Foundation of Divinatory Consultation

While the diviner executes his art, drawing, calculating, and interpreting geomantic patterns, reflecting on and analyzing the positions of the cast shells, or, in the case of listikaaroo, the Islamic art of dream divination, contemplating on the relation between his dream visions and the situation of his client, the client waits for and listens to the diviner’s findings. As the diviner succeeds to gradually address the issues and questions most significant for his client, different paths of thought and reflection appear and start to shape and renew the subject’s understanding of his or her own personal situation. In this regard, from the start of the first divinatory pronouncements and through the gradual unfolding of the divinatory inquiry, the intentional space of the divinatory encounter increasingly acquires a hermeneutic quality. Drawing on the documentation of several divinatory enunciations, the way they unfold, as well as explanations from diviners and their clients concerning the meaning and nature of divinatory consultation, this chapter aims at analyzing the development and experiential quality of the hermeneutic dimension of the divinatory encounter. The analysis will consist of three parts: First, it will be argued that the hermeneutic dimension of the divinatory encounter is as fundamental to the divinatory working as the ontological disposition of intentionality and lifeworld-relatedness that formed the focus of the preceding chapters. Second, it will be demonstrated how in most cases the enunciation evolves not in a strictly monologic way but in a relatively open, dialogic fashion. In the third and last part of the chapter, it will be asked how exactly the hermeneutic and dialogic dimensions of the divinatory encounter relate to each other and why this relation may be considered crucial for the understanding of the full significance of the consultational character of divinatory praxis.

Chapter 3

Understanding Divinatory Enunciations

In the preceding chapter, the working of the divinatory enunciation was described as a resonance between enunciation, lifeworld, and the intentional concern of the inquiring subject. I argued that the way in which the divinatory process of enunciation responds to the intentional concern of the subject and his or her enmeshment in the lifeworld is brought about through a direct and immediate rather than symbolic evocation of those regions and aspects of lived reality most relevant for the subject at the moment of inquiry. But how exactly is this resonance realized? Again it is useful to differentiate between the lifeword- and the intentionality-related dimensions of the resonance that is brought about by the divinatory encounter. While the general meaningfulness of the enunciation as lifeworld poiesis is the result of the parallels betweenthe referential content and moral implications of the divinatory enunciation, on the one hand, andthe world of the subject shaped through habitual praxis and lived experience, on the other, the relation between one’s own intentional concern and the general content of the enunciation has to be realized by the subject him- or herself, through his or her own active understanding of the divinatory pronouncement. In other words, while the resonance between lifeworld and enunciation envelops the subject in a more immediate, prereflective way, the resonance between enunciation and subjective concern is always necessarily the result of the subject’s own understanding of the enunciation, and not just of a simple objective coinciding between the referential content of the enunciation and the content of the subject’s intentional concern. What is meant by this becomes clearer if we look at a further example of a divinatory enunciation, its overt content, and the way the enunciation is understood by the inquiring subject him- or herself. The example consists in another geomantic enunciation, pronounced by Abdoulaye Karamba Faty, my host in the Casamance whom I introduced in the previous chapter. The session of which the following enunciation is the result, however, did not take place in the Casamance but in Dakar, during one of his regular working sojourns in the capital. Because the client did not understand Mandinka, the pronouncement was translated phrase by phrase into Wolof by a mediator. Due to this, Karamba Faty does not directly address his client but

Divination and Dialogue

rather asks his translator ‘to tell him’ (a fo aye), i.e. the client, what the geomantic

calculation has revealed. The enunciation is reproduced in its entirety.

Example 3.1: Geomantic enunciation pronounced by Abdoulaye Karamba Faty, Dakar, July 2003.

Jubeeroo beteyaata. Ning Allah kiidita ala,

The divination is good. If God is willing,

a ka meng ñining

that what he searches,

a baa soto la.

he will obtain it.

Bari a be niikuyaa nding soto la.

But there is a small annoyance [lit. sth. causing bitterness to the soul].


be suboo sang na janni a be taa.

He will buy some meat before leaving.

Subukero, a yaa sadaa kambaani ndingo

Uncooked meat, he will give it as sadaa


to a little boy.


fo aye ning Allah kiidita ala

Tell him that if God is willing,

ning aye wo bondi,

if he distributes that,

wo be kela aye kayira le ti.

it will cause him peace.

A fo aye ning a yaa dorong,

Tell him that as soon as he sees that [the

a ya long ko ye sadaa bo le,

annoyance], knowing that he has distributed the

a kanata le;

sadaa, he will (already) have escaped (from it);

wo be kela aye kayira leti.

that will cause him peace.


fo aye a se kodoo fanang

Tell him also that he has to divide the

ning tiyaa keeroo talaa dindingol teema.

money and the groundnuts between some

Kodoo aye meng soto, janni a be taa. Tiyaa kaama.

children. The money that he has got, before leaving. Groundnuts.

A fo aye a be firing na baake.

Tell him he will be very fortunate [i.e.

A fo aye diyamoo.

rich]. Tell him, betrayal.

Diyaamoo funtita a ye musu kuwo to.

Betrayal has come up [in the geomantic signs] concerning a woman.


fo aye ko ning aye ñing bondi sadaa ti

Tell him once he has distributed [lit.


taken out] the sadaa,

tiyaa kaama,

the groundnuts,

Chapter 3

a fo aye jamfaa le mu,

tell him the betrayal,

a be kela a ye kayira le ti.

it [the sadaa] will cause his peace.


baa jela a ñaa la

He will see it with his own eyes that,

meng yaa long ko

as you know,

a te kela probleemo ti.

it will not be a problem.

A fo aye a be firing na baake.

Tell him that he will be very fortunate.

A ning aye i wakili

And he has to do everything to consider

aye ala dookuwo muta ala hajoo leti. Ala ñaato taa beto be jee.

his work as his own concern. His good advancement lies there [i.e. in his work].


fo aye ñing niikuuyaa,

Tell him that annoyance,

wo mu kayra leti fanang.

it will also be peace [i.e. be of no negative consequence].


ba jeela le.

He will see that.

Bari suboo wo ma diyaa-kuyaa le ti

But the meat, at all costs [lit. sweet or


a ye wo sang.


Parce que a funtita ate fango la jaata kendeyoo le to.

tell him that he must buy it. Parce que [because] that has come up

A la kuu kolengo [koleyaaringo] fanang,

in the context of his own state of health.

a bee be cikala a kang.

His difficulties also,

Parce que taama siloo

all of it will vanish.

ning ñaato taa.

Parce que [because] the path of travel


fango yaa long ko a be ñing meng bee

and advancement.


He himself knows all he is engaged in,

a avancemango sotola jee.

he will have advancement there.

A foo a yeñing diyaamoo kuwo fanang

Also tell him, concerning the talking,


The sadaa for that is groundnuts and

wo le sadaa mu tiyoo ti aning kodoo ti. Wo le mu ala sadaa ti.

money. That is his sadaa.


be daameng,

There where he is,

ala kuwool bee be beteyaala. Dimbayaa keeñaa fanang, mmang tana je jee.

All his affairs will be fine. His family matters also, I haven’t seen any trouble there.


fo aye, jawuyaa meng be ala,

Tell him, the enemy he has,

fo aye ning Allah kiidita ala, wo safee meng be a bala,


tell him if God is willing, the amulet that he has,

fo aye toujours dorong a ye tara a bala. Jawuyaa warta.


tell him to wear it toujours [always]. [Because] the enemy is great.


fo aye ning Allah kiidita ala,

Tell him that if God is willing,

Divination and Dialogue

Allah baa maakoyi la.

God will help him.


fo aye ñinuu le funtita ala kuwo to.

Tell him that, concerning his affairs, that is what has come up.


one looks at the above enunciation in terms of its overt referential content, one can

note that the enunciation concentrates on three different but closely related aspects:

First, possible obstacles and dangers that might inhibit the client to realize what he is

concerned with (an ‘annoyance’, diyamoo, an enemy). Second, the fields of concern

in which these obstacles may appear or which seem, from the reading of the

geomantic calculation, of particular relevance for the client (his work, family, and

health, a woman, as well as, maybe, migration or entrepreneurial travel indicated by a

‘path of travel’). And third, the objects that the client should ‘take out’ as sadaa in

order to avoid and counter these dangers (uncooked meat, groundnuts, and money, all


it to be distributed to children in the street). If we look at these statements in terms


their respective specificity, one notes that while the ritual measures that should be

taken by the client are precisely indicated, the enunciation seems to be less precise

about the exact nature of the client’s concerns and the concrete difficulties the client

might be facing in the future. From the viewpoint of the client, however, the meaning

of the enunciation is evident. What it refers to is clear. Asked about the proceedings

and the content of the consultation that had just finished, the client, a young man in

his late twenties, gave the following explanations which are reproduced verbatim in

order to show the extent to which the different elements of the geomantic enunciation

are perceived as relating directly to the client’s personal situation.

Chapter 3

Example 3.2: Postconsultational interview, given by a client of Abdoulaye Karamba Faty, July 2003, immediately after the consultation. (Explanations were originally given in French and are here presented in their English translation. The interviewer’s questions are separated from the client’s explanations by double slashes):

‘When he gave me the pen, that’s so that I ask about the sacrifices that I should do. 28 I

asked God that he may enlighten me about everything I do. My future. My work, my

family, and my health.

Yes, these three things.

Then, the old man has taken the pen and he has written [i.e. executed the geomantic


First of all, he asked me to do the sacrifices. That concerns the place where I work.

Everything that could happen to me there, if I do the sacrifices, it will not happen to

me. At another place, there is a girl that plots against me.

Also in that regard, he told me (necessary) sacrifices so that it cannot happen to me

any longer.

// What were these sacrifices? //

The sacrifices?


(Concerning the situation) where I work, I have to take out [i.e. give or distribute]

meat. There also, there are people that don’t like me. What can I say? They don’t

want me to work with them. It’s a question of meanness. Because we work there

together. Before, I supervised everyone. Because the old man took me on, I

supervised everything. And I did that correctly. It is only that people always want

something that the other has not. What I want to say is that… If one works… It is as if

I worked with B. [his friend], well, I want you to pay me more than him. You can’t

take these things serious… If you work, I have to receive the same payment that he

28 The term ‘sacrifice’ is one of three terms used by Francophone Senegales to translate the term sadaa (derived from the Arabic sadaqa) or, as in this case, its Wolof equivalent (sarax). The most frequently heard translation of these three is ‘charity’ (charité); the translation of sadaa/sarax as ‘sacrifice’ (sacrifice) is less frequent while its translation as ‘offering’ (offrande) is rare. The different layers of meaning alluded to by of these three different translations and the cultural significance of the practice of sadaa will be dealt with in Chapter Six.

Divination and Dialogue

has. Because we work always on the same construction site, from eight to four, so we have to get the same salary. That what I do is what he does. So, the other people [i.e. those trying to be paid more than others for no reason], they are mean, not correct. And because I am very demanding [in terms of working performance], they prefer not to work with me. That’s it. // Did you earn more than them? // Yes, I gained more. I gained more because I… I am not a mason, I came there as a supervisor. When I started to work as a supervisor… I did it for two years. The workers who worked there… It was me who paid them more money than they had ever received before. Since I was there, I paid them for their overtime. On Sundays I didn’t pay them like any other day. Even the old man congratulated me a lot [i.e. appreciated the way he dealt with everything]. (But) Then he changed another thing. Because his son had come. To him [i.e. the son] it looked as if I was making his father lose money. But I was not losing his father’s money. I wanted that everything would be settled. Everything on the right track: He who works, he has his hours from eight to four, one has to pay him 2000 CFA [some three and a half Euro]. From four o’clock, you have to pay him overtime. That’s what the regulations say. So you have to pay him. Ok, when his son arrived, he had no clue about all of this. He [the son] brought his son-in-law. I don’t know. Something like that. He has taken over my place. // The son of your boss? // Yes, (but) only the truth can separate us [i.e. himself and his boss]. He [the son] brought his son-in-law. That person was a liar because anything that would be said (by the people working) on the site, he would go and tell the son of the patron. That caused those people certain problems. Now he is worth nothing, that guy. Because now they have brought him down [i.e. brought down his salary] to the extent that everywhere he goes he complains: ‘they don’t pay me enough’, ‘they pay me this’… It’s not serious [i.e. no way for a decent person to act]. Now, the people… I, because I am demanding [i.e. demanding a lot from those who work under his supervision], I don’t allow them to use me like that. So they have to pay me. The people who work (for you), you have to pay them in time and that’s it. If

Chapter 3

it’s me (who is in charge of supervision), I (would) push them [i.e. push the boss, or, in this case, his son, to pay everyone in due time]. So they [i.e. the son of his boss who has taken over his position and the people around him] don’t want me to work with them [i.e. to work with the workers as their supervisor.] Those sacrifices [i.e. the sadaa mentioned by the diviner], it’s to make sure that they can do nothing to me. It’s because of this that the old man [i.e. the diviner] has asked me to do those sacrifices so that I will keep my job and that they won’t continue to bother me. (…) // Your impression is that he [i.e. the diviner] has seen you? // Yes. That what I asked about, that is what he told me. Directly.’

The above explanations of the client concerning his understanding of the diviner’s statements clearly show that although the enunciation pronounced by the diviner may appear relatively unspecific to the outside observer, for the client himself the words of diviner are perceived as clear and specific in so far as they seem to refer directly to the specific situations and conditions that are at the heart of his concern. For the client himself it is evident, for instance, that the ill-intended speech of others (diyamoo) mentioned by the diviner refers to the situations of envy, competition, and enmity he experiences in the construction firm he is working for, while the enemy mentioned by the diviner, for him, refers to his boss’ son who has taken over his position as supervisor. In terms of how the words of the diviner are interpreted by the client, the geomantic enunciation presented above is quite typical. As in this case, most enunciations refer to specific areas of the subject’s everyday lived reality although they do not necessarily include details about these situations in terms of the identities or names of the persons involved, the exact means that others use or will use to harm the person or to interfere with his or her plans, or the exact personal circumstances of the subject (such as, in this case, the place or exact nature of the work the client is concerned about). The reason why this relatively abstract nature of the divinatory enunciation is not perceived as flawed or as lacking precision is simple: as long as the

Divination and Dialogue

diviner succeeds to generally locate the client’s intention, question, or affliction in a specific area of concern, he proves his ability. It would not make sense to further ‘reveal’ details that the client him-or herself is already familiar with. 29 This in turn indicates, again, that the significance of divination lies not primarily in providing a means to acquire knowledge or information as such. Rather, its meaning is located in its consultational quality of ‘shedding light on’ (ka bitaarlaa) and assessing the state and development of personal situations and potentially problematic trajectories of life in line with the significance they have for the individual client. This consultational purpose seems to ask for an almost systematic consideration of specific fields of action and experience pertaining to the subject’s lifeworld. They are far less aimed at surprising the client with intricate details of his personal surrounding. This logic of divination as a systematic inquiry into the subject’s situation and predicament is particularly apparent in those divinatory techniques in which the presence of the different relevant categories of interpretation is not, as in geomancy and cowrie divination, assumed to already exist in the material apparatus of the method itself (the geomantic drawings or the positions of the cast shells) but where they have to be brought into play by the diviner himself. A good example for this is divination by the use of a divining mat: Folded once in the middle and kept as motionless as possible between the thumb and index finger of the right hand, the diviner interrogates the divining mat by posing series of questions concerning the situation of his client in terms of his or her health, family, work, marital problems, etc. The mat responds to

29 It is interesting to note, however, that sometimes diviners do provide such details, and if that happens, it makes an extra impression. In one instance, for example, I remember a diviner in Thiès stating after one of the first casts of his set of shells that the light motorbike with which the client arrived at the diviner’s compound, was not his first but his second; something the diviner could not have known before but which the surprised client confirmed as correct. In another case, another diviner, while considering the lay-out of the cast shells in front of him, mentioned to his client that another diviner had apparently told him at an earlier occasion to prepare a white cock as sadaa but that, from what he saw in the lay-out, he had never done it. While the mentioning of unfullfilled ritual obligations is not unusual and may reflect the diviner’s awareness of the difficulties people may have to afford the necessary sadaa, especially when this concerns animals or cloth, both of which can be very costly, the fact that he correctly pointed out the exact type of sadaa clearly surprised the client.

Chapter 3

the diviner’s questions by remaining motionless or by opening up. If it remains motionless, this is understood as a negative answer to the question posed, indicating that the client’s concern or affliction situates itself in another area. If the mat opens, this indicates a positive answer to the question posed, a sign that the concern of the client is actually related to the area of life asked about. In that case, the diviner will pursue his investigation in that direction. In so far as the method itself only provides negative or positive answers to the diviner’s questions without having a specific content in themselves, the issues that are important for the consultation must be brought into the inquiry by the diviner himself. It is he who has to pose ever more precise questions to the divining mat in order to find out what his client is primarily concerned with, to assess the directions things may take, and to point out the most suitable ritual remedies. 30 But what precisely does this way of assessing the subject’s situation by moving through different categories of possible concerns (migration, work, health, etc.) imply? What is the effect of the tendency of divination to articulate its findings in relatively general, may be even ambiguous statements? And how exactly is this related to what was referred to in the beginning of this chapter as the ‘hermeneutic situation’ of the client?

30 Divinatory methods that, in the same way as the divining mat, assess questions according to a binary logic of yes/no-answers can be found in many varieties and in many different cultural traditions. The best known example for this kind of technique is probably the simple throwing of a coin in order to decide if or if not to take a certain action in a certain situation. Also the poison and rubber board oracles that Evans-Pritchard described in his famous study on witchcraft, divination and magic among the Azande belong to this category (Cf. Evans-Pritchard 1976: 120-175). Another example of the use of such a technique among Senoufo diviners in Côte d’Ivoire can be found in Zempléni 1995.

Divination and Dialogue

Divination and Dialogue Illustration 3.1: Amadou Billet Diedhiou demonstrating the use of a divining mat. 111

Illustration 3.1: Amadou Billet Diedhiou demonstrating the use of a divining mat.

Chapter 3

Divination and the Hermeneutic Situation

Traditionally, the term hermeneutic referred to the science of interpreting canonical texts, especially the Scriptures. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher extended the use of the term hermeneutics to encompass the interpretation of all texts and cultural products as expressions of the psychological, biographical and historical condition of their producers. As a result of this development, texts in general became visible as expressions of meaning situated in specific historical contexts (Historismus), rather than as incorporations of timeless truths. Drawing on Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey further specified the use of the term hermeneutic as referring to the mode of ‘understanding’ necessary to grasp the meaning of cultural and historical phenomena, in opposition to the external approaches of the natural sciences aiming at ‘explaining’ physical phenomena. Looked at in a more abstract way, it becomes clear that in spite of significant changes in the meaning of the term, hermeneutics was throughout its history conceived of as referring to methods or ways of studying and interpreting texts, practices, or objects that could be located outside the understanding subject him- or herself. As such, hermeneutics always more or less explicitly presupposed a separation between the understanding subject and the object to be understood. It is in this regard that Heidegger’s reflections on understanding and interpretation in Sein und Zeit were radical. Although by no means breaking with the long tradition of careful reading and interpreting foundational (philosophical) texts 31 , Heidegger emphasized that the category or notion of ‘understanding’ (Verstehen) is not only philosophically relevant as a basic principle of dealing with texts or other cultural artefacts. He argued that understanding was a philosophically fundamental issue because it constitutes one of the ontological existentials or prestructures of Dasein in general (cf. Heidegger 1993

31 Already during his early years as lecturer and assistant of Husserl in Freiburg from 1918-1923, Heidegger was reknown for his profound re-readings of many works of the philosophical tradition, especially the works of the pre-Socratic thinkers, and of Plato and Aristoteles (cf. Safranski 2001: 127-147, 148, 171).

Divination and Dialogue

[1927]: 148-153). 32 Concentrating on the normal, pre-reflective experience and understanding of the daily lifeworld, Heidegger argued that when we see a table, a door, a car, a bridge, etc. we do not first perceive these objects in order to then understand what they are in an a posteriori reflection. Instead, the meaning of the particular object as bridge, door, etc. is already present in the very first moment of perception because, according to him, ‘all prepredicative mere seeing of the ready-at- hand is in itself already understanding-interpretative’ (Heidegger 1993 [1927]: 149). 33 It could be argued that this is also what seems to happen in the way the inquiring subject grasps the meaning of divinatory enunciations: in most cases, the subject will not just perceive different elements of the enunciation and then start to reflect upon them but he will immediately know what the enunciation refers to because of his or her pregiven, already ‘interpretative-understanding’ relation to his or her own life- situation which, furthermore, the subject was asked to specify at the beginning of the consultation by pronouncing his or her intentional concern (nganiyo/hajoo) on the objects to be used during the divinatory procedure. In this regard, part of the quality of the divinatory enunciation lies in the fact that, unlike a clinical biomedical diagnosis based, for instance, on blood screens, ultrasound scans, or computer tomographies, which does not relate to the patient’s own perception and experience of his or her illness and which can often not be understood by the patient without further detailed explanations by a medical specialist, the meaning of the divinatory enunciation can usually be understood and interpreted by the client immediately because it is continuous and resonating with the subject’s pregiven understanding of his or her own situation. Summarizing the above, it becomes clear that the divinatory enunciation should not be conceived of as a definite or objective text to be appropriated by the client in exactly the same form as it is pronounced by the diviner. Instead, the meaning of the enunciation must be grasped by the client through a hermeneutic

32 For a more detailed discussion of the relation of Heidegger’s hermeneutic

phenomenology to Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Husserl, and Gadamer cf. Moran 2000: 276-


33 ‘Alles vorprädikative schlichte Sehen des Zuhandenen ist an ihm selbst schon verstehend-auslegend’.

Chapter 3

process of understanding that is based upon and implies prereflective, habitual ways of knowing as much as conscious thought and reflection. This shows that the divinatory encounter involves the subject not merely as a protagonist in a predetermined ritual script but as a hermeneutic subject, a person rooted in an already meaningful world, bearer of personal (pre-)understandings, concerns, and reasonings. Similar to what has been said in relation to the intentionality and enmeshment of the subject in his or her own sociocultural lifeworld, here too the divinatory process responds to the existential situatedness of the subject in a double way: it addresses the subject in relation to one of his fundamental ontological dispositions and abilities (here, the a priori hermeneutic situation of the subject rooted in a condition of both prereflective and reflective understanding). And it also realizes and deals with this ontological disposition, allowing the subject to develop a broader understanding of his or her situation and to come to terms with his or her concrete expectations, longings, difficulties, and uncertainties. Divination, in other words, does not exhaust itself in the understanding of which statement refers to which of one’s personal concerns but implies a much more complex reconsideration of one’s personal situation in the light of the possibilities and difficulties, dangers and chances, openings and closures indicated by the diviner. The resonance between enunciation, lifeworld, and intentional concern described in the previous chapter is thus not the automatic outcome of a ritual performance but the result of a hermeneutic process of meaning finding that implies both