Tossing Life in a Basket: Divination Arts of Chokwe and Related Peoples of Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

January 30, 2003 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Goethe Room
California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118

A Lecture

by Manuel A. Jordán Pérez, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Ryann Willis

On Thursday, January 20th, 2003, Dr. Manuel A. Jordán Pérez, AOA curator for the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University spoke to an overflow crowd in the S.F. Academy of  Science’s Goethe Room.

The lecture introduced attendees to the art, implements and philosophy of divination of the Chokwe and related  peoples of Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dr. Jordán Pérez has performed extensive field research on this subject and during his stays in Africa has developed personal friendships with many diviners. He vividly invoked these people through his anecdotes, slides, and palpable respect for both the diviners and their often-misunderstood art.

Africa’s centuries-old practice of divination as a healing art is quite different from Western concepts of the term. Divination can be used to cure disease, deceit, theft, witchcraft, or jealousy. As explained by Dr. Jordán Pérez, African divination makes no effort to “divine” the future, or fortune, of the diviner’s subject. Rather, the diviner’s goal is to bring both physical relief from illness and to act as a catalyst, to achieve metaphysical and mental health for the individual or the entire community.

Diviners find the symbolic associations and cosmic  precepts that support their role in seeking cause and resolution of human problems. A diviner also serves as consultant or arbiter giving guidance and wise counsel in the affairs of both the seeker and the community.

Diviners are treated with respect and people often travel many miles to visit a diviner known for his  ability to influence a particular problem. However, this doesn’t preclude the use of other sources for the resolution of the problem. Villagers and diviners see no contradiction in using a diviner and  taking advantage of the latest medical care.

A person often becomes a diviner after suffering from a  serious illness. Upon becoming ill, the diviner is often informed that divination is in his or her bloodline and an ancestor is  causing the sickness to get their attention. This identification begins the apprenticeship that eventually leads to developing the diviner’s skills.

Divination implements are meant to make a bold statement. The diviner’s implements create pathways, metaphorically guiding the diviner into the spirit world. They enable the diviner to visualize the problem and indicate what action(s) should be taken. Symbolically, the divination basket, usually filled with many objects, is  considered a microcosm of life and it may be further empowered by means of applied or attached substances and materials (earth, animal’s pelts, supernatural medicines, etc). These tools enhance the diviner’s abilities to “see” the hidden truth(s) of cases brought to him or her. Every object in the diviner’s basket holds meaning. The distinctive symbolism of each object, and its relation to every other object, holds the key to the divination.

According to Dr. Jordán Pérez, the diviner heals the spirit with the belief that as goes the spirit, so goes the body.