Sónia Silva. Along an African Border: Angolan Refugees and Their Divination Baskets. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 192 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4293-5.
Reviewed by Inge Brinkman (Leiden University)
Published on H-Africa (June, 2011)
Commissioned by Brett L. Shadle
The Life Cycle of a Divination Basket
This is a book about the life cycle of a Luvale divination basket (lipele). The author discusses the birth, initiation, and adulthood of this tool, which is used as a path to ancestral knowledge in many African cultures. Sónia Silva carried out ethnographic fieldwork in the 1990s among Luvale-speaking Angolan refugees in Chavuma, Zambia. The book is a slightly altered version of her Portuguese work Vidas em jogo: Cestas de adivinhação e refugiados angolanos na Zâmbia, which was published in 2004. It is strange that in this English-language edition she makes no reference to the earlier Portuguese publication, but that does not have any consequences for the quality of the work.
The author has opted for an approach that offers detailed, at times miniscule, description: some sections are devoted to hour-by-hour processes. Aware of the limits of writing about ritual practice, through such thick description, Silva still hopes "to have preserved the overall structure, pace, and effect of the consultation" (p. 87). Silva is honest in her ethnographic account. She cites an example in which she misses a ritual because her dog had followed her and she had to cycle back to her home to make the dog stay; she even includes a picture of the dog involved! On her request, the ritual was repeated, obviously leading to all kinds of doubts about what had happened during each ritual, and discussions about what should have happened, what truth is, and whether that really matters. Although the descriptions are fine and some parts make interesting reading, the style is somewhat tedious at times. The reader occasionally wonders what is gained by the literal transcription of a consultation; for example, does it really help to know how many snaps, claps, and shakes are involved in a session? It may have been more fruitful to offer a fuller interpretation and to cite transcriptions of the consultations only when they support the arguments for this interpretation.
This is not at all to say that the book is devoid of interpretative force. The people who use the lipele insist on it as a way of doing, a tool that facilitates life. Silva pays attention to this approach and frames the divination basket in the realm of work, labor, and production, comparable to a winnowing tray. Yet the techniques of using the lipele and the technical aspects of interpreting the movements of the various small objects in the basket receive only limited attention. The diviners themselves emphasize these points about technology. One diviner, for example, likens a flask to a thermometer, and another compares diviners to megaphones. But technological and technical aspects of ritual hardly feature in Silva's analysis. There is some interesting literature on technologies, techniques, and tools in African history, but Silva chooses to engage more with the debates on fetishes and commoditization. She stresses the process of objectification of the diviner and the process of personification of the basket in ritual context. In the end, she proposes to view lipele divination in three of its facets: as a way of doing, as a way of knowing, and as a way of making a living. Divination is ritual form and performance that requires skills: a way of doing. It can also be seen as a journey toward clarity, as a way to trace ancestral knowledge and see "the baffling in the familiar" (p. 95). This "way of knowing" is meant to facilitate action. Finally, she also interprets divination as a way of making a living. To earn money for survival, some people are farmers, others are hunters, and yet others are diviners. In all three facets, Silva stresses the tool-like nature of the lipele.
Divination is related at the same time to the past and the present, binding it to contemporary fears, afflictions, and problems. The title of the book also clearly relates divination to a specific historical context and era: the time of war in Angola and the circumstances of Angolan refugees in Zambia. Diviners and their baskets live in specific circumstances, in this case, at the Zambian side of the border with East Angola as refugees in the 1990s. Yet the contemporary Angolan context of war, flight, and exile does not feature in the divination ceremonies. As Silva writes: "There were no material representations of war victims, war perpetrators, or war refugees; no new additions to the etiological pantheon; and no verbal acknowledgment of the Angolan wars, forced displacement, or even the country of Angola in direct relation to the consulters' predicament" (p. 13). In the past, such inclusions of and references to contemporary circumstances had occurred. Silva mentions that during the colonial era, new introductions--such as airplanes and trains--were integrated into divination rituals. Current ceremonies do refer to the past, but either to a general, ancient past or to specific family history. So the fact that neither the war in Angola nor the situation of exile in Zambia is mentioned requires an explanation. The author proposes that people may seek continuity in a context of crisis: hence the references to a general past and the lack of change in basket divination. Perhaps also it can be seen as congruent with the general silence about the war among the refugees. During her fieldwork, most Angolan refugees refrained from discussing what they had experienced in Angola. Often in an insecure or even illegal situation, many even tried to hide the fact that they were Angolans at all.
Be this as it may, the book could have benefited from a more profound discussion of the history of basket divination in the region. As it stands now, the book has a rather timeless framework. Of course Silva is right in stating that basket divination is "a centuries-old cultural practice, traditional by all definitions," but she could have given more attention to the changes within this tradition (p. 140). There is, for example, no reason to assume that "social order" has always been "clear white," as she implies (p. 130). So while the changing context of basket divination is drawn into the interpretation, the possibility of changes in meaning, symbolism, and ritual explanation is given less consideration.
Despite these critiques, this book definitely deserves a positive evaluation. In all, the detailed description and the thoughtful interpretation render this book a valuable contribution to the discussions about ritual practice and the quest for knowledge, in this case in very uncertain circumstances.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-africa.
Inge Brinkman. Review of Silva, Sónia, Along an African Border: Angolan Refugees and Their Divination Baskets.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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