Maybe the ancestors were right after all: Rain dances, witchdoctors and shrines, and their place in modern Africa

There is actually scientific credence to traditions that were long dismissed as primitive; new thinking gives African spirituality shot in the arm.

SOUTH Africa is currently facing the worst drought in more than two decades, with homes and businesses likely to face water shortages soon as the country enters its four-month dry season.

“Water will definitely be at a premium over the next few months,” said Sputnik Ratau, a spokesman for the Department of Water Affairs. Toward the end of the dry season “we will be in an even more dire situation in terms of available water.”

But the water troubles aren’t unique to South Africa. Africa is the world’s second driest continent (after Australia); fourteen countries in Africa are already experiencing water stress; another 11 countries are expected to join them by 2025 at which time nearly 50% of Africa’s projected population of 1.45 billion people will face water stress or scarcity.

Rain is the centre of the agricultural cycle, and Africa has always had anxiety around water resources. It means that rainmaking, and the rituals and myths surrounding it, have been a key part of traditional African life.

Many communities, not just in Africa, but also across the world, have a long-standing belief that song and dance can deliver raindrops from the gods.

Known by various names, including kilumi among the Akamba of Kenya, legobathele among the Lovedu of South Africa, and mukwerera among the Shona of Zimbabwe, rain dances have long been dismissed as primitive superstition.

But perhaps there was something to it. On a cool, still night when the air is super-saturated with moisture, such as towards the end of the dry season, even small air movements such as sound waves, can be enough to condense the moisture and produce raindrops, writes Greg Pearce in his book When the Rivers Run Dry.

The impact is greater when sound is combined with dance, thus displacing more air, which pushes the water vapour molecules together and causes them to condense into rain.

(Photo: Flickr/ Viktor Dobai)

In the mountains of Yunan in southern China, too, villagers have a tradition of yelling loudly in the hope it will stimulate rain; the louder they shout, the more it rains, it is said.

It lends scientific credence to the idea of the rain dance, Pearce writes, but it’s not the only African “primitive superstition” that scholars are beginning to realise were not so backward after all.

Witchdoctors are another African notion that has long been considered typical of Africa’s primordial, undeveloped understanding of how the world works.

But if we look at the epidemiological environment that traditional African societies lived in, then the idea that your stomach ache is caused by an argument you had with your brother isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Because traditional African societies lived in small-scale, relatively self-contained communities, they had largely achieved ‘equilibrium with their diseases’. In other words, a given population and a given set of diseases had co-existed for many generations, natural selection had given resistance over diseases like malaria, typhoid, and dysentery.

The vast majority of black Africans (95%), for example, are naturally resistant to two strains of malaria by a genetic mutation that makes their red blood cells lack a specific receptor, called the Duffy antigen. Without the receptor, the malarial parasite cannot bind onto the red blood cells.

In such circumstances, people who survive the deadly early childhood years have essentially achieved a relative balance with the diseases that plague them, and treated minor ailments with medicinal plants that were well-known by members of the community.

People only turned to the witchdoctor/ diviner when a disease did not respond to routine treatment; the witchdoctor typically probed the patient’s broader life, attempting to ferret out stress-causing disturbances among their relationships – whom they had angered, who was plotting their downfall, and why, etc.

“Such efforts may seem to have ludicrously marginal importance if… you’re treating a non-resistant European,” writes social anthropologist Robin Horton. What that person needs is quinine or antibiotics.

“But they may be crucial where there is no nivaquine bottle and [the patient] already has a considerable natural resistance to malaria.”

 Other radical thinking around African cosmology and world views is espoused by thinkers such as Ben Okri and Achille Mbembe, who argue that modern communication technology, mobiles, and even the Internet itself, is a product of African consciousness.

Nigerian author Okri argues that African understanding of the world has always been defined by the idea that you can communicate with someone who is not physically present with you. In traditional societies, it meant the spirits or the ancestors, mediated by oracles or shrines.

But in the modern age, the same linkages follow, only that the shrine is replaced by laptops, mobiles and screens, but we are still communicating with distant, invisible people.

For his part, Cameroonian philosopher and political scientist Mbembe says that “Africa was digital before the digital.”

(Photo: Flickr/ Fernando Henrique)

In an interview with Bregtje van der Haak published in quarterly pan-African gazette Chimurenga Chronic, Mbembe says “Africa is a fertile ground for the new digital technologies, because the philosophy of those technologies is more or less exactly the same as ancient African philosophies.”

Mbembe sees African cosmology at the heart of the modern technological age, particularly the idea of living on many different planes at the same time.

“ The Internet responds directly to that drive and its cultural success can be explained by the fact that it meets at a very deep level with what has always been the way in which Africans transact with themselves and with the world. In fact, Africans have been postmodern before postmodernism.”


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