Bargaining With Spirits: Consulting a Swahili Diviner

Pat Caplan


This article discusses an encounter between a young British social anthropologist and a Swahili diviner, shaman and healer which took place in 1967.  At that time, the anthropologist, who had visited the diviner about her grandmother, was carrying out her first fieldwork and dismissed much of what the diviner told her.  It has taken many years for this event to begin to make more sense to the anthropologist, who has utilized her knowledge and memory, as well as her own life experience, to interpret the diviners’ words.  The article shows how part of the process of divination involves the client not only in bargaining within the sprit concerned through the diviner, but also assisting in the process of meaning-making.  Like ethnographic understanding, such interpretation is difficult for the client, whether she or he be a local or a foreigner, and may only happen over a period of time, but this process forms an essential part of the dialogues between diviner and spirit, and diviner and client.

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