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“It’s just the starting engine”
The status of spirits and objects in south Mozambican divination


© Paulo Granjo

Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Universidade de Lisboa

First posted: 21 January 2006

When you’re familiar with Henri Junod’s work on divination (1897; 1996) and manage to observe a contemporary tinholo set, you’ll notice important differences between what you read and what you’re seeing. Did the old master of southern Mozambique ethnography generalize from a particular case? Or had this divination set changed through the last century, according to new influences and social conditions?

Both answers are probably affirmative; but I do not believe either of the questions is the most accurate one. If I heard them several times, I would say that’s the result of two common assumptions amongst people interested in this subject:

First, we are so aware of the very strict metaphor which usually connects each divination object to the social reality it represents that, when we identify it, we tend to assume that it would be difficult to substitute that object with something else – and even more difficult to achieve a consensus about that substitution. Secondly, we read so many times about divination sets which are believed to have a power of themselves and a life of their own that, by omission, we often expect a bit too easily that this will happen with the next example we’ll meet.

In the case of the Mozambican tinholo divination set, I will rather suggest, reproducing a diviner’s sentence,[1] that it is «just the starting engine» of a process where the most crucial elements are believed to lay elsewhere: in the spirits who possess the diviner, in his interaction with the client, and in the communication between his spirits and the client’s ancestors.

So, although it requires to be ritually “tuned” to its master, tinholo is seen as an instrumental set of objects, very useful as a technological mean but without any power in itself – just like, to use another diviner’s metaphor, with the use of the stethoscope.


A short description

The most complete tinholos we can nowadays find in Maputo and Gaza provinces are, in fact, composed of three different sets (photo 1).


(photo 1) A current complete tinholo set.


Two of them are considered by their users as variations of the same divination set and method, that existed prior to the Nguni invasions of southern Mozambique in the XIX century.[2] Both are composed of six similar elements: in one case, the so-called tinguenha, the pieces are crocodile back scales; in the other, the thiakata, they are nut shells from a tree called nulu, which plays an important role in the treatment of people diagnosed as spirits-possessed.[3] They also had in common the classification of their elements as three males and three females, and the same principles of divinatory reading. This one is based on the amount and gender of the elements that fall with the “up” or “down” side visible, on the geographic direction they point to, and on the lineal combinations they draw.

Those two sets are described as «the most traditional ones», and diviners often claim their ancestors «only needed one of those to make a consultation». It is, however, less consensual who used which one of them in the past. Some diviners claim that only active warriors owned the tinguenha, while others connect its use with the possession by spirits considered «from water», and a third group says that the reason was mostly geographical: if the diviners lived close to a river, they would use it; otherwise, they would use the nulu nut shells. As we’ll soon see, they are nowadays used as redundant confirmation sets on the first throw of «important consultations», and as independent sets when it is necessary to answer to client’s direct questions. In this last occasion, the one to be used – nulu or crocodile scales – depends on the spirit who «is working» together with the diviner, in that session.

The third partial set of tinholo, the larger and more diversified one, is the most similar to Junod’s (op. cit.) and Earthy’s (1933) descriptions. Southern Mozambican diviners sometimes mention it as «Nguni tinholo», because it’s believed to have a Zulu origin and to have been brought by Nguni invaders.


(photo 2) Astragalus, carapaces and canhu, from “Nguni” tinholo set.


Also this set is mostly composed of male/female couples, including eighteen cowries, four coins and two stones, together with the down side of two land turtles’ carapaces, deformed seeds of canhu or its carved representation on that tree’s wood,[4] and astragalus of several animals, both savage and domestic (photo 2). The domestic ones are a male sheep - which stands alone because it represents the chief and there’s only one lineage chief - and nine goats, representing people of different gender, age and status. The savage animals’ bones are said to come from chimpanzees,[5] lions, kudus, gnus, impalas and a mountain gazelle. Besides this basic set, it his also acceptable to include new elements, representing modern social entities which weren’t previewed on it.

More than explain the divination meanings attached to each element or its reading principles (which would require, by itself, a larger article than this one), I would like to call the reader’s attention to a comment that, in its essence, I heard repeatedly when tinholo sets were presented to me: «Those bones aren’t really the way they should be, because each one of these things is connected with a certain animal. In the old days, if it was the muluve, the ancestor, you would have to use the wild boar bone. But today we use symbols (sic) and collect the pieces as we can find them. Then, we give the name according to the needs.»

So, although it is presupposed an archetypical era when there was some natural or supernatural connection between the kind of animal that provided the bone and the social entity which it represents during the divination process, it is as well assumed that it isn’t a big deal to change it – and that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter what object you use, so long as you and your spirits know what it means.

As another diviner put it, «It’s important to do it this way, because it’s our tradition… Besides, people expect us to use a proper tinholo; they could get suspicious about our powers, otherwise. But I guess it would work the same if I would use cards, or stones, or whatever. I just don’t know if those ones [ her spirits ] would like it much. But, if we couldn’t get bones, they would have to accept it, isn’t it?»


The diviner and his/her spirits

In so few pages, I already mentioned several times the diviners’ spirits. That’s because they are an inevitable reference in every conversation on this subject, since being spirits-possessed is a local sine qua non condition for the divination practice and ability.

Indeed, you aren’t supposed to choose to become a diviner; you are chosen for that task by spirits who «want to work» by possessing you. They select you amongst your relatives, and you may inherit them from both sides of your family – in a parallel with the social situation, where agnatic descent principles are predominant but not exclusive (Webster, 1976), going together with alliance feelings and duties which endure for some generations, and with recurrent factors like bridewealth irregularities (Granjo, 2005) or the inheritance of your personal name.

In exceptional cases, which I only detected in families whose parents inherited a large amount of spirits,[6] their choice can be announced - through divination or trance – even before the child’s birth, together with the baby’s gender and name.

Normally, though, the spirits’ claim over the person will assume the form of a «calling illness» that, together with individualized manifestations, will usually include strong pains and a general weakness, to which biomedicine doesn’t find apparent explanation. If the person doesn’t recognise, refuses or tries to delay the call, systematic misfortunes, illnesses and deaths are expected to happen amongst his/her relatives.

This violent spirits’ behaviour is not ascribed to wickedness, but to the limitations they face in their present form of existence. Although powerful (and power demonstration is also a conspicuous issue, here), they are just “what’s left” from the person they had been; for that reason, they are not able to communicate directly with the living, and have to indirectly call their attention with abnormal and undesired events, in order to make themselves understood through experts’ divination or trance. Besides, spirits who don’t possess anybody are believed to be «like children», with a capricious and impatient attitude (Honwana, 2002), especially if they found themselves impotent to transmit the message they wish to.

The result will be a dynamic which fits very much into the notion of “affliction cult” (Turner, 1968), although “cult” isn’t maybe the best word to express it. The person afflicted by the calling illness will seek remedy from a diviner-healer and, once diagnosed as possessed by legitimate spirits who «want to work», will only be able to overpass the affliction by accepting to also become a diviner-healer, or otherwise he may die. The patient will, then, become a therapist, and the often semi-sceptical believer will become a belief spreader and practitioner.[7]

I just mentioned “legitimate spirits” and family factors, possibly transmitting the idea that the legitimacy of spirits’ claims arises from their ancestor status, and that every ancestor is a spirit. It is not so, in this context.

On the latter issue, we may say that, if every spirit is somebody’s ancestor, few ancestors become spirits. I mean, everybody is believed to have a spiritual part which survives death and stays on Earth, protecting and correcting his/her descendants - descendants who have the duty to honour and submit to their ancestors, very much as they are supposed to do towards senior kin. Nevertheless, only some of those spiritual “remains” achieve special powers, due to their exceptional spiritual strength, status or actions during life, or due to negative circumstances on their death. Only those are, in a strict sense, spirits.

Concerning any exclusive ancestors’ status possibly endorsed to them, we must stress that, on the contrary, the “full pack” of abilities accessible to a diviner-healer depends on his/her possession by spirits from three different origins:[8]


Spirits’ origin

Main ability and task

Complementary abilities and tasks




Consultation/healing leadership

Tinguluve (ancestors)



Household leadership


Kufemba (exorcism)



As Alcinda Honwana suggested already (2002), this division reproduces in “ethnic” terms socially shared representations about the wars and the rise of the Gaza Empire, started in the early XIX century and defeated by Portuguese effective occupation of the territory, in 1895.

Presenting it in words of my own responsibility, we have, on one side, the Nguni invader and later ruler, whose warfare and divination techniques kept an image of superiority that often match him, in folk and diviners’ speech, to the mythological leitmotiv of the civilizing hero; we have, secondly, the «owners of the land», the previous people who were vanquished and assimilated by the invader, and owe their subsequent status and name to their submission; [9] we have finally the Ndau, remembered as the consistently resisting rebel, whose determination and endurance could only be explained by a strong spiritual power.[10]

But, in a different sense, the family is also the legitimating principle for foreign spirits’ integration, following a logic of guilt and duty. Indeed, their right to claim for steady possession and «work» derives from their relationship with family ancestors, while living. Typically, they were an ancestor’s close friend or Nguni master who strongly helped the family and has no more descendants or, for Vandau, a woman brought as slave and concubine, the slaughtered relatives to whom she showed the way after her death, or an unmarried warrior who claimed a living wife from his killer’s family and eventually decided to work, when his rage was appeased.[11]

Independently from the spirit’s origin, the ontological outcome of the possession is very much the same. Although the spirit doesn’t stay all the time in the person’s body, they both are supposed to cease being what they were (individually and while separate entities), and to become a joint symbiotic being, with a new and common identity. So, they influence each other’s behaviour and identity, learning to do it and to coexist during their training process to become a diviner-healer. Indeed, a local dogma states that it is the spirit (and not his/her host) who is trained to work, because his/her knowledge was forgotten since the death of the previous host; if the person also learns, that’s because of their symbiosis, it is said.

A final characteristic we should keep in mind is that, as Harry West (2004) eloquently shows for northern Mozambique , those diviner-healers aren’t at all closed into a repetitive traditionalistic speech or practice. On the contrary, they produce experiments, speculations and innovations, and they are eager for external recognition and knowledge with possible pertinence to their work – an external knowledge that, after all, may well become a plus value in their commercial concurrence with their colleagues.

Domestication of aleatory

Even if some of the above mentioned characteristics seem to be unique to this regional context, the divination and healing demarche where tinholo is integrated follows a domestication of aleatory[12] logic which isn’t original in Africa .

Its starting point is the notion that randomness doesn’t exist as a “real reality”, so to say, nor is there such a thing as coincidence. For that reason, events which harm or benefit people presuppose an underlying reason, especially if they are recurrent.

However, those reasons don’t substitute or stand in opposition to material causality. Indeed, it is considered that the world is full of material and natural dangers, which are ruled by material causes. Some of their logics are known, others aren’t, but it is assumed that they exist.[13] But, if undesired events follow material causal relations, it is considered that they can only harm a person due to social reasons.

The first one to be checked is the victims’ possible inability or negligence. If you’re not aware of the right way to do something, if you haven’t enough experience to do it right, or if you didn’t take the required precautions (in short, if you are inadequate to do what you did), that will be the reason for your damage, and no further inquiries are needed.

The invocation of other social reasons will only happen if you were competent, careful and, nevertheless, harmed by the undesired event. One of those reasons is sorcery, which would attract you to the danger, or distract you from its existence and imminence.[14] The other one is a lack of protection from your ancestors, which were supposed to deviate you from the danger or alert you to it, and didn’t. As I mention above, this would be the ancestors’ way to call for your attention, so the next step will be to find out why are they unpleased, and how can you correct your fault or, at least, appease them.

Passing from misfortune, in general, to the specific case of illness, the interpretation is basically similar. Even if the existence of «hospital diseases» is recognised and the local aetiological theories are often parallel to the academic ones (Green, 1999), illness isn’t seen as just a physical problem. Indeed, health is considered the person’s normal and expected state, but it requires a situation of general harmony between the living, their social and ecological environment, and their ancestors – who, in fact, keep with them a relationship which follows the general rules of family protection and social control. Health is, thus, jeopardised by the same factors which might jeopardise that harmony: one’s carelessness, the livings’ sorcery or the ancestors’ displeasure, together with the ecological dangers (often of spiritual nature – Granjo, 2006) and the spirits’ claim to «work».

So, a physical manifestation of illness presupposes a lack of spiritual balance, which again presupposes social causes. Consequently, it’s not enough to treat the illness; it is also necessary to restore the social balance and the harmony with the ancestors, or the problem will keep reappearing because its ultimate cause wasn’t solved.

The general principles are, thus, very similar to Evans-Pritchard’s classic interpretation of Azande witchcraft (1978 [1937]), except for the ancestors’ and spirits’ central importance in the Mozambican explanation system.

The application of its principles to real life is, however, less direct than we might presuppose from its general presentation, and that’s due to the recognised complexity of the factors involved in social relations. Indeed, we could expect that someone who always does the right things to the living and always acts according to ancestors’ rules would be considered safeguarded from unpleasant surprises, but it isn’t so. Amongst the livings, even that person’s correct behaviour could become an object of envy and a motive for sorcery; in his relationship with the dead, there are also several possible motives to victimize him, independently of his exemplary conduct.[15]

So, very much like in the “western” domestication of aleatory system based in probabilistic risk, we face here an attempt to explain and regulate the uncertainty that, due to the complexity of the involved factors, isn’t able to dominate it, turning prevention into a partial palliative (Granjo, 2004). This eruption of uncertainty into a reality which is supposed to be totally determined by identified entities and rules brings back, meanwhile, the accuracy that Ron Eglash (2005) thoughts on African divination apparently loosed some paragraphs ago. Indeed, if the simple enunciation of the dominant Mozambican principles of misfortune interpretation would induce us to think that the model of “deterministic chaos” reflects the local vision about the material world, but not the local vision about the relation between people and world, even this relation seems, now, to be accurately reflected by that model.

But it also means that, in this social context, divination is expected to detect (a posteriori) the subjacent reasons for the events, and to preview the backups and obstacles surrounding future projects, in order to allow accurate options, strategies and precautions; but it isn’t expected to reveal a sure or unchangeable future.

More important to the matter at hand it is, though, the fact that divination is not a purpose in itself, but it serves to provide a sense and to guide the action – and that’s even more true to the diviner, who is as well a healer of illnesses and social problems,[16] and has in divination his/her means of diagnosis.


The consultation

Nevertheless, from the diviners’ point of view the consultation is not only a matter of information, but as well a matter of credibility amongst their clients. For that reason, their attitudes and reading styles change from person to person and from occasion to occasion, according to their level of confidence and their security strategies. The sequence of the events is, though, basically the same.

When the client arrives, just asks for a consultation, without further specification of his/her[17] motive. Soon after, he will be invited to the hut belonging to the spirit who will lead the work in that day – because the healer must request them rotationally, or else some of them «will get jealous, feeling that their work is despised». The diviner will then dress that spirits’ capulana[18] and, face to his paraphernalia, will call him to work by saying that there’s somebody who asks for their help (photo 3). The spirit’s agreement is essential, because without his active participation the diviner «looks and just sees bones, he can’t read anything».


(photo 3) Job Massingue, asking/calling one of his spirits to «work».[19]


After this invocation to the premises, the alphabetised healer will take note, in his hospital-like registering book, of the client’s official name, genealogy and «traditional name» - or, if he doesn’t have one, his familiar nickname. In a country where many people don’t know how to read or aren’t anymore able to write, this act - with obvious similitude to an MD’s routine - is usually practiced with circumspection and some solemnity.

The spirit is then asked to make kuvumbata (prophecy) of the client, who is identified by his name and ascendant kin in the two or three later generations. Subsequently, the diviner bites a branch of manono, a very sour wood which helps him to induce what is usually called «light trance», or «mild trance» (photo 4).


(photo 4) Biting manono wood, to help «light trance».


Used isolatedly, the word «trance» is indeed reserved for when a spirit takes complete control of the person and his movements, speaks through him and – according to a folk belief that several healers deny – make him lose momentarily the perception of what’s happening around him.[20] This state is required in several ceremonies and for the most spectacular type of kufemba (exorcism) treatments. In the case we’re facing, though, the spirits’ incorporation is rather described as a «shudder, and then like a light tissue over your shoulders».

Once the diviner feels it, he can throw the tinholo (photo 5). If he’s already familiarised with the client, we may use only the “Nguni” one; if it’s a first or an important consultation (due to a client’s status or expected problem), he will normally «play safe» and throw the crocodile back scales and the nulu nut shells as well.[21] The idea is to be able to compare the patterns they draw with those of the larger and more complex tinholo: for a good consultation, the three sets should give basically the same information; if they don’t, something’s wrong. Besides, the simpler six-piece sets can help the diviner to focus his attention on the most pertinent information, amongst the several reading lines which are provided by the larger set.


(photo 5) Throwing the complete tinholo.


Before anything else, he’s supposed to identify the motive for a client’s visit. If he fails, the client will just take his money back, and will go away. For that reason, most diviners are very careful and metaphoric in this phase, and many of them even «sing the tinholo song», a learned vague story about client’s family and past that more or less fits most of the population. Then, according to their client’s reactions, they progressively approach what they believe to be the issue.

Their insecurity is legitimate, even by their own criteria. Indeed, besides the spirit’s incorporation, a good consultation is believed to also require that he’s in a good mood and that his interaction with the client’s ancestors will be mutually accepted. So, even a good diviner can some times be unsure or unable to provide true information; but, since his reputation is at stake, he will try to use his experience and observation abilities in order to arrive at the real issue.

If everything goes well, however, the situation is described in a very different way. The interaction with the spirit is not, they say, as «somebody blowing to your ears what to speak», but like an internal orientation, like «things that came to your mind», «thoughts that flow inside your head». When it is very well achieved the symbiosis between the diviners and their spirits, as well as their communication with the client’s ancestors, then - they claim - the tinholo pieces almost become secondary and no further throws may be needed:

«When that happens, it doesn’t cross my mind any worry about being right or wrong, convincing or not. After a moment, I don’t even look at the “bones” anymore. The client thinks I’m looking and reading them, but I’m just talking, talking, talking, and without even noticing it I have already closed my eyes and I keep talking, talking, until I have no more to say. And when I shut up, normally there isn’t really anything more to say, or to throw.»


(photo 6) Explaining client’s problem.


Those are, however, special occasions. Commonly, the diviner will arrive at the problem, will explain its general reasons in a more metaphoric or a more decoded way, according to his personal style and the confidence he feels (photo 6), and will wait for the client’s reaction and commentaries. He’ll then ask him several pertinent questions, and the client’s commentaries and answers will allow him to make another throw – this time, only with “Nguni” tinholo and throwing it from his hands, instead of from the straw bag where he carries it, [22] as he did at start.

What seems to be, to the observer’s eyes, a therapeutic interaction which also provides essential data to the diviner’s interpretation and intervention is, inside the profession, the object of two parallel explanations:

First, it is stated that, while the issues raised in a throw aren’t completely answered, the next ones will just repeat it, without adding any further information. This redundancy would arise from a tinholo main characteristic, the one of being a communication mean between the spirits and the living, and therefore submitted to common courtesy rules - like you must answer to a letter, or an oral message, before you receive a new one.

Secondly, it is believed that the spirits (especially if they are Nguni) don’t work for very long. So, after they get tired, the diviner will have to mobilize his experience and observation abilities in order to complete the puzzle and the consultation – and, when he has to do it this way, it isn’t kuvumbata anymore, but «a guess», it doesn’t matter how sharp it might be.

In the end, one may notice that the conclusions are mostly presumed in the data confirmed by the client – as far as they are interpreted according to the local domestication of aleatory point of view - and that an important part of the diviner’s work is to make sense, under that light, of those things the client already knew. The client, however, only confirmed what was asked to him and, in some diviners’ cases, he received something like a lecture on how local explanation principles work. Therefore, his consultation experience didn’t just provide him with a sense to his misfortunes and a plausible way out from them (most often ritual), but also with the reinforcement and a better knowledge of cultural references which usually are, for him, fragmentary and vague notions. Additionally (in particular if the subject is about family issues), the client may have heard some advises about his behaviour, based upon the diviner’s idiosyncrasies on social relations and assumed by him as a part of his job as counsellor.

After this interaction process, though, the client may still wait for some direct answers, for doubts he already had since the start, or that were raised during the consultation. If this happens, the questions he will ask cannot be dubious, and they must allow a binary answer – yes/no, dead/alive, etc. One of the six-piece set will then be thrown, from the diviner’s hands. Which one of them (tinguenha or thiakata), that will depend on the preferences of the spirit who’s «working» in that day and time.


The objects status

In this context, what is, after all, the status of the divination set which brought together those two people and, allegedly, their spirits and ancestors? What is its power, if any? What is its ontological nature?

Tinholo is said to «speak»;[23] but does this means that it speaks by itself or - as for the moon, the sun and the moonlight – it’s just a mean to reflect others’ speech? And what does it need in order to start speaking?

In a superficial glimpse, the last question could lead us to the idea of a tinholo personhood. This divination set is, in fact, the object of a special preparation – or, we really could say, a rite de passage (van Gennep, 1978; Turner, 1967) – in order to work:

After the diviner-to-be manages to acquire all the required pieces, he must leave home before dawn and carefully hide near a crossroad, waiting for people to pass through. Every time somebody passes, he must throw away one of the tinholo pieces, saying its name while he does it. Amongst some other bantla,[24] he can do a similar thing at a rubbish heap. In that case, he will not depend on passing people but he must throw away the pieces in all directions. In both variations, though, he must find the pieces after he threw them all away, grab them back and return to his spirits’ hut. Once there, he will wash them with a blend of medicinal plants and, afterwards, he must take, together with them, a kind of sauna in the steam of that same boiling liquid.[25]

The meaning and purpose of this latter action is evident to the involved people: it is all about «to incorporate (sic) the tinholo, to make it your own». This doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot work with a colleague’s set. In a situation which reminds van Binsbergen’s (2003) surprise when he discovered that his effective divination tablets weren’t yet consecrated, you can use somebody else’s tinholo and be successful; the only problem is that, when you do it, «the consultation is more difficult».

This possibility and increased difficulty reinforce something that other data also suggest: even if the ontological importance of ritual nomination is very well known in general terms, including in the Mozambican area, the main issue involved in this particular case seems rather to be the basic need that both the diviner and his spirits have to clearly define which tinholo piece is which. I mean, this particular ritual nomination involves essentially a classification and a presentation for recognition (of metaphors assumed as such), but not really a transmission of life or essence. The objects can start working as an effective divination set, not because a new power is transmitted to them or a pre-existing power is recognised or activated through the ritual, but because it is henceforth assumed and known, by the diviner and by his spirits, the metaphoric meaning of every one of them.

Besides, one may ask whose rite de passage it is, after all. Indeed, it is the diviner-to-be (and putatively the spirits who are part of his new being) who must divine where did felt down the pieces he throw away,[26] and it is he (or them) who must make the objects their own in order to better use them – unlike in the relation between the diviner and the spirits who force him to be possessed. If, in the process, the objects cease being a bunch of separate items to become a tinholo set, through diviner/spirits’ nomination, this latter symbiotic entity also cease being a divining potentiality to become somebody who’s able to exercise his powers autonomously, without dependence from his master’s paraphernalia. Finally, it is the diviner/spirits entity who needs to loose the pieces in order to definitively own the set and, even if the examples of one’s incorporation into objects are countless since the Essai sur le Don (Mauss, 1988 [1924]), the incorporation process is inverted here, and the relation between the diviner and his tinholo is plainly assumed as a property one.

Any remaining doubts will be, I believe, clarified by the exegesis produced by diviners, while confronted with this issue – because, ultimately, it is with social agents’ representations and meanings ascription that we deal, when we deal with the subject of this article.

By hearing those exegesis and the metaphors which come along with them, we can notice that they systematically deny tinholo to have any power (or even agency) of itself. We could group those explanations about what tinholo is into six complementary and somewhat impressionistic categories:

First, tinholo is seen as an instrumental “perception amplifier”. From this point of view, it is just a tool which helps and reinforces the person’s ability and power - as we could say, for instance, about any instrument including a lever. The metaphors used by diviners are, however, focused on the perception abilities which are required by their profession, or by analogous ones:

« Tinholo is like the tchova in kufemba.[27] It’s true it must be a good one, with the hyena tail hair, and all that. But it’s just an instrument to help the detection, it doesn’t detect anything and it doesn’t tell me where to look for patient’s spirits. My spirits guide me in that.»

«It’s like the MD stethoscope. It just makes things clearer, isn’t it? It has no power of its own, the power belongs to those who use it. It’s the MD who must know the meaning of what he’s listening to, and what he hears already exists without the stethoscope, it just helps. Tinholo is even more useful to us, because it’s our stethoscope, our x-ray and our analyses all together.»

In a second sense, tinholo is presented as an instrument to spirits responsibility, as a way to focus them in their task. Indeed, spirits are considered (let’s not forget it) volitive and capricious, and moreover a bit hedonistic.[28] You don’t order them to do anything; although it was them who first wanted to work, you must remind them of their responsibilities every time you need them to perform divination. So, tinholo is also

«a way to call and to engage the spirit into the divination. When I grab it and I call them, they know I mean business, it’s not for fun. Unless they are displeased with me, they must come and do that job; it was their choice in the first place. Some people don’t even need it. Some mazione[29]have such strong spirits that they are able to reach trance just with prayers, and to perform divination with no help from objects. Those are different ways to do the same thing, but the spirits must be strong and eager to work.»

«When I first started, my spirits couldn’t stand still. They wanted so much to work that I used to fell into trance some three times a week, just like that, while eating, while talking to somebody… During consultations, they often “came-out”[30] with no real need, just because they wanted to work so much and well. Now, they got used to it, so I need the solemnity (sic) of tinholo to bring them to work and to focus in it.»

In a third complementary meaning, tinholo is presented as the starting point and the catalyser of a communication relation - the divining consultation. In this case, there is an implicit assumption of the consultation dynamics and it is underlined, as its essential value, the communication which is established between the diviner, his spirits, the client and his ancestors:

«In fact, tinholo it’s just the starting engine, an initial orientation to spirits’ kuvumbata (prophecy). Afterwards, it’s up to them to follow and to go deep into the issues.»

«A consultation is a letter of several pages, which need to be read and answered. Tinholo is the beginning of each page. Then, it’s up to the client to answer it, so that my spirits and his ancestors can go further»

The nature of the tinholo participation in that communication process is the object of a fourth kind of metaphors: it delivers a codified and encrypted message.

«It’s like the alphabet. Together, the pieces say things, but the divination of what they mean is the work and power of the spirit. If I try it all by myself, it’s too complicated to understand.»

«Tinholo is like those old telegrams and computer cards with holes. The information is there, but you have to decode it.»[31]

Meanwhile, the spirits’ essential role both in the decoding and in the whole divination process makes tinholo be presented as a kind of “playground” to them, as a set of objects that they enjoy to overpass and to define, showing who does own the power.

«In a very good consultation, I often know what tinholo will say, even before the pieces touch the ground. The spirits know it already. Tinholo helps, and helps me even more when things aren’t so great; but those who divine are the spirits, and they show it, when they feel like it.»

«The pieces are just things that symbolise things. As far as me and the spirits know which is which, it works. Notice: I know a colleague, in the countryside, who just uses corn grains, and it works. She decided which one is which, she recognises them, her spirits recognise them… It’s all you need.»

Finally, also the general local theories about the spirits’ abilities and limitations emerge into the speech when tinholo nature is explained. It is, then, presented as a clear voice to the spirits:

«You already know, by now: spirits can only talk by “coming-out”, by creating problems around or through tinholo. What really is tinholo? Tinholo is their mean to talk, the clearest ant the easiest to everyone – because, I tell you, trance is hard.»

So, it doesn’t matter from which point of view the tinholo and its nature are explained (each one corresponding, after all, to different facets of the divination process and its subjacent theories), some key aspects are recurrent and consensual.

It is consensual, for once, that the consultation will be a fake if the diviner stands alone, without the incorporation of a spirit.

Indeed, even for those who sustain that the way the tinholo pieces fall down is always directed by spirits, this kind of participation is not enough for a «true» reading. In a pragmatic local interpretation, for however experienced and a good reader the diviner might be, such consultation would always be fallible because the combinations between the pieces are «far too complex to handle by yourself». From a more ideological point of view, though, that hypothesis doesn’t even make any sense, since all the foresight is based in the knowledge of the diviner’s spirits and the client’s ancestors, and in the communication between them. Therefore, if the symbiotic communication line between the diviner and the spirits isn’t “open”, that knowledge cannot be transmitted to the livings, or understood by them.

A second consensual issue is that the objects which constitute tinholo don’t have any power of their own.

They help to focus, they help to clarify the perception, they allow to speak, they are the material base and the occasion for a communication relationship, but they are always considered instrumental in the process. They «are things which symbolise things», and therefore every one of them can be changed and substituted, as far as it is assumed which reality does it represents.

Being so, however, a new question must be raised: Why, then, do tinholo pieces fall that way, the right and true one, and not any other?

In the answers to this question, there is no longer a consensus – nor could I notice much conviction about being right. Some diviners say, as I just mentioned, that the spirits guide the way they fall down. In a major variation, one of them points out that task to client’s ancestors, although she never mentioned before an issue of such obvious hermeneutic importance, during our conversations. Most diviners, though, just say that this is the real mystery about tinholo and divination, a mystery that we can only speculate about.

And, since speculation is admitted, we could speculate a little more, from an external observer’s point of view. We could ask ourselves if this strong emphasis on spirits’ role (reducing divination objects to something useless to somebody who is not spirits-possessed), if this concomitant and implicit accent on the specific power which legitimates their activity, couldn’t have arisen from a corporative self-defence attitude. We could ask - in short - how much there is, in the diviners’ explanations about tinholo effectiveness, of a deliberate affirmation of professional exclusivity to its use.

However, this would be just a speculation, as legitimate it might be. Because, in fact, everything that was described is coherent with the local predominant understanding of the world, the society, the misfortune and the domestication of aleatory.



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[1] This article is, indeed, mostly based on conversations with southern Mozambican diviner-healers, together with the observation of their «consultations» - the current word to designate a divination session, in a lexical extrapolation from the “sessions” with academically recognised medical doctors. The data were collected in 2004 and 2005, and I do strongly acknowledge all those who allowed my presence, tolerated my questions and engaged in enlightening answers to them, with very special thanks to Job Massingue.

[2] About the rise, assimilation policy and fall of the Gaza empire, resulting from that invasion, see for instance Neves [1987 (1878)], Clarence-Smith [1990 (1985)], Pélissier (1994) and Vilhena (1996).

[3] The leaves of this tree are crushed and macerated in water, then shaken until a large amount of foam is obtained. The patient must eat that foam three times a day, in order to appease his spirits’ impatience during the education as a future diviner/healer.

[4] As Junod already stressed, canhoeiro is one of the possible ancestors’ shelter trees, and an appreciated beer for communitarian consumption is made with its fruit. He however preferred to omit that both the appreciation and the collective consumption are connected with the aphrodisiac power ascribed to the drink.

[5] I have strong doubts about this identification, since biologists’ references say that the only big ape or monkey existing in Mozambique or near its borders is the baboon. Most diviners I know, though, used the word chimpanzee.

[6] The behavioural attributes ascribed to spirits are very similar to those of “traditionalist” living people. So, they don’t like very crowded host places/people, which potentially creates conflicts amongst them, and will tend to “divide the village” between two subsequent generations, instead of waiting for the diviner’s death in order to possess one of his/her grandchildren.

[7] In some cases, even recorded in books (Polanah, 1987), it is possible to negotiate with the spirit(s) an alternative person to be possessed and, consequently, to become a diviner-healer. Putatively, though, that’s only possible when the spirit(s) manifest for the first time inside one’s family.

[8] Although consensual, this classification doesn’t exclude exceptional further integrations. For instance, I know a diviner-healer who claims to be possessed, besides all the others, by the spirit of a man with Luso-Indian origin and no kinship ties to his family. I was myself diagnosed as a future spirit, after my death, although I’m classified as a European without previous family connections to Africa .

[9] The name of the larger linguistic group in southern Mozambique is “Changana”, deriving from the expression “servents of Shangana”, political name of the first Gaza emperor.

[10] In some accordance with its political base, this kind of classification was recuperated and emphasized during the long civil war that ended in 1992 and is, since then, manipulated in regionalist claims – which sometimes even use the expression «Zulu colonialism». Besides, the civil war is often mentioned by diviners as «the spirits’ war», in parallelism to Geffray’s (1991) analyses.

[11] Due to the performance of post-war cleansing rituals (Granjo, 2006), the latter kind of claim isn’t expected to happen during the killer’s life. For that reason, healers are genuinely worried about an “epidemic” of spirits’ claims in the next generation, when civil war soldiers will start to die.

[12] By “domestication of aleatory”, I mean the attribution of a sense and causality to randomness and uncertainty that make them seen as cognoscible, regulated, explainable or even dominated by human beings (Granjo, 2004).

[13] This is, I believe, one of the reasons for healers’ interest in “foreign” knowledge, as well as for the use of some products which they include in their receipts due to metonymy. I mean, in several cases that inclusion doesn’t seem to arise from a believed magical or symbolic power of the product, but from the assumption of still unknown (but real) material causes.

[14] Sorcery is also believed to act directly over material factors, but those diagnosis are relatively rare and, usually, limited to situations of very strong collective tension.

[15] For instance, if a saliva drip would fall from a senior kin’s mouth while commenting on one of your actions, your ancestors would consider that event to be an invocation, and the words to be a request for your correction. It is also assumed that a spirit may demand compensation for a deceased kin’s past action. Finally, a person may as well be afflicted not because of his actions or omissions, or even because of a guilt inheritance, but as a mean to call the attention of the real responsible for the fault – who will be, in this case, some close relative.

[16] Although several healers of my acquaintance are well-known (and mostly sought) for their special expertise to solve a specific kind of problem, an informal accounting of their clients’ motives for consultation indicates that men mostly want to find a job, to solve professional problems, to overpass sexual impotency or to get girlfriends, while women mostly arrive because of infertility, of family problems, or in order to «fasten» their husbands. Non-reproductive health problems are, in urban and suburban contexts, less frequent as a reason for consultation - except for illnesses believed as being the object of healers’ specific expertise, such as asthma, epilepsy or aphthas.

[17] Both clients and diviners may be men or women. Nevertheless, I will use from now on just the masculine form (correspondent to the photos), in order to avoid systematic gender duplications.

[18] Local textiles which are usually rolled around the waist, as a skirt, or used to carry babies at the loin. While working, diviner-healers use capulanas with special design and colours to each “ethnic” origin of the spirits who possess them, and usually own a different one to each one of their spirits.

[19] The client was later reprehended for keeping the feet in this position, which is feared to block the consultation.

[20] Since the healer’s subsequent question «What did he said? What happened?» is socially expected on such occasions, some diviners recognise to simulate that absence of conscience, although, they say, if their sensorial perception becomes very different, this doesn’t prevent them from having some basic notion of what’s happening around.

[21] As one should expect, this always happened in the consultations I attended as observer.

[22] In itself, the bag is not the object of any special concern. It’s just a regular sipatsi bag bought in the market, as everybody else might buy as well, and if sometimes it presents complex colour patterns, its choice is only aesthetic. Not even the bag material is compulsory or presents any special meaning: «We just buy what is for sale. Nowadays it’s in straw, but my grandfather, for instance, did his own in leather.»


[23] A consequence of having a speaking ability is, by local definition, that it may as well be deceived (Granjo, 2006). In tinholo case, this may happen, it is said, by two possible causes: the client’s ancestors don’t accept diviner’s spirits as interlocutors, and therefore they cheat them; or some jealous and powerful colleague sent a spirit of his own to create confusion during the consultations.

[24] Ensembles of diviner-healers taught by the same master, or by his pupils, sharing some common ritual interpretations and, mostly, mutual duties – besides the same formal instance of professional recognition and legitimacy.

[25] This kind of sauna, the «bath» or «breath», is a very common treatment, where only the boiling ingredients change according to the desired effect. Besides the health purposes, it can be used for purification, protection or even as one of the exorcism techniques – the so-called «plants kufemba» (Granjo, 2006).

[26] This searching demand is also parallel to a major happening on the diviner-healer’s public “graduation examination”: after he reaches trance, the candidate must find a sacrificed goat’s organ and ritual objects which were hidden by the examiner (Honwana, 2002).

[27] Kufemba is the general designation for exorcism techniques which may be of three different types. In the most spectacular one, the healer reaches trance and smells the patient, while passing over him an instrument composed of a gnu tail with some hyena tail hair in the handle (the tchova), he captures the patient’s afflicting spirit and lets him speak trough his body, in order to let him present himself, his complaints and demands. The reference to the hyena hair (or xizingo) in this healer’s sentence comes from the fact that, due to its high cost, many merchants try to sell tchovas without it, while the amplifier ability of the object is supposed to arise from it, and not from the gnu tail.

[28] For instance, most of them are supposed to enjoy playing by the sea very much, or in other beautiful places, and to be difficult to call while they do it.

[29] Members of a syncretic Christian church of South African origin, the Zionistic Church (with no relation whatsoever with the Judaic political movement), which reinterprets the local beliefs in ancestors and spirits under an idiom of a fight between demons and the Holy Ghost, who putatively possesses the clerks.

[30] I.e., to provoke trance and to speak trough possessed person’s mouth.

[31] This unexpected metaphor comes from an previous engineer, who became familiar with those objects when he was a student, some 30 years ago.


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