Along an African Border
Angolan Refugees and Their Divination Baskets
Publication Year: 2011
The divination baskets of south Central Africa are woven for a specific purpose. The baskets, known as lipele, contain sixty or so small articles, from seeds, claws, and minuscule horns to wooden carvings. Each article has its own name and symbolic meaning, and collectively they are known as jipelo. For the Luvale and related peoples, the lipele is more than a container of souvenirs; it is a tool, a source of crucial information from the ancestral past and advice for the future.
In Along an African Border, anthropologist Sónia Silva examines how Angolan refugees living in Zambia use these divination baskets to cope with daily life in a new land. Silva documents the special processes involved in weaving the baskets and transforming them into oracles. She speaks with diviners who make their living interpreting lipele messages and with their knowledge-seeking clients. To the Luvale, these baskets are capable of thinking, hearing, judging, and responding. They communicate by means of jipelo articles drawn in configurations, interact with persons and other objects, punish wrongdoers, assist people in need, and, much like humans, go through a life course that is marked with an initiation ceremony and a special burial. The lipele functions in a state between object and person. Notably absent from lipele divination is any discussion or representation in the form of symbolic objects of the violence in Angola or the Luvale's relocation struggles—instead, the consultation focuses on age-old personal issues of illness, reproduction, and death. As Silva demonstrates in this sophisticated and richly illustrated ethnography, lipele help people maintain their links to kin and tradition in a world of transience and uncertainty.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Series: Contemporary Ethnography
A lipele is a basket that contains sixty or so small articles, from seeds, claws, and minuscule horns to coins and wooden carvings. These articles have individual names and symbolic meanings; collectively, they are known as jipelo.1 People in northwest Zambia will tell you that a lipele is first and foremost a material object, a chuma, much like a food basket...
Chapter 1. Birth
I wished from the start to work closely with Sanjamba,1 a senior diviner renowned for his wisdom, boldness, and wealth. He headed a populous and prosperous village; had several wives and many children; owned cattle and two big houses with glass windows; and among his smaller possessions he counted a sling reclining chair, a radio, a bicycle, and an oxcart newly painted in bright blue...
Chapter 2. Initiation
On the same day Sakutemba stole the basket from basket maker Pezo, he had it initiated into a mature oracle during a nightlong ritual. Basket divination led me from one ritual to another ritual. In addition to being a way of making a living, basket divination was also a way of doing things through ritual. The more I traced the biography of divination baskets, following them as they moved in space, the deeper I entered into liminal arenas...
Chapter 3. Adulthood
When a newborn lipele is ritually initiated into divination, it becomes an oracle. An adult lipele is a personified basket, a basket endowed with agency, cognitive skills, and psychological traits. From the perspective of the diviner whose basket becomes an oracle, however, the lipele is much more than an awe-inspiring person who stands at the core of sociocultural life in south Central Africa. Basket divination is part of who the diviner is...
Conclusion: A Way of Living
The lipele is caught in a lifelong ontological ambiguity, being simultaneously subject and object, spirit and matter, person and tool. It is endowed with that quality that Pietz calls “irreducible materiality” (1985:7), and yet it is empowered. Th is idea of irreducible materiality is at least as old as the Latin origin of the term “fetish,”...