The Great Science in African Divination Systems is not Science Fiction

what is science?

I have a new short film, Kifaro, an African science fiction about a man who sends a killer robot after his wife and her secret lover. Watch on YouTube (Support me by subscribing to my channel, sharing my films, becoming my patron, or making a donation). In this article I want to explore the theme of the film, that is science in African divination systems, as it is one that has influenced much of my recent works.

A few years ago, I told a university lecturer that I was looking into our traditional knowledge systems, and she said, ‘You believe in witchcraft?’ To her, any knowledge that did not fit a European definition of science was ‘witchcraft’. She suggested I was anti-technology, anti-science, backward, primitive, all that, in even thinking about challenging what we learn in school. My simple reply was; ‘What, exactly, is science?’

Ancient civilisations like Egypt amaze us. How did they build the pyramids? The racist theory attributes it to aliens. They said a similar thing when they encountered Great Zimbabwe and advanced medical science in Bunyoro, that it was the work or influence of lighter-skinned people from up north. They refused to acknowledge there was an actual science in African knowledge systems. Look at this extract from Twilight Tales of Black Baganda (as if there were other kinds of Baganda). They write about our science as a footnote for they were more concerned with trying to prove our inferiority;

“…knowledge of surgery possessed by the Banyoro…. Vaccination for small-pox was known long before European influence reached them, as people were inoculated with the lymph taken from the arm of an affected person. Possessing no surgical implements, they operated clumsily but often successfully (Really? You operate clumsily the patient ends up dead!), with their ordinary septic belt knives. In cases of comminuted fractures…. the custom has been to cut out the shattered pieces of bone and insert a piece freshly taken from an ox or goat….

“It seems humiliating to find that some of our boasted modern methods of surgery were known and practised by these half-savage tribes in the back ages.”

If only they had looked beyond their racist views…..

In our communities, as in others in the ancient world, mathematics and science was inseparable from religion. I’ll give an example from Kenya, where scientists from the leading universities compared predictions from the metearological department with that of rainmakers from the Ngayi community and, over two seasons, found that both were fairly accurate. The Ngayi rainmakers watch migrations of ants and of bees, they listen to the sounds certain birds and frogs make, they examine the leaves of certain plants, among other activities, and they use all this information to know how much rain will fall, and when, and if there’s going to be a drought, and how long. Are they not scientists, though they attribute their knowledge to spirits?

This topic, ‘what is science’, needs a much longer article, and maybe someone more scholarly to write it. I’m but an artist, and my role is to provoke thought, to create African science fiction works to inspire scientists to look into knowledge systems that will enhance human development without causing poverty and oppression, that will give us a better quality of life without causing ecological disasters and climate change. READ: How I Quit My Job to Become a Full-time Artist

Titling an African Science Fiction Film

An African man in a coat standing with a half-dressed woman, in a still from an African science fiction film, Kifaro,

The word kifaro (sic) has three meanings. The right spelling is kifaru, which is Swahili for a Rhino, but I use kifaro which is how many people in Uganda say it and so how it rings in my head, and also for aesthetic reasons since I’m creating African science fiction works. Kifaro also means military tank. I’m not sure if it is slang, or if they so named the tank because it reminded someone of a Rhino. Thirdly, mostly as used in Uganda, it is an evil spirit. Mayembe is another popular term for evil spirits but I’m not sure if mayembe and kifaro are the same thing. For a moment I considered calling the film mayembe. I settled for kifaro because of its obvious association with military technology. Strange Stories on Adultery

In his book, History of Bunyoro Kitara, A.R. Dunbar quotes diviners in Bunyoro who tell him that “kifaru is the spirit of the military tanks.” This was way back in the 1950s. Every community has two kinds of spirits, the good ones are ancestral spirits that people honor and say prayers to, while the bad ones are often foreign. I’m not sure why this particular evil spirit was associated with military tanks. I suppose it was in relation to colonialism and the brute force it used to subject African peoples, and maybe, like the military tank, it is sent to kill or destroy people.

So in the film, (SPOILER) a man visits a diviner to know why his wife doesn’t love him anymore. The diviner discovers that the wife is cheating on him, and offers him evil medicine (kifaro) to deal with the problem.

There are two kinds of African divination, one is good, the other evil and is frowned upon. It is, unfortunately, the evil one that colonialists, Christians and Muslims tout as representative of African divination, and it has destroyed the image of the good one, which uses rational scientific principals. In the evil kind, the diviner uses a spirit, which has possessed a magical item, often a horn (hence the name mayembe). This item has a life of its own, it can walk, and talk, and interact with human beings as if it is a physical animal. (Fake diviners use ventriloquism to make people think an object is talking.) A person visits a diviner with some problem, maybe thieves took his valuables, or (like in my science fiction film) his wife no longer loves him. The person wants answers, and the diviner offers an evil solution, the most common being to kill with lightning or to send bees against the thief. I’ve also heard of a man getting stuck inside a woman while they are making adulterous love, and other kinds of nasty things.

Though my film revolves around this kind of African divination, it does not inspire me. I used it because, well, entertainment, to tell a fun kind of story, but mostly because the subject is best suited for a short film, or perhaps a feature. I’m developing a TV series based on the good kind, and hopefully you’ll see it someday.

African Divination as a Science: Fractal Mathematics

If you want to dive into greater detail on the subject the science in African divination, read African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, by Ron Eglash. Or, watch his TED Talk. Ron Eglash was studying aerial photos of Tanzanian villages when he noticed fractal patterns. He traversed Africa and saw fractals in many aspects of many cultures, and he wrote; “While fractal geometry can take us into the far reaches of high tech science, its patterns are surprisingly common in traditional African designs, and some of its basic concepts are fundamental to African knowledge systems.” He concluded that Africans were using maths that Europeans knew nothing about.

Being a creator of African science fiction, his book excited me to study ethnomathematics. It is a broad subject; you find complex math principals in board games like chesso, and other every day activities, so I’ll only talk a bit about African divination. Only a few have been studied, like Ifá of the Yoruba, with mathematics in mind, but the little I gleaned from diviners in Uganda made me think of probabilistic or stochastic theory, or maybe chaos theory, which mathematicians will be familiar with.

A diviner uses certain items, the most popular being cowrie shells, shoes (Lango, tyeto war), strips of leather or cards (Buganda, engato za mubale), and wooden charms (Bunyoro, misinga). But they always used a specific number. Five twigs. Six leather cards. A pair of shoes. Nine cowrie shells. The diviners I talked to didn’t pay attention to numbers, but in the past, or so I’ve read, the number of items was important. The length of the sticks, the size and dimensions of the leather cards. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. You see what I see? Why five sticks? Why nine cards? And if numbers are involved, a mathematician might figure out some kind of principal or theory behind it.

READ: This is not funny! It’s a horror!

When cast, the items form patterns. It’s like dice, but instead of six you get an infinity of options, and it follows a doubling principal with the concept of ON / OFF, as used in digital binary code. Some items represent YOU who seeks answers, ON, or 1 in binary, and others represent the OTHER, the thing that has made you seek answers, OFF, or 0. Note: Ron Eglash identified Bamana sand divination as the root of digital binary code.

Since my research on African divination was to inform my science fiction films, I was looking for evidence of binary code in those around me, and I found it in shoe divination, which is called tyeto war (pronounced waa) in Lango and akilamilam ngamuk in Karamoja, where a few elders told me briefly about it. The right shoe represents you, ON/1, and the left shoe represents the other, OFF/0. They say you have to throw the shoes you are wearing, for the shoes know where they are taking you. They identified for thirteen possible patterns that the shoes might form, while an old book on Lango had forty three, and their meanings, and these patterns form an algorithm for living. See image below.

Can these patterns be used in coding? Can they form some kind of visual and programmable language?

How pre-colonial Acholi used fractal mathematics and geometry to organize a homestead along relationships
How pre-colonial Acholi used fractal geometry to organize a homestead along relationships
Aerial photo of a manyatta, a village, in Karamoja. Notice the fractal patterns?

Application of African Knowledge Systems Today

A lot has been lost, the world has become globalized, and you might ask why bother with concepts like this? Why should an academic or scientist spend time studying traditional knowledge systems? Do they have any solutions to modern problems, yet science and technology as we know it today is so ‘advanced’?

There are many people currently working on ethnomathematics, including Dr. Tegan Bristow who explores Zulu beadwork patterns as a reference for complex mathematics in coding. Her work inspired me to create a visual representation of digital data with African aesthetics, as you can see in my short film, Akoota.

In the past, fractal geometry was used to organize homesteads and villages, like in the diagram above of an Acholi homestead (as told to me by some old women), so maybe it can help in planning Africa’s urban settlements that don’t follow a Cartesian system of straight streets in neat rows. Kibera looks like chaos, but can fractal mathematics help in giving its homes postal addresses? Or perhaps a proper drainage system? Look at this palace in Nigera, built with complex fractal system of rectangles inside rectangles, and it has not experienced flooding in its 800 year history. Can we borrow something to build a drainage and sewerage system in places like Bwaise?

Many of our healers still possess valuable knowledge of medicines. Africa currently imports nearly all of its medicines, and it only makes sense to develop domestic pharmaceuticals. Many local remedies already exist for common diseases like malaria, but the neoliberal system means we import all essentials. Looking into traditional knowledge systems will be the first step to decolonizing the continent.

Knowledge today drives capitalism. When learning became institutionalized (and patriarchal), in Europe, community learning was outlawed and healers were burned as witches. Colonialists brought that mentality to Africa and it continues today. The education system beats us into slaves of capitalism. We are destroying the planet, and we know it, but we can’t stop because we want a new iPhone. We claim it is ‘development’ so we support a billionaire’s Mars program, we applaud gene drive technology thinking it will enable us to get rid of malaria and to travel to outer space. The climate is changing, species are going extinct, but we can’t stop.

We need a new way of life. We need new African science fiction stories to guide us away from capitalism and neoliberalism. We need new technologies to improve the quality of human life without harming other living beings. We need to stop looking at only one knowledge systems, then, maybe, we shall discover great, great things.

Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here

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