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In 2014 I took a year off from my teaching responsibilities at the University of Botswana and went on sabbatical. As a sabbaticant one of the interviews I conducted was with traditional doctors, dingaka tsa Setswana, proper ones and not the thieves robbing people in the cities. My initial inquiry was a linguistic one. I wanted to find out the difference between the word ngaka and the word doctor. Put differently, I wanted to find out if doctors were dingaka or if dingaka were doctors.
I however had a problem. My religion interfered with my worldview. I was raised a church boy in a Pentecostal church. I was taught that dingaka tsa Setswana were demonic; they were satanic, that they were false; that they are cheats and deceivers. How was I then to interview dingaka if I was so biased against them? How was I to truly know them if I assumed I knew them already; when I had so much negative baggage against them? I was a biased researcher. I quickly realised that I wasn’t just biased; I feared them. I wasn’t terrified of them. I was worried that they might defile me; that they might pass their evil spirits to me; that whatever force worked in them might somehow pass to me by simply being in their presence. I was therefore concerned.
I however decided to do a proper study and searched for previous studies on dingaka. One of the first papers to read was the 1978 Caroline Dennis’ study titled: The Role of "Dingaka tsa Setswana" from the 19th Century to the Present. I quickly realised that a proper understanding of dingaka tsa Setswana was somehow inextricably tied with an understanding of boloi (witchcraft). Now here is a truth that is universally true to modern Botswana as it was to a Botswana of fifty years ago: Batswana believe in witchcraft. By believe I don’t mean that most practice witchcraft or approve of it. Quite to the contrary. Many disapprove of it and don’t practice it, however, many believe it exists and works. They believe sorcerers can and usually do bring harm to those they target. It is this belief in the power of witchcraft which drives some individuals to consult dingaka, while the same belief drives others to passionate belief and commitment to the church – that a belief in God would save them from the harmful sorcerers’ attack. This belief in sorcerer’s attack though still pervasive, is not recent. Livingstone in Chamberlin (1940:79) observes that "A belief in witchcraft is characteristic of all the tribes; many if not all have a fear lest by means of the mysterious powers of plants and roots some of their neighbours may influence the prosperous or adverse events of their lives". Batswana believe that the potency of the sorcerer's art is not only limited to the human body; the homestead, cattle and crops, journeys, undertakings of any kind are believed to be vulnerable to its powers. The practice of sorcery is open to the whole tribe; rivals (diselammapa) in business or leadership, kin and neighbours all availed themselves of it. To counteract such an all-pervasive and insidious force of a moloi, Batswana believe one has to find a ngaka to restore harmony and balance in their lives. Boloi necessitates ngaka ya Setswana.
What then became of my initial linguistic inquiry? My inquiry led me into the most wonderful and scariest discoveries of Tswana belief and medicine. I discovered that in Setswana medicine and theology are inextricably intertwined. It is no wonder certain Christian believers stay away from dingaka tsa Setswana. Dingaka tsa Setswana largely divide into two basic groups: dingaka tse di dinaka (the ones that use horns) and dingaka tse di chochwa (ones without horns). Dingaka tse di dinaka are bone-throwers who practise divination through bola, ditaola, or divination bones. They acquire their skill from training under their fathers or another village ngaka after having received a visitation from badimo. Livingstone (1857:130) observes that: "Those doctors who have inherited their profession as an heirloom from their fathers and grandfathers generally possess some valuable knowledge, the result of long and close observation; but if a man cannot say that the art is in his family he may be considered a quack!" Dingaka tsa morafe, dingaka tsa kgosing and the baroka are some of dingaka tse di dinaka. They doctor not just the human body, which they cut and smear with tsholo. From time immemorial they have ensured that they doctor a Motswana at every critical stage – “birth, initiation, marriage, parenthood - when the individual was believed to be particularly vulnerable; they were also taken to protect him in his day-to-day activities.” The ngaka e e dinaka is used especially for go thaya – “the ritual strengthening or fortifying of the body by making a series of small surface cuts over the joints, into which were rubbed medicines which afforded protection against sorcery.” Go thaya is also done for the tshimo and the homestead. The ngaka also doctors the cattle, seeds, crops, the ploughed lands and new houses or kraals. In modern times he doctors the house, the offices and the cars. While in the past he doctored the army before battle, consecrated a new tribal capital (go thaya motse) and performed ceremonies to ensure the protection of town and tribe, including the dipeku ceremony – “the annual blessing of the town - performed to render town and tribe impregnable to enemies, disease and evil”, these days the ngaka doctors city houses, churches, businesses, fleet of buses, shops and business of all types.
The dingaka tse di chochwa are the herbalists who concentrate on the ministration of roots and herbs and are not involved, in ritual matters (Willoughby, 1905: 303).
So is the word ngaka equivalent to doctor? Not even close. The word ngaka is broader in scope. Ngaka does not only doctor the human body but the farm and the cattle, goats and sheep. He is both a medicine man and a theologian. As a moroka he can make it rain or with unexplainable powers send destruction to some. This in part explains why Batswana still believe in dingaka tsa Setswana.