“Of witch-doctors there are two kinds. The first deliver oracles by bone-throwing. They have three bones carved with different signs; these they throw up, and according to the position they assume when falling, and the side on which they fall, they make the prediction. The other kind deliver their oracles in a slow and very shrill chant. Both are supposed to be on speaking terms with spirits. They are in constant request, but are usually poorly paid. Their influence, however, is tremendous; and in Lo-Bengula’s time their power was as great as, if not greater than, the king’s. Lo-Bengula always kept two or three of them near him. Chief among their works was that of rain-making; this was done with a charm made from the blood and gall of a black ox. No witch-doctors, however, could make rain except by the orders of the king. It was a risky trade; for they were put to death if they failed in their endeavors to produce rain. Dreams are considered of deep significance by the witch-doctors. Madmen are supposed to be possessed of a spirit, and were formerly under the protection of the king.
In my study of the natives’ language my attention was drawn closely to their customs; and in my inquiry into their religion I at once saw how it was bound up in these customs. I met with other white men—traders, government officials, and even some missionaries—whose interest in Africa, however deep, was circumscribed by their special work for, respectively, wealth, power, and Gospel proclamation. They could see in those customs only “folly,” and in the religion only “superstition.” I read many books on other parts of Africa, in which the same customs and religion prevailed. I did not think it reasonable to dismiss curtly as absurd the cherished sentiments of so large a portion of the human race. I asked myself: Is there no logical ground for the existence of these sentiments, no philosophy behind all these beliefs? I began to search; and thenceforward for thirty years, wherever I travelled, wherever I was guest to native chief, wherever I lived, I was always leading the conversation, in hut or camp, back to a study of the native thought. I soon found that I gained nothing if I put my questions suddenly or without mask. The natives generally were aware that white men despised them and their beliefs, and they were slow to admit me to their thought if I made a direct advance. But, by chatting as a friend, telling them the strange and great things of my own country, and first eliciting their trust in me and interest in my stories, they forgot their reticence, and responded by telling me of their country. I listened, not critically, but apparently as a believer; and then they vied with each other in telling me all they knew and thought.
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