Owen Burnham demonstrating how the Basaon oracle is used.
It is not often that I get offered a really well documented object as a donation to the World Museum’s African collection. Last month I was pleased to accept a unique addition to the collection consisting of a rare divination set, or oracle, from Senegal in West Africa. The oracle, called a Basaon, is used by the Balanta Kanja people of the Casamance region in Southern Senegal and is one of very few remaining oracles of its type.
The oracle set was donated by anthropologist Owen Burnham, a specialist on Balanta Kanja culture. Owen was born and brought up in Southern Senegal and speaks the Balanta language fluently. He is the only known European to have gone through the Balanta naming ceremony as a baby and he has lived and worked among the Balanta for most of his 47 years.
In that time he formed a close relationship with a Balanta healer or “leaf master” called Malou Diatta, whom he regards as his spiritual master. Under Malou’s guidance Owen was allowed to enter the sacred forest and undergo many Balanta religious ceremonies. Malou gave Owen the Basaon oracle for his own use in 2008, after Owen had suffered a series of family tragedies. Malou’s own children converted to Islam and, because they showed no interest in learning about traditional Balanta healing practices, Malou was keen that Owen, at least, should continue Balanta divination rituals.
Because Owen plans to leave the UK and cannot take his Basaon with him, he decided to donate it to the World Museum. But before transferring ownership of his Basaon to the museum Owen phoned Malou to inform him of his decision. In the message that Owen took down over the phone, Malou said he was happy for the museum to take the Basaon, and he explained that the Basaon oracle had been in the Diatta family for a long time before it was given to Owen. He said that the oracle is used by the elder Jambacos, or “leaf masters” among the Balanta and that it connects Balanta people with their ancestors through the intercession of Maimoona, goddess of the waters. At the end of his message Malou said:
"Please accept this oracle and keep it safe, as I am one of the last Jambacos and I wanted Kounyara [Owen] to look after this piece of our culture."
When Owen came to Liverpool to show me the Basaon oracle, he was able to give me a valuable demonstration of how it is used. He explained that a client or ‘patient’ usually comes to a “leaf master” with a weighty question, often to do with the cause of his or her illness, or of an illness in the patient’s family. The leaf master will then choose some relevant charms from the Basaon set and lay them out before him to help communication with Maimoona.
Offerings will also be made to the Basaon at the start of a divination session. The Basaon consists of a hinged pair of bamboo mats, which the “leaf master” holds horizontally at the hinged end while the patient puts his or her questions to it. Often the “leaf master” goes into a trance-like state during the divination session. If both leaves of the Basaon swing inwards together and curl round to touch the leaf master's wrist, the answer to the patient’s question is interpreted as being in the negative. If it then swings back to the mid position or stays there with the two leaves of the Basaon closed or together, this indicates a response of "unknown". However, if the two leaves of the Basaon open up fully and swing round in opposite directions, that indicates a positive or affirmative response to the patient’s question.
In Balanta culture spirits of various kinds are often considered to be the agents that cause disease and suffering, so once the behaviour of the Basaon has been interpreted at the end of a divination session, the “leaf master” may give the patient advice on what type of offering to make, and to which spirits. Once the spirits responsible for causing the patient’s suffering have been satisfied, the patient will expect to see an improvement in his condition.
I was delighted that Owen was able to talk to Malou before donating his Basaon oracle to World Museum, because it allowed us to go beyond our 'due diligence policy' in confirming the provenance of the Basaon and in establishing Malou’s willingness for the museum to take ownership of the oracle set.
But this was not the only outcome of Owen’s discussion with Malou. At the end of their phone call Malou invited me to Senegal and offered to answer any questions I might have about Balanta culture on my arrival. This is an exciting invitation that I am keen to take up at a future time when my schedule and resources allow.