There’s More Than One World. There’s a Pluriverse.

Stars above a villiage in South Africa.

Visceral. It’s still the best word I can think of to describe that evening, one of my last on a month-long field stay in a small South African community. The village was located in the apartheid-era Transkei state, what is now known as the Eastern Cape. In many ways, this particular evening was the culmination of a month spent navigating unfamiliar—sometimes uncomfortable but also lovely—experiences conducting research in a new community. The villagers with whom I worked reside in a different, distinctly less privileged world than me. How do I interact in this other world with curiosity, respect, and intentionality? The following reflection is one effort at coming closer to an answer.

The sun set to my left as we walked down the narrow trail that led from the road to the huddle of thatched-roof huts tucked into the side of a rocky bluff. To my right, a cliff face flickered shades of red, reflecting burning fields nearby. Mr. Kambile, my self-appointed research guide, turned around to warn, “Be careful of the dogs—they have bitten before.” He was leading me to Caroline, a sangoma of the village.

A road leading into a pastoral village.

A pastoral village in the Eastern Cape. Pastoralism is the primary livelihood activity for the amaXhosa people, the predominant ethnic group in the region. Photo by Jules Reynolds, 2017.

A visit to the sangoma

I had heard about Caroline in the first week of my field stay. A sangoma, or traditional healer, acquires her power through divination. I wanted to interview Caroline for my ethnography of trees and forests in Manzimdaka. Indigenous forests are only found in fragments in these hills of the Drakensberg Mountains. In the dense understory, sangomas collect muti, or natural medicine, and communicate with spirit ancestors. I knew this already, but I had no idea what to expect from my visit to Caroline’s hut.

Ancestral communication and what transpires in the forest seemed a surreptitious topic for villagers. When I collected firewood with a group of women the week before, I was warned about the words I couldn’t speak out loud under the cover of the trees—but no one could, or would, tell me why. I didn’t expect Caroline to unravel the mysteries of the forest for me. Still, I hoped to learn something more, and maybe ask for some muti to take with me.

I could shut off that voice in my head that compared everything I saw to everything I thought I already knew.

Ducking through the doorway, I entered Caroline’s hut, the largest I had ever seen. A small fire ring commanded the middle of the room with a bed tucked away to the right. In the Xhosa tradition of gendered space, this side was reserved for women. I sat on the bench to the left: the side reserved for men or foreign guests. Caroline appeared from a different door, smaller than the first, and said softly in isiXhosa, “The ancestors told me you were coming.”

A small hut is illuminated from within at night.

In a typical amaXhosa household, the circular kitchen hut is the center of cooking, sleeping, and family activity. Photo by Jules Reynolds, 2017.

For the next thirty minutes I interviewed Caroline, my recorder placed next to Mr. Kambile to better pick up his voice as he translated her story. She told me about becoming a sangoma when she was a young woman. Her ancestors started to visit her as bees in her dreams. At first, she didn’t answer them. When she tried to ignore these dreams and the life path chosen for her, she grew ill. When the dreams continued in the hospital, she understood she could not ignore this calling.

After the interview ended and I set the recorder aside, I asked to buy some of Caroline’s medicine, whatever medicine she thought fit to give to me. She left the hut, again through the small side opening, and returned with a small vial of pink liquid and a block of deep brown soap. I was to rub the ointment on my forehead, bathe with the soap, and ask my ancestors for good fortune.

I thanked Caroline and set down a handful of South African rand on the ground between us. Mr. Kambile had advised me about the process of offering a gift of money in return for the medicine. Since the medicine is a gift, the sangoma cannot ask for money outright, but payment is still expected. Caroline wordlessly collected the bills and again left through the side door. She returned, first apologized, and then explained that her ancestors had told her to ask for more money.

I recognized this moment. It felt unfortunately familiar. It felt stale. I hadn’t anticipated this, the process of bartering for goods. Of course, I would give her the extra money. I had asked her for the medicine. Still, I immediately wondered: am I being taken advantage of because I am a foreigner? What was the likelihood that her ancestors actually communicated financial advice? Would she keep asking me for more? How could I say no? But who was I to refuse?

And then, a wave of realization: there was absolutely no way to know. I would never be able to find out what actually happened on the other side of that door. I could only choose to believe that everything Caroline said was true. I could trust that her ancestors came to her as bees and spoke to her on the other side of the door and that the soap would bring good fortune. I could shut off that voice in my head that compared everything I saw to everything I thought I already knew.

A traditional healer's things are laid out on the floor of her home.

The toolbox of an inyanga, or a medicine man. Like a sangoma, an inyanga uses herbal medicine for healing. Photo by Jules Reynolds, 2017.

The pluriverse

I thought back to this evening when I read decolonization scholar Bernd Reiter’s introduction to the edited volume Constructing the Pluriverse: The Geopolitics of Knowledge. Reiter reminds us that we cannot possibly “know with certainty that the world truly is the way we think it is.” To think otherwise is, as Reiter writes, the colonial problem of attributing ontological status to epistemological tools. In other words, if there is only one world, then different perspectives on that world can be determined wrong. To instead situate ourselves in the pluriverse is to accept that there is no single or universal explanation for the world and that many worlds must exist from many ways of knowing and being. This is the challenge for activists and scholars engaged in the ontological turn: to respect difference instead of explaining it away.

To situate ourselves in the pluriverse is to accept that there is no single or universal explanation for the world.

In Caroline’s hut, I sought an explanation of that evening that would reinforce my understanding of the world. That search was ultimately futile. I simply could not translate the events without diminishing either her reality or mine.

Now, twenty months after that evening, as I consider my privilege in academia, the responsibility I carry to the communities with whom I work, and the ongoing violence of settler colonialism, it seems to me that this moment of choosing to let go of what I thought I knew is a small, but not trivial, step towards recognizing this pluriverse. I’ll think of this method, for now, as consciously un-determining my world. As I position myself to conduct research in other countries, in other worlds, an approach of un-determination seems crucial for engaging in respectful and constructive scholarship. I wonder what new insights, new relations, and new realities I will encounter by this visceral practice of letting go?

The evening concluded quickly after that moment. Caroline and Mr. Kambile chatted for a bit in isiXhosa, and I tucked the soap and vial next to the voice recorder in my bag. Leaving the hut, the sky was clear, dark, and heavy with stars.

Featured image: The night sky in the Eastern Cape. Photo by Jules Reynolds, 2017.

Jules Reynolds is a joint Ph.D. student in Environment & Resources and Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests lie at the intersection of agroecology, political ecology, and critical feminist theory scholarship. In her dissertation research, Jules investigates climate change research and policy in the postcolonial context of Malawi. Twitter. Contact.