The Museum of Medicine and Health : Divination tablets

The Museum of Medicine and Health

<p style='text-align: justify;'>These four wood tablets, called ‘hakata’, were purchased in the 1950s by Dr Michael Gelfand, FRCP (1912-1985), in what was Southern Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. Dr Gelfand was a physician and an expert in the history and practice of African medicine. His anthropological research revealed a complicated system of Shona tribal healers, or Ngangas, with a wide regional variation of rituals and the use of the hakata and herbal remedies. The tablets are carved with different symbols and were used by the Shona healers in a system of divination to reveal the cause of an illness. The healer shuffled the hakata and then cast them onto the ground; their configuration (face up or down) would indicate the cause of the illness or problem. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Gelfand gained the trust of some Shona healers and they would sometimes even seek his advice about treatment. Gelfand gifted the hakata in 1953 to Manchester Medical School Professor Robert Platt (1900-78), who passed them onto Professor Douglas Black (1913-2002), who in turn donated them to the Museum of Medicine and Health in 1973. The tablets represent a 20th century continuation of what had long been viewed as a problem by white colonialists. The Nganga were stigmatised as ‘witch doctors’ and suppressed by the ‘Witchcraft Suppressions Ordinance’, introduced in 1899, which remained in force even after Independence in 1980.</p>

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