If Cowry Shells Could Predict the Future

The weeks surrounding New Year’s Day are prime time for the world’s fortune-tellers. While many people have resolutions, others are looking for help on important decisions ahead about health, marriages and jobs. Fortune-tellers are natural allies. They listen patiently as clients mull over last year’s disappointments and express their fears about what lies ahead. For those afflicted by deep anxiety, the seers suggest a fantasy where there is meaning in every life event and a predictable destiny for all. Whatever the accuracy of any given prediction, the reassurance that everyone has a place in a grand cosmic plan is enough to allow some people to take charge of their own lives.

Turning the empty jug sideways to "keep out the genies"
Turning the empty jug sideways to “keep out the genies” – Mossi  girl

Fortune-tellers throw rice, cowry shells, knives, sticks or look into the glowing crystal ball. These are the tools of the trade. All these magical objects are like physicians’ medical instruments; practitioners use them to read symptoms. But the props are often just used to buttress what the quick study of the clients’ faces has already revealed. Intuition is probably medicine’s best complement to science, and the best seers have more than average practice in its use.

Who is to say if fortune-tellers’ words are true? “Truth” may not even be the best measurement. Can they provide a useful service? The fortune-tellers I have met are like doctors – some are quacks; others are geniuses. The best of them do not work for money but out of sympathy for the suffering of others.

One woman who fit this description was a traditional healer I met in Burkina Faso. She lived through troubled times. Grand forests had disappeared during the repeated droughts, and almost everyone had lost heart. But she offered a strong and steady voice of hope, calling on the ancestors to hold together the thin threads of life. This healer was also in charge of young girls’ rites of passage to adulthood. Throughout their lifetime, she would be part of their household – as a midwife, healer and friend.

When I left, she gave me her own cowry shells that she used to tell people’s fortunes. These three white shells, about the size of quarters, had lost their shine from years of being thrown on her mats. She said that it was important to know how the rough and smooth sides fell. I never learned the code for reading the shells, but I knew that three round sides up several times in a row was not good. She threw the shells. “Ah,” she exclaimed, “Your years will be full of good luck and fortune. Take these shells back to your country so that you will remember us.”

Despite their noble heritage, my cowries aren’t infallible. They are a long way from the plateaus of Burkina Faso and admittedly in untrained hands. But like all good fortune-tellers, my aim is not necessarily to conjure up a pixel-perfect picture of the future – just to offer enough hints to prompt the customers to think for themselves.