In the face of catastrophic climate change, I am surely not alone in wondering what point there is in writing about phenomena that render thought, action, and language seemingly so futile. Yet, as an anthropologist who has lived and worked in New Zealand, Australia, Sierra Leone, Denmark, and the United States, I have spent many years exploring the practical, ritual, and conceptual ways that people create hope in even the most hopeless situations.

Our future on Earth is so uncertain that neither science, nor government, nor religion can offer the certainty that we have traditionally expected from them.

Experience has taught me that the loss and recovery of a sense of certainty, like the loss and recovery of faith or wellness, is sometimes enabled by scientific knowledge, sometimes by magical thinking, and that human beings typically and opportunistically switch between these alternative survival strategies. Despite knowing that we will die, we create myths of invincible heroes, beliefs in reincarnation, concepts of an afterlife, and philosophies based on incontrovertible truth. Or we split body from mind, construing the former mortal and the latter immortal.

Moreover, when we recount our life stories in terms of a progression from confusion to clarity or the realization of childhood dreams, are we not conjuring the same illusion of certainty and order that we create in our homes and workplaces by establishing everyday routines, or that the scholar produces in a well-argued essay? These activities may, of course, be vindicated on practical grounds. An untidy house is unhygienic, a person without a plan in life will not succeed, an essay without a conclusion will not earn a passing grade. But these actions are ritualistic. They foster an illusion of certainty in an inherently chaotic world. Though they may be dismissed as magical, illusory, or irrational, they are existentially necessary for achieving the kind of provisional certainty without which our lives would be unlivable.

This essay is featured in Uncertainty.

Consider storytelling. In Joan Didion’s compelling phrase, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Stories are a means whereby we recount and rework events that simply befall us. We do this partly by sharing our experience with others in a form they can relate or respond to, thereby reaffirming and consolidating our sense of belonging to a family, a circle of friends, a community, or even a nation. But we also tell stories as a way of transforming our sense of who we are, recovering a sense of ourselves as actors and agents in the face of experiences that render us insignificant, unrecognized, or powerless. As David Grossman puts it, storytelling counters the arbitrariness of existence; it allows one the freedom “to articulate the tragedy of [one’s] situation in [one’s] own words.” Writing affords us the same existential consolation, for “from the moment we take pen in hand or put fingers to keyboard, we have already ceased to be at the mercy of all that enslaved and constrained us before we began writing.”

Existentially, storytelling and writing resemble occult technologies such a prayer, ritual sacrifice, divination, and dream interpretation. In the following account of beginning fieldwork in a remote Kuranko village in northern Sierra Leone many years ago, I invoke the precariousness of living outside one’s cultural comfort zone as a way of exploring more general questions about how we cope with uncertainty.

Not long after arriving in the village that would, in time, become my second home, I had a disturbing dream that I recorded immediately on waking. The dream comprised two episodes.

In the first episode of the dream, I found myself in a bare room, reminiscent of one of the classrooms at the Kabala District Council Primary School where I had first met Noah Marah, who was a teacher before taking leave to work as my field assistant. Through an open corrugated iron door, a book was passed into the room by an invisible hand or some other invisible agency. The book hung suspended in midair for several seconds and I identified a single word in bold type on its cover: ETHNOGRAPHY. I had the impression that the book contained only blank pages.

People rely on a blend of practical, ritual, and conceptual tools to create hope in even the most hopeless situations.

In the second episode, I found myself again in the same room. Again, the door opened. I felt a tremendous presence sweep into the room. I felt myself lifted up and, as if held in the hands of a giant, I was taken out of the room. The hands and arms of the giant exerted such pressure against my chest that I could not breathe easily. I was borne along aloft, still being squeezed. At this point I awoke in fear.

The dream clearly manifested several of my anxieties at that time: my uncertainty about carrying out my research for a thesis or book on the Kuranko; my dependence on Noah, who initially mediated all my relationships with Kuranko people and who was instructing me in the language; the mild paranoia, vulnerability, and alienation I experienced in the villages surrounded by people I did not know and talk I did not understand.

The day after this dream, Noah and I made a trip to a village, Dankawali, about twenty-five miles from my home base in Kabala. There I met the brother of Alpha Kargbo II, a Kuranko elder with whom I had spent some time in Kabala during the preceding weeks. On learning that Alpha’s brother, Fode, was adept in dream interpretation, I recounted my dream to him. He was puzzled, and the dream was discussed among other elders. Some confusion arose from my reference to a giant, since the word could not be translated exactly into Kuranko. The nearest equivalent to our word giant is ke yan (literally, “long man”), designating a tall bush spirit that sometimes allies itself with a hunter. I was told that if this bush spirit appears in a dream, it wishes to help the dreamer. I was asked whether the giant flew up into the sky with me, and whether he had placed me back on the ground. After I had answered these questions, Fode announced the meaning of the dream: it signified importance, it meant that if I were a Kuranko man I would be destined to become a chief. Fode added, “You will become a very important person; I do not know about you because you are a European, but for us the book means knowledge; it came to reveal knowledge.”

Despite Fode’s caveat—that he might not be able to interpret a European’s dream using Kuranko hermeneutics—his elucidation of the meaning of the dream was consistent with orthodox Kuranko readings. A book signifies knowledge; being in a strange place among strange people signifies good fortune in the near future; being in a high place signifies the imminent attainment of a prestigious position; flying like a bird signifies happiness and prosperity.

Where Fode’s interpretation differed from my own wasn’t only at the level of exegesis; it was in his conviction that the dream presaged future events rather than revealed present anxieties. Nevertheless, his assurances did help allay my anxieties, and I felt that his interpretation of my dream consisted in more than pat references to commonplace Kuranko images—a fish with scales foretelling the birth of a son, a fish without scales foretelling the birth of a daughter, being in a dark forest or a swamp signifying a conspiracy, and so forth. Fode’s interpretation suggested conscious or unconscious sympathy for my situation as a stranger in his society.

Despite knowing that we will die, we create beliefs in reincarnation, concepts of an afterlife, and philosophies based on incontrovertible truth.

My emotions during this transitional time were very mixed. Behind me was the Cambridge academic world in which I had been steeped, a world of ostensible order, both academic and architectural, and of scholarly routines and college protocols that dated back centuries. Before me lay a world of bewildering otherness, a language I strained to hear, lives I struggled to understand, tastes I could not get used to, beliefs I could not get my head around. There was also the anxiety of living apart from my wife for weeks on end, and the difficulties of reconciling my hope for friendship with Noah with the fact that he was my paid assistant.

After four weeks in the village of Firawa, and with no means of communicating with my wife Pauline in Kabala, I had become increasingly concerned for her well-being. Although Noah’s wives had promised to keep Pauline company and help her with marketing, and she was busy with her dissertation research on the Icelandic family sagas, I was worried that in the event of a medical emergency, her life and the life of the child she was carrying might be in danger.

My anxieties came to a head one evening when I went out to the latrine that stood in the grassland behind the house where I was staying. The silence was suddenly broken by several Senegal firefinches flitting around me. Aware that for Kuranko these small crimson birds embody the souls of children who have died in infancy, I became convinced that Pauline had had a miscarriage and that her life was in peril.

That night I slept fitfully, and in the morning confided my fears to Noah. He too was missing his children and wondering about his wives; perhaps it was time for us to return to Kabala.

That afternoon, Noah announced that he was going to see a diviner, Bockari Wularé, and invited me to accompany him.

A diviner is “one who lays out pebbles” (beresigile) or reads palms (bolomafelne, literally “hand-on-looker”), though other divinatory techniques include mirror-reading and consulting the Qu’ran. Bockari used river stones.

What appears to be submission to a higher power is a way to regain control over one’s fate.

We were taken indoors, and sat on either side of a raffia mat spread on the clay floor.

After observing Bockari divine for Noah, I asked if he could read the stones for me.

I half expected Bockari to scoff at my request, but he responded without a word, and began following the same procedure he had followed with Noah.

“Why have you come?” he asked.

Noah spoke for me. “He wants to find out about his wife. She is expecting a child. He is worried about her. He wants to know if all is well, and if all will be well.”

Bockari emptied some stones from his small monkey-skin bag and with the palm of his hand spread them across the mat. Most were river pebbles: semitranslucent, the color of rust, jasper, and yellow ocher. Among them were some cowrie shells, old coins, and pieces of metal. When I handed Bockari his fifty-cent consultation fee, he mingled it with these objects.

“What is your wife’s name?”

“Pauline,” I answered, pleased to have understood the question.

Bockari found difficulty with the name but did not ask for it to be repeated. In a soft voice he addressed the stones, informing them of the reason I had come. Then he gathered up a handful and began to chant. At the same time, with half-closed eyes, he rhythmically knocked the back of his cupped hand against the mat.

Very deliberately, he then laid out the stones, some in pairs, some singly, others in threes and fours.

“All is well,” Bockari said quietly, his attention fixed on the stones. “Your wife is well. She will give birth to a baby girl.”

Without pausing, he proceeded to lay out a second pattern.

“There is nothing untoward. The paths are clear. The birth will be easy.”

To see what sacrifice I should make, Bockari laid out the stones a third time.

“Your wife must sacrifice some clothes and give them to a woman she respects. You must sacrifice two yards of white satin and give it to a man you respect. When your child is born, you must sacrifice a sheep.”

Bockari looked warily at me, as if wondering whether I would do what the stones demanded.

“To whom must I address the sacrifice of the sheep?” I asked in English. Noah translated.

“To your ancestors,” Bockari said.

Though reassured by Bockari’s insights, I could not resist pressing him to explain how he arrived at them.

“How can the stones tell you what to tell me?” I asked, again relying on Noah to translate.

“They speak, just as we are speaking now. But only I can hear what they are saying. It is a gift that I was born with.”

“Could I acquire that gift?”

“A person cannot tell if a bird has an egg in its nest simply by watching it in flight.”

If we make offerings to gods, we act as if the extra-human world were not completely alien.

I told Noah that I did not understand.

Bockari fetched the loose sleeve of his gown up onto his shoulder and frowned. “You cannot go looking for it. It comes to you.”

There was a silence.

“Come, let’s eat,” Bockari said, climbing to his feet. He stowed his bag of stones between a rafter and the thatch, then wrenched the raffia door open. The sunlight blinded me.

When we were seated in the yard, we took it in turns to wash our hands before Bockari’s wife brought us an enamel dish, piled high with rice and peanut sauce.

“How did you get the stones?” I asked. “And the words you say to them—did someone teach them to you?”

Bockari finished his mouthful of rice. Then, as if amused by my curiosity, he said cryptically, “If you find fruit on the ground, look to the tree.”

I must have looked perplexed but Bockari continued. “I began divining a long time ago, in the days of Chief Pore Bolo. I was favored by a djinn. I saw a djinn, and the djinn told me it was going to give me some stones so that I would be able to help people.”

“Where did you see the djinn?”

“In a dream. They came in a dream. There were two of them. A man and a woman. They had changed themselves into human beings and were divining with river stones. They called to me and told me their names. They said, ‘We are going to favor you with a different destiny.’ They showed me a certain leaf and told me I should make it into a powder and mix it with water in a calabash. Then I was to get some stones from the river and wash them in that liquid. When I woke up the next morning I went to the river and found that leaf and those stones. I did everything the djinn told me to do.”

“Would I be able to find that leaf?”

“Eh! I cannot tell you about that!”

“The djinn then, did you see them again?”

“Yes, I see them often. Every Thursday and Friday night they appear to me in a dream. Sometimes they say to me, ‘Are you still here?’”

“Do the djinn speak to you through the stones?”

“Yes,” Bockari said, as if pleased that I had finally understood something of what he was telling me.

“When you address the stones, you are speaking to the djinn?”

“No! I am speaking to the stones.” A frown creased Bockari’s forehead. Hitching up his sleeve, he scooped a ball of rice from the calabash and slipped it deftly into his mouth.

I had finished eating, but not my questioning. “Do you ever give anything to the djinn?”

Bockari swallowed the rice and washed it down with some water. “From time to time I offer them a sacrifice of white kola nuts.”

I could see Bockari was tired, and that Noah was exasperated by my questions and the difficulty of translating them. I got up to go, and Noah followed.

Once we got back to Kabala, I shared my experience with Pauline, who was as reassured by Bockari’s confident predictions as I had been, and I wasted no time in making the sacrifices I had been directed to make to ensure that the birth of our daughter went smoothly. I was curious, however, to find myself acting as if I had embraced the assumptions on which Kuranko divinatory praxis was based. Could this be compared to an agnostic turning to God at a critical crossroads in life, or an alcoholic admitting his or her powerlessness as a first step on the road to recovery? Was there a necessary relationship between belief and action, or were beliefs best seen as coping mechanisms whose efficacy was only arbitrarily connected to their epistemological status?

We tell stories as a way of recovering a sense of ourselves as agents in the face of experiences that render us insignificant or powerless.

Five years would pass before I published my praxeological account of Kuranko divination (“An Approach to Kuranko Divination,” 1978). Although I would refer in it to my consultation with Bockari, my findings reflected numerous conversations with diviners and their clients, and my conclusions would run counter to the prevailing epistemological approach to divination in anthropology. Influenced by the rationality–irrationality debate, many anthropologists asked how diviners were able to maintain credibility and protect the plausibility of a diagnostic system that was, at best, hit and miss.

By contrast, my focus was on the experiences of clients who did not know what to think or do when faced by a perilous journey, a difficult childbirth, a troubling dream, a grave illness, a sudden death, an impending initiation, or even building a new house and making a new farm. What appeared to be submission to a higher power was a prelude to regaining control over one’s fate. Though the power attributed to djinn or diviners might be illusory, it entailed real effects, and insofar as it alleviated anxiety and restored a sense of agency and certainty, it did not necessarily inspire retrospective interest in the existence of djinn or the veracity or fallibility of the diviner’s methods.

My interpretation was consonant with the pragmatist spirit of Kuranko thought. The critical issue was not whether a story told, a prognosis offered, or a sacrifice made met some abstract standard of rationality but whether it encouraged hope, bolstered one’s spirits, and offered a new way of thinking about a recurrent dilemma. As philosopher William James put it in his book Pragmatism (1907), truth is what “happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process.”

We all need a degree of certainty and predictability in our lives. My own experiences of Kuranko divination—whose prescribed actions helped alleviate my anxieties even though I did not subscribe to Kuranko “beliefs” in the supernatural agents that guided the divinatory process—convinced me that all humans need to feel that they can act and speak with some likelihood that their actions will draw a response from others and even change the world. But our words are often misconstrued, our intentions misinterpreted, and our very existence ignored. It is, to borrow Ralph Ellison’s phrase, as if we are socially invisible and our lives do not matter. Such unresponsiveness can undermine our self-worth and degrade our humanity.

Such experiences are traumatic enough in the context of our lives with others, but what about when we are struck by the unresponsiveness of the extra-human world—the world of things, viruses, objects, oceans, landscapes, and ever-changing climatic conditions? For psychoanalytic anthropologist George Devereux, the unresponsiveness of the material world can be as traumatic as the unresponsiveness of other people—or, as several Holocaust memoirists record, the unresponsiveness of God in their hour of need. That the material and extra-human world is beyond our capacity to fully comprehend and control explains why, in Devereux’s view, we endow the physical world with anthropomorphic characteristics. This strategy makes the entire universe appear to be subject to the same rules of reciprocity, recognition, and responsiveness that operate in the human realm. If we can make sacrifices or offerings to gods, persuading them to act benignly toward us, we act as if the extra-human world were not completely alien, but susceptible to the same bargaining we use in our everyday face-to-face relations with our fellow humans.

It is worth remembering, in this regard, that for small children, the boundary between their internal world and the physical world is fluid and often blurred. Self and external world are often experienced as all of a piece. This led Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget to argue that the child’s conception of the world is animistic; what to an adult seems inanimate is, for the child, often imbued with vitality. Children readily assume that inanimate things have consciousness and will. A kicked table will feel hurt, a moving bicycle knows where it is going, the sun looks at us with its rays. Only gradually does the child recognize the difference between human beings and the rest of the world. Thus, a nine-year-old, when asked, “Can a fire feel anything?” answers, “No,” just as most adults would. “If someone threw water on the fire, would it feel that?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because it is not a person.”

A story, prognosis, or sacrifice does not need to meet some abstract standard of rationality, but encourage hope and offer a new way of thinking about a recurrent dilemma.

Devereux extends Piaget’s thesis by arguing that anyone is likely to perceive the world in this animistic way, no matter his or her age, when he or she feels overwhelmed or threatened by the physical world. Treating it as animate helps us magically bring it within the ambit of our consciousness and control and provides us with means of acting on it.

Devereux shares with philosopher John Dewey the view that science and religion are not fundamentally different in this regard. Both are existential strategies for making the material or physical world around us appear less unresponsive to our control. We thus transform the deep uncertainty we feel toward the world around us into a provisional certainty. If I pray, do my duty, recycle my trash, offer sacrifices, study well, exercise patience, avoid giving offense, then the world will respect my efforts in the same way that another reasonable human being would.

This kind of magical thinking only gets us so far, however; it cannot fundamentally alter the nature of the universe. In his book The Quest for Certainty (1925), Dewey notes that “when all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world [is never] seriously modified, much less eliminated,” and he cites the impact of World War I to make his point. As a more recent example, we might offer the COVID-19 pandemic, for which science has developed effective vaccines yet which, for many people, continues to inspire conspiracy theories and superstitious fears. Moreover, as Dewey observes in Experience and Nature (1925), those who regard science as synonymous with certainty resemble those who turn to superstition: “Our magical safeguard against the uncertain character of the world is to deny the existence of chance, to mumble universal and necessary law, the ubiquity of cause and effect, the uniformity of nature, universal progress, and the inherent rationality of the universe.”

Many people would agree that our collective future on Earth is now so imperiled and uncertain that neither science, nor government, nor religion can offer the assurances of certainty that we have traditionally expected from them. Although we often accept and even cultivate indeterminacy (as in gambling, high-risk sports, and risky business ventures), there is a threshold of tolerance beyond which chance ceases to be a matter of gambles willingly taken and becomes oppressive and unbearable.

For a lot of people this threshold has been crossed, and I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s response to Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that we can never know whether subatomic matter is wave-like or particulate since our methods of investigating the phenomenon partly determine its apparent nature. When Einstein declared against the new physics, writing, “Quantum mechanics is very impressive, but I am convinced that God does not play dice,” he was in a sense admitting the same intolerance of the aleatory that in a West African village leads a person to seek consolation in the predictive and systematizing powers of a diviner—for in divination, as in science, we hope to reduce ambiguity and arrive at provisional certitudes which will offer us “something to go on,” to renew faith, bolster hope, and guide action in a precarious world.