Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

The Return of the River Monster?

Alain Tschudin

Department of Psychology, University of Natal, PMB

Normality, marginality, pathology? Several sightings of a river monster in the Eastern Cape have been covered by local and national media. While an "etic" reading of the episode may dismiss reports of the river monster as delusional, fantastical or trivial, an "emic" reading views the monster with more serious and significant attention. Discourse analysis of the episode's media coverage should explain something of the river monster construct and the functions of this cultural phenomenon.

We South Africans are the inhabitants of the now famous "rainbow nation" and as we approach the dawn of the year 2000 and a new millennium, the whole conceptual frame of marginality, pathology and normality needs to be overhauled. The diverse cultural and ethnic composition of our rainbow people has significant implications for the social and health sciences. What might be regarded as a totally appropriate state of mind, belief or behavioural practice in one cultural group may be viewed as highly malfunctional in another cultural context. Cultural psychology is vital for a locale such as South Africa, where we literally do have "the world in country". The river monster construct is a case in point. The aim is to undertake a discussion of metatheory, cultural psychology and narrative, before focusing on the function of the construct to those differentially involved with the monster story, via discourse analysis of media reporting on the episode.

Richard Shweder (1991) notes that, when "thinking through cultures", we need to consider cultural psychology as the interactive make-up of "individuals and traditions, psyches and cultures". He further notes that the issue of rationality (or psychic unity) must be addressed, as the term "cultural psychology" implies that consciousness may not share uniformity in a world of cultural diversity. Shweder (1991:2) is acutely aware of a central Western modernist myth, that the contrast between "religion-superstition-revelation and logic-science-rationality divides our world into then and now, them and us."

This myth holds importance for our theme, as our topic relates so strongly to the interface of African and Western culture. This is nowhere more apparent than the very European-sounding Mr Div de Villiers dismissing Chief Senyukelo Jojo's account of a river monster as "nothing more than a figment of the imagination" (Daily Dispatch 22/5/1997) or Geoffrey Doidge stating that he told the people (who spoke of a river monster) that their claims were untrue (Daily Dispatch 8/5/1997). We shall return to truth, untruth and the meaning of it all at an appropriate stage in the discussion.

The issue of rationality is described as problematic by Shweder (1991), insofar as inferring human nature from the apparently diverse human conceptions of reality and justifying "self or other" conceptions of reality. To Shweder, rationality or psychic unity is "simply that which makes us imaginable to each other". So rather than attempting to resolve inconsistent mental experience across cultures, we should actively campaign to search for similarities and differences, in order to promote more complete human understanding. Our tool for the promotion of such understanding appears in the form of discourse analysis.

Why should the analysis of discourse or psychological narratives be of value to us? Simply answered, D'Andrade (1986), who conceived of three classes of science such as physical sciences, natural sciences and semiotic sciences, describes psychology as falling into the ambit of the last category. He perceives an intellectual divide to exist between natural science and semiotic science approaches. Whereas the natural scientist is preoccupied with studying systematic, complex causality and the functional relatedness of structures, the semiotic scientist investigates meanings and symbols, their complex generation in the human mind and their role in structuring social action (D'Andrade 1986). D'Andrade (1986) describes an unfounded and distorted claim, namely, that our discipline is scientifically farcical, as we are not concerned with general laws. However, if one accepts that as psychologists, we do not strive to find generalised "covering laws", but rather attempt to comprehend how complexly organised systems function, the above misnomer falls away. We should concern ourselves with the "how" of engaging in psychological enquiry- via the interpretation of meaning.

Gergen (1986) cites Wittgenstein's notion that the meaning of words is obtained through their use in the performances of various forms of life. It follows that we cannot make meaning of any narrative episode without giving cognisance to the context in which it occurs. Textual interpretation is thus largely dependent on historical conventions and textual meaning can only be established within a contextual "horizon of understanding" (Gadamer 1975, in Gergen 1986). Rather than attempting to perpetuate the mythical notion of objectivity in psychological research, Gergen calls for an acknowledgement of the value of the subjective, underlying meaning to each individual. The detection of similar and distinctive meanings of similar textual episodes across cultures is an essential component of our trade.

Two core issues are highlighted by Shweder (1986). Firstly, while theories, beliefs, concepts and experiences are often described by "etic" observers (those outside the cultural frame of reference) as "symbolic, delusional, ideological, supernatural, "emic" readers (those inside the cultural context) would view the above as reasonable, rational and objective. In addition, from an emic perspective these phenomena can de described according to legitimate, rational processes. This leads Shweder to blur the line between subjectivity and objectivity, by speaking of "divergent rationality", the notion that not all rational processes are universal and that objectivity is thus subject dependent. Thus liveable realities, or cultures, are functional examples of divergent rationalities (Shweder 1986) and this is why it is crucial to engage in cultural psychology, which differs from cross-cultural psychology, psychological anthropology or ethnopsychology (Shweder 1991).

Cross-cultural psychology adheres to general psychology and its Platonic principle of rationality or psychic unity. Cross-cultural psychologists engage in researching cultural effects on the developing psyche or in assuming that psychic unity already exists and is waiting in the wings of culture, such believers get hooked on the notion of "etic" or "emic" and fail to transcend this level of analysis (Shweder 1991). Although we have used these terms, we use them only from an anthropological context and do not intend for a cross-cultural reading to be made. Our intention is neither to report on psychological anthropology, which to Shweder, assumes that population differences should be viewed as variations on the theme of universal psychic unity, something we are not advocating.

Ethnopsychology investigates indigenous representations of the psyche and focuses on the study of ethnic variation in psychological theories. Were ethnopsychology to be more concerned with the psychology and subjectivity of the individuals studied in terms of mind, emotion, identity and gender, it would then be cultural psychology, which Shweder (1991) proposes is the ethnopsychology of a functioning psyche.

To paraphrase a definition of cultural psychology: it is the study of relationship of social behaviours and cultural traditions to ethnically diverse forms of psychological functioning (Shweder 1991). A sociocultural environment is an intentional world, and in this world we have intentional constructs. People and reality are socially constructed (Miller 1991) and as thematically described thusfar, to understand the person and her representation of reality, we need to dive into the depths of the subject and explore the coves of meaning within this domain.

As it is an interpretative discipline, cultural psychology achieves "thinking through others" in four possible ways, namely thinking in the frame of reference of the other, understanding this frame, deconstructing the frame and transcending the boundaries of the other and finally conceiving of the self through the frame of the other, (Shweder 1991, Geertz 1988). We now focus on discourse as a means of achieving this end.

Much (1991) describes the construction of meaning in discourse, noting that discourse contains far more than the written or spoken speech, conveying information about cultural traditions and social systems that extend beyond grammar. Language has indexical meaning, whereby it can be inferentially linked to the context within which it is based. The inferential construction of meaning relies on the existence of prior knowledge states between sender and receiver and a continuous monitoring of discursive interaction for the maintenance of equilibrium in relation to the prior knowledge state. Finally, the required unit of analysis is the communicative whole (speech, context and background knowledge) linking the inference to the meaning (Much 1991).The same author notes the resistance to studying discourse, as, "to study meaning is to study content. To study discourse is to study language. To study language is to shift the locus of study beyond the individual to the communicative array, a collective product", (Much 1991:228) and psychologists are hesitant to do this.

The above emphasis on the study of language is what divides the marginalised school of psychological enquiry from the mainstream tradition. In analysing what role language plays in understanding elements of psychology, Shotter (1993) notes that the mainstream reductionists view language as representational, as opposed to Wittgenstein's notion of language as communication, used within particular contexts or life forms, with one of its functions being representation.

The Wittgensteinian approach of describing mental processes within their context rather than explaining them is appropriate for our purposes, as we are not making claims such as, "The River Monster exists" or "The River Monster does not exist". We are merely describing possible functions of the construct, as opposed to seeking out or disclaiming absolute truths pertaining to it.

Shotter (1993) speaks of the trouble with science, logic and psychology, according to Wittgenstein, as being that we compare the use of words (language) to games and calculi with fixed rules. Although words are perceived as having stable predetermined meanings, we know all too well that language is ambiguous, dynamic and context- dependent. To the Wittgensteinians, words do not have intrinsic meaning, but rather contextualised use, and act as tools for meaning making.

Language allows us to have some sense of reality and allows us to sustain relationships and different life forms, with a critical description of language being one that does not contaminate the phenomenon by approaching it from a pre-conceived theoretical perspective (Shotter 1993). As language functions in social contexts, Shotter claims that psychological being derives from our life's "rooting", of which some branches are more socially and historically enmeshed than others. The Wittgensteinian drive to understand the nature of mind not only via scientific enquiry, but also via moral and political investigation into interpersonal relationships is viewed as a radical proposal in modern psychology, although the conceptual background stems from Aristotle's time (Shotter 1993). I side with Shotter (1993), who argues that we cannot understand people or our worlds through engaging in abstract, decontextualised, non-social, non-historical debates, when we so urgently need to consider the flip-side of the psychological coin. As Tappan (1991:6) notes, we need to "acknowledge the degree to which human beings are always embedded in a particular relational, communal, and socio-cultural-historical context".

Interpersonal relationships entail language and narrative construction, which also involves moralising or giving discourse moral value (Tappin 1991). The narrative is more than a sequential recount of events, as it also includes a particular narrative context, which affords meaning to the experience. Tappin (1991) suggests that narrative helps us to understand and interpret self and other human actions, because such actions are enacted narratives. Our overview of cultural psychology has revealed that narratives are integral to different cultures, being used as a means to the end of understanding the human psyche. Narrative structures, strongly linked to our symbolic representation of human experience, both allow and confine this subjective experience (Tappin 1991) and allow us to build ourselves.

As Tappin (1991) points out, we should be asking "Who is speaking and under what circumstances?" Language functions as a socially significant representation of the world. The use of language is central in a person's moral orientation and ideology, which is moulded and expressed by language (Tappin 1991). Two major types of discourse exist, authoritative and internally persuasive discourse. Tappin suggests that while the former is inflexible and non-contextual, the latter is dynamic, open and contextualised. It is now by turning to the discourse describing the river monster that we can contemplate the construct's functional significance.

By way of introduction, Mount Ayliff is located in the Eastern Cape province, near the border with Kwazulu-Natal, and was previously part of the Transkei and before that classified as part of Pondoland. The Pondo people pay significant attention to constructs connected to water and in this way are similar to the neighbouring Xhosa tribe (Elliot 1970). According to Xhosa tradition, "The People of the River" are as real as a neighbouring household and their existence is not doubted. They have livestock and homes and resemble humans in size, with long hair and naked bodies of any colour. These people are perceived to be kind and good and are known for calling to those that they like, to join them under the water for training to be a sangoma (traditional healer). However, if someone should drown without being called, the death is seen as accidental. The People of the River also serve a spiritual purpose by their use as channels for the ancient ancestors to communicate with their descendants (Elliot 1970).

Not all river or water constructs are associated with the kindness of the People of the River. In Xhosa belief one encounters the Ichanti or Umamlambo (Mother of the River), which are most often described as water snakes. However, through magic, this snake can transform itself into anything, its lack of fixed shape and ability to disguise itself causing the Xhosa to fear it, according to the sangoma interviewed and Elliott (1970). Girls fetching water from the river are warned not to confront the snake, which by looking at one or "leaning against one" could drive one insane or kill one. One might consider whether or not some psychoanalytic symbolism could be applied to this. Furthermore, according to Elliot (1970), it is said that it is relatively easy to kill an ichanti, because God reveals it to one and if one has the requisite medicine, one can render it powerless or even destroy it.

The notion of river and water constructs has been contextualised in general cultural terms and is now discussed in its socio-political-historical setting. Writings on the Pondoland area are fairly scarce, however a typical text is described below.

Shephard (1955:78) wrote that "Bantu folklore and superstitions fascinate me, not so much because the beliefs expressed are unique, but because of the unshakeable faith with which they are accepted...I am in no position to pretend that I understand the minds of Africans as a whole". But does not every culture have unshakeable faith in its own beliefs? Shephard lacks access to our modern context of investigation and a reading of his book, "The Land of the Tikoloshe", reveals his inability to move beyond his own conception of reality and rationality into the worldview of the cultural other. Thus he speaks of "Nimrod [who] had heard the People of the River calling to him. This is a statement quite frequently made by Africans who are sufferers from a condition of mental abnormality..." He refers to this as the process of ukuthwasa, the state of mind one enters when training to be a sangoma. But one questions how a perfectly acceptable, local custom can be labelled as pathological, by one who through his own admission fails to understand his subject of enquiry? Unfortunately, this practice of mislabelling sociocultural, "other" modes of behaviour or states of mind as abnormal has not died out, but continues into contemporary times and will be evident in our reading of the river monster.

Aside from the above misconceptions, brought about as the result of a failure to engage in genuine cultural investigation, Shephard also undertakes a wholesale misinterpretation of the river and water constructs, by implying that the River People and the Ichanti are bad spirits and by proposing that the snakes adopt two forms male and female, the latter giving the female "unendurable pleasure", while Elliot (1970) and the traditional healer describe the inherent fear of the Ichanti. Shephard's partial redeeming grace is his acknowledgement that belief is a matter of environment, which propels him to a partial understanding of Pondo culture, when he concludes "listen to the pulsing throb of African drums; then you may begin to wonder if witches...are childish fairytales, and whether your personal deity is ready to come to your aid against the Prince of Darkness" (1955:89).

For starters, the river monster is described as having a "horse torso and fishlike lower body" and is supposedly responsible for eating several people, near the village of Lubaleko in the Mt Ayliff area. Later reports state that the monster does not eat its victims' flesh but describe that the "half fish-half horse monster, [is] said to have sucked the blood and brains of seven victims in the Transkei".

Although the description of the monster stays constant throughout the reports of witnesses, its coverage is rather inconsistent. The first two reports are written by black journalists, the initial report being written by the political correspondent, subsequent accounts are tables by white journalists. One might ask why the use of a political journalist to cover a monster story? From the start it appears as if the issue is politicised, with the MEC for agricultural and land affairs, Ezra Sigwela, raising the matter in the Eastern Cape legislature. Whilst Sigwela appears to be gravely concerned about Chief Senyukelo Jojo's appeal for assistance and is intent on carrying out a serious investigation, the Democratic Party leader, Eddie Trent, trivialises the monster as being a "wonderful opportunity for the Eastern Cape to attract tourists", blatantly ignoring the fact that at least seven killings have been attributed to the river monster. This cultural bluntness results in his missing the point, evident when he talks of Sigwela "hitting the jackpot" with the monster.

Not only is the government and opposition involved, but the media frenzy and drawing in of institutions of governance such as the police and nature conservation complicate the discourse surrounding the construct. The headline for the first report of the river monster reads "Mt Ayliff "monster" seen as tourist attraction", whereas the next report is headed "Police to investigate monster allegations". The headline trivialisation appears to turn into more serious concern for the monster story with subsequent articles, or perhaps it is a play on sensationalism, in order to sell more newspapers. The media have an important influence when it comes to discourse, this nowhere more apparent than an English speaking, predominantly white news agency reporting on an "alien" social construct.

Interestingly enough, although the police are mentioned in two reports in connection with the monster, when telephoned for more information on the issue, the Kokstad station commander said that it was not his jurisdiction, while the Mt Ayliff commander said that he had not heard of any disappearances. This was in conflict with the media coverage of the episode, where the police were clearly involved. Perhaps such "ignorance" is a defence against the intrusion or sensationalism caused by media reporting or perhaps a retort against the outsiders getting in.

Onward to functional explanations. According to the earlier description of Ichanti, it is possible that the water snake could vary its form and entice or deceive unsuspecting victims into the water. The sangoma interviewed does not adhere to the mythical view, but instead proposes that the victims were murdered for use of their blood, as it is reported that they all had their necks severed. According to her, the Ichanti would not have severed the neck, but drowned its victims and this makes her sceptical of the myth theory.

Frans Prins, anthropologist at the Natal Museum, suggests if one were dealing with muti murders, they would most likely occur with chiefly succession or political elections, where an individual has to enforce a large degree of influence or a display of power. However, resettled areas under previous apartheid legislation were and are subject to great stress, as the dense clumping of people so close together is not typical of the Nguni distribution tendency. Incidences of "witchcraft" tend to be reported more frequently under such conditions. It is also true that the neighbouring ethnic group are usually perceived as evil sorcerers in search of muti.

Another possibility is that the monster construct has metaphoric meaning for the description of a serial killer. The victims have all been from the same area (Lubaleko village) and all murdered in the same manner (necks severed). If it is a killer, labelling it as a monster would function to allow people to progress with their lives within certain parameters or boundaries, such as "the monster only attacks at dusk or dawn" or "stay away from the river". If one considers the negative impact of having a serial killer loose in a community, then it makes sense to "other" it or label it as some kind of beast. A case in point is Phoenix, which has basically shut down because of a serial killer stalking the area.

Here one can draw on some material from the psychoanalytic perspective of Bruno Bettleheim (1978), who notes that myths and fairytales are "models for human behaviour [that] by that very fact give meaning and value to life" (from Mircea Eliade). He notes that myths answer eternal questions relating to life in the world, how to live in such a world and how to be oneself. Additionally, I would argue that the functions of myths are also to preserve psychological integration or equilibrium, especially under times of interpersonal, sociocultural or environmental stressors and disequilibrium, this being evident with respect to the river monster.

Something fairly apparent in the media discourse on the river monster episode is the difference between "etic" and "emic" referents. The white participants in the narratives tend to take an approach typical of Shephard (above) in ascribing the river monster to delusional behaviour, the imagination, the unreal or the fantastical and they reinforce their inability to enter into the frame of reference of the "emic" or culturally invested referent. Take for example Geoffrey Doidge who dismissed stories of the monster and who told people the claims were untrue. Add to this Div de Villiers who said the locals were "just imagining things". It seems acutely evident that these people are engaging in inflexible, authoritative discourse, that offer cultural psychology nothing, as they cannot be shared and modified after cognisance of the "other". In addition, one can contrast the condescending, almost overtly mocking tone of the reporter towards Pangi Gaya, with Gaya's sincerity, as one who has seen the monster and who wishes to kill it. Within his cultural frame, Gaya is justified and rational in his experience of the monster and his wanting to rid his people of it- to him, as opposed to the white readers, it is no laughing matter.

The theme of the Loch Ness monster is raised in one of the articles. Here it is interesting to note that I could only find one mythical creature of similar description to the river monster. It is known as a "kelpie" and is a Celtic version of a fish-horse monster that bites its victims to death (Encyclopedia of World Mythology, 1975). This leads one to question whether the construct under debate has arisen in cultural isolation, or whether Celtic missionaries in the Transkei area might have contributed to a cross-cultural construction, via their interaction with local inhabitants. Frans Prins has enlightened me to the fact that the ties between Celtic and Nguni cultures extend further back than I anticipated. The Nguni goddess of fertility was referred to as "Mbona", her ancient Irish counterpart referred to as "Bona". In addition, sangomas are frequently found wearing kilts and traditionally make sacrifices at landscapes with distinctive feature as did the Celts. However, as we are not engaging in psychological anthropology, we refrain from taking this theme further.

A final metaphorical interpretation of the river monster stems from ethnography and is directly applicable to the question "Normality or pathology?" Within an egalitarian society, with no class distinction, altered states of consciousness are perfectly acceptable and not viewed as potentially dangerous. However, as society becomes increasingly complex, there is restricted access to those who can experience this altered state of being and this requires training. From a purely cultural basis, one might argue that while under ancestor guidance, a visit to the river and the river people is harmless, whereas a non-called for visit may be detrimental to one's survival. A Westernised frame of the world often views altered states of consciousness as pathological and until we partake in understanding the socio-cultural discourse of people from differing worldviews, we will fail dismally in attempts to understand their psychology. For cultural psychology is the following:

"Psyche refers to the intentional person. Culture refers to the intentional world. Intentional persons and intentional worlds are interdependent things that get dialectically constituted and reconstituted...Psyche and culture are thus seamlessly interconnected. A person's psychic organisation is largely made possible by, and is largely expressive of, a conception of itself, society and nature; while one of the very best ways to understand [such] cultural conceptions... is to examine the way [they] organise and function in the life of intending individuals." (Shweder 1991: 101-2).

It is through engaging in cultural psychology and distinguishing between this branch of psychology and its pseudo-subtypes from mainstream psychology that the importance of language and discourse are apparent. To gain insight into the psyche, one must appreciate the socio-cultural, politico-historical context within which the person develops. Once we can transcend the notion of psychic unity to conceiving of divergent rationalities and understanding these differential experiences of reality, then we are on the road of cultural psychology. A look at the language and discourse of the Eastern Cape river monster has been a case of such analysis, where we do not concern ourselves with the truth of the construct, but rather contextualise it and search for functional significance. Hopefully the cultural psychology of the river monster and other socio-cultural constructs will return to psychological analysis as the mainstream approaches the year 2000, to enable us to comprehend our rainbow people, our rainbow minds.


My sincere thanks are due to Lance Lachenicht, Nhlanhla Mkhize, Frans Prins and an anonymous sangoma for their advice and insight and to the Daily Dispatch for providing the media reports.


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Tappin, M.B. (1991). Narrative, Authorship, and the Development of Moral Authority. In (Tappin, M.B. & Packer, M.J.) Narrative and Storytelling: Implications for Understanding Moral Development. Jossey-Buss Inc.: San Francisco

Alain Tschudin is currently completing a PhD and internship in Research Psychology at UNP (PhD topic: comparative brain evolution). Current projects include sport psychology research, career development, neuroimaging and papers on theory of mind and consciousness and language (discourse analysis).

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
critical methods society - -