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Understanding African Witchcraft

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Mon, 27 Oct 2014 Source: Igwe, Leo

Leo Igwe

The first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland in late 16th century when the ship of King James VI ran into some terrible storms on its way from Denmark. The wife of a Danish official, who had insulted a member of the escorting team, was accused of trying to sink the King’s ship through witchcraft. The King believed that the storm was not natural but an act of malevolent magic by those who wanted to kill him. The necessary machinery was put in place to fish out the criminals. Several people were arrested, implicated, tortured, and made to confess in the massive witch-hunts that ensued. Agnes Sampson, John Fian and others were convicted of using witchcraft to send the storm against the ship.


Fast forward to 21st century Africa. In 2009, the aunt of the President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, died and he suspected that she was killed through witchcraft. The President hired some witch doctors who went into villages accompanied by the police and state security agents. They flushed out those suspected of perpetrating the crime, arresting all those identified as witches. The suspects were detained, tried, and forced to drink some concoctions. Amnesty International brought attention to the witch hunt in the Gambia which caused pressure on the Gambian authorities. All those detained were later released, though a few died in detention and some suffered some health damage. Most of the people arrested where poor rural dwellers who were not in any position to resist arrests and maltreatment.


In the case of early modern Scotland and in 21st century Gambia, there is a toxic mix of politics and interpretations of misfortune. There is a magical predatory mechanism that targets mostly women, and others in weak, less privileged, vulnerable, socio-cultural positions. Beliefs, conceptions and misconception require social power to give them force and effect. When superstition and politics mix, that can have devastating effects on those at the receiving end of the insinuations.


Not only Kings and Presidents entertain superstitious notions. Not only politicians use the idiom of witchcraft or malevolent magic to make sense of their misfortune.Those in positions of power valorize the mystical frame of reference, which other members of the society entertain, share, and often enforce. Kings and Presidents, chiefs and elders have greater access to instruments of enforcement and can instigating massive witch-hunts. Other people across society are politically positioned in various ways to enforce their cosmological outlook. Hence, witch-hunts are executed on daily basis in pockets across the region.


We can make a distinction between micro and macro witch hunts and covert and overt witch hunts. People in positions of authority can enforce their mystical interpretations of misfortune through small or large effects on the people. What is going on in Africa is an enforcement of magical notion of reality, imputing guilt and evil intentions. This has serious consequences for the people.

Across the African continent, there is a pervasive outlook characterized by material and non-material, the natural and the supernatural, the seen and the unseen, the visible and the invisible. The invisible world is populated with entities, which Africans believe are capable of doing either good and evil. These negative and positive metaphysical forces control events and happenings in the world (including the storms of misfortune) people experience in daily life. Witches are among the evil spirits that cause misfortune using human and material means to inflict injury and harm. When people experience death, illness or accidents which they attribute to witchcraft, they then try to smell out this enemy. A witch hunt suddenly erupts. If the witch is not flushed out immediately, people in the family live in constant fear, suspicion and mistrust. If the witch is not openly named and shamed, a covert prosecution occurs. People in communities live in constant state of fear of witchcraft, as if in a magical war.


Not all cases of misfortune are labeled witchcraft is invoked. An instance of misfortune has to be identified as abnormal or strange and is sometimes certified as such by the local spiritual authorities as an instance of occult before a formal charge of witchcraft is made.


Many scholars and researchers wonder why the spread of Christianity and Islam, and modern education have not led to the extinction of witchcraft beliefs. French Sociologist Emile Durkheim said: ‘’There is no religion that is not a cosmology as well as a speculation on the divine. If philosophy and the sciences arose from religion, it is because religion itself began by playing the role of science and philosophy’’. Christianity and Islam still play the role of science and philosophy in many parts of Africa, shaping the framing of issues. Christianity and Islam are not against witchcraft - they all belong to the same magical discourse.


Both faiths have different and competing forms of witchcraft and magic. Exodus 22:18 which says ‘’Suffer not a witch to live’’ is one Biblical verse used by African pastors to legitimize witch hunts in many parts of the region. Both religions preach and promote enchanted notions of life and the reality of intervention of evil spirits and the devil in mundane human affairs. Both faiths reinforce the witchcraft narratives via jinns or demons. The Islamic theocracy in Saudi Arabia still upholds witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. Schools in Africa have not contributed to the disenchantment of these beliefs as schools were originally set up by Christian and Islamic groups to evangelize and convert Africans. This situation remains largely the same today. In fact, allegations of witchcraft feature in schools across the region. There have been reports of accusation of spiritual theft of intelligence, possession by mamiwata, initiation into witchcraft covens, and casting of spells in schools across Africa. Sometimes school managers invoke witchcraft narratives to manage child development and adolescent behavior issues.


In Ghana, a brilliant young girl fled and took refuge in a witch camp after other students accused her of stealing their intelligence through magic. Another girl dropped out after she was accused of bewitching the school monitor. The school monitor, according to hospital sources, had a heart problem, but the sickness was attributed to witchcraft because this student once threatened the school monitor after he punished her. When he died, it was alleged that this girl killed him through magic.

In Zambia some teachers fled their schools due to witchcraft fears. They alleged that men were having sex with them in their dreams. Since many people across Africa believe dreams are not natural occurrences, the encounters were taken seriously and are often given magical interpretation.


In Namibia, parents attributed strange behavior by students to witchcraft and asked the authorities to close down the school. At a meeting organized to address the issue, two conflicting positions on the matter emerged. A psychologist attributed the incident to mass hysteria, which ‘’happens everywhere’’ but a pastor in the audience said it was a spiritual matter that should be tackled with prayers. The authorities declined organizing anti-witchcraft prayers at the school.


Mysterious deaths in a school in Kunene and Omusati regions of Namibia were blamed on witchcraft. The public asked the authorities to allow Sangomas into the school so that they could conduct witch cleansing. Again the authorities refused. The Ministry of Education said:


‘’The policy on alleged witchcraft and superstition [at schools] is clear and it remains the same... schools cannot be cleansed. Individuals can go out to get ritual cleansings, but we cannot allow witchcraft-related practices on school premises. These things will disrupt academic activities. Ours is not a Ministry for the affairs of witchcraft and superstitions."


Schools in Namibia are under pressure from certain members of the communities to cleanse the premises of witches. Namibia holds back because there is separation of church and state. The state still maintains controls over the schools, but this is hardly the case in places like Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal where school management is in the hands of Christian and Islamic managers or theocratic state officials.

The so-called modern development in Africa, which some argue should have caused witch beliefs to disappear, has not succeeded in addressing the insecurities people encounter in their daily lives which spun witch beliefs in the first place. Many parts of Africa remain at the margins of completely outside the development equation. Development schemes are absent in rural areas, or they are not accessible or affordable to many people. Modern goods that make it to Africa are limited, outdated, adulterated, and second-hand goods including cars, electronics, drugs, computers, aircrafts, books. So “development” here rides the coattails of modern development.


One area of African society where the dilemma of dealing with witchcraft accusation is so pronounced is that of politics and law. Adam Ashforth (2005) summarizes this challenge thus:


‘’African democrats who know these evil forces of witchcraft as real and present dangers cannot deny that government has a role to play in these matters, a role akin to that of providing safety, security and justice in relation to ordinary crimes and violence. Yet they also face difficulties in devising ways of responding to the problem of witchcraft without compromising the elemental democratic ideals of human rights and the rule of law. Democrats who deny the reality of such threats face difficulties as well. They risk alienating themselves from the everyday concerns of their citizens, citizens who find themselves living in a world of with witches’’


Ashforth goes further to say that:


''Leaders who are alienated in this way may find themselves struggling to create an image of the democratic state as a regime embodying the true interests of the people they are governing. If they neglect to deal with the witches, those who seek to rule may end up being perceived as agents of evil forces themselves. The challenge for those who would govern a democratic state in a world of witches, is to promote doctrines of human rights while not being perceived as protectors of witches, who perpetrate occult violence within the communities’’

Indeed, lack of respect for human rights captures part of the challenge. There are more fundamental issues as the final two cases illustrate.


On August 20, the Daily Times of Malawi reported the arrest of 3 men suspected of murdering a 60-year-old man, Mbukwa. The man was accused of killing a woman in the village through witchcraft. The woman, Flora Mwawa, died in a local hospital after a short illness. But this 60-year old man was said to have bewitched her. After the burial, the suspects ‘“beat up (sic) Mbukwa to death, and threw his body in(to) Knyungu River. Mbukwa’s body was found floating in the river on the morning of August 11”. The case is in court and may take some years before a ruling is made.


In Ghana, a young woman accused her own mother of being responsible for her illness. The woman had been sick for a long time and started seeing the mother and three others in her dream. Among the Dagomba in Northern Ghana, people who threaten others, particularly the sick, in their dreams are considered witches and the cause of the sickness. The mother was accused and tried at a local shrine where she was found guilty and later banished from the community. The woman is currently living in one of the local witch camps in the region.


The second-hand modernity in which most Africans live, leaves them stranded or in transit from “primitivism” to civilization. Contemporary Africans find themselves in the middle of nowhere - unable to return to traditional lives and unable to harness “modernity in its fullness’’, thus condemned to an amalgamated life of pragmatism and survival based on whatever comes their way, be it modernist, quasi-modernist, “enchanted modernist,” and any other ideas that may enable them make sense of their predicament. Most members of African elite - the politicians, scholars and intellectuals - belong to this class. Their lives are inevitably entangled with the magical and metaphysical. Moral, political and religious will is lacking to tackle use of magical and occult notions, even those involving violence and horrifying abuses.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo