Witchcraft Accusation: A Tale of Two African Women

Thu, 8 Jan 2015 Source: Igwe, Leo

By Leo Igwe

It is a tale of two cases of accusation- a tale of two 'witchcrafts' involving two women in two countries. It is a tale of how gendered witchcraft phenomenon is particularly where the means for redress is inaccessible or non existent. It is a story of how accusation is a sexist device, a weapon of power, a mechanism for the oppression of females who are in weak socio cultural positions.

It is a case of witchcraft accusation in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean politics has been under stress and strain. Max Marwick strain gauge-witchcraft accusation- is manifesting vigorously amidst political manoeuvring in ZANU-PF. Peter Geschiere has noted the pervasiveness of witchcraft insinuations in state politics in Cameroun. He maintains that people in Cameroun react to the risks and dangers associated with modern political engagement using the idiom of witchcraft. These reactions hamper the project of nation building and development.

Adam Ashforth highlights how witchcraft accusations poses a serious challenge to the realization of human rights and democracy in South Africa. This challenge applies to Zimbabwe too. Politicians in the country have clearly demonstrated the concerns and dilemmas prophesied by Ashforth. They repealed a colonial law that made it a crime to accuse somebody of witchcraft and introduced a legislation that recognized supernatural powers but required evidence or proof from anybody who claimed to have been harmed through supernatural means. Politicians in Zimbabwe repealed Witchcraft Suppression Act mainly free personal reasons. They needed a legitimate climate to make accusations. Otherwise how does one explain a recent case where President Mugabe sacked his deputy, Mujuru, accusing her of being a witch and wanting to assassinate him. How did Mugabe know that Mujuru was a witch? Why was the accusation necessary in the first place? What political capital did Mugabe want to achieve by branding Mujuru a witch? Why didn't Mugabe just dismiss her without invoking the idiom of witchcraft? Why didn't he accused her of wanting to assassinate him without linking it to sorcery and magic?

What is very interesting is the way Mujuru replied to Mugabe's accusation. Mujuru released a public statement dismissing the accusation as 'ridiculous' and as part of 'a well-orchestrated smear campaign' whose objective was the destruction of Zanu-PF. Case closed. The ex Vice President is now going about her normal business.

Would this be the case if Mujuru was a highly politically placed official?

Now compare Mujuru's with another case of accusation in Nigeria. A young man said he saw a rat that almost hit his leg while taking his bath. He was about to hit the rat when it turned into a 'human being'-yes a human being- and then the 'rat-human being' disappeared leaving the slippers behind. He went to town and saw some people surrounding a woman called Mama T. Some parts of the woman's body were swollen. Mama T was wearing a slippers that looked like the one left behind by the rat that 'turned into a human being'. Upon inquiry, the woman confessed that she had an accident the previous day and lost one of the slippers. The man rushed back home and brought what they believed was the other leg of the slippers which was the same as the one the woman was holding.

The angry mob descended on the woman and beat her to a stupor. In the course of the beating the woman reportedly confessed other forms of witchcraft she engaged in including using her urine to prepare a local delicacy called moi moi. From the report it is not clear what eventually happened to the woman- whether they beat her to death or there was an intervention from the police. Last year two elderly women who allegedly turned into birds during a witch flight were given severe beating in Lagos. One of them later died in a hospital

What is noteworthy here is that the social status of a woman matters a lot in witchcraft accusation. From the two cases in Zimbabwe and Nigeria, one can safely conclude that a woman's social position makes a huge difference in terms of how she is treated if accused of practicing harmful magic. Women who are in strong social and economic position like the ex Vice President of Zimbabwe can easily dismiss witchcraft allegations with a wave of hand, without being physically molested or attacked. But this is not the case with poor illiterate elderly women who have nobody to defend them or who cannot defend themselves.

They are the 'real witches'. Africans must wake up.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo