The Existence of Witchcraft in Africa: Continuing the Discussion
by Tim Stabell
An ongoing discussion of witchcraft, common reactions, and what a Christian response entails.
United States former President Bill Clinton is infamously remembered for his tortured statement during his impeachment hearings to the effect that the truthfulness of a particular point in his testimony depended upon “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In a recent article in EMQ, Jim Harries (2011) raises the question as to whether or not witchcraft “exists” in African societies. In responding, I am more than tempted to resort to a Clintonesque, “Well, it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘exists’ is!” It also depends on the meaning of the word “witchcraft”.
There is a great deal at stake here, and the way we deal with this question has very practical implications—even of life or death. So I am grateful to him for raising the question.1 Harries argues that “witchcraft” does “exist” in Africa. It exists as the outworking or manifestation of jealousy. Given the possible ambiguity of the two key terms, however, I worry that his simple, flat-out affirmation of “witchcraft’s” “existence” could be taken in the wrong way.
Differing Types of Witchcraft
Let me begin by describing a type of “witchcraft” that is increasingly common in contemporary urban Africa. When my Congolese friends say that “witchcraft exists,” many would include the idea that very young children can be the mystical cause of terrible suffering. A father accuses an 8-year-old of preventing him from finding a job, or a mother whose baby is sickly accuses her 5-year-old stepdaughter of mystically drinking her baby’s blood (for more on child witches, see Cimpric 2010 and Molina 2005).
Given the horrific societal conditions under which people seek to survive in many African cities, and given a culture that has taught people to blame misfortune on others—often the weaker members of society—children too quickly become scapegoats. Such children are often taken to pastors who advertise themselves as specialists in dealing with “witches”, and who, for a fee, subject them to harrowing exorcisms. In other instances, children have been driven out of their homes, burned, traumatized, or even killed. All this happens because people believe that witchcraft exists, and that these children are witches.
Witchcraft in the West
Does witchcraft exist in the West? Many would point to the contemporary movement referred to as Pagan Witchcraft, or Wicca. Here, people publicly self-identify as “witches”, so yes, “witchcraft” as an observable practice does exist. Does it “exist” in the sense of having the power that adherents claim it does?
One’s answer to that question will depend upon convictions regarding the nature of the world and spiritual powers. Wiccans will claim that their spells do indeed influence events of everyday life—quickly adding that they are bound by an ethic of causing no harm to others (Taira 2010, 381). Many in North America, on the other hand, influenced by the idea of the sufficiency of natural causes, will be highly skeptical of such claims. Some evangelical Christians, meanwhile, would likely join Wiccans in affirming the latter’s ability to manipulate occult powers, but attribute that ability to the kind of evil spirits referred to in the Bible. Clearly, then, an affirmation of the real existence of witchcraft can mean very different things.
Regardless of personal presuppositions regarding the nature of spiritual realities, however (and this is important to the argument below), at the broader level of public discourse, it is extremely rare in North America for witches to be blamed for other people’s troubles. There is simply no support in society at large for the idea that death, illness, or other misfortune might be caused by witches.
Witchcraft in Africa
The situation in Africa is significantly different.2 Let me suggest two levels of meaning for the words “witch” and “witchcraft”, as these terms are used in day-to-day conversation in African contexts. On the one hand, when speaking English, people will often refer to the activities of the local “traditional healer” (shaman, or mganga in Swahili) as witchcraft. These occult practitioners, like Wiccans, are public figures. Unlike Wiccans, they are an integral part of modern, urban, capitalist African society, openly advertising their services with billboards, and actively consulted by many for a multitude of reasons: love potions, cures for this or that ailment, help in passing a school exam or winning a soccer game, and especially for protection against “witches”.
We find figures somewhat like these in different passages of scripture—the magicians of Pharaoh’s and Nebuchadnezzar’s courts, Balaam, Simon and Elymas in the Book of Acts, and others. These were all public figures, self-identifying as specialists in the occult, and consulted by clients of one kind or another.
Beyond such public figures, however, the popular understanding of witchcraft in Africa includes another idea: that of hidden witches who do not in general self-identify, but instead must be exposed by others. Conversations about witchcraft often refer to individuals who, acting out of secret malice, use invisible powers to harm others. The distinction between the two categories of “witchcraft” described here is not unambiguous. In many contexts, people suspect that public “diviner/healers” not only use their occult powers to help others, but also succumb to the temptation to participate in the mystical consumption of human flesh alongside other secret witches. Furthermore, it sometimes happens that an individual will confess to having secretly harmed others through witchcraft, and so come out as a public figure. In other cases, individuals will publicly give dark hints of their ability to use hidden powers to cause harm. They do so in order to create an attitude of fearful respect in those around them.
In the North American context, even if some people might grant the theoretical possibility that witches could cause harm, there is (as argued above) no societal support for actually suspecting specific people or seeking to uncover their identity. In Africa, however, everyday conversation often lends credibility to this way of dealing with the hardships of life. Why have I been sick for so long? Why can’t my wife get pregnant? Why have three of our children succumbed to disease? The answer is obvious: There must be a hidden “witch” out there who is responsible for this misfortune. What are you going to do about it?
In the hundreds of stories that circulate, witches are said to fly vast distances at incredible speed on winnowing trays, or goatskins powered by human blood, or reeds of elephant grass. They are addicted to human flesh and unable to stop themselves from attacking others in an effort to quell an insatiable hunger. They belong to covens where every witch must take his or her turn sacrificing a family member for a shared feast of human flesh or themselves become the next victim. Witches sometimes turn others into zombies to work in their fields, or send them underwater to force fish up toward the surface where they can be caught.
Back to the Question
Does this kind of secret witchcraft exist? My Congolese Christian friends would almost all argue vociferously that it does. But in another twist on the meaning of the term “witchcraft”, what they understand by this is significantly different from what their great-grandparents’ conception of things would have been.
As Christians have worked at integrating their new faith with their cultural inheritance, ideas about witchcraft have been “demonized” (Meyer 1999; Onyinah 2004). Before Christianity and the Bible became dominant forces in Africa, witchcraft was not attributed to the work of demons. Biblical demons were not an available category. Instead, the power of witches was often viewed as innate—an inherent attribute of the witch him or herself.
Alternatively, witchcraft might be conceived of as a set of magical procedures that one could learn in order to harm his or her enemies. In other cases, witches were believed to accomplish their wicked purposes by manipulating some kind of local spirit. But even here, these spirits were not understood in the same way as the Bible portrays demons: beings in rebellion against God and his holiness. As new generations of Christians have read scripture, however, and have discovered its teaching about Satan and demons, it has been an easy step for them to connect what they believe about “witches” to the picture that the Bible gives of evil spirits. Witches, according to this view, exist in a new sense, introduced with Christianity: they are people who secretly cooperate with Satan and his demons to wreak havoc in human society, doing all the things that local discourse about witches says they do.
Harries identifies the motivation behind witchcraft as jealousy, and this is indeed what people will often look for as they seek to uncover a hidden witch. Suspicion often falls on people in the extended family, who, according to traditional African values, have a special right to expect help from other family members. Imagine, then, a person who has been doing relatively well, but suddenly begins to experience a string of misfortune. He or she may begin to wonder: Who in my family or others closest to me is casting a jealous eye on my abundant crops, my healthy children, or my well-paying job? As Harries suggests, this way of seeing things can act as a “leveling mechanism,” reinforcing the cultural value system of mutual sharing. If I am not sufficiently generous, someone close to me may become jealous and use witchcraft against me. So I had better be generous.
Jealousy, however, is not the only motive attributed to witches. Sheer perversity or innate malice might also be the hidden impulse. Alternatively, ambition could spur some to attempt to manipulate the occult world—generally through the mystical sacrifice of a member of one’s family—in order to achieve success in business or politics. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, witchcraft is conceived in ways that pressure people to share (as Harries points out), but is also seen as a means some people might use in order to accumulate wealth and power.
Reacting to Witchcraft
Common to these different ideas, however—including the Christian, demonized version—is the notion that there are people who really are secretly guilty of causing misfortune. For the most part, it is assumed, such individuals do not willingly self-identify. There are, as with just about every aspect of witchcraft discourse, complexities and exceptions.
My Congolese friends can point to lots of cases of “witches” who have confessed to having committed horrible crimes. Children, for example, will tell blood-curdling stories of their nighttime involvement in occult attacks. As a skeptical western observer, I quickly resort to concepts such as the impressionability of children, and their vulnerability to the power of suggestion; to nightmares; to a tendency for flight to imaginary worlds in order to escape the harsh realities of life; to hunger for attention. Adults too may have motives other than simply the avoidance of torture for hinting at dark powers that they may possess.
The urgent questions posed by this way of thinking about the “existence” of “witchcraft” are then: (1) How can these witches be identified? and (2) How can their power and malice be neutralized? To answer the first question, people commonly resort to a range of procedures:
• Fear-induced speculation regarding the identity of the witch who caused this or that calamity
• Consultation of “traditional diviners/healers”
• Consultation of “pastors” who claim similar powers
• Participation in community gossip about who is or is not a witch
• Extraction of confessions from suspected witches by means of threats or
actual physical abuse
Common answers to the second question include:
• Reliance upon protective fetishes obtained from “healers”
• Avoidance of suspected “witches”
• Exorcisms to drive out “demons of witchcraft” from accused witches
• Banishment and confiscation of the property of witches
• Beatings and torture
Thankfully, I don’t personally know of believers who have participated in the last of these actions. In any case, measures like these seem to be the natural outcome of their belief in the existence of witches.
What then should we say about the existence of witches? No doubt there are individuals out there who, for various motives, seek to manipulate occult powers for the purpose of harming others. In that sense, “witchcraft” certainly “exists”. But to what extent is it right to attribute misfortune to such individuals? Are they the cause of the troubles that I experience in life?
A bare statement that “witchcraft exists” might be taken as a sweeping affirmation of this powerful cultural narrative. Even more troubling, it could seem to lend support to various culturally-approved means of dealing with those so identified. It at least bears noting that although the Bible does describe figures referred to as magicians, diviners, or witches, never do we see in its pages a clear example of a “witch” of the type discussed above who out of secret envy, malice, or ambition covertly attacks others with mystical power. Never does the Bible encourage or even give an example of a hunt to uncover the hidden identity of such a person.
How to approach these questions remains a topic of lively debate in discussions I have fairly regularly with African friends and colleagues. In classes and personal conversations, we continue to seek to clarify the issues in what I hope is an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. Lines of discussion that we continue to explore, and that I think might bear good fruit, include:
• God is sovereign in all that happens in our lives, and there is no need to fear the power of demons or witches, hidden or otherwise.
• Jesus has been exalted above all the principalities and powers, and we are seated with him in heavenly places, sharing his place of authority (cf. Wa Gatumu 2009).
• Believers must refuse to participate in the sins involved in the common procedures for identifying secret witches. All of the procedures listed above for making such identifications are contrary to commands of scripture.
• Believers must also refuse to participate in the active sins listed above in the measures taken to deal with those identified as witches. In fact, our obligation according to the Bible is to love even our enemies; and as scripture says, “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).
Read “Five Points of Response” by Jim Harries
1. This article cannot address all of the significant concerns that Harries raises. I do want to comment briefly on one issue, however, that goes beyond the focus of this article. Harries suggests that genuine engagement with African views of witchcraft requires the use of the local vernaculars. His point seems to be that there are subtleties in vernacular terms that the English word “witchcraft” does not express. Harries’ point may be appropriate for rural and homogeneous small-town settings. In larger towns and cities, however, vernacular languages have often given way to French or English and/or trade languages. In many cases, children raised in an urban context never really learn their parents’ vernacular. Yes, there are still ethnic enclaves where the mother-tongue is still spoken. But urban living provides a context where people of different ethnic backgrounds mix, go to school and church together, and debate the issues of the day. Among the many ongoing conversations is the one about “witches”, carried on in the dominant languages of the urban context, and combining different ideas from different ethnic traditions. If the issues of “witchcraft” are to be addressed for urban Christians, they will need to be in the languages of the urban context.
2. For specific sources to find examples of witchcraft in Africa, email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cimpric, Aleksandra. 2010. Children Accused of Witchcraft: An Anthropological Study of Contemporary Practices in Africa. Dakar: UNICEF. Accessed July 27, 2012, from www.unicef.org/wcaro/wcaro_children-accused-of-witchcraft-in-Africa.pdf.
Harries, Jim. 2011. “The Existence of Witchcraft in Africa.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 47 (3): 290-293.
Kwanue, C.Y. 2012.” Girl, 10, Confesses to Witchcraft Activities.” Daily Observer (Monrovia, Liberia). July 27. Accessed May 14, 2013, from www.liberianobserver.com/index.php/news/item/2002-girl-10-confesses-to-witchcraft-activities.
Meyer, Birgit. 1999. Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana. London: Edinburgh University Press.
Molina, Javier Aguilar. 2005. The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Social Cleansing, Religious Commerce and the Difficulties of Being a Parent in an Urban Culture. Save the Children, USAID.
Onyinah, Opoku. 2004. Contemporary “Witchdemonology” in Africa. International Review of Mission 93: 330-345.
Taira, Teemu. 2010. “Religion as a Discursive Technique: The Politics of Classifying Wicca.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 25(3): 379-394.
Wa Gatumu, Albert Kabiro. 2009. The Pauline Concept of Supernatural Powers: A Reading from the African Worldview. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock.
White, Ethan Doyle. 2010. “The Meaning of ‘Wicca’: A Study in Etymology, History, and Pagan Politics.” The Pomegranate 12(2): 185-207.
Tim Stabell served in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his wife, Susan, from 1982 to 1996. He now leads a mission program at Briercrest College and Seminary in Canada and continues to teach part time at Shalom University in northeastern Congo.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 394-400. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.