The Existence of Witchcraft in Africa
by Jim Harries
Harries offers suggestions on how to overcome prevailing and dominant views toward the occult.
Many acknowledge that witchcraft is prevalent in Africa. Others say it does not exist. Some who say it does not exist are from the West, including Christian missionaries. How can whole peoples, a whole continent, be living in fear of that which does not exist? How can that which does not exist be binding millions of people in fear and poverty?
The Existence of Witchcraft
It is true that in some ways witchcraft can be said not to “exist,” as love could be said not to “exist.” Some would argue that there is no such thing as love for “the other.” There is only love for oneself. Others might say that love does not exist because it is not empirical, quantifiable, physical, or scientifically measurable. Yet the effect of love, say between mother and child, is foundational to human existence.
Even if witchcraft does not exist (in the way love also does not exist), we can nevertheless observe its impact. If there is something in the impact that can be observed, then surely that thing exists.
We can be further helped to conceive the existence of witchcraft simply by changing the English label we use to describe it. Witchcraft, I suggest, is not the essence of the thing we describe as witchcraft. Witchcraft is an outcome of something else. Just as marriage occurs (in part from inter-gender attraction) and service is an outcome of the couple’s love for each other, so too witchcraft comes about as a result of jealousy.
Another Term for It: Jealousy
Nobody likes to feel that someone else is jealous of him or her. Eating in the presence of someone who is hungry, displaying sexual behavior in public, showing off, finding that one is over-dressed, and meeting someone who is very poor or sick bring unpleasant feelings. In African witchcraft, people conclude that such unpleasant feelings are at the root of subsequent misfortune.
Things look different if we consider witchcraft in this respect. No one will deny the existence of jealousy (at least not if he or she accepts the existence of love). Even if the person questions its existence, surely he or she cannot deny the prevalence of its outcome in Africa. As surely as the results of love between mother and child can’t be denied, neither should the results of jealousy (i.e., witchcraft).
Different peoples and languages categorize what we know in English as “jealousy” differently. In English, it is a “resentful or painful desire for another’s advantages,” a feeling, an orientation of the mind, something perhaps a bit juvenile that one should grow out of. In an individualistic society, it can become “beat the Joneses.” That is, it can result in competition. In essence, we could say that in a non-witchcraft society, jealousy results in “beat (do better than) the Joneses,’’ whereas in a witchcraft society it can result in “oppress or kill the Joneses” (or “put down the Joneses”).
The outcomes of jealousy in Africa are sinister. This is because the basic approach to life in parts of Africa is very different than in much of the West. Healthy competition and individualism in the Western sense are not known. Instead, there is a powerful pervading ethic of unity and equality.
Jealousy & Witchcraft in Africa
The power of this ethic of equality can be illustrated by notions of giving, receiving, thanking, and being grateful. “In African tradition,” a colleague told me, “we do not have to thank people for what they do for us, because we consider ourselves to have a right to receive from others.” In other words, someone who has is obliged to share with someone who has not—especially within the family. Giving is expected; not to share is a crime (see Maranz 2001).
Mechanisms are in place to support, underwrite, and ensure that this mutual giving occurs. This is a bit like the tax system of Western nations. Without tax (or without mechanisms to ensure that sharing happens in Africa), there could be people who would not give. They would not be fulfilling their social obligations. The equivalent (in a sense) to tax law in the West is witchcraft in Africa. If someone does not stay up-to-date in payments in the West, he or she is sent a hefty tax bill—or may be imprisoned. If someone does not fulfil societal obligations to give in Africa, then he or she is bewitched.
The outcomes of these two mechanisms of societal control are different. The differences are shocking to westerners. To the frustration of many Africans, however, westerners are inclined to ignore the means by which that which shocks them arises. They seem to prefer to believe that the differences come from nowhere, rather than from witchcraft. That is, many westerners prefer not to believe in witchcraft (jealousy).
Denying the existence of what is perhaps the very thing perpetuating poverty in Africa is not a good start when it comes to trying to resolve Africa’s issues. It makes it hard for westerners to understand what is happening on the continent, and why. It means that preferred solutions can miss the mark, or even aggravate existing problems.
Many prescribed solutions to poverty in Africa are such that they can aggravate rather than relieve some of Africa’s problems. Capitalism (which is widely promoted by the West in Africa) is founded on a legitimization of inequality (for some people to accumulate capital while others do not) in a way that is considered to be in the best interests of even those in poverty.
Hence, a capitalist is considered justified in accumulating wealth, while others suffer because of the anticipated long-term benefits that will arise from his or her investment(s). In much of traditional Africa, such business equations are lacking. Instead, financial (and other) aid from outside the continent can have the effect of putting Africa’s egalitarian mechanisms into overdrive.
In other words, they result in massive expansion of the perceived results of jealousy (i.e., witchcraft). These, in turn, lead to corruption due to enormous pressure for distribution and reallocation of resources.
Witchcraft is real—one could say as real as the Inland Revenue in the U.K. or the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) in the USA. Unlike the latter, however, it is not designed to allow capitalistic growth, or even educational advance. It is inclined to result in equality at the bottom.
Toward Overcoming Witchcraft
A vital question that requires an urgent answer is how to overcome witchcraft. This is an answer that must be found as a prerequisite to achieving indigenous, sustainable development on the African continent. Some suggestions follow.
• Ignoring witchcraft does not make it go away.
• Because fear of witchcraft is located in the spiritual realm, faith in God is a necessary part of its being undermined.
• Because massive foreign material inputs aggravate witchcraft tensions and occlude alternative solutions from view, donor activity can aggravate rather than resolve witchcraft issues.
• As in the case of capitalism with respect to poverty, overcoming witchcraft is a matter of having faith in a system. The system that a community believes in will be operative in that community. To change it is to change (or to encourage the changing of)
• Because African belief systems are accurately articulated only in African languages and from the perspective of African worldviews, solutions must be found from inside those languages and cannot be imposed from the outside.1
• Self-denial and an appreciation of eternity are almost certainly to be a part of any solution. Narrow self-interest fuels jealousy and the witchcraft that arises from it.
The nature of the African social system generally results in respect for the wealthy and powerful (because of their capacity to share what they have) and disrespect for those in poverty and who are weak. Because the wealthy and powerful in the West set their context (buy their way) through their approach to Africa, intelligent solutions are less likely to come from the “poor” and “weak.”
For the West to be of help in finding solutions to the witchcraft problem in Africa, some Western Christian missionaries need to minister in Africa using local languages and resources. This is what we are calling “vulnerable mission.”
1. This is not to say that things cannot be learned from the outside. It is to suggest that in order to be effective, what comes from outside must be incorporated into what is originally there.
Maranz, David. 2001. African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa. Dallas: SIL International.
Jim Harries (PhD) has lived and worked in western Kenya since 1993, ministering in theological education, especially to indigenous churches using local languages. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (www.vulnerablemission.com).
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 290-293. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.