The Problem of Witchcraft in Malawi
by Erwin Van der Meer
Evil spirits and demonic forces are very real issues today. Van der Meer reflects on how the Church in Africa has responded and action steps to move forward biblically.
In the traditional African worldview there are many evil spirit
forces that make life unsafe and are understood as the main threat to
human prosperity and health (Lagerwerf 1987, 5ff; Pretorius 1987, 127).
These evil powers typically work through people who are in allegiance
with them (Imasogie 1993, 63) and are identified as witches, sorcerers,
wizards, or Satanists (Imasogie 1993, 63; Khathide 2007, 338; Van
Breugel 2001, 211ff).
However, since the term “witch” (mfiti) is most commonly
used as a generic term for all of these, I will use this term in the
rest of this article. In Malawi, there are newspaper articles on a
regular basis about witchcraft, Satanism, magic, and demonic activity.
While some beliefs may appear to be irrational and many of the
supernatural events can be explained by science, at times they seem to
point to genuine supernatural activity of a malicious nature. The
question for the missionary, missiologist, and Christian worker in such a
context is: How do we respond appropriately to the fear of witchcraft
and the evil supernatural in the African context?
The Traditional African Worldview in Malawi
The traditional African worldview understands the spirit world and the
material world as constantly interacting. Events in the material world
affect the spirit world and vice versa. From an evangelical Christian
point of view, we may assert that neither the Western modernist nor the
African worldview is fully correct. Nevertheless, the African worldview
does agree with biblical teaching that the spiritual world affects the
material world and vice versa. However, biblical teaching disagrees with
the African worldview about what kind of interaction takes place.
In Malawi, the witch is believed to work in alliance with evil
spirits to cause disease, misfortune, or death by means of evil magic. A
peculiar feature in Malawian witchcraft belief is that witches are
thought to spiritually eat their victims (this first part is believed in
many parts of Africa) and also the physical bodies of their victims in
graveyards after they have died (Van Breugel 2001, 213-216).
Understandably, this greatly contributes to insecurity, fear, and
anxiety. Anyone in Malawi who takes time to go beyond superficial
contacts and looks under the surface will discover that most Malawians
feel exposed to evil supernatural attacks. A Malawian media analyst
described Malawi as a country full of fear of witchcraft (Zingani 2005,
15). In 2008, an article appeared in a national newspaper under the
title “A Witchcraft-Infested Society” (Chandilanga 2008, 4-5).
Protestant Christian Responses to Witchcraft
There have generally been two responses to witchcraft: the modernist response and the Pentecostal response.
The modernist response. The most common response to
witchcraft and other African traditional beliefs among missionaries in
the colonial era was labelling witchcraft as superstition and therefore
of no consequence. This response, influenced by the modernist worldview
of the time, basically ignored and trivialized the African fear of
witchcraft and evil supernatural powers as superstition. The belief was
that it would gradually disappear when people were properly educated
(Burnett 2003; Isichei 2004, 286; Khathide 2007, 340-342; Onyinah 2002,
107-108). Consequently, when African people expressed their fear of
evil spirits, witchcraft, or other evil supernatural forces, many
missionaries denied the existence of evil spirits and magic rather than
claim the power of Christ over them (Hiebert 1982, 41). Not only liberal
Christian missionaries, but also many conservative missionaries
operated from the same modernist paradigm.
Unfortunately, this approach did not meet the pastoral need of
the African believers, who urgently sought deliverance from what they
perceived as harassment by evil spirits, curses, and witchcraft. As
Christianity did not appear to have a solution for the problem of
witchcraft, many Africans continued to seek assistance from the
traditional healers and diviners (Hiebert 1982, 39; Khathide 2007, 32;
Lagerwerf 1987). In spite of improved education and continuing church
growth in Africa, witchcraft is one of the most enduring and pervasive
elements of African traditional religion in the twenty-first century
(Isichei 2004, 285; Onyinah 2002, 108ff).
The Pentecostal response. Not all Western missionaries
ignored the reality of the evil supernatural. Pentecostal missionaries
tended to take the African concerns seriously and identified the spirits
as demons, and magic and witchcraft as the work of demons. People who
were harassed by spirits were prayed for and demons were cast out in
sometimes elaborate exorcism sessions, while charms and similar
paraphernalia were burned (Hackett 2003, 61ff).
Instead of telling Africans that their earlier superstitions were
crippling and should be abandoned, Pentecostals affirmed that there was
indeed a spiritual reality underlying the African fear of the spirits.
They also taught and demonstrated the delivering power of Jesus Christ
in prayers for healing and exorcism (Clark 2001, 83). From a pastoral
point of view, the Pentecostal approach was more relevant to the African
than the modernist approach.
Nevertheless, the tendency to label almost all African
traditional practices as demonic and satanic (Onyinah 2002, 111) fails
to deal with the issues underlying the outward forms of witchcraft and
African traditional religion. This tendency to demonize other cultures
and religions can still be observed in the writings of C. Peter Wagner
and other strategic level spiritual warfare proponents and hinders
genuine contextualization of the gospel in Africa (Van der Meer 2009,
125, 185, 221, 229ff, 263ff).
Nowadays, almost all churches in Malawi include exorcistic
activities, often called “deliverance ministries.” Failure to offer such
services means losing members to other churches that do provide such
spiritual help. Some scholars refer to this phenomenon as the
Pentecostalization of Christianity in Africa (Onyinah 2002, 111).
The Problem of Syncretism
The introduction of a personalized Devil and the association of the
spirits of the African traditional religion with demons to some extent
authenticated and strengthened the belief in witchcraft (Onyinah 2002,
In many cases, this led to a syncretism between Christian and
traditional beliefs and practices. One can find African pastors,
bishops, prophets, or apostles who do exactly what the diviners did
before Christianity came. By means of supernatural revelation, they
allegedly diagnose illnesses (including spiritual afflictions and
curses) and reveal hidden sins (Strohbehn 2005, 55-56).
The same method is used to sniff out the witches and sorcerers,
but often innocent people are accused and punished. The main problem is
that the alleged “supernatural insight” of the pastor, prophet, or
charismatic leader takes the place of the Bible as the source of
revelation (Oosthuizen 1979, 22). The well-documented life and ministry
of the “Christian” spiritual healer Nchimi Chikanga in Malawi is a good
example of such a Christianized diviner and witch-finder (Soko 2002).
In some parts of Africa, such practices have led to “Christian”
witch hunting, including torture and murder (Bourdillon 2002, 11). Some
“prophets” have publicly accused people of witchcraft without any
evidence (Hoskins 2004, 59). This is a powerful means of social control
which instills fear in church members and keeps them behaving well, but
often denigrates into psychological or other abuse (Hoskins 2004, 59).
It is not uncommon for pastors to demonize colleagues who appear
more successful. This may take the form of the former accusing the
latter of being in league with the Devil (Hackett 2003, 67ff). In
Malawi, I have personally witnessed such accusations being made to
pastors within the evangelical Church. This form of Christianity is not
so much focused on the crucified Christ or obedience to the risen Lord
as it diminishes Jesus as yet another powerful name used magically
within an African traditional religious framework.
We must heed Paul Hiebert’s caution that while taking the evil
supernatural seriously, we must also guard against Christianity itself
being adapted into a new form of magic (Hiebert 1982, 45ff). Ironically,
both the modernist and magical approaches reflect a mechanistic
worldview—a formula approach to reality that allows humans to control
their own destiny—the modernist based upon scientific formulas of
cause-and-effect in accordance with natural laws and the magical based
upon a spiritual formula in accordance with presumed spiritual laws
(Hiebert 1982, 45ff; Lowe 1998, 148-151; Van der Meer 2009, 207).
In genuine religion, we strive to obey the will of God, for we
trust in him. In magic, we seek our own wills, confident that we know
what is best for ourselves (Hiebert 1982, 46). It is therefore mandatory
that as a missiological community we find ways and means to address the
problem and fear of witchcraft in the Malawian context and beyond.
If we consider the point of view of the Bible writers concerning evil spirits,1
we see that they affirm the existence of such evil supernatural forces
in the form of Satan and the demons, but without the sense of fear which
is so prevalent in Malawian society. Neither does the Bible affirm the
excessive supernatural powers attributed to evil spirits or their human
allies such as Satanists, witches, and sorcerers. Here are some biblical
• The Job account affirms that Satan, when allowed by God, can at
times exercise great power in order to harass and even kill people,
using either what we would term “natural disasters” or by raising up
other humans against them. Relegating all demonic miracles and power
displays to psychological factors and delusions is to ignore biblical
teaching, notwithstanding the fact that a lot of what passes for
miracles and supernatural events may indeed be trickery and deceit.
• The confrontation between Moses and the magicians shows that
the latter were able to perform extraordinary feats, such as making
their staffs turn into snakes (Ex. 7:11-12) and turning water into blood
• In the New Testament, Simon the sorcerer performed amazing
miracles that held people in awe (Acts 8:9-11). Nevertheless, Satan can
exercise power only within limits set by God (Job 1:12, 2:6).
• Jesus teaches that nothing happens outside of God’s intimate
knowledge and control—not even a small bird falling from the sky (Matt.
In the African context, it is essential that we stress biblical teaching on issues related to witchcraft in
studies, sermons, and literature. In theological training, witchcraft
beliefs must be addressed from a biblical, church historical, and
contextual perspective, preferably interactively in discussion groups,
case studies, and field research.
Witchcraft beliefs are a serious pastoral problem. In the
community, even in the church, people live in fear and suspicion of one
another. Problems, inefficiencies, corruption, and sin are often not
addressed outside of a fear standpoint. Conflict is avoided at any cost
as supernatural revenge is feared by the potential whistle-blower (Van
Breugel 2001, 230-231). The fear of witchcraft is also detrimental for
societal progress and the development of a community and country
(Lagerwerf 1987, 40).
If the Church learns to respond to the witchcraft beliefs and
fears effectively, then it can make an enormous difference in Malawian
society. Besides teaching and preaching, we should:
• offer special prayers for protection;
• offer counseling, combined with prayers of exorcism for those who experience demonic harassment; and
• encourage songs, stories, and testimonies which stress the supremacy
of Christ to counter the often unsubstantiated stories which stress the
evil power of witchcraft and Satanism.
Battle Not against Flesh and Blood
Scripture stresses that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but
against the spiritual powers (Eph. 6:12). In order to counter
witch-hunting practices, we need to stress that we must love the sinner
(even our enemies), while hating the sin. Biblically speaking, both
witch and witch-finder (diviner) are in need of salvation and need to
repent and turn to Christ. Below are action steps we can take to counter
• Engage in discussion. Instead of accusing people
of witchcraft on the basis of no or very flimsy evidence, we may, by
means of group discussion, seek to influence people behaviorally in
order to help them break through the cycle of suspicion and false
accusations. Discussion could begin with, “How would you feel if you
were accused of witchcraft?” This would help people to look at the issue
from the perspective of the accused.
• Share relevant scripture. We can share core biblical
teachings, such as loving one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40) and doing to
others what we would have them do to us (Matt. 7:12).
• Remind others of human tendencies. It may also be
helpful to educate people about the human tendency of scape-goating and
to demonstrate how this is counterproductive (Lagerwerf 1987:33).
• Come alongside those who are persecuted. In a context
where no one dares to take up the plight of those accused of witchcraft
out of fear of being branded a witch as well, as God’s servants we
should take a strong stance of solidarity. We must protect those who are
targeted by the community, shelter those whose homes are burned down,
and provide general assistance.
• Engage political structures. We must call upon the government and the legal fraternity to act justly.
• Take part in cleansing. We may even employ a
Christianized version of a traditional cleansing ritual, which could
include prayers to God to cleanse the person from anything evil which
may have entered his or her life knowingly and unknowingly. We can then
provide a certificate that he or she has gone through this ritual so as
to assist re-integration in the community.
Just as in scripture, there are people today who practice
witchcraft either out of malice, selfishness, or because of a sense of
powerlessness.2 Some people claim to be or to have been
witches because they like the attention that comes with it. Others may
simply be brainwashed by the culture or the community into believing
they are witches. A child who is repeatedly told that he or she is a
witch may eventually believe and even act upon it.
Sometimes people may misinterpret dreams, sinful temptations, and
other evil impulses as evidence that they are witches (Friedman 1991,
194ff). Some need pastoral counseling; others may need psychological
treatment. Some “witches” need deliverance ministry (e.g., if they are
under the influence of an evil spirit who gives them supernatural
insights or powers like the girl in Philippi; see Acts 16:16-18).
Dealing with Those Afflicted by Evil Spirits
Several points must be made here.
Mercy and love. In Malawi, people who are afflicted
by evil spirits are commonly thought to be evil themselves. It is
significant, however, that in the Gospels, Jesus always treats them as
victims. In Mark 5:1-20, we see that while the community chained down a
demon-possessed man, Jesus shows love and compassion. We must show mercy
and love to those under the influence of an evil spirit so that we may
see them delivered and saved by the power of Christ. We should not fear
the evil one, nor fight against flesh and blood, but bring people out of
darkness into the light of Christ.
Styles and methods of exorcism. Styles and methods of
exorcism fall outside the scope of this article (cf. Lagerwerf 1987,
55-72); however, whatever format we decide upon, our trust must be in
Christ, who has all authority in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18) to set a
person free from being afflicted by evil spirits.
Our faith should not be in the employment of a certain method,
lest we fall into the trap of Christian magic. I personally appreciate
the method of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, where a group
gathers around the demon-afflicted person and sings hymns and prays for
deliverance. This demonstrates Christian family love and solidarity
with those oppressed by the evil one (Lagerwerf 1987, 61).
In spite of the possible public relations value of aggressive
public exorcisms, exorcism sessions which last several hours can easily
lead to psychological abuse and trauma and have little in common with
biblical accounts of exorcism.
Pastoral counseling. In pastoral counseling of the
demonically-afflicted, we must keep in mind that there is not always a
sharp distinction between psychological problems, moral degradation, and
demonic affliction. It is often through deception and false beliefs
that Satan has a hold on people’s minds, resulting both in sinful and
erratic behavior (Eph. 4:17-19).
May the Lord help us as we seek to help those living in fear of
the works of the Evil One in Malawi and other parts of the world.
1. The Bible does not attribute much power to magic and witchcraft, but
instead exposes it as a fraud and far inferior to the power of God (Acts
13:6-12). Inasfar as evil spirits are concerned, the Bible teaches that
the spiritual powers, described as Satan and his demons, have been
defeated and disarmed and have been rendered powerless by Christ (Col.
2:15). Although disarmed, the powers still seek to pollute the hearts
and minds of people by means of deceit and temptation. The powers
inspire false beliefs (1 Tim. 4:1), idolatry (1 Cor. 10:20), persecution
(1 Pet. 5:8-9; Rev. 2:13), and sin (Eph. 2:1-2; 4:27ff).
2. It is outside the scope of this article, but it appears that
women in patriarchal societies, both in Europe and Africa, are more
likely to be involved in witchcraft or other occult activities than
their male counterparts. It is possible that this is simply the
perception of the community, especially the male part who fear the
undermining of their power. However, it is equally possible that the
oppressed or powerless seek to assert some measure of power and control
by involving themselves in (supernatural) activities that the oppressors
or those in power fear.
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Erwin Van der Meer (DTh) has been an evangelical
missionary with Afrika Zending (Netherlands) since 1993. He is currently
involved in theological education and various development projects in
Malawi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 78-85. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions
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