Why Do We Believe in Witches?

“It is not the belief in witchcraft that we are concerned about…..we acknowledge people’s right to hold this belief on the condition that this does not lead to child abuse.” Gary Foxcroft

I get the sense that some of us in the humanist and human rights communities try hard to placate religious people amongst us by insinuating that it is okay to believe in witches and witchcraft, so long as no one gets hurt. While this may be considered reasonable to some it does seem to suggest a certain level of patronisation towards people who hold superstitious beliefs, to the effect that they simply cannot be convinced of the folly of their convictions. Our assumption that others are unable to comprehend certain facts should not preclude us from offering opposing opinion about their beliefs. We are doing many such people a disservice when we choose to keep certain information to ourselves, perhaps because we favour a gradual “softly softly” approach towards eradicating the stigmatisation of innocent people in the name of witchcraft. It is really vital to expand the debate beyond the dangers of belief in witchcraft to the dangers of belief in all forms of superstition, however innocuous they may appear. I say this because I sense that many otherwise highly educated people in Nigeria still harbour some belief in supernatural beings and forces, perhaps linked to their religious or cultural suppositions. I once asked a highly knowledgeable friend of mine whether or not he believed in witches and his answer to me was that “there are good spirits in the world helping people, therefore there must be evil spirits aiming to hurt humans”. Notice his use of deductive logic to grant some form of scientific legitimacy to an otherwise empirically baseless assertion. Such a belief system in more ways than one seems to inoculate those better educated ones from the actions of the believers of a much more toxic strain who are often impoverished and less well educated. The complacency of educated believers in superstition towards the actions of believers of this toxic strain will surely not help in the fight to eradicate abusive child witchcraft practices.

I want to take this point to introduce my hypothesis as to why we believe in witches, and I shall group the reasons for belief in witches into two categories: the first group includes those whose belief in witches arise from poverty and lack of the things which give modern life meaning; while the second group are those “enlightened” people who do not necessarily face the same existential challenges as those in the first group but who believe in witches and other superstitions nevertheless because they are based on scriptural teachings and certain cultural norms.

The title of this paper is framed as a question; however my dear friend Leo Igwe had suggested that it should be titled more like a proposition instead, as in “Why we believe in witches”. While there are many well researched examples to explain why certain humans retain belief in witches and other superstitions, it is not my intention to add to that academic debate. I am much more interested in understanding why it is that belief in witches still persists after it has been proven that the world is round not flat; that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round; that irregular craters caused by colliding meteors and not an image of an old woman with a pestle and mortar dot the surface of the moon; that lightning is caused by excited electric charges in the atmosphere and not by the iron staff of an iron god; that all living things evolved over hundreds of millions of years and not within a period of six days about 6,000 years ago (I’m sure by now you catch my drift). Why is it that in spite of mankind’s ability to decipher the vast array of conundrums that challenge us through time-tested scientific means, very many people still believe in witches and supernatural beings?

As an aside there is something I find very hard to fathom about people who harbour beliefs in witches: if witches are so powerful, why do they seem to bother themselves only with small fry like the downtrodden in Akwa Ibom state and across many other impoverished areas across Nigeria and the developing world? Wouldn’t it be a lot more profitable to attack those who pose a far greater threat than some poor farmer in Eket? What comes to mind immediately is the prospect of harnessing witchcraft to help find Osama Bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world. There is literally a fortune of over $100 million to make! And just in case you think witchcraft only works for evil purposes, why shouldn’t Osama instead seek to use witchcraft to infect the backside of George W. Bush, his sworn enemy, with the bites of a thousand fleas? That surely would sound like the evil act of a most vile person from the point of view of the vast majority of dyed-in-the-wool bible-toting conservative Americans. I really don’t understand the pleasure witches get from causing misery to already miserable souls. But I think I have a hunch as to why this is so.

There was a time in Europe between 700 AD and 1200 AD when it was actually a crime to believe in witches, because according to the bible, Jesus had defeated all evil and so there were no supernatural forces left on earth to bother mankind. But by 1300 AD the belief in witches had begun to flourish and led to the infamous witch hunts that saw hundreds of thousands of people murdered after being accused of witchcraft. It is also instructive that this period in Europe coincided with the great plague, which led to mass deaths on a scale never before seen. Humanity had not fully understood the cause of the Bubonic plague from a scientific point of view, and as is typically the nature of humans in the absence of scientific knowledge, there had to something supernatural to blame for all the deaths and suffering. Witches would have been top of the list in their minds as the logical cause of the plague, and so began the bloodletting, which only ended after over 300 years, around the 18th century, which was also the beginning of the period of Enlightenment, when rationalism and empiricism gained ground as means through which we gain understanding of our world. In summary I’m trying to suggest, without sounding too banal, that belief in witches and other superstitions flourishes during very difficult times, times when humanity seems overwhelmed by perils of the natural world which we live in, and I cannot imagine a time more perilous than the present time in which we find ourselves in Nigeria: very high and worsening levels of infant mortality; endemic pauperism with the vast majority of Nigerians living below the poverty line; some of the highest levels in the world of preventable and curable infectious diseases such as Malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, polio and so on. There are few countries on earth with a more challenging environment than we have in Nigeria. It is in this most challenging environment that many impoverished people turn to morally derelict pastors for hope of a solution to their numerous problems. I have a Rule and Exception precept which I apply to analysing and explaining problems; applying it to the problem at hand, I prefer to accept that it is the rule that most people, when offered a chance to chose between modern, effective science-based healthcare and the village pastor, will chose the former over the later. It is the exception not the rule that people living in a society where the hazards of Hobbesian life are absent still hold on strongly to superstitious beliefs.

So we proceed to flesh out the answer to our question: why do we believe in witches? For the first group, i.e. those who turn to low life village pastors, I hypothesize that they believe in witches because they have no other option. In the absence of a system which guarantees access to decent modern healthcare to all and provides a safety net for those who are indigent, people often turn to supernaturalism for comfort and hope. And if ever the belief in witches and the harm it causes were to be eradicated, the surest means of achieving this would be to solve the underlying reason for its existence. We are baffled that such practices thrive only because few of us know and have taken advantage of an alternative which works more efficiently and effectively without causing pain and suffering to others. Those who still hang on to such beliefs do so simply because they know of no other solution or are unable to access such solutions even if they were aware of their existence. We can have hundreds of conferences and awareness programmes every year, and we may achieve some success, at least in the short run. But the problem will continue to fester so long as people who believe these things continue to face a hazardous existence that is life for many on earth today. And the problem will only become a bigger one as the disparities between the haves and have-nots continue to widen. To eradicate the problem of child witchcraft and other abusive forms of superstitious belief, we must create societies which care for their citizens by providing a meaningful and worthwhile existence.

Superstitious beliefs have a real capacity to spread as suffering and anguish becomes more commonplace. There is every reason to believe that the particular brand of witchcraft/Christian evangelical lunacy ravaging Akwa Ibom and Cross River states originated from the Central African region comprising several countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), a nation ravaged by war and disease for nearly all of its 50 years of independence and a fertile ground for the flourishing of thoughts about evil spirits and witches and other supernatural beings.

Let me in typical fashion digress to bring you another one of my interesting anecdotes. The manager of a very popular market in Abuja once told the story of how incidences of “penis snatching” were becoming a really pressing concern for him and his staff at the market. On a particular day an accused “penis snatcher” was about to be given “jungle justice” by a crowd of concerned market citizens when the market management staff and police intervened. In order to placate the crowd baying for blood, it was agreed that the “hapless” victim would be taken to a local brothel to establish the extent of the loss of use of his member, and if he was determined that he was unable to perform his “normal duties” the suspected penis snatcher would be charged to court (for only God knows what crime!). So off the party went to the brothel where a candidate was found who was willing to contribute her quota towards the advancement of “jungle science” (of course for a fee which was eagerly paid by one of the more lecherous members of the lynch mob who made it all the way to the brothel from the market: even candidates in conventional science tests receive some kind of reward!). Midway through the testing exercise the police called out to our victim and asked whether all was well, to which in the heat of passion he inadvertently muttered in a somewhat blissful tone “it is working but not as good as it was before!” Suffice it to say that the person who made his scientific endowment felt like he had been had; here was a man who barely a few minutes ago had called upon the heavens and the earth to his rescue now caught up in the throes of passion with a prostitute! The police had the decency to wait and let him finish and then someone finally suggested a proper examination at a hospital after which it was established beyond doubt that our victim was suffering from a lifelong case of micropenis, a medical term for a small penis caused by a range of factors including inadequate growth hormones. Our “victim” ended up in court himself!

Now the above story although highly comical has some relevance because it illustrates the power of a simple test to change the perception of once ignorant people. Nobody in that lynch mob up until then had ever made any attempt to establish the veracity of the claim of the supposed victims. The crude but effective test had the effect of making such people sceptical about such claims, so that they were less likely to act on impulse when next they heard a cry for help from a supposed victim of “penis snatching”. The market management now used this crude test time and again until the message got around: if you scream for help about the loss of your private part, rest assured that you will have to undergo some test to verify your claim. This led to a dramatic decline in cases of missing private parts, to the point where the market for several years running has recorded zero incidences. Perhaps those of us fighting this child witchcraft scourge could develop some equally crude test to verify the claims of the diabolical pastors carrying out these nefarious activities. Perhaps if they are exposed and shamed in public it could help to curb their activities and make their prospective victims more sceptical about their claims.

My other main concern, as I stated earlier in the paper, is with the group of believers in witchcraft who are neither impoverished nor illiterate but who hold on to their beliefs because of their scriptural relevance or due to their local customs. If a survey of educated people in Nigeria is taken on this issue I fear that the study will show that the vast majority of educated Nigerians, possible in the region of 90%, hold unto some superstitious belief. And yet these same people are exposed to all the modern conveniences of life: electricity (whenever it’s available of course), mobile phones, cars, the internet, television and so on and so forth. I also noted earlier that holding such beliefs creates a sense of complacency in the minds of educated people and blunts the sense of outrage which you would naturally expect that they would express over the proliferation of the child witchcraft saga. However some individuals will go beyond just giving tacit approval to the activities of the characters in this tragedy but will explicitly support their despicable actions. Below is an excerpt of a comment posted on the Sahara Reporters website in response to a story about the ransacking of the CRARN house in Calabar earlier in the year. I tried for the sake of brevity to edit portions of the comment but almost all of it was too juicy to let go!

Akpan Akpan, whoever you are, you always seem to be very explosive in certain published documents. You are from Akwa Ibom and it is therefore surprising that you are writing ignorantly. Are you saying that there is nothing like witchcraft? Then you are saying the writings of the Bible are lies and every man must be a liar, for God alone to be true, so you are a liar. My wish for you, note ,not my prayers, because since you are obviously in denial, I wonder who you will pray to; my wish, is that you show kindness to a child, who has been given witchcraft by your darling mother, or father, or grandparents, and then you sleep at night and you are whipped in your sleep and if you are strong spirited, you see all the people who did it to you, and when you wake up, that child opens its mouth to confess that you were attacked because you were Christian enough to pray with them the night of the attack, and then starts spilling so much, including mentioning your lovely mother, and so many others you have helped, including telling you of the plans they have made to end your life…Akpan and all you so called human rights activist who are probably neck deep in one cult or society practising wickedness, which I call a different type of witchcraft; that white reporter, in whose country, parents give hard drugs to their children and also belong to one fraternity (sic) or the other….is that a subtle name for their own cult???..will you sit back and let the date come and you are no more there to say it was all a lie? or will you go and find a solution? That is left for you all, like I said, that is my wish for you.

It may sound like fantasy to every reader, but it happened to me and my family. Suffice it is to say (sic), leave the things of the spirit to the “Spirit “, remember the Bible says suffer not a witch to live. Why do you not go and conduct a private investigation on those allegations first, before resorting to castigations? Well if our Lord Jesus Christ was called names, how much less shall servants of God be called? Those “innocent children as you refer to them as are EVIL (emphasis not mine). Why would a parent carry a child for months and then abandon them, or believe what only one pastor has said???, hell no,..its after so many confirmations that stringent measures are usually taken. They are not tortured to confess but through prayers, they start talking by themselves. I am not a pastor or a prophetess, but a woman who has been befallen with these circumstances. That bill that was passed by the Governor of Akwa Ibom portrays the desecrated society we live in without the fear of God. If not why give witchcraft a legal ground to operate?

I can deduce a few things that should immediately be apparent to anyone who cares to observe. First, the writer is educated to at least secondary school level judging by her writing skill and use of language. Second, this individual doesn’t seem to be a highly indigent person, because she at least has access to the Internet. Finally, this person is a Christian who by all indications takes the bible for its literal meaning. So we can say with some level of confidence that she snugly fits into our second category of believers, that is those who are educated and not poor and who base their belief in superstition on scriptural injunction. I can almost imagine some Christians in our midst visibly squirming at the idea that this person represents what they stand for. But let’s try not to dwell too much on that. Instead let us focus on challenging her assertion on the basis of what the bible says.

I will borrow my friend’s system of logic to analysis the issue: “there is a voice coming out of that object, therefore there must be someone or something with supernatural powers (possibly evil) inside that object”.

Those of us who rely on the “infallible” words of a book written over 2000 years ago will agree with me that if we were to somehow transport a cell phone back in time to that period, people alive then would most likely make the above assertion, at which anyone living in our time would very rightly scoff with an amused sense of bewilderment. And so it is that we accept that such people with very limited understanding of the natural world should provide us with guidance on how to live our lives 2000 years later, in the age of paracetamol and cars and newspapers and the Internet. We live in a world where we have developed all of the above stated items not by some magical act known by only a few, but by careful and measured control of the physical and natural forces that exist in our world. If malaria could be blamed on witchcraft 2000 years ago we can safely say today that we know that the natural cause of malaria is the plasmodium parasite and so we don’t need to accept that it is caused by supernatural forces beyond our understanding, nor do we have to rely on any magical prayer possessed only by the “Lord’s appointed” prophet or prophetess to drive out the evil spirit of sickness from our bodies. All we need do is go to the local pharmacy and buy a few pills.

In conclusion, what I am simply trying to say is that the solution to tackling the child witchcraft scourge should be two pronged: first try to get educated people to think more critically about some of their belief systems, and second endeavour to create a better life (with the use of everyday science-based tools available) for the vast majority of Nigerians who are under the spell of the diabolical scam artists or child witchcraft because they have no one or nothing else to turn to.

Mr Okechukwu, a humanist, lives in Abuja. Hean be contacted at ik_okey@yahoo.com.

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