Belief in Witchcraft in Africa

According to Prof Bolaji Idowu, “In Africa, it is idle to begin with the question whether witches exist or not…To Africans of every category, witchcraft is an urgent reality.” Unfortunately, I don’t know how Idowu came about this idea that it is pointless inquiring into the existence and non existence of witches and wizards. For me, it is not idle to begin with trying to establish the existence of witches or to subject the claims of witchcraft to critical evaluation. It is pertinent to do so in order to understand, tackle and eradicate the problems associated with this irrational belief. It is rather cowardly to avoid the question whether witches exist or not when dealing with issues related to witchcraft. To Africans of my own category, witchcraft is an urgent superstition.

Unfortunately, most texts, studies and reports on witchcraft in Africa avoid evaluating or ascertaining the veracity of witchcraft claims. Last year, UNICEF published a report, Children Accused of Witchcraft: An Anthropological Study of Contemporary Practices in Africa. The objective of the study was to ‘reveal and analyze the diversity and complexity of these phenomena – often falsely associated with ‘African tradition’- related to beliefs in witchcraft and the “mystical” world.’ The document carefully avoided doing a critical evaluation of claims or accusations associated with witchcraft. The study did not come out with a position statement as to whether witches exist or not or whether claims associated with witchcraft are true or false. This report did not do justice to the topic and phenomenon of witchcraft accusation because it did not provide answers to questions that have been boggling the minds of Africans for ages, such as: Is witchcraft science or superstition? Is witchcraft myth or reality? Do witches actually exist or are they imaginary entities? The report could not let us know if indeed human beings can bewitch one another as most Africans believe.

So the belief in witchcraft is strong and widespread in Africa. The witchcraft mentality is dominant and informs popular thought, understanding and interpretation of phenomena. Traditionally, African people attribute anything they do not understand (or do not want to understand), any incident or occurrence they cannot explain, to witchcraft. Also people attribute to witchcraft issues or ‘forces’ for which they are not contented with their rational or commonsensical explanations.

But the belief in witchcraft is not peculiar to Africans. Many people in Africa often make this mistake of thinking that witchcraft is ‘original’ to them. From the Skeptic (Australia), I understand that 22% of Australians still believe in witches. I don’t know if they believe in witches the same way Africans do. But whatever the case, the belief in witchcraft is found in other cultures of the world. Witch hunts ended in Europe and America a few centuries ago. Witchcraft is not African science as many pseudo-intellectuals in Africa tend to think and propagate.

Human beings in their primitive quest to explain and understand nature – to explain and understand their experiences – came up with the idea of magic, magical thinking, mystical forces and magical causes and explanation of phenomena to fill in the void created by fear and ignorance. They invented witches, wizards, spirits, gods, angels, demons and other ‘mystical’ entities which they imagined were responsible for their problems and predicaments, for the evils and misfortune they encountered in life.

In the case of witchcraft, this is how Bolaji Idowu explains the connection between the ‘imagined’ witches and wizards and real human beings, the belief is that “the spirits of living human beings can be sent out of the body on errands of doing havoc to other persons in body, mind or estate; that witches have guilds or operate singly, and that the spirits sent out of the human body in this way can act either invisibly or through lower creature-animal or a bird”. In Africa, there is a strong belief that human beings can turn to animals or insects mostly at night to perpetrate evil.

In Nigeria, most people believe witches can turn into any nocturnal animals or insects particularly cats, ants, rats, bats or butterflies. In Gambia the belief is that witches can take the form of an owl at night. So when people see such animals or insects particularly at night or in strange dark corners they tend to think they are witches on a mission – a mission to kill, destroy or harm. And people kill such animals or insects instantly. Killing is believed to be a way to destroy and disable a witch. So in Africa witch hunters do not target only human beings, they also target our wild life – animals, insects, forests and trees.

In Senegal, they believe witches live inside the pawpaw fruit. The belief is that witches use it as their operational base at night. In Malawi, the belief is that witches travel at night in ‘magic planes’ which could crash if it develops some magical fault. The belief is that witches use these planes to convey children to distant places where they are initiated or taught the art of witchery. In Burkina Faso, people believe that witches travel to eat the flesh and ‘souls’ of people or drink their blood. Hence they call witches ‘soul eaters’- mangeuses d’âmes.

Also human beings have in their quest for meaning and to control nature invested with metaphysical significance certain practices like ritual sacrifice. Ritual sacrifice involves killing of animals and sometimes human beings and using their body parts to prepare some concoctions or perform some ceremony to placate or sway the so called supernatural forces. Humans have invested certain objects, processes and artifacts with magical potency which they believe can alter people’s fortune in ways that cannot be confirmed or explained using reason, science or common sense.

In some cases Africans associate certain traits or behavior like stubbornness, talking in one’s dreams, sleep walking, aging, albinism, soliloquy, hallucination and uttering meaningless syllables even when it is as a result of some psychiatric problem or self deceit, with magical powers. The general belief is that the veracity or validity of witchcraft claims is beyond the scope of ‘western’ science but within the ambit of ‘African science’. This misconception is common among the so called African elite and is at the root of the problems associated with belief in witchcraft in the region.

The civilized world has largely abandoned the witchcraft mentality and witchcraft model of explanation of phenomena. Science has provided us cures to diseases, explanations and sometimes solutions to problems which Africans hitherto attributed to mystical and magical forces of witchcraft. Technology has enabled humans to invent and innovate devices and crafts that surpass the ‘witch crafts’.

But most Africans still hold tenaciously to this irrational belief and harmful practices. Millions of people continue to suffer and die as a result of witchcraft accusation and related injustices.

Witchcraft accusations occur in the course of identifying those persons suspected to be possessing magical powers and wreaking havoc with them or those who leave their bodies to go on errands, cause havoc, travel by magic planes or go out to eat the ‘souls’ and drink the blood of others. People can suspect anyone of engaging in witchcraft, it is mostly vulnerable members of the population who are openly accused, confronted and persecuted. In Malawi women with grey hairs and red eyes are branded witches. Old women, particularly those who are childless, are often accused of witchcraft in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Burkina Faso and Tanzania. In Congo DRC, Nigeria, Angola, Central Africa Republic, children are branded witches and wizards. Witchcraft accusation is a social poison. Witchcraft accusation is a silent killer in Africa. Witchcraft accusation is the beginning of a process that leads to torture, persecution, maltreatment and, sometimes, death of the accused.

Leo Igwe sent this piece from Australia

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