Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday. But then if Christians are protected by the blood of Jesus Christ, why do Africans still lay trust in witchdoctors? One wag, I forgot who, said the average African sitting in a church will have a Bible in hand, and witchdoctor’s talisman in his or her pocket — just in case!
In spite of widespread assumptions, the incidence of magic and witchcraft does not necessarily decrease in the course of modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation. In fact, experiences in most African societies, here in Kenya and elsewhere, testify to the fact that rather than disappear, contemporary ideas and practices of witchcraft are more a response to modern exigencies than a lingering cultural custom.
Witchcraft is a broad term, and commonly refers to the use of magic, whilst magic itself can be defined as the manipulation and coercion of hidden powers in order to act on specific events or individuals, manipulating hidden powers in order to benefit or heal people or to cause them harm. Central to witchcraft, then, is the projection of hidden, or covert, power. The prevalence of magic and witchcraft, especially in politics, religion, sports and entrepreneurship, demonstrates the unlikely balance it has achieved with the forces of modernity.
New forms of witchcraft
Witchcraft belief in Africa is expressed in different forms, according to region, religion, or ethnic affiliation. There are, however, also some essential common grounds. Thus, witchcraft belief as such, is in general not gender-specific (contrary to the practice of its persecution). Moreover, all over Kenya the belief in occult forces is very common at different individual levels of education and various religious confessions.
In contrast to previous studies that tackled the phenomenon of witchcraft exclusively in the rural context, today, sociologists and anthropologists have turned their attention to the “new forms of witchcraft” in the urban setting. These are interpreted in the context of socio-economic changes resulting from the penetration of international capitalism into African societies and their consequent globalisation. As a result, witchcraft is understood in connection with the accumulation of wealth, power, and modes of consumption, production, and trade.
Indeed, “Voodoo” and “witchcraft” are part of indigenous African spirituality, and it is being mixed with Christianity and Islam today. For outsiders, that is hard to understand, but practitioners are very serious about their beliefs. For many Africans, the reality of our daily lives has a dimension that the Western world does not perceive: an ever-present, supernatural power which is not otherworldly. This is what is meant by African spirituality.
Events are seen in different ways
If someone has a car accident, Westerners assume that the person drove too fast or that the brakes didn’t work. An African is likely to say that someone used witchcraft to harm the person concerned. This belief influences many facets of life and even has consequences for practical issues such as land ownership, building a house or opening a business.
In many cases, Westerners use psychological arguments to explain what African counterparts consider the influence of ghosts, spirits of ancestors, curses and blessings. But sometimes, there are no such explanations.
Witchcraft has many faces. It can be positive and healing, but also negative and destructive. One good example is that people can forge peace under sacred trees after conflicts, illnesses or natural disasters. The ceremony always includes the healing of the earth, because after the loss of human life, the land must be cleansed. The ceremony is a memorial service, but at the same time it is a ritual that recognizes the Earth as the “mother” who has been hurt or offended.
Traditional medicine men, who get their power from ancestral spirits, have constructive intentions. They help to heal illnesses and make predictions. A medicine man will paint his face white, mutter in a strange language and use artefacts such as antelope horns, waterbuck hooves, impala jaws, eland hair or the reptile skins. He is quite different from the herbal healer, who uses traditional medicine and whose medical skills rely on traditional knowledge, not spirituality.
But there is also witchcraft with evil intentions
Magic is supposed to make someone ill, or even cause people to die or go crazy. In many Kenyan communities, families sacrifice roosters or goats and throw cowrie shells in order to tell the future and learn how a dispute with an enemy will develop.
Witchcraft raises distinct problems for the typical Western capitalist. The first is: Is it real? What is the nature of the spirit world? What do witches think they are doing when they engage in witchcraft? For example, in many African countries, witchdoctors are summoned by the country’s soccer authorities to ‘cleanse’ new national stadia. Western materialists struggle to understand this. This points towards the question of competing worldviews. On the one hand, there is the worldview of the African witchdoctors which holds that the spirit world exists and, on the other, the materialist worldview which claims the spirit world does not exist.
What do witches actually want?
The second problem is: What do witches actually want? What are the human motivations and attitudes that drive witchcraft? For example, in Kenya, cases abound of young children kidnapped killed for their body parts that are sold for witchcraft. Such cases of ‘ritual killing’ are also problematic for Western materialists because, although they might understand why someone might want to kill, they don’t understand why someone would kill just to acquire a human head. From the worldview of witchcraft, there can be all kind of motivations for engaging with the spirit world.
Witchcraft practices performed during religious activities are essentially motivated by a desire for knowledge; a desire to control and manipulate and a fear of death. Such themes are common to manifestations of witchcraft, in different societies throughout time. Acquiring body parts makes sense within this worldview, because they are a means of controlling and manipulating the spiritual and the physical world, perhaps through some form of sympathetic magic.
Magic may be applied for good or bad ends
The belief that persons are able to master occult forces is a socio-cultural phenomenon of great importance in Kenya and Africa south of the Sahara. Magic and witchcraft have been deeply-rooted for generations, regardless of social strata and urban or rural settings. Magic may be applied for good or bad ends. However, belief in “black” magic, or witchcraft, used to harm other people for selfish purposes, is the most problematic aspect of this belief.
Witchcraft symbolism does not only reflect a fear of, and fascination with the processes of commodification, technologisation, mobility, and the accumulation of wealth; it also primarily responds to the economic marginalisation of ordinary people who participate in the modernized and globalised world community not so much as consumers of manufactured material goods but as consumers and producers of mere images and ideas concerning the global world to which they seem to belong only marginally.
- Edwin Wanjawa teaches in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Pwani University.