NAIROBI: In 1997, out of curiosity, I asked Gacamuku, a well-known Mbeere witchdoctor about a tale told about him. The story goes that the sorcerer was once presented before a magistrate.
Upon pronouncing judgement jailing him for three months, the medicine man replied, ‘I also jail you...’ The magistrate, so the tale goes, was stuck on his seat in the courtroom and the sorcerer had to be called to ‘release’ him.
This is a common selling story for sorcerers in the region. I forgot about the incident until recently when someone in my WhatsApp group hysterically claimed that our village has turned to witchcraft to solve rising theft.
There was a burst of holy anger and self-righteousness! An angry villager had hired a witchdoctor to catch the thief who had stolen his only cow.
Now, I am neither concerned with its practicality nor the moral-religious arguments that this subject immediately provokes. My interest here is purely the ‘why’.
Open witchcraft is rare in Central province. What people do secretly is a different matter. So when one hears that in Tetu, Nyeri County, after over a century of evangelisation and western education, people are using the occult to solve problems, there is ground for moral outrage.
But I asked the WhatsApp group: What would you do if your only source of income is stolen? (A) Report to bwana chief and wait until cows come home (pun intended), (B) pray the rosary or if you are of protestant persuasion conduct kesha where the pastor invokes the wrath of God on the thief, (C) hire a sorcerer for Sh5,000?
Nobody answered. It set me thinking. You surely have seen on TV thieves ‘eating’ grass after alleged bewitchment. Is it not quicker? You pay a wizard ‘to trace the footsteps’ of the thief and voila, the following morning a guy is mowing grass on the roadside using his teeth. And you get your cow back or the monetary equivalent.
And better, thieves will never touch anything in the village.
Why do people continue believing in witchcraft? The simple answer is that it helps for some people.
The imposition of the European God, his rival Satan and his militia of supporting demons did not kill African witchcraft. The accompanying western architecture of government merely suppressed traditional means of making sense of this life.
Prof Anne-Maria Makhulu, an anthropologist at Duke University, writes that humans still resort to magic to cope with desperate medical, emotional, and financial situations in these heady times.
There are three legitimate mechanisms of social control: one, government, which we allow to use all sorts of methods to maintain social order. Two, religion; where the fear of eternal damnation persuades us to keep trying to be good.
Three, customs where the society punishes us through alienation or torment by spirits if we don’t abide with the norms. Witchcraft, scholars tell us was one of the tools used in the traditional society to control and balance society.
So strong was it that the colonial government banned it, and so did the independent Kenyan government. No government wants citizens believing in powers that it cannot control.
However, with life rapidly becoming complicated, modern governments and the churches can no longer provide all the answers to the questions unleashed by globalisation.Progress through scientific thinking has proven inadequate in answering the numerous questions it raises. Witchcraft helps some people to articulate the internal contradictions of modernity.
The farmer who loses his cow no longer gets quick answers from the Government, though he is supposed to vote and pay taxes to enable the same government protect his property.
The farmer is forced to look for his own catch-thief mechanisms.
The moral framework subscribed by the church fails to prevent the thief from doing his thing despite threats of hellfire.
The poor man cannot make sense of how his neighbour’s government employed daughter, who dropped out of school in form four, is suddenly putting up some flats in town.
The poor farmer’s degree holding son has been languishing at home for years. And that rich man or woman wants a shortcut to corporate or political power!
Selina H Stenberg tell us in ‘Modernity Through the eyes of Witchcraft’ that this “extremely unequal world..., witchcraft is increasingly employed as a means of explaining and tackling human misfortune.”
In this rising uncertainty, people, rich or poor, resort to the occult. Humanity does not allow for a free fall. It creates cushions where they don’t exist. When everything fails, we get such cases like Paul Magu’s, of cult-based tragedies.
Note that the rise of cultish practices, the ‘gospel of prosperity’, get-rich-quick schemes and the idea that someone called Satan can dole out free money rose when the central government started failing sometimes in the 1980s.