Witchcraft in Modern African Societies

Seminar Paper, 2004

32 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

Witchcraft in modern African societies


Witchcraft Definition

Witchcraft Violence

The State Reacts

The Problem of AIDS


Works Cited

Witchcraft in modern African societies


Witchcraft has been a subject in historic and social anthropologic works notably since Evans-Pritchard released his anthropologic classic “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande” in 1937. For several decades, historians dealing with witchcraft had put a focus on European witchcraft discourse of the early modern age, while anthropologists developed insights into the functioning of also African witch beliefs.1 This gap narrowed notably in the decades to follow, but the tenor of the works still let show a strong one-sided approach towards the African societies whom the authors talked about, as the following passage about the differences between early modern English and 20th century African witchcraft shows:

A further difference between England and Africa is that Tudor Englishmen did not find it necessary to explain all misfortunes in terms of some supernatural belief, whether witchcraft or anything else. There seem to be many primitive societies where virtually all deaths are attributed to witchcraft or to ancestral spirits or to some similar phenomenon.2

Modern authors are less prepossessed and treat African belief systems and people with more respect. This is, of course, partly because especially the more advanced and modern African societies such as the democratic South Africa have their own writers and researchers who teach the world about their own history. More recent works then focus less on the otherness of witchcraft beliefs, but have a closer look at the victims of witchcraft violence, as well as on social and political dimensions of witchcraft discourse.3 The aim of this paper is therefore not a comparison between European and African witchcraft, but to look in which ways witchcraft violence has evolved throughout the years to the present and search for indicators that mark an increase or decrease of witchcraft related problems, such as poverty or political changes. Especially the development in modern South Africa shall be in focus, especially the question, what a young modern democracy can do about an old and still increasing problem such as witchcraft.

An important question is how to deal with a topic like witchcraft, i.e. what position one takes concerning the question whether witchcraft is real or not. The position I will take up in this paper is that the question about the reality of witchcraft is irrelevant, since I will not try to prove the one position or the other. It is not important if witches really exist or not. What is relevant for this paper is the fact that witches do exist as a social phenomenon. The mere fact that people believe in them is enough to make them kill each other and to live in deep distrust, as we will see. I will therefore begin with a short overview about the types of witchcraft which are relevant for this analysis, as well as some aspects of the ancestral belief system, which may be of some help as well. Then I will focus on witchcraft violence and its legal aspects. Finally I will have a look at the state’s options to cope with the situation. In this case it will be especially interesting to have a short look at the problem of AIDS which is also of some importance in this respect.

Witchcraft Definition

While the English word witch is gender specific and refers to women only, most African languages have gender neutral equivalents. In African context witch is mostly used for any person who employs magical means to harm their fellow citizens by destroying property, bringing disease or misfortune, and in some cases even death. In some cultures, such as those in the Northern Province of South Africa, it is widely believed that death, illness or misfortunes are mainly caused by witches or by the ancestors as punishment.4 It is a common belief that the ancestors provide the individuals with good fortune as long as they are worshipped decently. They stop protecting the individual if he or she neglects or stops caring for them. This forgetting of the ancestors can also be the assumed result of witchcraft, as the example of Adam Ashforth’s friend Madumo shows: One can be bewitched to forget about the ancestors.5

The results of the witches’ occult craft as noted above lead to the assumption that in witchcraft, people who have internalized the traditional African belief system find explanations for events that would otherwise be difficult to explain, such as the deaths of formerly healthy people. This belief includes even deaths with explicit causes, such as snakebites. Witches are also believed to have the power to prevent people from “getting ahead” or to have success in one way or another. Even natural phenomena like the failure of rain and sudden storms are widely associated with witchcraft.6

Who are the witches then, who are capable of such disturbing actions? The answer is not quite unambiguous. Some are said to be born with the gift of witchcraft. In some cultures the witches are provided with this gift via an initiation rite of some kind. Some people acquire the ability to use witchcraft by medicine from a traditional healer. Although there can be male witches as well as female ones, women are more frequently accused of practicing witchcraft than men. Although there are rumors of child witches, the prototypical witch is usually a middle-aged woman.7 Witches are likely to be engaged in social relations with their victims, and especially relatives are very often suspected of at least planning to use witchcraft. The witches mostly carry out their deeds by working medicine or muti, i.e. poisoning them. It is thus good manners in many African societies to take a sip of food or drink before offering it to guests, especially among relatives. The substances that can be used for witchcraft are in principal available to anyone who can afford them. It is thus easy to become a witch. This also explains why people are suspected to practice witchcraft very easily. The main motifs for witchcraft are hatred and envy.8 There seemed to be a difference in terminology in the past between witchcraft and sorcery. Sorcery was associated with medicines, while witchcraft was believed to be a psychic act.9 Today, most authors use witchcraft as a synonym for both as a generic term. However, the use of medicines and muti are the most frequent forms of witchcraft described. Muti is a Zulu word which literally means tree or plant, but is commonly used for medicines or herbs. In the meantime it has been totally assimilated into South African English. Muti is usually provided by traditional healers (inyangas) and includes medicinal potions made from herbs, animal products or inorganic substances, e.g. mercury. Forms of muti are used by most, if not all African cultures and carry no sinister meaning as long as no human ingredients are included in it. Muti including human ingredients such as body parts is the kind mostly used for witchcraft. The alleged effect depends on the quality of the muti and the part of the body from which the ingredients have been taken. Some of these effects show a quite obvious connection to the body part taken: Blood increases vitality, testicles increase sexual performance and prowess. Other effects can only be deduced on a more metaphorical basis: A young girl’s vagina brings productivity and wealth, human skulls may ensure good business when buried into the foundation of a new building. The body parts are obtained in rituals generally referred to as muti murders. The victim, who can be anybody who fulfills the particular requirements for the muti, is being ripped off the required body parts. This is supposed to happen while the victim is still alive, otherwise the muti will be less powerful. The victim then dies from his or her mutilation. Since the bodies are afterwards well-hidden, it is hard to make precise statements about the frequency of muti murders, but it is believed that they occur more often than one would guess. Muti murders seem to increase in times of hardship and political upheaval, which may be due to the alleged ability of certain types of muti increase one’s personality and status. Most people tend to go to an inyanga to get their muti, but only a small minority of traditional healers would kill for it.10 Their main role is that of a healer. They are also recruited when people suspect that they have been bewitched and visit a traditional healer who can detect the witchcraft and its source.11 “Traditional Healer” is the umbrella term for all practitioners of healing according to traditional African methods. Their number in impressive: In 1997 there were 200 000 healers in South Africa, who were consulted by 60% of all South Africans. There is a distinction between the inyangas, who are merely herbalists, and the sangomas, who are also being referred to as diviners. This type of traditional healers makes an diagnosis by divination, e.g. by throwing bones. Treatments ordered include herbs, poultices, animal products or scarification. True sangomas are opposed to all kinds of witchcraft and shun actions of that kind. There also seem to be hybrid forms of both types of traditional healers.12

Witchcraft belief in itself is an important social phenomenon throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. As noted above, it allows people to make sense of the arbitrary misfortunes that affect their lives. Since witches, moved by envy, are widely thought to use their occult powers to inflict harm on other community members and very often people in their immediate social circle, the social impact is immense.13 Whereas in the past, mostly mysterious deaths and diseases were attributed to witches, the range has been extended in modern times. Witchcraft is now also believed to be the reason for such misfortunes as lack of success, failure in examinations, inability to gain promotion in office or shop, any strange disease, and especially barrenness in woman and impotence in men.14 In the face of such a variety of possibilities to become the victim of witchcraft, it is certainly not surprising to find many people in a state of almost permanent suspiciousness. What makes things even worse is the fact that, by definition, witchcraft is practiced in secret. It is therefore very difficult to know who did what.15

Witchcraft is not believed to be entirely evil with only negative effects on the person bewitched, as the use of muti made of human body parts may also have pleasant effects, as noted above. There are cases in which political success is seen as the outcome of witchcraft of some sort. Also economic success can be related to the use of muti, as the example of the buried human skull shows. This also leads to the widespread suspicion towards successful community members to have used muti.16

African witches, as opposed to their European namesakes of the early modern age, are not associated with the devil. Its focus on misfortunes is another distinctive feature, although it is, to some degree, also valid for some forms of early modern European witchcraft.17 Sexuality is also less central in African witchcraft discourse. On the other hand, eating is a central feature in African witch belief which is more or less absent in western cultures. There are also reports of people believing that witches have the ability to transform and fly to nocturnal “Sabbaths” (mostly in Cameroon), but there are only few details about this. Since the witches’ doings in this case has no direct impact in the ordinary people’s lives, this aspect may be neglected here, since this rather mythical form of witches can not easily be associated to the type that uses muti in order to harm there fellow community members.18 More important for this paper are the types that cause violence or are violent in itself. It will also be interesting to see how the problem is being dealt with by the institutions of today’s modern African states.

Witchcraft Violence

Witchcraft violence is a phenomenon which covers two sides: On the one hand it includes violent action on the part of the witches and the harm they inflict on innocent citizens. On the other hand the term includes all kinds of violence towards the alleged witches. Since the occult attacks of witchcraft are carried out in secret, there is much more known about the peoples’ reaction towards these attacks than about the attacks themselves.

There are two typical strategies for people who find themselves in a situation of acute threat of witchcraft. Firstly, there is the strategy of counteracting the occult evil forces through ritual action. The second strategy is to neutralize the social source of that evil force, i.e. the witch. The former involves healing rituals, prayers and consultations with diviners, prophets, priests or other experts in spiritual matters. These actions are usually carried out in a private manner, since many people prefer to avoid making their bewitchment public. The latter strategy, on the other hand, is inherently public. It includes the making and the contestation of accusations within a public domain. This rather public strategy may lead to problems in terms of politics, namely when witchcraft problems extend and the authorities see themselves confronted with the people’s demand that the state may deal with the problem.

In many pre-colonial African politics, the management of witchcraft was a key underpinning of political power. Chiefs or kings were responsible for intermediating between the spheres of daily life in which the witches ply their trade and the domains of ancestral spirits, in which the welfare and the security of the people lies. The witch- finding process as well as the treatment which followed it was under chiefly authority and could be considered to be part of the judicial function of the state.19 There are, however, types of witch-finding that are above the chief’s authority, as the following example shows.

In most African societies, as already stated in the former chapter, witchcraft is considered to be the cause of most misfortunes. Occasionally, it happens that whole communities seem to feel themselves in need of protection against witchcraft and an omnipresent feeling of insecurity prevails. In such an emotional climate witch- cleansing cults arise. They arise and vanish in periods, most likely in periods of hardship. The purpose of these cults is to go to the root of the trouble by neutralizing the witch. There is an underlying set of basic characteristics all these cults share:

- relatively simple ritual procedures to detect witches, lack of a formal organizational structure except for a remote semi-mythical founder head
- the ability to cross ethnic boundaries, adapting rituals and traditional ideas of each ethnic area.20

The contact between communities and the witch-cleansing cults mostly follows the same order. First, the cult representatives negotiate with the local headman (or chief). In most cases, the headmen will invite the cult after this in order not to get in suspicion of protecting witches. The next step is that of the witch detections, which usually does not follow traditional divining manners. After the detection, the witch is made confess. The detected witches actually confess in most cases, since the moral pressure and the wish to be re-integrated are very strong. After a treatment with medicine which “dries out” the evil spirits, the former witch is considered human again. In this final phase of the witch cleansing, all members of the community are provided with a sort of medicine, which is believed to protect against evil and to kill those who revert to their evil ways. Sicknesses and deaths rising shortly after the cleansing can thus easily be explained as the effect of the medicine on witches. However, the trust in the effectiveness of the cult’s action usually wears off after some time. This does not stop the same community to embrace another cult in the next period, of course. The social dimensions of such cults are immense, as they restore a community’s social unity and harmony at least for a short period. Furthermore, its cross-ethnic aspect serves as a uniting force between ethnic groups. An impressive example for this mediating functions is the supra-tribal Maji-Maji rising against German rule 1904-1905 which originated in a witch-cleansing cult. Cults are also potential generators of new social institutions, but only in exceptional conditions


1 Douglas, p. xiii.

2 Thomas, p. 56.

3 Compare Bond / Ciekawy, p. 16.

4 Carstens, pp. 4-5.

5 See Ashforth 2000.

6 Mutebi, p. 5.

7 Carstens, pp. 5-6.

8 Whyte, pp. 179-180.

9 Parrinder, p. 133.

10 Carstens, pp. 12-15.

11 Whyte, p. 199.

12 Carstens, p. 12.

13 Miguel, p. 2.

14 Parrinder, p. 129.

15 Geschiere, p. 22.

16 Mutebi, p. 5; Geschiere, p. 23.

17 Compare Macfarlane, pp. 88.

18 Geschiere, p. 61.

19 Ashforth 2001, 13-14.

20 Willis, pp. 129-130.

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Witchcraft in Modern African Societies
University of Hannover
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witchcraft, modern, african, societies
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Stephan Schuster (Author), 2004, Witchcraft in Modern African Societies, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/186458


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