The problem of witchcraft violence in Africa.

Author:Cohan, John Alan

    1. The Nature of the Witchcraft Problem

      Often enough, laws respond to the serious needs and desires of a society. At other times, society will render the law essentially ineffective because it goes against the grain of society's moral direction. Prohibition, as well as laws against abortion, fornication, and homosexual acts, all constitute other laws driven by society's moral compass. "A law that fails to take into account the social ethos of the community it is supposed to guide risks being ignored and hence, remaining a dead letter, incapable of inducing change." (1)

      Beliefs about life and death, good luck and misfortune, prosperity and poverty--changes that normally occur as societies undergo periods of profound transformation--are often prompted top down by colonial hegemony, or nudged by missionary proselytizing. Beliefs may evolve as a result of better education and health practices, or simply as an adjunct to the inevitable influence of globalization in communication and commerce.

      In developing nations, a palpable tension develops if the "dominant group ... enact[s] government policies that discriminate implicitly or incidentally against non-dominant traditions." (2) A society can ignore these problems and tensions, recognize them and refrain from proposing a solution, allow conflict resolution between groups to take its course, or enforce new norms with the force of law and punish offenders.

      In Africa, this tension seems nowhere more evident than in the context of traditional beliefs about witchcraft and the laws that seek to curtail witchcraft practices and accusations. As discussed in this article, a significant portion of Africans believe in the efficacy of witchcraft to produce harm and fear being targeted by its practitioners. At the same time, various witchcraft suppression laws, many dating from the colonial era, make it illegal to engage in practices customarily associated with witchcraft. usually these laws criminalize those occult practices that are intended to harm people, property, livestock, or crops. There have been long-standing objections by witchdoctors--i.e., traditional healers--who complain that the law should clearly distinguish their practices from acts of harmful witchcraft.

      Prosecutions for witchcraft under the very laws intended to suppress it are rare. The failure of the authorities to take action against witchcraft produces frustration that often prompts people "to kill witches and sorcerers, and to rid the community of the peddlers of this evil craft." (3) Witchcraft violence provides daily fodder for the press: "Hardly a week passes in South Africa without press reports of witches being killed." (4)

      Although the suspects in witch killings are hauled in and charged with murder, the prosecutions seem to have little deterrent effect on the violence, for witch killing "is not only approved but is also a praiseworthy service in the eyes" of many people. (5) Moreover, African courts invariably reduce the charges to manslaughter or mitigate the prison sentence on the grounds that the defendant killed in the heat of passion in response to the provocative acts of the deceased.

      The rarity of prosecutions of suspected witches may be due, in part, to the fact that witchcraft laws usually make it illegal to accuse others of witchcraft, and often there is no exception for accusations made to the authorities. This is an irony in the law: on the one hand the practice of witchcraft is illegal, yet making accusations of witchcraft is also illegal. The fear of making accusations to the authorities, coupled with the knowledge that such accusations are not likely to make any headway, compounds the motivation to engage in mob violence. At the same time, Africans of all walks of life utilize witchcraft as a means of gaining advantages, often at the expense of others, such as to ensure success in warfare or in sports, to thwart a romantic rival, to win a political race, or to exact vengeance against an enemy.

      To some degree, the situation seems to be hopeless. Even if the authorities wish to prosecute a suspected witch, there are the problems of the possible unfairness of a trial and the lack of evidence, as acts of witchcraft are invariably carried out in secret. circumstantial evidence might consist of proof that the defendant was in possession of witchcraft implements, yet a wide swath of society--most notably witchdoctors or traditional healers--also possess such implements. Evidence that the individual has the reputation of being a witch is admissible in some jurisdictions, and such evidence can be very prejudicial. And there is the question of causation: What evidence is there that an act of witchcraft was the cause of the victim's harm?

      Witchcraft violence often involves "muti-murders"--gruesome murders in which victims are mutilated and organs are removed from their bodies. (6) Body parts are amputated from living people--so as to retain as much as possible of the victim's vital energy--mixed into magic drugs and amulets, and sold in the marketplace. These murders provide African newspapers with sensational stories that reflect how witchcraft produces a widespread social pathology of fear. (7)

    2. The Logic of Witchcraft

      The conflict between modern and traditional culture is evident in the notion that "[t]he visible and the invisible are necessarily complementary in African understandings of reality." (8) The invisible forces of the occult are believed to have causal efficacy to produce harm, so that to the African mind, "witchcraft is a matter of the most deadly seriousness." (9) One author stated, "From the inside of African life, witchcraft is an 'objective' feature of reality which invites an appropriate response from the community." (10)

      People will often ascribe witchcraft as the cause of "fortunes and misfortunes, good and evil, and life and death." (11) Those who believe in witchcraft think it is the most likely cause of virtually any unfortunate occurrence, such as illness, accident, fatal lightning strikes, loss of livestock, impotence, crop failure, and drought. (12) other causes of trouble include "cursing, the anger of ancestors, or the malevolence of ghosts." (13) Witchcraft is even implicated in causing unemployment and political misfortunes. (14) At the same time, high unemployment fuels further witchcraft because "people are suffering and are thus more inclined to turn upon their neighbors." (15)

      The belief in witchcraft is often thought of as

      socially useful[,] ... giving victims a socially prescribed target for protective or remedial action, increasing group cohesion or individual catharsis by projecting hostile or sexual impulses onto outsiders, maintaining civility in everyday life (because failure to be polite could be interpreted as malevolence), and providing social control by ridding a community of deviant persons. (16) Witchcraft, some think, "[t]akes its origin ... in the psychological need to provide an outlet for repressed hostility, frustration and anxiety. it provides a way to explain serious misfortunes and render those who suffer them blameless in the eyes of society. (17) Witchcraft is also used to complement the natural explanation of events. (18) As Evans-Pritchard pointed out in 1937, believers in witchcraft are aware of the physical circumstances of accidents and disease, but turn to witchcraft to help explain why a particular person and not another was a victim. (19) Witchcraft answers the question of why this misfortune happened to this person at this precise moment: "While witchcraft believers accept that a person died of a heart attack or their cattle died from a disease--which explains how the misfortune happened--these cultures seek a metaphysical answer for why it occurred[,] ... [blaming either] the anger of one's ancestors or the evil practices of a witch." (20)

    3. Belief in Witchcraft on the Rise in Africa

      Witchcraft has been a potent force in African life for a long time. In 1950, C.K. Meek stated:

      Witches and witchcraft do not, of course, exist, but the belief in their existence is one of the most potent in the lives of most African people. And it is a belief which cannot easily be exorcised, for it is not an isolated factor, but an integral part of the whole psychological and magico-religious system. (21) The fear of witchcraft is a real and present force in Africa. As Edgerton says, "When it is believed, as it so often is, that some people (witches or sorcerers, for example) possess the inherent or acquired power to harm others, the fear that they will cause injury, illness, or death often amounts to nothing less than terror." (22)

      African scholars have observed that "witchcraft is reproducing itself hand-in-hand with modern changes, and on a rapidly increasingly scale." (23) Today, witchcraft beliefs are a central component of the cultural traditions and customs of many Africans. (24) Moreover, "Witchcraft, it is clear, has not declined with independence and development; it has, rather, flourished in unexpected ways and entwined itself in political action and political thinking." (25)

      studies show that the belief in witchcraft "is strong, common and widespread in Africa." (26) According to surveys conducted by one professor on his students over several years, about eighty percent of African students in universities believe in the reality of witches and spirit ancestors. (27) Government officials in south Africa estimate that eighty-five percent of African households consult witchdoctors--traditional healers who are often consulted to detect witchcraft and provide cures for hexes. (28) Thus, the popularity of witchdoctors reflects the prevalence of the society's belief in witchcraft. (29)

      One East African judge commented in a case that there are entire African communities "soaked" in witchcraft. (30) Another judge in Tanzania stated:

      Our people, whether we like it or not, have believed, are believing and will...

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