Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Witchcraft" in Africa

African "witchcraft" has been in the news again recently.

Here is my view of this issue:
  • There are African traditional religions which include magical practitioners. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these practitioners were mislabelled as "witches" by Christian missionaries and colonialists. At that time the word "witch" still had almost entirely negative connotations. When these people's roles are being translated into English by Africans, they don't use the term "witch".

  • African traditional religions have two categories of "witchcraft":
    1. involuntary "witchcraft" which is a disease that the "witch" often doesn't know that they have. This is a complete misuse of the word "witch". (See Witchcraft among the Azande by W Evans-Pritchard for an anthropological study of this type of witchcraft belief.)
    2. sorcery or malevolent "witchcraft" - again, this has its own set of African words which probably don't map precisely onto the European concepts.
    Please note I don't believe that either (a) or (b) above actually exist, certainly not as an organised practice. Unfortunately evangelical Christians in Africa do believe in (a) above (and probably (b) as well), and are using it to get converts and money by stirring up a witch panic and torturing children (many of whom are rescued by the excellent charity Stepping Stones Nigeria).

  • During the late 19th and early 20th century, various European writers began to see witches as just traditional healers who were misunderstood, and so the word "witch" came to have positive connotations in some quarters; Gerald Gardner picked up on these writings and created Wicca (or the people who initiated him did so).

  • This new positive understanding still hasn't reached many evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, who regard all magic as being of the devil. The more enlightened Christians understand the difference between contemporary Pagan Witchcraft, the negative stereotypes of the 19th century, and the magical practices of African traditional religions.

  • In some circumstances, it may help to label traditional healers & magicians as being like Wiccans (where Wiccans are held in positive regard); in other cases, it may not (where Wicca is regarded as just another decadent Western practice, for instance).

  • Labelling all magical practitioners as "witches" is a bit too much like saying that anyone who does anything that looks like shamanism is a shaman, when they may have their own indigenous term and understanding of the practice which is different from that of the original shamans of the Tungus in Siberia. People's practices should be understood on their own terms, and not in terms imported from another context. It is quite correct to say that understanding it in terms of "black magic" versus "white magic" is very unhelpful. I'm just going one step further and saying we should be extremely careful in applying European terms, metaphors, or concepts to the situation; if we do so, we need to understand it in terms of the historical factors which might be causing the situation, and to be aware of the differences as much as the similarities.


Steve Hayes said...


I partly agree, but there are some points on which I disagree.

In particular, I disagree with the first point. Witches were not part of a religion, African or European. I also don't believe they were mislabelled. I think they were labelled quite accurately, and English-speaking visitors to Africa came up with a term for African religious practitioners that had no English equivalent, but was actually a fairly accurate description of what they did - "witchdoctor" - in other words, a doctor who healed the damage done by witchcraft. I've dealt with that in some detail here Notes from underground: Witchdoctor - a cultural stereotype?.

The misapplication was done in Britain, by folklore collectors, as Hutton point out:

"Above the level of these specialists came those practitioners who offered a range of skills linked to the operation of apparent supernatural power: the treatment of human and animal illnesses, the finding of lost or stolen goods and the detection of thieves, the removal of destructive magical spells and the punishment of the person who had cast them, astrological calculations, and other divinatory techniques. Such an operator was known throughout England as a "wise-woman" or "wise-man", with "wizard" as a common alternative for the latter. In southern counties, the Midlands and Wales, the terms "cunning-man" or "cunning-woman" were often used instead, while "conjuror" was sometimes employed for male practitioners in southern England and every frequently in Wales. The native Welshe expression was "dyn hysbys", and the Cornish equivalent was "pellar", which folklorists have believed to be a corruption of "expeller", one who removes evil spirits. Folkore collectors themselves often employed the term "white witch", but this formulation was very rare in the vocabulary of ordinary people, to whom the word "witch" almost always signified someone who worked magic for personal ends of profit or malice" (Hutton 2001:85-86).

That last sentence is an accurate description of what "witch" means in Africa too. So it wasn't misapplied in Africa, it was misapplied in England.

Nevertheless, regardless of where and by whom it was misapplied, the important thing is that "witchcraft" means two very different things, and it is important to keep the distinction clear, and not confuse them.

Yvonne said...

Hi Steve

But there are traditional healers/magicians in African religions who work to prevent illness etc (see for example the writings of Malidoma Somé). These are not witches by any definition of the term, ancient or modern.

I also agree that there was no religion of witchcraft until Gerald Gardner (or his immediate predecessors in the 1920s) founded one.

Pitch313 said...

I think that the problem is, mostly, the intolerance of some Christian preachers or leaders for whatever it is that looks to them like "witchcraft" or that they can point at and call "witchcraft."

This intolerance goes religion-wide, across lots of historical cultural boundaries. Indigenous practioners. Acculturated occultists. Neo-Pagan explorers. Postmodern entrepreneurs and utopians. Whatever.

These Christian preachers and leaders just don't like to watch anybody getting away with anything they can condemn as "witchcraft."
In India. In Africa. In the USA.

It's a skewed sort of problem in intercultural politics where we can't get at the encysted and replicating intolerance.