Ending Witch Hunts in Africa

Attacks and killings linked to witchcraft beliefs persist in Africa. In Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, alleged witches are subjected to horrific abuses. Unfortunately very little is being done to stop this violent campaign. In fact the world seems not to care about it. This tragic situation is due to a fundamental misrepresentation of African witch hunts by western anthropologists and their African counterparts.

Since Evans-Pritchard 1902-1973, African witch hunts have been mischaracterized. Western anthropologists have presented African witch hunts as other than witch hunts in Europe. They have made conscious efforts to otherize African witchcraft, belittle it and use African witchcraft tales as forms of entertainment for western audiences.

As a German friend noted some years ago, for Europeans, witchcraft is superstition but for Africans, it is not. This assumption is a categorical mistake, a misconception that persists. Western scholars arbitrarily made witchcraft a gatekeeping concept, that is, a frame to study and understand African societies. And no scholar dares deviate from this line of scholarship, explanation, and academic legitimation.

There is a conflation of African traditional religion, African traditional medicine with witchcraft. Meanwhile, there isn’t such conflation in Christian and Islamic traditions that also contain teachings on witchcraft and treatment of alleged witches. And this conflation has served the interest of these cultural outsiders for too long. It has become standard practice. The time has come for this conflation, which constitutes the basis of authority and scholarship in witchcraft and African studies, to be discarded.

Based on this mistaken and racist representation, western institutions have been reluctant to come out firmly against witch-hunting in Africa. Many in western societies think that witchcraft means something different for Africans. But it does not. Witchcraft is a form of superstition for both Europeans and Africans. 

In response, some African scholars romanticize the phenomenon of witchcraft, designating witchcraft as an encapsulation of African philosophy, ethics, and logic. They have forgotten that witchcraft beliefs and witch-hunting exist in other cultures and societies. And if witchcraft is not identified as part of European or Indian philosophies because witchcraft narratives exist in these societies, why should it be different in the case of Africa?

Thus witch hunt, which westerners identify with a darker and less civilized stage in their history is used to make sense of African modernity, rationality, post-coloniality, and contemporarity. This misrepresentation has yielded a situation whereby witch hunts continue to ravage the region. Now some people have wondered if there is an end in sight for witch-hunting in Africa. Yes, there is an end in sight but the world must abandon the misrepresentation, exoticization, and romanticization of African witchcraft.

Global and regional institutions need to treat African witch hunts as a wild and dark phenomenon, not as a domesticated, socially useful, and stabilizing mechanism. There will be an end in sight if local and global actors begin to see the African witch hunt from the perspective of the accused and victims, not of the accuser and believer. Simply put, witch hunts will end in Africa when western and Africans place, or learn to place African witch hunts on the same footing as European witch hunts. Witchcraft is an imaginary, irrational belief. Like Godcraft, devilcraft, and spiritcraft, witchcraft is rooted in ignorance and lack of understanding of nature and how nature works! 

Witch hunts persist due to limited state presence and weak institutions in the region. Witch persecution is rooted in a lack of social welfare, poor health infrastructure, lack of effective education and policing. Witch-hunting persists due to intense religious and traditional belief in magic, prohibition of criticism of religious doctrines, westernization of science, and Africanization of magic and occult.

To end witch hunts in Africa, mechanisms that are used to tackle global problems, epidemics and pandemics, should be adopted including rallying the world against witch persecution anywhere and everywhere. Witch hunts should be treated as a social disease, as a destructive phenomenon that should be tackled head-on without any reservations.

Leo Igwe, nskepticleo@yahoo.com

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