Although the event took place on a weekday afternoon at a time when I was very busy, I was determined to go along because African witchcraft was something I knew little about. Sure, I read newspaper articles showing that beliefs in witchcraft are widely held in Africa, while in Europe witch hunts are a thing of the past and modern pagan witches are regularly campaigning to have historic sentences overturned. However, I knew it was wrong to make too much of a comparison between African and European witchcraft beliefs. They are very different places, with different cultures.
It has taken me a few weeks to find time to go through my notes and get them into a form good enough to post on my blog. This is a *very* long post, but I felt the subject matter was hard to condense much. For the sake of brevity I left out one of the talks – Professor Jim Sharpe’s lecture on Interpreting the European Witch Hunts, as most readers of my blog are likely to be more familiar with that than with African witchcraft. However, I will blog about it later because the talk was very interesting and informative.
Witch Findings in the Congo in the 1930s
The first talk of the day was by Dr Reuben Loffman on a case of two chiefs using witch findings to cleanse evil from villages in Southeastern Congo during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The two chieftainships were new and contested, and the two chiefs were also new - they had been schooled by missionaries rather than being hereditary. In 1934 the chiefs decided to enforce tradition with witch findings, which were a traditional way of cleansing sickness or other problems.
Local missionaries thought witch findings distasteful and lobbied for them to be stopped, but nothing was done for several weeks while the chiefs went about trying to find witches using a traditional poison ordeal. Eventually the administration commissioned a medical study of the bodies of those who had undergone ordeals and police made a report.
The ordeals were done in public spaces as an audience was necessary, confessions were obtained from people who had been hung upside down and tortured, then given a poison ordeal. If they died, they were guilty. Poison ordeals have long history in Africa; what they did different in this case was the use of apparatus alongside the poison ordeals rather than for purification. Most of those accused were women, but there was one man.
In 1934, the “evil” being faced was probably sleeping sickness. This was endemic as a symptom of colonial conquest and a serious illness. Chiefs were expected to cleanse their realms of evil at this time and witch hunts were the traditional way of doing this.
In an epilogue, the villagers said that the witch cleansing worked. There was no more “evil” after the witch hunts. However, sleeping sickness was declining in that area anyway. The main chief involved was exiled for the crime, but came back in the 1950s. Rather than viewing him as a cruel man, the people of the chieftainship saw him as a hero for saving them from evil.
Lost in Translation
Dr Loffman added that the main difficulty in his research was the issue of translation. Because the records were made by the missionaries rather than residents in the affected area, working out what was that was actually said that got turned into the word “witch” or “wizard” in the records, can be hard. Problems of translation were also addressed by the next speaker, Dr Cherry Leonardi, and then discussed in depth by the final speaker of the morning, Professor Diana Jeater.
Boundaries and Changes in Occult Practices
Dr Cherry Leonardi is the author of Dealing with Government in South Sudan: Histories of Chiefship, Community and State.Her talk was on Witchcraft and the Regulation of Boundaries in the South Sudan-Uganda Borderlands. She said that witchcraft has come up continually as an issue in South Sudan, in the area that borders Uganda on the edge of the Nile.
In the area Kajo Kaji, witchcraft often translates as poisoning; kissum for the Kuku people and enyanya for the Ma’di. It is easier to get poisoning recognised all over the world as it is illegal everywhere, while witchcraft isn’t. Often substances are sent for testing. However, in the South Sudan region, there is no clear line between poisoning and witchcraft, and things like lightning strikes can also be considered witchcraft. This leads to tangles in legal cases as the search for evidence means a focus on material substances.
In Sept 2014 violent conflict erupted and led to cross-border attacks. Thousands of people fled to South Sudan. Conflicts over the boundary line had gone on for years, but it was a shock because the Ma’di and Kuku had previously been known for peaceful relationships and frequent intermarriage.
The earliest reports of kissum are found in a colonial medical report in 1924. Poisoning was regarded as a female propensity passed through female line. The report gave details of how women extracted kissum from snakes and put it into food, but could also be done by lightning strikes or wild animal attacks. Women who failed to become witches would be infertile. Also, it was associated with women who had been captured in conflicts, but after integrating into Kuku society retained hostility to their captors. In the 1930s poison cases were reported more widely, also some done by men. Apparently before 1917 there was no fear of poisoning, but this could be because of when sleeping sickness spread to Sudan from Uganda.
Returning to language issues, there is a distinction between witchcraft and sorcery – witches use mystical means, sorcerers use material medicines. In regards to poison, ba enyana beri and elojua are two types of sorcerers; the former women and traditional, the latter men.
In the past decade beliefs about poisoning have changed again. Kissum is associated with the old generation, abiba is new thing from Uganda and associated with men and technology - those possessing abiba are rich men. Abiba is an occult force, like a zombie belief, that takes people from their beds to work so that the person doing it gets rich. Alternatively, sometimes the dead are taken from graves. The practice is linked to wealth from cross-border operations. Another magical practice involves people being told to write a numbered list of relatives who would die and a number would then appear on their skin.
Dr Leonardi said that witch hunts are ways in which chiefs are trying to re-establish their authority after conflicts. Nowadays people tend to be exiled from communities for poisoning/witchcraft rather than be killed. So, if a person comes to a new area they are suspected of kissum unless they have references.
Spirits, Law and Records
Professor Diana Jeater’s looked at Evidence of Due Process in African Prosecutions of Witches in Southern Rhodesia in the early 20th century. She is the author of Law, Language, and Science: The Invention of the Native Mind in Southern Rhodesiaand in her talk she aimed to reconstruct a legal process by looking at the present and integrating traditional spirit beliefs with the legal process.
She said that spirits are important to community relationships, but current legal practices don’t deal with them. How these worked in the past is a submerged history. Whites came into the area in the 1890s and, using model from South Africa, made it illegal to accuse people of being witches - witchcraft accusation suppression.
However, there are many traditions of how witchcraft was dealt with in the past. Those researching the subject can talk to traditional healers about how things were done traditionally, but it is difficult to find evidence of how it was really done before white occupation. Oral history and archives are both problematic. Professor Jeater said her previous work was to do with translations and problems of translation in archival material in relation to how things worked in practice.
Zimbabwe had no customary law because white occupiers did not codify customary law, they wanted to ignore it and hoped it would go away. Native practice set no limitations on who could act as adjudicators - generally it was big men. There is evidence of whites hearing cases as if they were formal cases. Some were criminal cases, but not in criminal courts. They were dealt with in traditional ways because they were thought to be civil cases.
What one sees in the records is European jurisprudence. A researcher needs to get behind that – often if you see dissonances in the records, you begin to see a different system behind them. Codification didn’t work. Traditional rulings could be renegotiated and were flexible, which Professor Jeater said “drove white adjudicators nuts” because cases could be changed after they were “settled”. The significant exception to this, however, was witchcraft.
For witchcraft cases there was a strict due process and it had to be carried out precisely. This was partly because of the seriousness of the consequences of conviction and partly because witches use supernatural means to cause serious harm. It was also possible that evil spirits could not be neutralised, only banished or eradicated.
For this reason, you needed to be sure the accused was actually a witch, but of course it was hard to be certain if illness or misfortune was due to witchcraft or something else. A diviner was called in to say whether it was a witchcraft case or not; then it was necessary to identify the witch.
It was a normal aspect of daily disputes that people would call someone a witch while quarrelling, rather than a serious accusation where a community was really at harm. There were disincentives from making a serious accusation – a diviner was expensive and there were penalties for making trivial witchcraft accusations as well as compensation to be paid if the accused was exonerated.
The process had to start with a formal accusation using a token such as scattering ash outside the accused’s house. The claim of witchcraft had to be looked into by a diviner. If they found witchcraft was involved, the chief decided if the case would go forward. Then there was an ordeal. The accused and everyone involved had to be present and all had to participate. Some ordeals were more unpleasant than others. The least unpleasant was lifting a basket that a witch could supposedly not lift. Then there was poison or an emetic – only a witch would be made sick. The diviner then made a ritual accusation, or else the case failed. Finally, there needed to be a confession, which could involve torture. They would confess by proffering a token or accepting a token.
The system of witchcraft accusation was serious. However, it resolved tensions in the community.
Witchcraft and the Dangers of Intimacy: Africa and Europe
The final talk of the day was from Professor Peter Geschiere, author of Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust: Africa In Comparison.In his talk he compared Africa and European historical works. Professor Geschiere, like earlier speakers, started by apologising for using the term witchcraft, which is an unfortunate translation of local terms. He also said that at a 2011 medical conference, when he gave a talk on witchcraft and healing, the first question he was asked was, “When will you Europeans stop imposing your idea of witchcraft on us?” This shows the problems of definitions of witchcraft.
Professor Geschiere explained that he went to Cameroon to study politics, but everyone he talked to said “djambe” was behind everyday things, so he decided to study that. He said that there are lots of words for witchcraft in different areas and showed a list of Maka witchcraft terms:
- Djambe: sorcellerie (witchcraft)
- Djambe le ndjaw – witchcraft of the house
- Sjoumbou – nocturnal meeting where witches deliver kin to outsiders
- Nganga - healer who can only heal because of djambe
What is striking in Cameroon is the insistence on a close link between witchcraft and kinship. Trust is never given because of this. However, Africa is not exceptional in seeing a connection between witchcraft and intimacy. Intimacy is wonderful, but can be dangerous – it is something all societies struggle with.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Cameroon people were not interested in witchcraft because it was associated with the past, but now it is everywhere. One of the problems revolves around younger people going to the city and then returning to the village. They can be accused of witchcraft or fall victim to witchcraft. At one time there was a saying that witchcraft cannot cross the water, but since 2000 an increase in migration meant that this no longer seems to be the case. Telephone calls from home are now seen as allowing witchcraft to spread.
African witch hunts usually start with the family, but in European history they started with neighbours. Nowadays the concept of the house in Africa has stretched as it reaches the city and even other parts of the world. This causes present-day problems as African immigrants are affected by the influence of family.
It means that African views of witchcraft are no longer isolated and there can be issues caused by cultural differences in other parts of the world.
I found all the talks absolutely fascinating and learned a lot about African witchcraft traditions. My only surprise - and disappointment - was that so few of the people present at the event were black or African.
The photo at the top shows speakers and delegates in the senior common room at Queen Mary University of London during the drinks reception after Worlds of Witchcraft: Comparing African and European Histories of the Occult on 30 March 2016.
Links and previous related post: