Poverty, Witchcraft and Witch-killing in Africa “The campaign to make poverty history- a central moral challenge of our age- cannot remain a task for the few; it must become a calling for the many”. -Kofi Annan, United Nations Ex- Secretary-General, October, 2006 The Kofi Annan’s challenge above is a mean one; a clarion call to every citizen of the world to do their bit, their very best, in the quest for a poverty-free world.
To some of us who are African humanists, the call must be taken seriously to guarantee better future devoid of deprivations of essentials of life. Yet we see the probability of eradicating poverty in Africa soon, most especially in sub-Saharan Africa, as a mirage based on daily worrisome happenstances around us. In this piece and for the benefit of October 17 celebration, the international day for the eradication of poverty, we shall be examining two of these disturbing trends of events that are giving many of us sleepless nights: witchcraft and witch-killing.
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We shall be exploring their nature and effect most especially as they relate to poverty and poverty eradication possibilities. This is necessary because many citizens of the world, including the Norwegians, are currently worried about the level of deprivations, the dearth of the basics that makes humans truly human, in our globalised world. Let’s start with the definition of witchcraft. Witchcraft, according to Bertrand Russell, is ‘a composite phenomenon drawing from folklore, sorcery, demonology, heresy and Christian theology’.
The World Book Encyclopedia describes it as ‘the use of supposed magic powers generally to harm or damage property”. From the above, we can move on to deduce a definition of a ‘witch’ as a person who is supposed to have received such powers from ‘evil spirits’, that is, power to know all things, power to destroy lives, among others. While ‘witch’ is a general name, the word has a gender connotation. A ‘male witch’ is called wizard, while a ‘female witch’ is called ‘witch’.
The belief in witchcraft is not recent, nor is it a product of the popular Harry Porter series. Rather, according to Godffrey Parrinder, it is “one of the great (sic) fears from which mankind has suffered”. The belief has appeared in many parts of the world, in one form or the other. While it became particularly prominent and developed in Europe in the later middles ages and renaissance periods, the belief in witches and their evil powers have remained with Africans for centuries before then.
For Africa, therefore, till today, witchcraft belief is a great tyranny spreading panic and death. This unhindered, thriving, belief, which is devoid of any commonsensical scientific ratiocination, is being buoyed by the excruciating and pitiable living condition of many Africans that they found unexplainable; hence the need for scapegoats, the ‘witches’. Thanks to the modern day fraudsters, the Pentecostal pastors. The advent of Pentecostalism, and the healing Christian, churches have contributed in no small measure in reinforcing the belief.
They accepted the existence of witches and witchcraft and claimed they have the power to protect against its evil powers. All manner of social, health and economic problems are readily carpeted as having ‘spiritual’ dimension blamable on ‘witches’, who are usually aged women and unwitting teenagers. To market their churches, most of these pastors have resorted to demonizing many aged, mostly poor, haggard looking, widows or barren women and innocent children, as witches that must be ‘delivered’ and ‘saved’ from the power of darkness.
This uncritical scapegoating is gaining momentum more than ever before because of the seemingly irredeemable economic condition of living of sub-Saharan Africans. The many frustrated sub-Saharan African people are brainwashed to believe that their major enemies are not corrupt government officials, inhuman government policies nor their, personal, inability to cultivate and explore the best of their potentials in the ‘here and now’ world. Rather they have been sweet-tongued into believing that it is the ‘witches’ in their families and their homes that have been working against their fortune spiritually.
Based on the ‘prophesies’, the unfortunate scapegoats, those accused of being witches, are given two options: either to confess to their ‘countless heinous sins’ and be saved/delivered or risk being killed, which in most cases mean being stoned to death. The options are not jejune; yet most of the victims have little time to make up their minds on the path to follow, for indeed none of these forerunners of witch-killing offers an easy way through.
In fact, any of them is capable of leading to discriminations of all sorts, social exclusion and, in most cases, death arising from stoning, secluded life, stifling of opportunities, among others. Like we said earlier, the belief in witches is as old as mankind but witch-killing, (which means the act of killing witches), most especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is a recent phenomenon. In the olden days, African ‘witches’ are not killed but offered sacrifices and appealed to in order to enjoy their support in all endeavours.
And no African society supports witch-killing in whatever form. Modern witch-killing has its root in the middle-ages Europe. The Roman Catholics, the Vatican city or the Holy See ‘Kingdom’, were the first to commence and popularize the business of state-backed witch-killing with the edict known as Papal Bull: summis desiderantes affectibus of Innocent VIII in 1484 and also the two other Dominican Inquisitions, known as the Maaleus Maleficarum of 1486, which both allowed the use of torture to break the resistance of those who are obstinate.
The punishment imposable at the time includes the confiscation of property and even death. Apart from the Roman Catholic, the English government through its 1542, 1563 and 1604 Acts of Parliament also legitimize witch-killing mostly based on the belief popularized by the Papal Bull. The belief is that the witch has no beneficent role in the community. History also has it that witch-killing began in France in 1232 but did not reach Scotland until 1566. Although not officially backed, hundreds of women also got burnt in Norway’s northern city of Vardo in the early 1600s.
And long after it had died down in Italy and Britain, persecution continued on the continent especially in France and Germany into the late 1600s. One deducible fact based on history is that witchcraft accusations are usually malicious, unscientific and flimsy in nature. How, for instance, can one know a ‘witch’? And how can one be sure that an alleged person is guilty of all the heinous crime accusations levied? How can one be sure that the accusations are not mere victimization tactics?
These questions are quite important for a critical look into the Catholic criminalization of witchcraft, for instance, will show that it was directed at attacking the Cathars who were rebelling against the church, being Gnostics and Manicheans; they were accused of being against the church nay the society, therefore they are condemned to be tortured, maimed and to be outrightly killed. It is however pitiable today in Africa to note that rather than progressing, the continent is regressing into the unprofitable activities of the European middle-ages.
Consequently, the continent is today bedeviled by all the indices of under-development that characterized the European middle-ages, where they have taken themselves to. Although there is no state where witch-killing is legally backed in sub-Saharan Africa, yet governmental activities, and that of their agents, have not shown compliance with modern scientific commonsense and strong will necessary and sufficient to promote the human rights of all, regardless of the accusations.
For they have been allowing pastors and their ilk to continue, without any serious challenge and prosecutions, with their damaging campaigns and annoying fake prophesies that have led to maiming of spineless, haggard and hungry old women and, unfortunate, innocent teenagers, all in the name of their being ‘witches’. The deducible implications of this practice, witchcraft and witch-killing, are numerous. Here are some of them: 1.
The religious campaigns popularizing and blaming witchcraft for all woes have led to the killing of countless women, who are secret breadwinners in their family and denied many children the chance of growing up normally due to the attached stigma, of being ‘a small witch’. 2. Houses and properties have also been burnt or touched based on accusations of perceived community leaders’ inability to help ‘find’ the community witches. . Because of the prevalence of the belief, rather than work on and cooperate with government in the poverty eradication efforts many religious sub-Saharan Africans have resorted to consulting witchdoctors, or the Sangomas, for sanctification. 4. The belief has also hindered the growth of and the cultivation of scientific inquiry that is needed for scientific and technological breakthrough in contemporary Africa. 5.
Finally, the belief has perpetually remain gender biased, a cunning way of carrying on with the malicious traditional attack on the women folk, discriminatory and fictitious. The major consequence of the above is that the belief in witchcraft has stunted the growth of unchained creativity and made many sub-Saharan Africans to recoil unnecessarily to fate, visiting only pastors, Alfas (the Muslim witchdoctors) and the Sangomas/Babalawos (the traditional witchdoctors) to ward off and cleanse themselves of the ‘curses or family jinx’ trailing them.
Lean income, rather than been spent wisely are given to these modern day ‘fraudsters’ who ride in big cars for the spiritual ‘protections services’ they provided. In some cases, micro-finance loans have been used in funding ‘witchcraft cleansing rituals’ rather than the small scale business that it was disbursed for. The effect of these on poverty will not be far-fetched if one can pause to critically examine their effect on poverty eradication policy execution.
How for instance, can a man who is jaundiced with the belief in irredeemably bewitched life participate in poverty empowerment programme when a pastor has told him that “unless he begged one old woman in his family, he would never succeed”? Again, what do you expect to happen to children whose mothers have been sent to their untimely graves based on the flimsy allegation of being ‘witches’? How can a community that hinged their predicaments on bewitchment think out and work with policies meant to empower and reduce poverty in such communities?
What about the effect on techno-scientific development, the language of globalization? I can go on endlessly but there is no need, for my point is made, that the parochial belief and heinous act of killing others for being witches are inimical to workable poverty eradication policies. Here lies our specific challenge as humanists and responsible citizens of the world who are worried and disturbed by the level of global poverty: we must work together to fight this irrationality.
But our paths, even though shall cross, have different starting point with associated responsibilities. On our part, as African humanists, who live with and are nauseated by these belief and religiously coloured murders daily, the challenge is thrown, rightly, to us and we have taken up the fight. The Nigerian Humanist Movement’s ‘Stop Witch-killing! ‘ Campaign and the many activities of the Ugandan Humanist Association led by Deogratias, are some of the notable actions that have been taken to address the anomaly, marauding as sanity in our polity.
Although it is usually a big risk to confront the belief held dearly by the tyrant, religious, majority, still we must not be dissuaded by the threats of the organized religions. We, therefore, need to be more vociferous, more determined and more focused. To other humanists all over the world, who are genuinely concerned about and eager to help make-poverty-history, the challenge is no different: we must all fight this irrational belief that has the potential of rendering poverty-eradication blue-prints unachievable.
They need to support science education popularization projects and campaigns targeted at dissuading witch-hunting and witch-killing through volunteering and funding projects. They could also volunteer to teach or work with Africa-based humanist projects. Or they could help in funding, or in raising funds for, anti-witch-killing projects. Of direct effect on poverty, and the core of challenges to African and non-African humanists, is the support of, and for, persons accused of being witches.
Both need to support these victimized citizens of the world and their families; and also work together to engineer international policy, or policies, that will enjoin states to prosecute ‘witch’ hunting and killing. For it is only when we are prepared to support such efforts that the quest for a poverty-free world will not continue to be a mirage but a reality, an achievement that we all can be proud of. Onward! ‘Yemi Ademowo Johnson, socio-political philosopher and applied anthropologist, is former Secretary General of IHEYO, Belgium, and National Coordinator, Young Humanistas Network, Nigeria ?? 2008