Witch Hunts in Africa
In researching the history of witchcraft for my site, I came across disturbing information about the witch hunts taking place in Africa today. The similarities between the modern witch hunts of Africa and the witch hunts of Western Europe 300 years ago is uncanny.
I would like to dedicate this study to all of the individuals who were terrorized, banished and/or killed in Africa on accusations of witchcraft, and to those that continue to be hunted today.
Millions of people in eastern, southern, and western Africa believe that there are witches, both male and female. In the business world, people maintain that their slow career progress is due to a colleague's witchcraft. Wealthy businessmen have their products "protected" by diviners in case a competitor resorts to witchcraft. Politicians suspect opponents of using witchcraft when they lose an election. Religious people of every faith take care when cutting hair or nails not to leave the remains lying around, so that they will not be taken by a witch for use in a spell.
Witchcraft beliefs are said to be typical of prescientific, low-technology societies, where there are few rational explanations for illness and misfortune. Why, then, have they persisted even in cities, where the alternative of Western rationalism is available to many? These age-old beliefs, some researchers argue, give an answer to the fundamental problem of evil. And to many Africans, they do so more convincingly than the Western worldview.
Though witchcraft beliefs are thought to be stronger in Africa than on other continents, they are not specifically African. Witchcraft beliefs exist "from Africa to the South Seas and from Asia to America," notes Philip Mayer in Witchcraft and Sorcery. In Europe, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, were burned as witches in witch-hunts that lasted for 300 years; the last burning of a witch in Europe took place as late as 1782, in Switzerland. Even apparently unrelated phenomena, such as McCarthyism in the United States, have been likened to witch-hunts.
What are witches like? According to the beliefs of various African peoples, witches can fly. They dance naked in the cemeteries & graves at night, dig out corpses and eat the flesh. They copulate with animals, commit incest, and eat their own children. They may walk backward and on their hands, eat salt when thirsty, and hang by their feet from a tree when resting. They may come at night, take a victim's head, use it as a ball in a game, and return it in the morning without the aggrieved's noticing anything.
They are a society's collective nightmare, a personification of its fears and forbidden desires. But in real life, those accused of being witches are not the terrifying creatures of nightmares. In Africa, as elsewhere, people are most likely to accuse each other of witchcraft in small, close-knit communities, where jealousies envy and tensions abound. The witch is hardly ever a stranger; he/she is, on the contrary, someone familiar, someone close to you, someone who knows you well and allegedly wishes you ill.
Often, people accused of witchcraft are poor; they may be deformed; they may make others feel guilty and therefore angry at them. But the supposed witch can also be the opposite of a loser. He may be someone too beautiful, too clever, too successful."There is usually a great fear of displaying one's ability to build a remarkable house, dress smartly, or do well in school," one inhabitant explains in a witch-fearing village near Voi, Kenya. Research by students in the Lands Institute of Dar-es-Salaam showed that witchcraft beliefs were an obstacle to development in the northern district of Handeni in Tanzania.
Traditionally, the punishment for witchcraft in many communities would be banishment or death. Today, there are reports of increases in witch-hunts and of lynchings of suspects in some African countries. In Kenya in 1992, over three hundred people accused of witchcraft were lynched, often by torching their houses. In Zambia, the government tried to stop a wave of witch-hunts by ordering witch-hunters and people suspected of witchcraft to pay high fees. South Africa reported an increase in ritual killings in 1992.
A CHRONOLOGY OF WITCH HUNTS IN AFRICA
July 14, 1995 - 250 documented cases of witch killings in the Northern Province in 1994, as reported by a commission of inquiry set up to investigate witchcraft-related crime. Weekly Mail and Guardian
December 27, 1995 - More than 70 people were killed in witch hunts in Northern Transvaal since April 1994. Weekly Mail and Guardian
June 5, 1996 - Six men sentenced for 30 years each for stoning to death 2 women suspected of witchcraft in Lydenburg.
June 18, 1996 - First witchcraft summit met in Pietersburg claims that 117 people had been killed in witch hunts since January '96. Unofficial sources put the deaths at between 300 - 500. Independent Newspapers
June 20, 1996 - Article states "The precise statistics are not known, but the deaths (due to witch hunts) number in the hundreds each year... and the trend appears to be on the rise" Mail and Guardian
June 30, 1996 - In Lusaka, husband accuses wife of practicing witchcraft, eldest son strips mother naked and beats her. Sunday Mail
July 6, 1996 - In Zaire, parents of a young boy died of Ebola. Boy was kicked out of village under accusations of witchcraft, and he passed through three other villages before being apprehended by Vanga Health workers. Mission Report
July 19, 1996 - Teen daughters in a village near Hammanskraal burned 55-year old mother to death for witchcraft. Mother was dragged from bed at around 3:00 am, driven to a patch of dense bush, doused with petrol and burnt. Independent Newspapers
July 19, 1996 - In a village near Libode in Transkei, a panga (machete) wielding mob hacked to death three elderly women for practicing witchcraft. Independent Newspapers
September 27, 1996 - 52 youths, between the ages of 14 - 26 were charged in connection with the murder of 33 "witches" in 1994. In the first half of 1996, 676 witchcraft-related cases were reported in the Northern Province. Weekly Mail & Guardian
December 13, 1996 - In Saudi Arabia a Syrian man was beheaded in public for practicing witchcraft. Reuters
December 17, 1996 - In Mbala, a 70-year old woman was buried alive for suspected witchcraft. The Post
December 21, 1996 - A mob of angry young Ivorians severely attacked five people accused of witchcraft in the village of Voueboufla (Gambia). One person died and two are in deep comas and the other two are in serious condition. Africa News Service
March 20, 1997 - Meningitis kills 542 in Ghana, witch hunts launched. A mob killed three middle-aged women in the village of Yoggu, accusing them of spreading the disease through witchcraft. Reuters
April 1997 - Swazi pastor and wife hacked to death by members of rival church. The victims were accused of killing the rival church's choir master with witchcraft. Independent Newspapers
May 13, 1997 - A cat was beaten and kicked to death at FNB stadium during a competition because the cat's presence was considered a bad omen and a symbol of witchcraft. Independent Newspapers
September 1, 1997 - A family of four was killed while sleeping with AK-47 assault rifles, south of Durban. The victims were killed because the wife had been accused of using witchcraft. Independent Newspapers
October 27, 1997 - Ghana's human rights organization called for a halt to the dehumanizing treatment of women accused of witchcraft. Women in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West regions accused of witchcraft are being lynched or banished to "witch camps". There are four such camps located at Gambaga, Kukuo, Kpatinga and Nagani. There are 123 women at the Gambaga camp, 450 at Kukuo, 42 at Kpatinga and 193 at Nagani plus 13 men accused of being wizards. The ages of the "inmates" are between 35 - 90 years old. Africa News Service
January 8, 1998 - In Durban, Northern Zululand, five people were burned to death accused of witchcraft. Two women and three men were the victims and evidence suggests that a considerable amount of people carried-out the attack. Independent Newspapers
January 13, 1998 - A 79-year old farmer in the Volta region of Ghana is asking for compensation (equal to $23,000) from the chief and elders of his village for banishing him on accusations of witchcraft. The human rights commission is pursuing the matter, they have sent a letter of inquiry to the chief, and have received no response as of yet. Africa News Service
January 27, 1998 - In Northern Ghana, masked vigilantes clubbed and stoned two women aged 55 & 60 to death for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Reuters
January 28, 1998 - Police shelter "witch" and her two children after her village accused her of witchcraft in Hlogotlou in the Northern Province.
February 16, 1998 - In Tanzania's Mwanza and Shinyanga regions, an alarming number of elderly women are being killed for witchcraft. Major General James Lubanga, the Mwanza regional commisioner said that the problem of witchcraft is common and behind every misfortune they believe somebody is involved. Africa News Service
March 6, 1998 - A human skull and a puffadder (snake) was found on a principal's desk in the Dete district. A witch doctor claimed that these were acts of witchcraft designed to kill the school headmaster. Independent Newspapers
April 3, 1998 - A security guard was shot by a 50-year old man outside an office block on Pritchard Street, central Johannesburg. The killer believed
that the guard used witchcraft on his daughter. Independent Newspapers
May 7, 1998 - A man who murdered his aunt is jailed for 11 years in Umtata. Hloniphile Mdludlu, 52, told Eastern Cape Judge Cecil Somyalo that after
his uncle died he consulted a sangoma (witch finder) in Gauteng who told him that his aunt, Nodimile Mdludlu, 70 was bewitching members of his
family. Independent Newspapers
May 16, 1998 - Last year, police in the Northern Province investigated over 150 murders of suspected witches. The problem has become so serious that a village has been set aside by the police as a "witch sanctuary". The village is named Helena and is about 60 kilometers from Pietersburg. Independent Newspapers
INSIDE THE VILLAGE OF THE SOCIAL OUTCASTS
In Africa, villages have been set up as havens for individuals banished from their villages for witchcraft. Helena, which is located about 60km from Pietersburg, is one such village.
In what has become an endemic problem in the Northern Province over the past five years, Helena is one of 10 officially recognised "witch sanctuaries" introduced by the South African police force in the region to help stem the tide of witchcraft-related killings. In 1997, South African police investigated over 150 murders of suspected witches, which is not an easy task due to the nature of these "supernatural" crimes and people's reluctance to talk. Hundreds have had to seek the protection of the police and now live as outcasts in these "witch" camps.
In a region of poverty and little education, villagers are quick to blame any adverse incidence, such as a fatal lightning strike on evil witchcraft. Those accused of using such witchcraft are banished from villages but often they are burnt or stoned to death. "If someone dies in suspicious circumstances, or something inexplicable happens, a witch is usually suspected," said Sergeant Stephen Ramabula, who has been assigned to the "witchcraft" unit.
"Generally, if people believe there is a witch in their village, they will consult the Inkanga (witch doctor). He or she will then sniff out' the witch. The person who is accused will then be killed or ordered to leave the village." Traditionally, it is women who are accused of witchcraft, but in recent history almost a third of victims are men. Bringing "witch" killers to justice is no easy task. Inspector Matome Mamabolo said: "It is difficult to gather evidence on witchcraft murders because people are scared.
The families of the victims are the only people who can be really helpful and assist police. "If someone is accused of murdering a witch, the community tends to support them by supplying money for an advocate when the case comes to court. There is a solidarity there after all, that person is accused of ridding the village of a witch." Excerpts from "Inside the
Village of the Social Outcasts" An article published by Independent Online.
COMMON BELIEFS ABOUT WITCHES IN AFRICA
1. Witches are female. Men are rarely accused of witchcraft, but are most often known as "wizards", "magicians" or "sorcerors" - someone who uses magic for malevolent purposes.
2. Such women meet in secret "assemblies" at night. When traveling to these assemblies, they take on the form of an animal and leave their physical bodies behind.
3. Witches prey upon non-witches who are neither deserving of nor responsible for the misfortunes they suffer.
4. Often the witch is thought to "consume" the body or spirit of their victim in some physical or psychical fashion. The physical manifestations would be any disease or illness which casues a lingering, chronic illness.
5. Witches are sometimes thought to derive certain of their powers from a "witchcraft substance", either internal to the body of the witch, or kept in some external, secret place.
Why are women associated with witchcraft?
Some theories indicate that there is a strong antagonisim between women & men, particularly since witch-doctors/sangomas are men and women are the "witches". Therefore, witchcraft may be regarded as an "effective" measure to keep women subservient in African society.
Which doctor is the Witch-doctor?
The witch-doctor AKA sangoma, is one who cures an individual who has been bewitched. The doctor must keep his hands clean from evil and will wield his powers solely in the interests of the health and welfare of the society. Often times, witch-doctors/sangomas are consulted to identify and disarm or destroy the witch responsible for casuing harm. This very often times leads to the hunting & killing of an individual or individuals in a village.