It is most often agreed that poverty, exacerbated by a lack of education, tends to lie behind a widespread belief in witchcraft. However, the reasons people seek scapegoats for their misfortunes is more complex than so.
First of all, let’s establish that witch accusations are widespread around Africa. And not only accusations but also murders. In fact if you thought the witch hunt was over in this world, you’re putting Europe at the centre of the universe.
To name only a few examples, witch camps in Ghana house hundreds of women and children as was the theme of a documentary by Yaba Badoe, The Witches of Gambaga. According to Amnesty, up to 1,000 people in Gambia have been kidnapped from their villages by “witch doctors”, taken to secret detention centres and forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions. Last year, a ten year old Nigerian girl was expelled from school on witchcraft accusations and a 95 year old woman in Zambia was brutally murdered.
Now, while there are reported cases of men being accused of witchcraft, the overwhelming majority of accused are women, and they are especially women who do not fulfil expected gender roles of marriage and motherhood. Widows and elderly women are especially targeted.
Furthermore, murders of so called witches most often have to do with female sexuality and reproduction. Women are blamed and killed for allegedly preventing conception, causing miscarriage and stillbirth, making men impotent and causing spermicide, seducing men, having sex with the devil and giving birth to demons.
What this suggests is that in societies where women’s roles are widely limited to child-bearing, people harbor fears that women, as a way of expressing their feelings of outrage, would resort to disrupting social harmony using supernatural powers.
One of the less discussed reasons behind superstitious beliefs is the fear of female rebellion. The more patriarchal a society and the more it oppresses women through its institutions and norms, the more it fears that women may be conspiring supernatural vengeance.
Let me point out that the African continent is not alone in containing witch hunts. From Latin America to South East Asia to the Middle East murders of alleged witches are common.
There are also conspicuous uniformities between the treatment of perceived witches in Africa and that of women who in medieval Europe were accused of being witches.
These global similarities cause us to wonder — if witchcraft is not a genuine phenomenon, which is my belief — why is the witch fantasy found in so many diverse regions? And what is it about women that provokes such fears of her occult malevolence in different cultures around the world?
Perhaps most worrying is that superstition is hardly relegated to the uneducated. According to this report by Afruca, 95 percent of respondents in a survey said that they believe in witchcraft. These are people that are privileged with education and literacy.
Sure, many of us – myself included – occasionally have illogical reactions about the ominous significance of particular thoughts, events, dreams and so on and also I’m not proposing that everything in the world can be fully understood.
However, it is imperative to try to understand. When it comes to witch hunts, we are aware that most accused witches are women but we fail to factor this fact seriously into our analyses. We need to address the whole problem of witch hunts and fundamental sexual antagonism towards women is a key part.
I find that I like most of your articles and this is no exception.
I think there’s at least one more factor to consider in any discussion of the prevalence of witchcraft. It has to do with the fetishizing and often supernatural notions of female power.
Many african societies, mine included, have this element to what it means to be a woman.
This is definitely a part of the problem. Society, women included, need to understand identity beyond this dimension or the notion that witchcraft speaks to a certain reality will persist.
Thanks for the comment. You raise a v. important point and I think you’re absolutely right. Fetishizing female power plays a significant role here.
Do you have any particular examples in mind of this taking place?
Something I thought of reading your comment is the Gelede festival/ritual in Nigeria where men dress as women to pay tribute to their perceived supernatural power in order to curb it and avoid misfortunes. It’s a feministic ritual on one hand, in the sense that it so clearly acknowledges that there’s an imbalance of power between the genders, and on the other hand it fetishizes female power in a way that suggests that women are superhuman.
this is a really interesting point…fetishizing women. I don’t necessarily feel that women are superhuman but we all have power and a woman’s power/influence is a different nature than man’s. We are also spiritual beings, we are able to set intentions, use our energy in ways that serve us and others positively or don’t. Our bodies and energies shift and change as we give birth or experience our menstrual cycle. We have intuitions, dreams and visions of the past and future. Our influence is different in so many ways so I understand the fetishizing and fear that men have and see the “witch-hunt” as a way of oppressing our influence and power. Uneducated or not men are intimidated by us and are quick to shut us down because they can’t pin point and control all of what we are.
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment Nawala. Imagine what our societies would be if that feminine energy was not oppressed.. if we could heal and surround ourselves in limitless power and love..ahh
To those who believe or don’t believe in witchcraft, please take my survey on it.