Sunday, July 31, 2011

Perspective on the so-called "Witchcraft" Practices

Just like the other romanticized media concoctions of Africa to 'western' and/or 'western influenced' audiences around the world, another typification of Africans is the practice of 'witchcraft'. A burgeoning trend in 'western' media outlets, is the progressive building up of a narrative of "increasing witchcraft" violence on the continent, whereby 'witchcraft' may be defined as follows: "defining witch craft as superstitious behavior that would traditionally be considered deviant".

This is simply one more thing that makes a "suitable" romantic 'western' idealization of the African continent and its people, aside from a few other examples mentioned on this site on previous occasions, which includes, a divided continent of "sub-Saharan Africa" (also synonymously called "Black Africa") and a supposedly "Negro-free" zone of coastal/Saharan north Africa, that sometimes conveniently includes sub-Saharan territories like the African Horn, all of which is then taken as a composite and taunted as an extension of the world of "Caucasians", even at times to the frustration of peoples from these regions. Keeping on with examples, typification includes the romanticized pitiful image-brand of the hut-dwelling hapless & natural-calamity prone Africans whose livelihood continue to hang by a thread, thanks to "generous western hand-outs". This fantasy even finds its way into 'western' pop culture, wherein just to provide a quick example, consider the "American Dad" comedic cartoon series: In one of its episodes, one of its main characters takes a jab at Africa with dark humor, by saying that "Africa is like a baby. It cannot take care of itself". The idealized African "urban" setting is one of either a desert or a Safari-friendly jungle. The true urban centers of the continent are hardly ever given one look, because they don't fit in well with this just mentioned idealization.

Even vocabulary items that were originally intended to describe some African social situation or another, like say Mambo Jumbo or voodoo are easily given negative repute after vocabulary repackaging from 'western' idealization.  

Anyway, to proceed with the present entry of "witchcraft practices", this is how it was explained away in a personal communication with one personality of a European descent:

I have a theory that because of desperation in various African societies it is becoming more popular to use human body parts for magical practices and this is a more modern phenomenon. Two examples albinos in Tanzania and Pygmies in the DR Congo. Is it possible that while Europeans were traditionally seen as witches and cannibals those same practices are becoming more popular on the continent? Here defining witch craft as superstitious behavior that would traditionally be considered deviant. Does this theory hold any weight.

It appears that our speaker here is trying to say that 'witchcraft' was something that was initially foreign to Africans, and was only subsequently learned from Europeans after contact. The put it into even more straightforward terms, our speaker above goes onto elaborate as follows:

My theory is that its a sort of flip flop in which witchcraft, which has traditionally been seen as something white men do, deviant and punishable by death, is now becoming more frequently practiced. And this is because of people becoming increasingly desperate.

It raises the question of why Africans would imitate behavior, no less from foreigners, if they judged such behavior to be immoral and inconsistent with their own traditional values. If it is taken for granted that Africans judged Europeans as cannibals, and charged them with sorcery and the like, which was reinforced by the inhuman treatment that came with slavery, then if and when such European practices spawned off local 'witchcraft' derivatives of like-practice, it is only logically fitting to intimate that said local 'witchcraft' imitations would have been equally viewed with negativity, and considered social deviance...unless of course, one is under the impression that viewing Europeans as cannibals was necessarily greeted with admiration, presumably as a compliment or a badge of honor. The spin-off question from this then becomes: Wouldn't said local 'witch doctor' counterparts have been equally viewed by locals as cannibals and social misfits, or would they simply have been overlooked on the account that they were citizens of the society? Of course, our European speaker above never answers this, but rather, is compelled to note again, that: For example it does seem that it is becoming more popular to use Pygmy body parts in the Congo for magic as mentioned above, while paradoxically cautioning that his alleged source of reference should be viewed as follows: These kind of articles should be seen with allot of skepticism, after being reminded that his source points out that, "There have been allegations of cannibalism during the recent conflict between Hema and Lendu militia in the north-western Ituri region but a spokesman for the UN mission in Kinshasa said these were difficult to confirm"

Notwithstanding such uncertainties or questions raised by the revealing source itself about the allegations under discussion, our European speaker cites such sources to say that 'witchcraft' murders are "becoming popular" or "rising" on the continent. This situation directly leads to our European speaker contradicting himself, because by saying that these events are something of a "more recent phenomenon on the rise", he is coming to a head-on collision with the earlier stated position that these were "borrowed" cultural items, which were practiced as such, and which were from the very beginning viewed as immoral by the locals. The underlying wisdom by default is therefore, that these witchcraft practices were not widely practiced in the past, supposedly because they were socially shunned, whereas we are now persuaded to believe that this social shunning has faded for some inexplicable new-found "desperation", thereby giving way to these practices becoming an acceptable common place in society. We are not clued in on why this "change" has occurred, nor are we given statistics on these incidents that compare them against murders and other crimes driven by different anterior or ulterior motives, which would demonstrate that 'witchcraft'-driven murders are comparatively outpacing the latter crimes in growth trajectory. As such, it is not established that witchcraft murders are in fact on the rise, or that these acts are considered any differently from other crimes that are considered to be socially deviant and punishable by law. If any thing else, the aforementioned claim about Europeans being typecast as cannibals, sorcerers and the like, for practicing witchcraft only reinforces point that witchcraft murders are generally considered "socially deviant".

Upon these contradictions eventually setting in our European speaker, he was compelled to revise his position yet again and concede accordingly:

Its considered horrible by the majority of people but more powerful people seem to be using it in recent times and generally something occurring more frequently in some places like I said.

Citing articles about allegations that have yet to be confirmed, or atrocities and butchery by war thugs, or crimes by unsavory characters, who pose as 'witch doctors', for the sake of 'witchcraft' as a remedy for overturning the misfortunes of the desperate, does not make 'witchcraft' murders other than what they are: i.e. perceived as crime and socially deviant conduct by the socially deviant. Naturally, if these are viewed as socially deviant, it then follows that they are also considered to be a break from tradition that is a socially accepted norm. This thus brings us right back to an earlier question; did "witch doctors" exist in African communities before European contact? If so, were these traditional "magic-performing" doctors considered cannibals? If not, why? If so, why?

As a matter of record, our European speaker had remained silent on these questions, but since our European speaker was making the case that witchcraft murders "are on the rise", it then follows that this criminal enterprise did not exist as such prior. This head-on collides with our European speaker's allegation that witchcraft was foreign to Africans until they learned it from Europeans whom they came into contact with, and that at the time of introduction of the cultural practice to Africans, the behavior was viewed as cannibalism, sorcery et al., which were considered immoral and were marked departures from preexisting local traditions and values. From the get go, when a cultural practice is considered immoral, not only will it not widely be adopted by the larger society, except possibly for a few criminal renegades, but will also be punishable by law in order to discourage practice. Against this backdrop, if we are now told that said acts "are on the rise", and are "becoming popular", then it follows that such acts were either taking place underground earlier on, and hence more infrequent, or that witchcraft was practiced using different sacrifice forms other than the human body. The former scenario seems less likely, because it insinuates that human sacrifice has risen due the practice becoming ever more lucrative as a result of increase in demand, which in turn implies that the market has expanded because more and more people are betraying or turning their backs on long held tradition and now considering such witchcraft as "socially acceptable".

Our speaker offers "increasing desperation" as the underlying driver behind this increase, but doesn't specify the nature of this "desperation" and what brought on the change, which are necessary since it would have to be taken that earlier social situations did not create conditions for this new-found "desperation". Given the long post-colonial history of socio-economic challenges in many African countries, one would have to reckon that dramatically new challenges, never seen before, must have brought on such new-found "desperation". On the other hand, the latter scenario suggests that witchcraft has always been there even before contact with Europeans, and was considered more in line with local traditions and values. Therefore under this scenario, the practice would have always been widely acceptable socially, and correspondingly, it would be practiced in the present as openly as it ever was from the get go. This means that the level of practice would not have undergone a rise or decline over time, and that even in the event that demand should suddenly rise for some inexplicable reason, then there would not be progressive increase in human murders, because the practice would have "legally" made use of other forms of sacrifice other than the human body, i.e. in tune with the preexisting local traditions and values. It also means that "witch doctors" would not be identified with cannibalism or social deviancy.

As a matter of intuition, an article will be presented below in another segment of this entry, of which parts have already been cited in the notes above, which explicitly points out that 'witchcraft' murders are indeed considered to be acts of heinous crime and not in tune with social norms and values, which therefore renders such acts as punishable by law. However, it is saddening that some elements of 'western' society pick up such articles and make sweeping generalizations that these are long held acceptable traditions and norms of African societies. Such personalities are driven to do this, because it plays well into uninformed 'western' idealizations of Africa, as primarily perpetrated by 'western' mass media.

*Additions could be made in the future when deemed necessary.
* Referential materials:

DR Congo pygmies appeal to UN

Pygmy representatives have asked the United Nations to set up a court to try government and rebel fighters from the Democratic Republic of Congo for acts of cannibalism against their people.

Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum that during the four-year civil war his people had been hunted down and eaten.

This is nothing more, nothing less, than a crime against humanity - Sinafasi Makelo

"In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, and genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted down as though they were game animals," he said.

"Pygmies are being pursued in the forests. People have been eaten. This is nothing more, nothing less, than a crime against humanity."

More than 600,000 pygmies are believed to live in the DR Congo's vast forests, where they survive by hunting and gathering.

Both sides in the war regard them as "subhuman", and some say their flesh can confer magical powers.


UN human rights activists reported this year that rebels had carried out acts of cannibalism.

Some of the worst atrocities allegedly took place when the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) - which controls the northern DR Congo - tried to take the town of Mambasa from the rival Congolese Rally for Democracy last year.

Mr Makelo called on the forum to ask the UN Security Council to recognise cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide.

There have been allegations of cannibalism during the recent conflict between Hema and Lendu militia in the north-western Ituri region but a spokesman for the UN mission in Kinshasa said these were difficult to confirm.

At least 300 people are said to have died in the fighting.

A mass grave containing the remains of more than 30 men, women and children was found near the town of Bunia, UN officials said.

Church leaders and residents have accused Lendu militiamen of killing civilians, cutting open their chests, removing hearts, lungs and livers, and eating them.

UN investigation

Father Joseph Deneckere, a Belgian priest who has lived in the DR Congo since 1970, said that traditional superstitious beliefs, entrenched hatreds and attempts to settle old scores lay behind the atrocities, the Associated Press news agency reported.

"Some of the victims had their sexual organs missing after tribal fighters cut them off to use as charms," he said.

Tribal fighters had also been seen wandering around the bush with human organs "draped from their weapons".

UN officials have opened a formal investigation into the allegations.
- Ends

*Simply put, if pygmies have long been considered edible items worthy of cannibalism, presumably as acceptable practice of long held "traditional superstitious beliefs', then there should be no pygmies around in this day and age. That clearly is not the case.

*Other sources: Personal notes from 2009.

1 comment:

mghani said...

You made reference to American Dad. What about the New broadway play Mormon by the creators of South Park! Its set in Uganda starring a pair of Mormon missionaries on a mission to save war and aids--infested blacks. Here is a summary of it by an African writer, Mpubani:

The Book of Mormon, a musical about a pair of Mormon missionaries in Uganda and currently showing at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway brings back those memories. However, the Uganda in this musical couldn't be any different from those uneventful, lazy days in a then sleepy Jinja. The village they are assigned to is terrorised by a savage warlord, the HIV/Aids prevalence rate is 80 per cent, and the natives believe that raping babies will cure them of Aids. Save for the warlord, the rest of the claims are ridiculous exaggerations. Yet, it is such liberties that are some of its defining qualities, qualities that have led to a ticket sell out for the current performance schedule and universal rave reviews

Sometimes i feel there is no cure for this disease of Eurocentrism. An insecure western civilization which makes itself better by reminding itself of the inferiority and babarity of other civilizations (if they would even use that word to describe blacks)