Witchcraft beliefs in Africa returned to the news cycle towards the end of 2012 following reports of mass exhumations in Benin. In the dead of night, over 100 corpses were dug up from a cemetery near Porto Novo and mutilated – reportedly so that body parts could be sold on the black market. In recent months, there has also been a string of UN and NGO reports linking African witchcraft beliefs to child abuse, killings and human trafficking.
In coverage of such stories, it is often suggested that witchcraft beliefs, and the abusive practices that can follow, are deeply rooted in African tradition and local cultural heritage. An Al Jazeera documentary about witchcraft accusations and infanticide in northern Benin, for example, stresses the role that witchcraft plays in Beninese tradition and the difficulties faced by authorities in eradicating entrenched superstitions. Similarly, some reports emphasise the “traditions” that inform witchcraft-related child killings.
But while the role played by cultural heritage is undeniable, it is critical to separate ‘traditional’ elements from more modern innovations. Studies suggest that witchcraft-related practices have undergone rapid transformations in the last 20 years. According to a UNICEF report, for example, witchcraft accusations directed at children only date back around 10 or 20 years; prior to this, the accused were typically elderly women.
Today’s witchcraft beliefs and practices are as much products of modern dynamics as they are informed by long-standing tradition. Witchcraft beliefs are not remnants of ‘pre-modern’ cultures but contemporary phenomena embedded in, and partly constituted by, specific and current cultural and socio-economic contexts.
One important factor in these modern witchcraft beliefs is the recent rise of Pentecostal churches and other evangelical religions in West Africa, facilitated by modern media technologies.
Several religious figures, for example, use television and the internet to advertise their usually expensive services as exorcists. Prior to his arrest, "Bishop" Sunday Ulup-Aya in Nigeria earned $261 for each child he delivered from demonic possession. Similarly, Helen Ukpabio and her African evangelical franchise, Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, encourage witchcraft and demon-related fears, and call on people to subscribe to the organisation or pay hefty fees for exorcisms. On her website, Ukpabio sells publications and films including titles such as Married to a Witch, The Coven and Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft, the last of which sells for $25.
The use of modern media is not limited to Christian churches however. Benin has also seen the emergence of evangelical Vodun priests such as Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala, who hosts his own radio show and frequently appears on television to dispel misconceptions about the Vodun religion.
Although it is clearly too simplistic to suggest these evangelical practitioners are primarily responsible for driving witchcraft beliefs, their pervasive presence and use of popular media has inevitably contributed to the continued infusion of such beliefs into the general cultural landscape and popular conscience.
Market forces are also central to today’s witchcraft beliefs. Again, although we must be careful not to over-emphasise the importance of such forces, economic dimensions are inextricable from, and central to, contemporary beliefs.
On the one hand, these influences can operate from a top-down perspective. Practitioners such as Helen Ukpabio have helped create a lucrative market in anti-witchcraft goods and services, thus subjecting beliefs to the kind of marketing strategies typical of any modern capitalist industry.
Demand for charms and services that supposedly protect against sorcery have led to some shocking events in West and Central Africa. The corpse mutilations in Benin are one example. “The desecration of graves is about money in this region”, commented Joseph Afaton, director of the cemetery in Dangbo, Benin, where the desecrations took place.
In certain parts of West and Central Africa, people with albinism are said to have magical powers and an IRIN report estimates that a "complete set of albino body parts" – including all four limbs, genitals, ears, nose and tongue – can sell for about $75,000 in Tanzania.
Adding another economic layer to the issue, in many cases children accused of witchcraft end up as child labourers. Several industries in West Africa rely heavily on child labour, including cocoa farming in the Ivory Coast, and witchcraft beliefs are sometimes deliberately manipulated by human traffickers to silence victims and coerce them into accepting their fate.
From selling charms to child labour then, numerous parties stand to benefit from witchcraft beliefs and the human rights violations often facilitated by such beliefs.
On the other hand, economic forces can be seen to affect witchcraft beliefs from a more bottom-up perspective.
Interestingly, the UNICEF report mentioned above suggests that child witch accusations often take place in circumstances where families are unable to support their own children. A comparative survey published in the report found that impoverished regions of Africa in which children were able to support themselves experience a far lower frequency of child witch accusations even in cases where witchcraft beliefs form part of local tradition.
Additionally, modern scares often enter into discourse about sorcery. For example, a Beninese student told Think Africa Press that, prior to a car journey, he never told anyone where or when he was travelling lest someone employ sorcery to try to kill or injure him in a car crash. Traffic accidents are indeed a significant modern danger in Benin, causing over 2% of all deaths. The UNICEF report also cites urbanisation and the dissolution of the traditional family as factors behind recent transformations in the nature of witchcraft accusations.
Sorcery in Africa is not a simple concept, as Joachim Theis, UNICEF’s child protector in West Africa, explains in an IRIN report: “It has spiritual, economic and social drivers... It gets blurred with all sorts of other beliefs, but it cannot always be put into one box”.
Witchcraft beliefs are complex, varied and dynamic. They are not purely tradition but nor are they merely a response to rapid modernisation. They overlap many areas of life and society, and are intertwined in modern processes and even legal institutions – performing witchcraft is a recognised crime in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad and Gabon, and children can be imprisoned for it.
As well as being mindful of tradition therefore, NGOs and governmental bodies working to prevent child abuse and infanticide need to target these very modern and tangible realities: the explicit ‘witchcraft industry’, anti-witch legislation, child labour and human trafficking, poverty, urbanisation and family dissolution. If all they have left to face in the end is tradition, then they will have made considerable progress.
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For further reading around the subject see:
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