Witchcraft and Sorcery

Many Africans view both misfortune and spectacular success as unnatural and believe that witchcraft or sorcery causes such events. Individuals referred to as witches or sorcerers—and by various local African names—are said to use secret, magical forces to hurt other people, to bring great success to themselves, or to maintain a powerful position in society. Their activities, which are usually considered destructive, are therefore closely related to jealousy, inequality, and the desire for power.

Witches and sorcerers may be either men or women. In some parts of Africa, people distinguish between witches and sorcerers. They believe that witches are born with supernatural powers and the ability to hurt others merely by wishing them ill. Sorcerers, however, are thought to be people of normal ability who have learned to use magical substances to harm others.

Some people view witchcraft as the dark side of kinship and possibly the result of aggression and envy within a family. In some African societies it is said that witches have an urge to eat their relatives. Many traditional stories tell of witches who leave their bodies at night and fly off to join others of their kind. At these meetings they turn over their kin, whose vital parts are devoured in cannibal banquets.

Witchcraft and Sorcery

Witchcraft in the Modern World

A belief in witchcraft and sorcery exists in modern African cities as well as in traditional villages. Western observers once assumed that as modernization and education spread throughout Africa, these ideas would disappear. In the 1970s European priests in CAMEROON declared that there could be no sorcery where there was electricity. Since then, electrification and other modern developments have gained ground, but belief in witchcraft has not declined.

Instead, new ideas about sorcery appear all the time, often with elements borrowed from foreign cultures—such as the notions that witches belong to the Mafia or study with European professors of witchcraft. Rumors about the use of hidden forces are common in African politics, sports, churches, schools, and business.

People in new and unfamiliar social settings, such as urban environments where there is strong competition for jobs and money, often fear that the use of witchcraft is growing. Such views are especially common when new forms of wealth appear. Some say that successful Africans who have become rich have done so by using magic to take advantage of others. In some cases the rich are accused of turning their victims into zombies, or living corpses, who are put to work on invisible plantations. Theories of this sort are used to explain the success of the few and the poverty of the many. They have even inspired attacks on newly rich people.

The views of African governments toward witchcraft beliefs are not always clear. Many governments take sorcery seriously, branding it as a particularly dangerous form of illegal or rebellious activity. Civil servants frequently tell villagers to stop trying to interfere with government projects by using witchcraft. Many educated Africans of the upper classes view sorcery as a real social problem, an obstacle to development and modernization.

At the same time, however, other members of Africa's upper classes, including civil servants and political figures, rely on witchcraft to protect themselves from people who might be jealous of their success. For a high price, wealthy Africans can buy potions, charms, and other witchcraft and sorcery objects.

Protection from Witches

Traditional African defenses against witchcraft include the use of divination and the services of a witch doctor. Someone who fears becoming the victim of harmful magic may seek the help of a diviner who calls on special powers to find out what the sorcerer has done. Many Africans say that diviners have “a second pair of eyes”—an extra sense that allows them to “see” witches. The victim may also need a witch doctor to attack or undo the original witchcraft.

Respected for their great powers, witch doctors are said to be able to overcome witches and force them to lift their spells. Sometimes called “superwitches,” they are feared as well as respected. In southern Cameroon, witch doctors called nganga are thought to gain their powers by sacrificing one of their parents. Because of their supernatural powers, witch doctors and diviners are sometimes accused of doing evil themselves.

Throughout history, anxieties about witchcraft running wild have encouraged a search for new forms of protection. During the colonial period, Africans developed a rich variety of anti-witchcraft tools and procedures, including poison ordeals, in which suspected witches were treated with poison. More recently, Christian movements within Africa have led the struggle against witchcraft. A lively debate is taking place within the Roman Catholic Church, for example, about how far priests can go in fighting witchcraft beliefs. Several African priests and even bishops have gotten into trouble with the church because they tried to follow too closely in the footsteps of witch doctors.

African governments are under growing pressure to take action against sorcery. Ever since colonial times Africans have accused state authorities of protecting witches because laws forbid poison ordeals and the execution of witches by chiefs and witch doctors. Some governments have given in to public demand. During the late 1970s the government of BENIN launched a radio campaign against sorcery that developed into a witch hunt. Around the same time, the state courts of Cameroon began convicting people of the crime of witchcraft, mainly on the word of witch doctors.

Direct action by the state has led to the appearance of a new type of witch doctor, one who is often interested in publicity. These witch doctors display their importance by wearing modern fashion items, such as sunglasses, by carrying symbols of Christian and Asian beliefs, and by showing off knowledge of medical terms. Above all, they have an aggressive style in finding clients and unmasking witches. Often they approach people with warnings to beware of danger in their surroundings, insisting that “purifications” are needed for protection against sorcery. Such witch doctors or healers play an important role in reinforcing the belief in witchcraft. (See also Divination and Oracles, Religion and Ritual, Spirit Possession.)