Elliot P. Skinner it was who intoned “Africa provides the setting for one of the most intriguing interplays for ecology, biology, and culture in the history of man.” Indeed! Human life and human settlement began in the continent, after which dispersion to other corners of the world commenced. Africa is an inimitable continent, rich in complexities and contradictions; rich in nature’s wonders, yet, filled with man-made miseries and fetidities and by people who are at once happy and miserable. The African life is pulled and pushed and contradicted by different poles: primeval sentiments, superstition, religion, culture, and modernity. The biggest challenge, of course, is the morbidly superstitious life fueled by poverty and ignorance.
Superstition, poverty and ignorance accounts for why, many decades after many societies have progressed, the African life is still loaded with primitive passions and preliterate conditions. Kenyans and Nigerians recently demonstrated their primitiveness. On April 22, 2008, the Reuters news service reported that the Kenyan Police “jailed 19 people suspected of burning to death 11 elderly Kenyan men and women accused of being witches in a case that has horrified the east African nation…A mob in the Kisii area of west Kenya went from house-to-house identifying people on a list and burning them to death in their homes.” In a similar incident in 1983, “eight elderly people from Kisii were also accused of witchcraft and burned to death in their huts by a mob.”
Responding to the dastardly event in Kenya, Samira Edi wrote: “This is manifestly a remnant of a gory past…which preys on the gullible minds, the primitive instincts of the emotionally vulnerable, the unsure, the challenged, the weak, the easily manipulated, the insecure… With certain mystical beliefs, Africans are hunkering in the bunker, offering themselves up to be brainwashed, in the monumental mistaken belief that through some cryptic power of black magic or other mystical forces, they could influence situations and things around them….And they all come crawling out; the dark deeds of the devil — voodoo, witchcraft, ritual killings, exorcism, barbarism, hallucination…”
A month after the sad and regrettable event in Kenya, the Vanguard Newspaper (May 22, 2008) reported that “a cat allegedly turned into a middle-aged woman after being hit by a commercial motorcycle… One of them, it was learnt, was able to escape while the third one was beaten to death, still as a cat though.” An innocent woman, a mother, a sister, an aunt, a citizen of Nigeria was beaten to death in the presence of a crowd, and no one was decent enough to stop the murder, to stop the barbarity. But of course these types of events are very rampant in Nigeria — a country rife with phantasms and mass hysterias induced by tales of the missing penis, missing scrotums, missing breasts, shrinking brains, and witchcraft lore.
There are several interpretations of witchcraft. Used in different context in different societies and in different era, it could mean a number of things. In general however, witchcraft is associated with the supernatural, with magic and with evil deeds. There are historical testaments of witchcraft in all societies, one of the most famous being the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. About three dozen innocent people were killed and hundreds more suffered unimaginable indignity. But more than any society in the world, the Africa society and the African belief system is excessively rife with such belief. Even though such beliefs are dying out in most societies, it continues to thrive and assume epic proportion in the African continent.
In Nigeria for instance, the incidence, accusations and extrajudicial sanctions against supposed witches are routine. And no where is this more so than in the Niger Delta region where kids as young as 10, and even younger, are ostracized or killed on mere suspicion. Widows are sometimes accused of witchcraft in cases where their husbands suffered sudden or unexplainable death. In this part of Nigeria, tragedies and misfortunes that are beyond the consciousness or comprehension of the natives are mostly credited to witches. It doesn’t matter the level of education, virtually all the inhabitants of the Niger Delta share in this belief: what cannot be explained, is caused by witches.
Amongst the Ijaw ethnic group, the cost and implication of witchery are expensive. For instance, the so-called witches are generally never accorded the dignity of land burial as their remains are usually thrown into the river. It is therefore not uncommon to find corpses floating in the rivers and waterways of the Ijaw Nation. The children and immediate family members of the accused also suffer public ridicule and suspicion; they may be maligned, shunned and disassociated from village events. To be thought of as the child of a witch carries heavy penalty. The villagers may wonder if (even you) have been “infected and afflicted” and have the power to do them in.
Belief in witchcraft and all such phenomenon is a product of deep-seated fear, ignorance, backwardness, illiteracy of the mind, gullibility, self-loathe and an inability or refusal to take responsibility for ones stupidity, failings and shortcomings. The rest of Nigeria is not different in this regard: if your car malfunctions, you blame the witch; if you have heart attack or stroke or other medical conditions, you blame your father’s second or third wife; if you do poorly in school or if you are denied admission to the school of your choice, you blame the woman down the road. Witches are to be blamed for everything!
According to Tracy McVeigh of the Guardian (UK), “Evangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities.” Indeed, pastors have now taken the leading role in pointing accusatory fingers at the innocent. The white-garment Churches are especially notorious for these. One wonder how many men and women — especially women — have been accused of evil, and who forever lived a lonely and dejected life? Even in death, they are slandered. For generation thereafter, their children and grandchildren may even suffer from such lies and hate.
There are several ironies to the belief in witchcraft; one being that even among the western educated Africans, there is a widespread belief in the omnipresence and omnipotence of witches. There are Africans, who, even with advanced degrees in science and technology and with residence in the US or other western countries still belief in witchcraft, voodoo and other so-called supernatural entities. Perhaps there is something about the African mind that makes it difficult to wipe it clean of impurities. “In the Middle Ages people were convinced there were witches. They looked for them and they certainly found them.” Today, Africans are still looking and finding and burning them.
What happened in Kisii (Kenya) and in Port Harcourt (Nigeria) was nothing short of murder. Innocent men and women were killed. A proper examination of events will reveal that those responsible for the deaths reveled in the outcomes. They killed as a matter of routine. They killed without regards for decency and for human life. How sad! Sadder still is the fact that none of the killers will ever be brought to justice. The larger community will do nothing about it, and neither will the government. Such insouciance is a staple of the African society — a society where human life is cheaper than a cow. And of course, such and similar killings will happen again and again and again. From Sudan to South Africa, and from Senegal to Tanzania, it happens on a daily basis.