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In Witchbound Africa

Missionary-scholar Jim Harries discusses contemporary conditions and understandings of witchcraft in sub-Saharan Africa.


Questions about witchcraft[1] seem to float threateningly on the edge of most missiological discussions on Africa. Various authors of a recent edition of IBMR (International Bulletin for Missionary research (39(1)) have done us a service by bringing them to the fore. This is a very welcome step and I congratulate IBMR for their boldness in pointing us to this pernicious concern.

Image: Mohammad Yearussaman

From 1988 to 1991 I lived and worked amongst the Kaonde people of Zambia.[2] Whilst there I heard of a book by a British colonial officer Frank H. Melland, that he had written about the Kaonde and that was published in 1923. It is to my knowledge still the most comprehensive account of the customs and traditions of the Kaonde. The title of the book often sticks in my mind: In Witchbound Africa: an account … Melland having written in 1923, one would think things might have changed. More than three generations later this article asks; is Africa still ‘witchbound’?

Is Africa still witchbound?

Stimulated by the above IBMR authors, I would like to write this response to their scholarship. This response arises, subsequent to my above-described stay in Zambia, after having lived amongst the Luo (and to a lesser extent Luiya) people of Western Kenya since 1993. I find clear differences between these people and the Kaonde of Zambia. This especially because the Luo are ethnically and linguistically essentially unrelated to the Kaonde.[3] But there are also enormous similarities. The fact that apparently unrelated people can have such similar beliefs suggests to me that ‘witchcraft’, as it is known in some Western scholarship, is a default product of certain worldviews, especially monistic worldviews that seem to be the norm in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The question of the definition of witchcraft seems to be almost insoluble. Perhaps it is helpful to say that; witchcraft is a term used in Western scholarship that attempts to align certain practices carried out in the non-Western world with beliefs and traditions apparently once widespread in the West, which the West has in contemporary times come to understand as having been misguided. In terms of its content, witchcraft in Africa is a way of dealing with negatives in people’s character, such as envy (especially) and anger. This means used to deal with such has particular out-workings, including at times accusations regarding use of witchcraft that result in inter-human tensions, accusations, and sometimes physical violence.


Extractive Scholarship

The above introduction suggests that the West has paid some attention to witchcraft. The term itself, witchcraft, has dictated much of the nature of that attention. It has meant that from the start whatever constitutes ‘witchcraft’ is to be considered outdated and rooted in misunderstandings. Implicitly, as in the West, witchcraft accusations are no longer made but were once made, Western scholars are on their front foot, and Africans are on their back foot on considering this set of issues. Western scholars are waiting for Africans to be ‘enlightened’ as ‘we’ already are regarding the folly of belief in witchcraft.

Anthropologists have probably been at the forefront of studies of witchcraft. I have personally greatly valued reading many anthropological texts on this subject. Anthropology has been one of the many scholarly disciplines to have gone through crisis since the advent of postmodernism on the back of the undermining of foundationalism.[4] Prior to about 1950, many Western scholars considered themselves to be writing on firm epistemological foundations. Since that time, at least amongst those ‘in the know’, the claim that science can be the foundation to all knowledge has lost its credibility (Plantinga 1983:4). Anthropologists have as a result been forced to re-examine some of their foundational assumptions, presumably including those on witchcraft.

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2016

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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