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In Witchbound Africa

The above practices leave local people in a fix. The only ‘advice’ they ever get from Westerners, is that which is rooted in a context other than their own, that does not work. (Although, there are plenty of efforts being engaged to making it work anyway, because it comes with enormous subsidy.) When it does not work, and Westerners leave, what are the Africans supposed to do? They are left with non-functional institutions.

Some missionaries are needed who: 1. Stick around. 2. Do not subsidise their key ministries. 3. Engage using local languages. This is what we call ‘vulnerable mission’.



‘Witchcraft’ is prominent in many African communities. Witchcraft beliefs are ways of coping with negatives in human character, especially envy. Westerners define witchcraft in ways that give them an advantage. Anthropologists are to be acclaimed for their efforts at understanding witchcraft and related cultural content of non-Western communities, but also need to take some responsibility for strait-jacketing non-Western scholars. Language issues underlie the latter – expecting English to do service in understanding and engaging deep African issues is generally asking too much. This article shows ways in which an African and majority world orientation to witchcraft removes missionaries from the field. It asks whether missionaries shouldn’t be oriented to surviving witchcraft accusation instead of avoiding it? Times have changed; Africa already has its institutions (schools, hospitals etc.). Perhaps some missionaries ought to learn to survive in a context of the Africanisation of such institutions instead of ‘rescuing’ them. Missionary support often comes to those doing the rescuing, but ought to go to those who are more ‘vulnerable’ to on the ground African realities.



Anthony, Michael, J., 1994, The Short-Term Missions Boom: A Guide to International and Domestic Involvement. Michigan: Baker Publishing Group.

Asamoah-Gyadu, J. Kwabena, 2015, ‘Witchcraft Accusations and Christianity in Africa.’ IBMR, 39 (1), January 2015, 23-27.

Bloecher, Detlef, nd., ‘Continuous Language and Culture Studies are indispensible.’

Bloecher, Detlef, 2005, ‘Reducing Missionary Attrition (ReMAP) – what it said and what it did.’

Bronkema, David, (2015), ‘Flying Blind? Christian NGOs and Political Economy.’ 211-245 in: Cheong, John and Meleses, Eloise, (eds), 2015, Christian Mission and Economic Systems: A Critical Survey of the Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Economies, Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Halliburton, Murphy. 2004. ‘Gandhi or Gramsci? the use of authoritative sources in anthropology.’ Anthropological Quarterly 77(4):793–817.

Harries, Jim, 2015, Secularism and Africa: in the light of the Intercultural Christ, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

Harries, Jim, 2000, ‘The Magical Worldview in the African Church: What Is Going On?’ 487-502 In: Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, October 2000.

Harries, Jim, 2006, ‘The Effectiveness of Short-term Mission to Africa: in respect to Westernising, Christianising, and dependence creation.’

Harries, Jim, 2007, ‘Pragmatic Theory Applied to Christian Mission in Africa: with special reference to Luo responses to ‘bad’ in Gem, Kenya.’ PhD Thesis. The University of Birmingham. (accessed 2nd January 2010).

Harries, Jim. 2011a. ‘Racism in Reverse: the impact of the West on racism in Africa.’ 163-184 In: Harries, Jim, 2011. Vulnerable Mission; insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a position of vulnerability. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Harries, Jim. 2011b. ‘Material Provision’ or Preaching the Gospel: reconsidering holistic (integral) mission.’ 81-98 In: Harries, Jim, 2011. Vulnerable Mission; insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a position of vulnerability. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Harries, Jim. 2012. “Witchcraft, Envy, Development, and Christian Mission in Africa.” Missiology: An International Review 40(2): 129–139.

Melland, F.H., 1923, In Witch Bound Africa: an account of the primitive Kaonde tribe and their beliefs. Philadelphia: J.B.Lippincott Company.

Padilla, Rene C., ‘Holistic Mission.’ 11-23 In: Claydon, David, (ed.) 2005. Lausanne Occasional Paper. (LOP). No. 33. Holistic Mission. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation, Pattaya, Thailand, September 9th to October 5th 2004. http//

Plantinga, Alvin, 1983, ‘Reason and Belief in God.’ 16-93 In: Plantinga, A., and Wolterstorff N., (eds.) Faith and rationality: reason and belief in God. London: University of Notre Dame Press.

Rasmussen, Steven D.H. and Rasmussen, Hannah, 2015, ‘Healing Communities: responses to witchcraft accusations.’ 12-18 in: IBMR 39(1), January 2015.



[1] The title ‘In Witchbound Africa’ is taken from Melland (1923).


[3] The Kenya-Luo are Nilotic, whereas the Kaonde are Bantu.

[4] See also Hiebert, 30-35.

[5] The Kikuyu are an ethnic group or tribe in Kenya.

[6] Personal conversation.

[7] The AVM (Alliance for Vulnerable Mission) defines vulnerable mission as the practice of ministry by some Western missionaries that uses local languages and resources (

[8] I have discussed some of the problems of the predominance of short-term mission in Harries (2006).

[9] ‘Co-missionaries’, Figure 2, of Bloecher (2005:5).

[10] Once witchcraft accusation is legitimised, there is no knowing where accusations and counter-accusations will end.

[11] Research by Detlef (nd.) shows that missionaries who learn language have greater longevity, without clearly articulating why this is.

[12] The term supernatural can be used in a variety of ways. In a generic sense, to say that witchcraft forces are ‘supernatural’ is only to say that they do not fall into naturalists’ worldviews, which is true enough. To say that they are ‘supernatural’ in a context of African monism, however, I suggest is misleading.

[13] For more discussion on this see Harries (2015).

[14] For example, see Harries (2011b).

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2016

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is 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), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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