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In Witchbound Africa

The use of English in scholarship in Africa in some respects amounts to sheer folly. That is not to say that African or contemporary Western scholars can be blamed for this predicament. Whether or not we can apportion blame, it is a predicament that we are facing. I suggest that the best way around this predicament is to encourage African scholarship using African languages. If there were a body of emerging African scholars using their own languages, and thus thought forms and categories, a process of translation into English could then be engaged to inform Western scholars of it, as through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). How to encourage the development of such an African scholarship? Perhaps to begin with on the side of the West; some Westerners need to take African languages seriously. Until such a turn-around occurs; it is almost impossible for scholarship on witchcraft in Africa not to be in some ways misleading, and extractive.

My reader, who may well not be familiar with any African languages, may be asking themselves; ‘what then should we do’? Helping to deconstruct Western scholarship on Africa may be a part of that answer. This article aims to do a little of that, in the hope that it will result in Westerners seeing the need for what I could call ‘non-extractive field research’. As far as Western scholars are concerned, the answer has to be akin to ‘get over there’. Short-cuts are limited and misleading. This is one of many reasons we need to be encouraging vulnerable mission, for more on which see below.[7]


Accusing the Missionary

Recent decades have seen, on the side of Western outreach to Africa, a boom in short-term mission (Anthony 1994). Many reasons are often given for this including:

  1. because many African people know Western languages long-term field exposure to learn languages is unnecessary.
  2. The maturity of the African church means that it only needs short-term ‘technical’ support.
  3. The rise of global communication.
  4. Western people’s reluctance to enter into long-term commitments, etc.[8]

The role of ‘witchcraft’ is less often considered.

Western missionaries, with their much wealth and seeking for power while largely ignorant of local realities, are in some ways prime candidates for witchcraft attack, or accusation. In another sense, their ignorance of local languages and cultures, their not being economically dependent on the local community, plus their tendency to material generosity, immunises them against attack. (Material generosity is two edged: it buys friends, but because it is invariably partial, it attracts the envy of those outside of the circle of its privileged beneficiaries and creates tensions between beneficiaries.) I would like to suggest that witchcraft activity may frequently limit missionary longevity on the field. This can be explained in many ways:

  1. A missionary couple left the field when they found that their slightly mentally-retarded child was being mocked and abused by local children. Mental illness in Africa frequently interpreted as being caused by witchcraft means that the mentally ill may not be respected.
  2. Inter-missionary tensions frequently result in missionaries leaving the field.[9] How often are these tensions provoked by the divisive talk of locals motivated by envy, the ‘power-house’ of witchcraft (Harries 2012)?
  3. The 1970s call for a missionary moratorium was presumably motivated, in part at least, by envy of missionaries’ superior resources. It would seem that a motivation for getting missionaries out of the way may be to benefit from some of the resources that they have been consuming.
  4. Witchcraft beliefs result in a need for secrecy. For example, people who ‘believe in’ witchcraft often fear to reveal the level of their wealth, such as the number of cows they have (Harries 2007:51). This kind of orientation to secrecy and deception can result in the failure of many Western initiated projects. Such projects rely on people’s being honest. When projects collapse, missionaries can be forced to go home.

There is, in my experience, a widespread wisdom that says that Western missionaries are not accused of being witches. Perhaps such a standing high and dry from local issues is not always the best option? Envy resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 15:10). Fear of loss of income caused Paul and Silas to be imprisoned (Acts 16:19). The people of Jerusalem hated Jeremiah for his negative prophecies, very nearly resulting in his death sentence (Jeremiah 26:11). These are witchcraft-related accusations. In contemporary times, Western missionaries meeting accusations such as the above, might leave the field and go home. Should they instead stick around?

Responding to witchcraft attack often promotes more witchcraft. Hence the apparently never ending spiral of accusation and counter-accusation that apparently characterises some African communities.[10] (Missionaries should not, I suggest, be accusing people of being witches. Or accusing them of accusing people of being witches. But they do need to know what is going on around them so as not to be unknowing perpetrators or victims of witchcraft.) How should victims behave? Here is what Jesus taught us: “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you …” (Matthew 5:44). He did not say that when attacked by one’s enemies one should leave.

Sometimes the gross power (arising from the budget they have available to spend) and their linguistic-cultural ignorance quickly gets missionaries into trouble with their host communities. They could ‘survive’ on the basis of the resources they have to share. Missionaries who do not have such generous budgets and who take the time to carefully learn to use indigenous languages can learn to be less abrasive.[11] They can duck some of the witchcraft-flak. (Non-conventional Western missionaries, who do not have generous budgets, can be rendered more liable to witchcraft attack, for example as a result of being ‘unusual’.) If they manage to survive, then they can begin to give a role model of how to live honourable lives after having been accused of being witches, much as did Jesus, Jeremiah and Paul in the examples cited above.

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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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