African Witchcraft at the Milennium: Musings on a Modern Phenomenon in ZimbabweSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Conciliate Mondazza, of Ruwa, a town outside Zimbabwe's capital of Harare, remembers that night, so long ago, well. "I was sleeping in my bedroom when the door just opened. And there she was...this woman," she explains in a soft voice. "I couldn't speak or move...and she just stood there glaring at me. Then, she was gone! I had to jar myself to get up and close the door. I believe, or was made to believe, that that woman was a witch. She was jealous of us because we [her brothers and sisters] always received prizes at school [e.g. for good grades] and her children didn't. She would say 'How come they're always getting the prizes?' She once offered us some coins and my mother said, 'Don't you dare use those coins or you will be bewitched!'"
Conciliate's husband, Isaiah, didn't want her to tell that story and protested as she began. To admit to believing in witches, especially to a North American, is tantamount to admitting to being 'primitive,' 'superstitious,' and, perhaps even delusional. And yet, Conciliate is not unique as an educated, thoroughly 'modern' Christian who happens to believe in witches and witchcraft. In fact, as sub-Saharan Africa reels under a series of apparently chronic economic, social, political and health crises such as AIDS, witchcraft and witchcraft accusations appear to be on the rise. African print and electronic media are replete with references to witches and witchcraft, prompting serious debates both within the continent and beyond on the role of witches in African societies. Recent headlines from Zimbabwe's national newspapers, The Herald and The Daily News, for example, read: "Modern Court Must Address Issues Dealing with Witchcraft" ( The Herald, June 5, 1999), "Six Teachers Transfer Over Alleged Witchcraft Acitivity" ( The Herald, June 6, 1999), "Man Jailed for Killing Father over Witchcraft Allegations" ( The Daily News, May 14, 1999). What accounts for this sustained and apparently pervasive belief in witchcraft in modern Africa? Is it an anachronistic holdover of a primal past or the product of a malcontented modernity? Are witchcraft and witchcraft accusations the sole province of Black Africans or can non-Blacks be imputed with such practices? With a particular focus on the chiShona-speaking peoples of Zimbabwe, I attempt to unravel the modern enigma of African witchcraft at the millennium.
Hard Lines and Fuzzy Edges: Defining Witchcraft in Zimbabwe
Part of the enigma of African witchcraft, in Zimbabwe at least, is the slipperiness of defining what it is exactly. From a general legal perspective, witchcraft as such does not exist in Zimbabwe. The ascendancy of European rule in the late 19th century witnessed the development of the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1899, which made it illegal for Africans (and non-Africans) to accuse or punish suspected witches. Legislation was promulgated on the European belief that witches as such did not exist and, therefore, the focus was on preventing imputations of witchcraft (which usually led to general social unrest, a slowdown in colonial production in mines and on farms and, often, to the eventual murder of the reputed witch). Colonial hard-line efforts to legislate away African belief in witchcraft met with little success and, perhaps, had the unforeseen effect of making Africans believe that Whites were actually working to protect witches. Despite recent attempts by the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association to amend the Act (in language that indeed acknowledges the existence of witches), it still remains much as it did during colonialism.
If witchcraft does not exist legally, however, it is still very much alive in the average Zimbabwean's everyday life. Recently, in the capital city of Harare, many women were terrified to hear that a man was said to be in possession of mubobobo, a magical medicine which allegedly allowed him to have sexual intercourse with married women, unbeknownst to them, while they slept next to their husbands who were also unaware of the impropriety. In another case, a man who stole a sizable amount of inventory from a store was attacked by a gang of tokoloshis, small, usually invisible creatures that can either persecute people who have stolen something from their owners or, alternately, bring their owners wealth and success. The expense of keeping tokoloshis, however, is great - they typically feed on blood. Usually, this means that someone in the owner's family will die every year that they keep them. On a domestic note, a man who suspects that his wife is being unfaithful may go to a n'anga (traditional healer) and get a type of medicine to place in her drink or her food that will bring on a type of affliction locally known as runyoka. Any man that she has sexual relations with, other than her husband, will begin to 'waste' away, the husband being unaffected. Not surprisingly, runyoka is often conflated with HIV/AIDS. Runyoka is, however, curable with a traditional healer's intervention; HIV/AIDS is not.
All of the above diverse practices fall generally under the rubric of witchcraft. What then constitutes witchcraft? "Witchcraft in Africa includes the use of harmful medicines, charms, magic and any other means or devices in causing any illness, misfortune or death in any person or animal or in causing any injury to any person or animal or property," says Gordon Chavunduka, president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association. So, then, is a husband who places runyoka on his wife practicing witchcraft? "It depends on the situation," explains Chavunduka. "It depends on who is defining the situation. To the husband, it's not witchcraft. He is, in fact, protecting his wife. But that other chap who slept with her and suffered as a result might regard him as having practiced witchcraft." In such a context, it is difficult, to say the least, to establish a baseline definition of what constitutes witchcraft. One man's protection is another man's witchcraft. It is precisely this ontological ambiguity, along with the fact that there is no legal acknowledgment of its existence, that makes the practice of witchcraft such a fuzzy thing to substantiate.
But who, or what, exactly is a witch ( muroyi) and why do people live in such fear of them? Witches are perhaps the most horrific manifestations of humanity's dark side in the Zimbabwean imagination, flying or riding the backs of nocturnal animals through the darkness of the night, greedily consuming the flesh of corpses. A favorite delicacy is said to be the flesh of infants, and women whose children die young, or women who abort may be accused of killing their children for the sheer evil joy of it and/or using their flesh for their malevolent medicines. Men are also known to be witches, though not as commonly as women. Witches are thought to be able to turn into any of their familiars -hyenas, snakes, crocodiles, owls - and await their unsuspecting prey. Witch status is achieved in one of two ways, through involuntary possession by a non-human spirit, or shave, or through apprenticeship to a known witch and the consumption of certain medicines, or muti. Paradigmatically speaking, the witch is the quintessential anti-social being, wreaking havoc and social mayhem wherever s/he may go. Here, however, it is important to distinguish the act (witchcraft) from the actor (the witch). While all witches, by definition, practice witchcraft, not all practitioners of witchcraft are necessarily witches as defined above.
How is witchcraft diagnosed? Through the divination of a traditional healer or n'anga (in this case usually a spirit medium or a faith healer), who has a real knack for "sniffing out" witchcraft. But here, again, the slipperiness of defining witchcraft is evident. To bewitch someone (say, a wife who is having an affair), a person will go to a traditional healer for the appropriate medicine. Does that mean that traditional healers practice witchcraft and are, indeed, witches? "Any n'anga will tell you that a n'anga is also a witch," says Daniel Mungoshi, a practicing traditional healer in Mutare, east of Harare. "If a n'anga has the power to heal, don't you think he also has the power to harm?" he asks rhetorically, raising his eyebrow. The Janus-faced nature of traditional healers leads many people to treat them with a combination of dread and delight. Like their biomedical counterparts who have taken the Hippocratic Oath, however, most traditional healers are dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of their patients' lives.
Despite the horror with which they are viewed, witches are an essential part of Zimbabwean society. Their presence helps render the often inexplicable contingencies of life explicable through a shifting cultural grammar of illness, death, misfortune and even success. How else can a family make sense of the unexplained death of an otherwise healthy baby? Why is it that John contracted HIV when Joe, who is known to have slept with a woman who later died of AIDS, did not? What accounts for the recent phenomenal success of Helen's business, when a few weeks ago she was on the verge of bankruptcy? Many of the answers to these questions are often found within the paradigm of witchcraft. More than anything, witches act as a huge psychological canvas upon which the society can project its innermost fears, its acknowledgment of a loss of control, of worlds - individual and collective - gone awry. But, fear of witches and witchcraft also acts as a form of social control, lest someone get too proud or overzealous in his/her acquisition of wealth and power, steal something from the wrong person, or have an affair with the wrong person's spouse. Witches are always waiting in the wings to snatch a boastful person's joy.
Ruptured Boundaries: Witchcraft, Whites and Other Non-Blacks
Because African witchcraft is thought of solely as a Black practice and knowledge system, it is surprising to hear of witchcraft cases involving non-Blacks. However, since their arrival on African soil, Whites (and the offspring of White/Black sexual unions, or Coloreds) have also been involved in cases of witchcraft as either victims or, in a few cases, direct transgressors of the Witchcraft Suppression Act. In 1921, for example, in the Matopos (an area in southwestern Zimbabwe) a White trader and an African man had a long-standing unspecified disagreement. The African man had a local reputation, in the English vernacular of the day, as a "witch doctor." After several suspicious fires on his property, the trader attempted to have his nemesis removed from the area to no avail. Eventually, one of the trader's African employees was murdered and evidence pointed to his rival. Following the arrest of the "witch doctor," the trader began acting strangely, eventually divesting himself of his clothing and taking to the hills. Colonial authorities speculated his mind had become unhinged after the damage to his property. Local people, however, believed that the trader had been " tagata-ed" (perhaps a corruption of "targeted"), or bewitched, by his rival ("Strange 'Tagati' Story: White Trader's Black Enemy - Native Belief in Witchcraft," Salisbury Herald, December 17, 1921).
In another case, a Colored woman was charged with contravening the Witchcraft Suppression Act in 1954. Apparently, she had had a fowl stolen from her and, under the advice of some friends, went to a "witch doctor" who divined the identity of the thief. She was found guilty, then reprimanded and discharged. Likewise, a White man who forced his Black employees to drink a blue liquid (a "witch-finding" elixir) after a work stoppage in 1951, was also convicted of contravening the Act. These cases, in part, speak to the blurring of boundaries between Black and non-Black, to an ontological overlap of what were previously thought of as very discrete systems of belief/knowledge and practice.
Non-Blacks have been implicated in witchcraft in another way also, namely through ritual murder and the trafficking of human body parts. In South Africa, for example, there are documented cases of Whites being killed for their body parts, the belief being that because Whites bring money into the country and are generally more successful than Blacks, medicine made from their organs will be more powerful and effective. Paradoxically, Whites are less likely to be ritually murdered because of the belief that Blacks who kill Whites are sentenced to death, the death sentence being a strong deterrent. Some Indian businessmen and traders in South Africa and Zambia are also thought to indirectly participate in ritual killings to secure medicine that will ensure the success of their businesses. There are, of course, ways around the outright killing of someone to obtain human tissue. In Johannesburg, a White police officer at a mortuary was alleged to be supplying traditional healers with human fat, harvested from the corpses he was paid to protect (Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders in the Northern Province of the Republic of South Africa, 1995).
Vulnerable Bodies: Ritual Murders, Structural Violence and the State
Though there has been no official inquiry into ritual murder in Zimbabwe, the practice exists and in these days of economic instability, it appears to be more common than it is reported in the media. The motives underlying such killings, as in the above examples, is usually some form of material success. Though not usually involved directly in the killing of victims, some unscrupulous traditional healers are involved in consultations on body parts and the preparation of those parts for ritual purposes. "The traditional healers give advice on who to kill and which parts of the body to be used to prepare such medicines," says Chavunduka. Different body parts have different qualities ascribed to them. Genital organs and breasts are used for fertility purposes. The eyes of a victim grant the users farsightedness (in business), while the hands are used to attract many clients.
In the capitol city of Harare, police records indicate that 100 people were murdered in 1998 and most of the cases that went before the court were shown to be ritual murders ("Ritual Murders and Trade in Body Parts on the Increase," The Sunday Mail, April 18, 1999). In March of 1999, a policeman and his wife were detained on allegations that they ritually murdered their domestic worker to secure a minibus ("Couple in Alleged Ritual Killing Granted Bail," The Daily News, March 30, 1999). In April of 1999, a youthful-looking 38-year-old man from the Harare suburb of Epworth was released by his kidnappers after being declared "too old" to be killed for his body parts ("Too Old to be Sacrificed," The Standard, April 18-24, 1999). For every case that gets reported, however, one or more goes unreported. Add to this the rise in numbers of missing persons and some investigators begin to speculate on a grisly pattern. Sadly enough, it is precisely those individuals who are most socially and economically vulnerable - children, homeless people, unskilled workers - who are usually the targets for ritual murders. Children in particular are singled out because of the belief that their organs make powerful medicine.
In the eastern highland region of Zimbabwe, a Mutare-based man, Tichafa Chiweshe, admitted that his paternal grandfather had ritually murdered one of his employees at his large farm so as to ensure the farm's continued success and productivity. His case points to one of the well-known side effects of ritual murder on the perpetrator of the crime, namely that the murdered person's spirit often returns as ngozi, an avenging spirit. The ngozi returns to wreak havoc in the lives of the murderer's family, sometimes even causing death. "People on my father's side always die when the guavas are ripe," Chiweshe explained. Moreover, he attributes his chronic bad luck to the ngozi, aware that things will only get better when he visits a n'anga and performs the appropriate rituals to put the murdered man's spirit to rest.
The physical precariousness of those vulnerable individuals with regard to ritual murder speaks to the general economic, social and political precariousness of the collective Zimbabwean body, where a discourse of state-sanctioned covert violence and apathy colludes with an ever-worsening economy. As 1999 began, the country seemed inescapably swept up in a downward spiraling socio-economic and political vortex which extended its tendrils into all facets of life. The government was involved in a costly (allegedly $1,000,000-2,000,000 a day) and increasingly unpopular support of Laurent Kabila's forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (in the name of preserving 'democracy'). At the same time, it was dealing with charges of rampant domestic governmental corruption, skyrocketing inflation and interest rates, astronomical increases in the price of basic goods, a controversial land reform and resettlement program, the collapse of the healthcare system and stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the release of some $53 million in desperately needed aid.
This kind of macro-structural violence perpetrated on the average Zimbabwean by external forces (whether government or international interests) can be analytically and metaphorically read as ritualistic murdering of the downtrodden to benefit the already powerful through what Peter Geschiere refers to as the "accumulative tendency of witchcraft in relation to power." It is common knowledge that some state functionaries keep protective charms, regularly consult n'anga and in some cases keep tokoloshis to further their own acquisition of wealth and power, which is usually at the expense of their constituents. In such domains of power and politics, however, witchcraft beliefs, as Geschiere notes, are usually expressed in rumors and allusions. Outright accusation and public confession rarely occur and discerning concrete actions is difficult at best. Add to this the fact that witchcraft is, by nature, secretive, concealed from the public eye and it is not difficult to see why it is difficult to substantiate. The inability to fully capture witchcraft, in an empirical sense, serves to only increase its power - intimations alone are enough to change people's behavior and/or the course of events.
The modern practice of witchcraft in Africa remains enigmatic to those of us rooted in other historical and cultural traditions and places, particularly those of us who brashly assume(d) such practices would expire with the advent of "modernization." Paradoxically, however, those same forces that constitute what we loosely label "modernity" - globalizing economy, novel flows of information and technology, new configurations of transnational power and control - appear to be the very same forces feeding the proliferation of witchcraft activity. So, far from receding into the dark corners and private spaces of public discourse, witchcraft is asserting itself in bold and bombastic ways. Not simply a reaction to capitalist forms of penetration and control, witchcraft is part of a deeply historical form of sense making which has adapted to the exigencies of modern African life. While the apparent rise in witchcraft practice may be seen as the birth pangs of Zimbabwe's delivery into the global economy, explanations of witchcraft are not reducible solely to this process. Witchcraft is a deeply historical and cultural grammar of affliction and effrontery, malaise and malappropriation, modernity and "tradition" that demands examination on its own terms.
David Simmons is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and a researcher-in-residence with the African Diaspora Research Project at Michigan State University. He is also currently a King, Chavez, Parks Fellow. His dissertation is titled, "Managing Misfortune: N'angas, HIV/AIDS and Health Development in Zimbabwe."
Michael Gelfand, Medicine and Magic of the Mashona (Capetown: Juta and Company Limited, 1956), and David Lan, Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1985).
David Simmons, Interview with Gordon Chavunduka, June 1999. A fact duly noted by E.E. Evans-Pritchard in his canonical Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937); see also Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1997).