Religion » Magic & Witchcraft

The best books on African Religion and Witchcraft

recommended by Jean Fontaine

The emeritus professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of Speak of the Devil says the Dinka and the Nuer are famous in anthropology for not being preoccupied with misfortune

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You say the Lienhardt is a good introduction to the subject of African religions and witchcraft?

Divinity and Experiences is a sensitive and very complex account of the cosmology of the Dinka people in Southern Sudan. It’s a wonderful book in itself and very delicately written. It deals with African religion as related to the reality and the life of a particular people. These religions are embedded in that particular way of life, such that you can’t induct other people into the religions, they are local in every sense. The Dinka are unusual in that their religion is less occupied with the source of misfortune and more occupied with generating good fortune. Godfrey Lienhardt writes it up as very mystical. He didn’t ask the direct question; ‘What do you believe?’ He watched and listened to what they were saying and discovered what they believed from what they said and the way they said things. The religion is all derived from the Dinka world and the symbolism is all very localised.

What kind of symbolism do they use?

Cattle is involved in all their rituals. You might generate good fortune by driving cattle through ritual fires. The cattle themselves participate in the ritual because they represent wealth and the good fortune will affect them and the human beings who depend on them. It is peculiar to the Dinka that they do believe there are witches, that witches exist, but they don’t try to identify or try to rid themselves of them.

Did Lienhardt spend a long time with the Dinka?

He did. In those days we did longer field work. There was more funding for that kind of thing. He went back more than once and he was a very gifted linguist. He learnt the language very well and he continued to speak it to Dinka friends back here in the UK. Not all of us maintained the languages we learnt for field work. I certainly haven’t. Mine has faded. But because he knew the language so well he was able to identify the various layers of meaning in particular Dinka concepts, adding a great deal of subtlety to his work.

You say that not being preoccupied with the source of misfortune is unusual for African religions?

Yes. The Nuer and the Dinka are very famous in anthropology for not being preoccupied with misfortune. The John Middleton book, Lugbara Religion, is about a people who actually live very close to the Dinka but have a very different religion. The focus for the Lugbara is on their ancestors and the power they might give to their living representatives. The preoccupation here is on the worship of the ancestors and on maintaining their goodwill. It is mostly senior men who by virtue oftheir closeness to the dead are invested with the power of their ancestors. With the ancestors behind them they can justifiably punish those who disobey them or disrespect the ancestors or their living representatives. When something bad happens in Lugbara, death or illness, it must either be a punishment for disrespect of the ancestors or it might be witchcraft perpetrated by some malicious neighbour, by someone who knows you. It is often older people who are thought to be witches. So, if someone is ill, there could be a long dispute as to why this has happened.

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This book deals with a long-running dispute over whether a person was being punished for disrespecting the ancestors or for some bad deeds performed, or whether they were a victim of witchcraft by some elderly person who shouldn’t be doing this. Witchcraft is seen as evil and people may be seen as having the evil eye, a mystical power and an evil gift so that if they look at you things go wrong. These people are often those who fail to live up to the norms of society, are greedy or isolated. So, in some ways, the belief in witchcraft regulates society because people don’t want to be accused and so they behave in ways that are thought appropriate and proper.

I once whistled, in those days I could whistle, while I was doing fieldwork, and the children all cried out; ‘Whistling after dark! That’s what witches do!’

Did you persuade them it didn’t count if you weren’t one of them?

Yes, and that is interesting. It’s not a universalistic religion. If you are not one of them you are not bound by the rules in the same way. Another thing I used to do and soon stopped doing is complimenting people on their children. You don’t do that in Uganda or most of Africa because it’s what witches do and then the child will get ill or die. But I chose the Middleton book because of that long case history and the idea that good and evil are not clear cut in Lugbara. There is no sharp boundary as there is Christianity.

It sounds as though if you are old and unsociable you are in trouble though.

Well, if you’re old an unsociable with lots of relatives who will argue for you then it’s all right. They will just say; ‘Oh, it’s just because she’s old.’ But if you haven’t got a lot of family it is difficult, yes. We are seeing now that witch hunts have started happening in Africa and nobody is sure if this is a reversion to tradition, if the Pax Brittanica imposed rules to stop it and now things have reverted, or if this is a new thing. I suspect it’s a new thing. In the old days someone believed to be a witch could theoretically be killed, but you would always find someone to speak up for them, someone with another interpretation.

Like a lawyer?

Yes. Someone who would say; ‘Oh, rubbish. It’s not witchcraft! It’s punishment for something else.’ If you stick around long enough you hear these arguments. Which witch, so to speak.

The Audrey Richards book isn’t about witchcraft though.

This one is about one aspect of the religious system in Zambia. It is about the ritual of transferring a girl to womanhood and the preparation for marriage. In this case this does not involve a physical operation on the girls but a long, complicated and often exhausting series of rituals meant to teach the girls about womanhood. But, as Richards points out, the actual teaching is minimal. The girls watch and listen to the rituals and they change their outlook, partly because they are now allowed to be present at things they would have been excluded from as children. The series of ceremonies goes on for five to six weeks and there is a lot of paraphernalia involved as well as food and drink for feasting.

How old would the girls be?

It’s just before marriage so they would be 13 or 14. What is particularly interesting is that they do change their behaviour during the process. These scatterbrained children become demure maidens, aware of their new responsibilities as wives and mothers. Often their husband would already have been chosen and might participate in some of the ceremonies such that it is a celebration of nubility rather than puberty. The Bemba people of Zambia have this connection through women as an organising principle. Richards, who was my teacher, pioneered the study of symbolism in the rituals themselves.

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Before, anthropologists thought that what went on in these ceremonies was inscrutable but Richards used the psychology of her day and looked at all the objects used, the names they were given, what was said about them, what they symbolised. There were lots of drawings and models all made by older women and they all had names and appeared in a particular order.

Can you give an example?

Well, one little model, painted white with millet paste, symbolised fidelity in marriage, and ritual cleanliness. The idea being that infidelity pollutes the marriage and may affect the children and must be properly purged if it occurs. The model and the hands of the man and wife have water poured over them. Other objects symbolise cooking and the gathering of firewood. There are lots of little animals and other things and it can be hard to see what they are meant to be. Not everyone is a gifted sculptor! They are made of clay and painted various colours. But they are not meant to be literal. A lot of the time the girls have cloths over their heads and are not allowed to see these powerfully magical things but, once they have been through their own initiation, they will be able to see and participate in those of others so, as Richards points out, their own initiation is only the beginning of their learning. The older Bemba say that the reason girls get pregnant outside of marriage and generally misbehave is because they have not been properly initiated.

Why haven’t they been properly initiated?

Partly it’s the influence of Christianity and also things really are going wrong in much of Africa. Poverty, famine, irregular rains, over population leading to war. Of course in some ways the past was worse because people died like flies of things that can now be cured, but in other ways it was better because there were fewer people. One can accurately point to deterioration in living conditions in many places. It is the relative difference too. In most societies in Africa the difference in living conditions between leader and followers was not distinct by material wealth. There was always a heavy responsibility on the rich to provide for the poor. Now there is a generation of Wa’Benzi, people with a Mercedes Benz. It is a very characteristic African epithet, Wa’Benzi.

Your next book is more of a text book.

I included this because it is an account of what anthropologists think about witchcraft, and the material is mostly African. It shows the anthropological method of comparison between societies and how complex witchcraft can be, and how amusing in some ways. For example, Lugbara witches are sometimes said to walk on their heads. In another society witches drink highly salted water, which normal digestive systems could not tolerate. In another they fly at night.

Those are our witches.

Yes, that is evocative in our own mythology – when we mention this students always think broomsticks and devil worship and we have to unpack all that again. The evil that witches do is sometimes to gather together and eat the relative of one or other of the witches. They are thought to owe a debt of flesh. But this is not real killing. The relative wakes up the next morning feeling absolutely fine. It is not cannibalism, but since they have been offered and symbolically eaten, they will suffer harm. The contrast to the evil done by witches is helping your relatives and doing good. This is the highest good you can do, just as harming your relatives is the lowest evil. This book isn’t easily available but it is worth seeking out if you are interested in the complexity of witchcraft and how it fits into other aspects of life and religion. It is part of religion but can be talked about separately, a bit like Satanism – that is part of Christianity but can be talked about separately. These religions are society embedded in belief in so far as changing society means changing beliefs.

And that is what your last book is about.

Yes, this is a much more modern one. This is about Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, and how religious life, the new Christianity, has affected society. It’s about the new churches, all fundamentalist, charismatic churches called by observers ‘African-initiated’ churches. This means they follow a man or woman who has had a vision to build a church. Sometimes they are small and short-lived and sometimes they are enormous and need a football stadium for the congregation. The central feature of the book though is the new witch hunts which involve children being accused of witchcraft. This is new. Children were often the victims of witchcraft, when they got sick and died, sadly far too often. But now they are the witches. There are thousands, literally thousands, that is not a turn of phrase, who have been rejected by their parents for being witches, because of illnesses, failures, the devastation of poverty. How they survive at all is a miracle – some of them are as young as three and four, just living on the streets after their parents threw them out. The authors have collected their stories – some of them now live in refuges set up by NGOs or churches. The beliefs that underpin the accusations are that the children are possessed by evil spirits, by Satan and that they are doing Satan’s work. It is Christian imagery and the cure is to get rid of the spirits that cause someone to have the gift of witchcraft. There are people from the churches who claim to have the ability to get rid of the spirits for a fee. So first they have them diagnosed for a fee to see if they are possessed and then they have to be delivered. Those parents who haven’t got the money just throw the children out.

So, the church is the cause and the cure.

In a way. The connection between the accusations of witchcraft and the church is the notion of what animates the witchcraft. The primary purpose of the church is to fight Satan. The modern charismatic churches believe in possession by Satan. Of course, the new accusations are not always directed against children. There are old people too being burnt and chopped to death, but this form, which is also happening in Nigeria, of directing it against children is new, stimulated by the notion that Satan and his servants are performing evil. Of course, the Christian mission probably wouldn’t condone burning people alive but the theology behind what is being done by these very desperate people is the same.

Why are the people desperate?

A lot of the mobs pursuing the witches are young people with no future to look forward to. They will never have any land because it has all been taken away or built on.

What was your main area of study?

I also studied initiation rites but of young men on the border between Kenya and Uganda. They go through an elaborate series of ceremonies that go on for a month and these did involve the physical operation of circumcision. You are considered still to be a boy all your life if you do not go through the rituals and are referred to very contemptuously. Interestingly, the people I studied thought that female circumcision, practised by a neighbouring tribe, was disgusting and empowered the women, making them disobedient and not sufficiently subservient. But the circumcised women thought the uncircumcised women weren’t subservient enough to the men.

So either way the motive is to make women subservient?

Yes. Hard luck on the women.

As always.

July 31, 2009

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Jean Fontaine

Jean Fontaine

Professor Jean La Fontaine is emeritus professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics, specialising in kinship (children), incest, ritual, witchcraft and Satanism in East Africa and the United Kingdom. She is the author of Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England, and here she explains that African religions, and the witchcraft that often accompanies them, are deeply embedded in their social context.

Jean Fontaine at LSE

Jean Fontaine

Jean Fontaine

Professor Jean La Fontaine is emeritus professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics, specialising in kinship (children), incest, ritual, witchcraft and Satanism in East Africa and the United Kingdom. She is the author of Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England, and here she explains that African religions, and the witchcraft that often accompanies them, are deeply embedded in their social context.

Jean Fontaine at LSE