Are witch-doctors still part of the anecdotal, primitive folk-lore of Africa? Yes, they are. The witch-doctor, however, does not feature in the safari package; he is still a nasty reality, who holds many people helpless in his “supernatural” grip. His “shrine” isn’t to be seen in the picture post-cards; it is hidden in the forest. His rags, shaggy hair and paraphernalia have not started a fashion craze; they are dirty and ugly. Yet, he is feared.
The Ugandan government, according to a recent BBC report, is worried about the increase of witch-craft, witch-doctors, and, consequently, the human sacrifices, especially children.
Hasn’t Uganda joined the 21st century, enjoying 25 years of peace and material/technological development, after the nightmare years of the 1970s and early 1980s, and the AIDS epidemic? And isn’t witchcraft associated with poverty, ignorance and superstition? Yet, the country’s economy is bouncing ahead at 6-7 per cent annually. More children than ever attend school; health facilities, though severely stretched, are available to more people. Churches and mosques are packed with people. So, why does the country seem to be going backwards in this area? The government attributes it to prosperity; yes, prosperity. This needs an explanation.
In Uganda, as elsewhere in Africa, image matters; how one behaves in the street, at the village meeting, the absolutely right dress and manners for the right occasion, which is as it should be. Ugandans are often scandalised at the loose talk and behaviour of some Western youth and young adults. Respectability is key. Every mother of a family, even though she lives in a mud hut, will bring out her silk gown, the “gomesi”, and fancy slippers for a special occasion.
With peace comes prosperity, and with prosperity greater expectations: not just a school but the best school available; no longer a reconditioned car, but a new one, a four-wheel drive, if possible; a brick cottage must yield to a two-storey house with verandah and garden in the green, hilly outskirts of Kampala. Many people, it seems, can’t climb fast enough.
Ugandans are, like the vast majority of Africans, very religious people, worshipping either God, or offering sacrifices to the spirits, or both, in pursuit of what they want and need. Occasionally the priests on Sundays will tell the faithful, to a reception of embarrassed titters, not to go to the witch-doctor’s shrine after they attend Mass, just in case…………..Just in case their prayers at church are not answered, fully and quickly.
It is inconsistent of some leaders to condemn witchcraft and witch-doctors, since they have recourse to them too: to get a plot of land, to cast a spell on a rival, to make a certain woman fertile or barren, to find a magical solution to a tough problem. And the witch-doctors oblige, provided they are well paid. Some openly Christian politicians will defend their attending such shrines because, they say, it is part of their traditional way of life, and to reach out to all their constituents.
For a big favour, the witch-doctor demands a big sacrifice: the biggest is a child, male or female, virgin, innocent, unspoiled by life. This is why children sometimes go missing. Occasionally body parts are found, especially head and heart. Very often this crime reaches the local media, and witchdoctors are arrested, or beaten to death by an angry mob. A further inconsistency is that the Witchcraft Act of 1931, with its penalties for witch-doctors, is hardly ever applied, as if the authorities fear them too.
Another reason is Uganda’s quickly-rising population, one of the highest birth-rates in the world. With more people come more witch-doctors and more needing their services. Education and evangelization are not enough to eradicate them overnight. Most Ugandans are uneasy with the existence of witch-doctors and people of all backgrounds still relying on them. Yet, because of their supposed supernatural powers, especially the “curse”, many cannot bring themselves to displease them. At most they will ignore them or laugh them off.
Finally, there is still confusion between herbal medicine and witch-craft, between genuine medicine-men and witch-doctors. Once, witch-doctors were also medicine-men, prescribing herbal medicines before the arrival of Western medicines. They were the only practitioners of this art, who knew every plant, bush, shrub and grass and its medicinal value. Now, Christian herbal doctors have learnt these skills and are replacing witch-doctors, but many people don’t know this, or prefer not to know, just in case…………..
So, is belief in the powers of the witch-doctor a sign of Africa’s backwardness, since this phenomenon is spread across the whole continent? Or is it, perhaps, an indication of a misplaced and exploited religiosity?
Martyn Drakard is the Africa correspondent for Spero.