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Stifling the Imagination: A Critique of Anthropological and Religious Normalization of Witchcraft in Africa

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AbstractRecent anthropological and religious, especially Christian, discourses on African witchcraft normalize the witchcraft imagination on the continent by failing to show how damaging the imagination has been to Africa’s move toward modernization. While anthropologists normalize it by studying the phenomenon ahistorically and by rationalizing and reinterpreting it, scholars and preachers of African Christianity see it as the context necessary for the growth of Christianity on the continent. However, this normalization of the witchcraft imagination stifles the African imagination because it does not encourage Africans to think in scientific ways that may be more helpful in the transformation of the continent in our modern world. This article is an attempt to liberate the African imagination by critiquing the witchcraft imagination from a rational and theological perspective. It also proposes policies that need to be taken in order to overcome this ruinous imagination and facilitate Africa’s dignified participation in the modern world.

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73. FN1 1For more on these secret societies in Cameroon see Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Post-colonial Africa(Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 146-151, 158-164.
74. FN2 2Opoku Onyinah, “Deliverance as a Way of Confronting Witchcraft in Contemporary Africa: Ghana as a Case Study,” in The Spirit in the World: Emerging Pentecostal Theologies in Global Contexts, ed. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2009), 181-202.
75. FN3 3This article dwells on Christianity and its appropriation of traditional religious cosmology but a study like this could also be based on Islam. Adeline Masquelier has shown how this imagination operates in a Muslim society in her recent work entitled Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001).
76. FN4 4Among African philosophers noted for the critique of African culture and the witchcraft imagination it breeds are Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, Paulin Hountondji, and Marcien Towa. Also see Ivan Karp and D. A. Masolo, “Introduction,” in African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry, ed. Ivan Karp and D. A. Masolo (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), 9-3; Paulin J. Hountondji, “Knowledge as a Development Issue,” in A Companion to African Philosophy, ed., Kwasi Wiredu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 529-537.
77. FN5 5In fact, both Evans-Pritchard and Parrinder denied the existence of witches. See Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft, 230-231 n. 32. As we shall see later, the Ghanaian Pentecostal preacher, Otabil Mensa, is a significant Pentecostal preacher who calls this worldview into question. Elias Bongmba’s philosophical and theological critique of witchcraft borrows from Levinas’s philosophy to critique the phenomenon from an ethical perspective. It however fails to challenge the imagination itself. See Elias Kifon Bongmba, African Witchcraft and Otherness: A Philosophical and Theological Critique of Intersubjective Relations(Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001), 55-53, 57, 130. Bongmba ponders the possibility that witchcraft may be an illusion but is not yet prepared to declare it so: “what if it turns out that there really is no secret knowledge?” he asks. His response: “We will then be able to write a history of tfuindeed and at that time probe why a false idea has held generations of Africans hostage. We will like to know why some have defended it, calling it ‘African science’ ” (53). But how are we ever going to know that it is not real if belief in the phenomenon is not rationally questioned?
78. FN6 6Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft; Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, ed. Modernity and Its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa(Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).
79. FN7 7Meinrad Hebga, Sorcellerie, chimère dangereuse. . .? (Abijan, Ivory Coast: Institut national pour le développement économique et social, 1979); Tatah H. Mbuy, Encountering Witches and Wizards in Africa(Buea, Cameroon: Bishop Rogan College, 1989). Emmanuel Milingo, The World In Between: Christian Healing and the Struggle for Spiritual Survival. (London: C. Hurst and Company, 1984); Allan Anderson, Moya: The Holy Spirit in an African Context(Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1991).
80. FN8 8Jarich Oosten, “Cultural Anthropological Approaches,” in Theory and Method in Religious Studies: Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Frank Whaling (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995), 354. Also see Bryan R. Wilson, “A Sociologist’s Introduction,” in Rationality, ed. Bryan R. Wilson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970), vii-xviii.
81. FN9 9On the claim that anthropological interpretations may arrive at conclusions that are different from that held by practitioners of a particular culture, see Oosten, “Cultural Anthropological Approaches,” 359.
82. FN10 10See Curtis Keim, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, Second Edition (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2009).
83. FN11 11For more on the ethnocentric background of religious studies see Frank Whaling, “Introduction,” in Theory and Method in Religious Studies, 13. Also see Eric J. Sharpe, “The Study of Religion in Historical Perspective,” in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, Second Edition, ed. John Hinnells (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 21-38; and Gregory Alles, “The Study of Religions: The Last 50 Years,” in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religions, 39-55.
84. FN12 12Houston Smith, The World’s Religions(New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 4.
85. FN13 13For the neglect of the religions of indigenous peoples in the study of religions in the United States see Harvey J. Sindima, Introduction to Religious Studies(Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2009), vii-viii.
86. FN14 14For more on this see David Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 16-30.
87. FN15 15Ernest Gellner, “Concepts and Society,” in Rationality, ed. Bryan R. Wilson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979), 42-43.
88. FN16 16Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft, 19-25.
89. FN17 17Ninian Smart, Religion and the Western Mind(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987), 120-131.
90. FN18 18For more on the debate on the nature of rationality see, Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?(Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989); Bryan R. Wilson, ed. Rationality; Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes, ed, Rationality and Relativism(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982). I am grateful to Elias Bongmba of Rice University for pointing me to the books by Brian Wilson and Hollis and Lukes.
91. FN19 19For how western philosophers such as Kant, Hume, Hegel, and Marx disparaged Africa, see Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, “Introduction: Philosophy and the (Post)colonial,” in Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader, ed., Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 6-10.
92. FN20 20Kwame Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 266. Italics in original.
93. FN21 21Bryan R. Wilson, “A Sociologist’s Introduction,” vii-viii.
94. FN22 22Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, 3-34.
95. FN23 23For a salient discussion of the multiplicity of modernity, see Daedalus, 129(1) (2000). The whole issue entitled “Multiple Modernities,” was dedicated to a discussion of different forms of modernity within Western Europe, which is the cradle of the modernity around the world.
96. FN24 24See S. N. Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus, 129 (1) (2000): 1-29; Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, 273-297.
97. FN25 25This is also the insight of the Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson who argues that insisting on the plurality of modernity, as some anthropologists have done, may make the phenomenon to be everything and nothing. There should therefore be some benchmarks which societies must have in order to be considered modern and the witchcraft imagination should not be one of them. See James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), 31-34.
98. FN26 26Gyekye sees Paulin Hountondji and Marcien Towa as scholars who call for the wholesale appropriation of Western modernity in Africa. But I think Gyekye dost protest too much, for there is actually little difference between his understanding of the kind of modernity appropriate for Africa and the views of Hountondji and Towa. See Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, 219-297.
99. FN27 27Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, 244.
100. FN28 28Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, 244.
101. FN29 29Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft, 13.
102. FN30 30Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Le sunaturel et la nature dans la mentalité primitive(Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1931), vii; E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande(Oxford University Press, 1937); Geoffrey Parrinder, Witchcraft: European and African(London: Faber and Faber, 1958).
103. FN31 31For more on the interpretation of witchcraft in Africa see William C. Olsen, “ ‘Children for Death’: Money, Wealth, and Witchcraft Suspicion in Colonial Asante,” Cahiers d’étude africaines3 (2002): 524-525.
104. FN32 32Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft, 12-15; Comaroff and Comaroff, ed. “Introduction,” xxix.
105. FN33 33Mary Douglas, “Introduction,” in Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, ed. Mary Douglas (London: Tavistock, 1970), xiii. For more on Douglas’s article, see Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft, 216-219.
106. FN34 34Douglas, “Introduction,” in Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, xiv, xvii, xix.
107. FN35 35Comaroff and Comaroff, “Introduction,” in Modernity and Its Malcontents, xxvi; Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft, 2.
108. FN36 36See Comaroff and Comaroff, “Introduction,” xxx-xxxi; James Kiernan, “Introduction,” in Power of the Occult in Modern Africa: Continuity and Innovation in the Renewal of African Cosmologies, ed., James Kiernan (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2006), 1-2.
109. FN37 37Keith Thomas, “The Relevance of Social Anthropology to the Historical Study of English Witchcraft,” in Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, 69.
110. FN38 38Thomas, “The Relevance of Social Anthropology,” 69-70. For a recent interpretation of the situation that sustained belief in witchcraft in colonial Salem, New England, see Benjamin C. Ray, “ ‘The Salem Witch Mania’: Recent Scholarship and American History Textbooks,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion78 no. 1 (March 2010): 40-64.
111. FN39 39See his History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe(New York: Appleton, 1886), 103.
112. FN40 40For more on the shape that an African modernity may take see Kwasi Wiredu, “Our Problem of Knowledge: Brief Reflections on Knowledge and Development in Africa,” in African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry, ed. Ivan Karp and D. A. Masolo (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), 181-186.
113. FN41 41Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and African Culture(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 15.
114. FN42 42See Paulin Hountondji, “Knowledge as a Development Issue,” in A Companion to African Philosophy, ed., Kwasi Wiredu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 534-536. Hountondji cites his Endogenous Knowledge: Research Trails(Dakar: Codesria, 1997) and Pieter Schmidt, The Culture and Technology of Iron-making in Africa(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996).
115. FN43 43Wiredu, “Our Problem of Knowledge,” 181.
116. FN44 44Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft, 9.
117. FN45 45For an example that some African politicians who make use of ngangasalso employ Western public relations officials, see this story: Xavier Messé, “Présidentielle 2011: Battailes de communicants autour de Paul Biya,” Le Quotidien Mutation, Mardi, Mai 31, 2011. Available at: http://quotidien.mutations-multimedia.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2397:presidentielle-2011-batailles-de-communicants-autour-de-paul-biya&catid=294:dossier-presidentielle&Itemid=457.
118. FN46 46Adeline Masquelier, “Narratives of Power, Images of Wealth: The Ritual Economy of Boriin the Market,” in Modernity and Its Malcontents, 3-33.
119. FN47 47Masquelier, Prayer Has Spoiled Everything, 192ff.
120. FN48 48Masquelier, Prayer Has Spoilt Everything, 300.
121. FN49 49Masquelier, Prayer Has Spoilt Everything, 3.
122. FN50 50Masquelier, “Narratives of Power, Images of Wealth,” 27.
123. FN51 51Comaroff and Comaroff, Modernity and Its Malcontents, xxix.
124. FN52 52Kiernan, “Introduction,” 5.
125. FN53 53For a critique of relativism, see Kwasi Wiredu, “Are There Cultural Universals?” in The African Philosophy Reader, ed. P. H. Coetzee and A. P. J. Roux (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 31-40.
126. FN54 54See Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel Beyond the West(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).
127. FN55 55For more on this discussion see David T. Ngong, “Christianity and Christian Missions,” in Africa and the Wider World, ed. Hakeem I. Tijani, Raphael C. Njoku, and Tiffany F. Jones (Boston: Pearson, 2010), 237-245.
128. FN56 56For more on Bediako’s discussion of the ethnocentric vision that characterized Western Christian missions in Africa, see his Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa(Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1992 and 1999), 225-266.
129. FN57 57For more on the Western, romantic provenance of vitalism see, James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: Volume 1, The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 85.
130. FN58 58Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy(Paris: Présence Africaine, 1959), 35. Cited in Abiola Irele, “Introduction,” in African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, Paulin J. Hountondji, trans. Henri Evans and Jonathan Rée (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 16.
131. FN59 59Irele, “Introduction,” 16. For more on the relation among this vitalistic philosophy, African Traditional Religions, and Christianity, see Vincent Mulago, “Traditional African Religion and Christianity,” in African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, ed. Jacob K. Olupona (St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1990), 119-134.
132. FN60 60See Marthinus L. Daneel, African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission(Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 232-237. Daneel writes in a somber, affirmative note in the context of Zimbabwe: “Here the magical belief system still hold sway” (p. 237).
133. FN61 61This claim does not merit to be footnoted given that it may be found in any respectable book on African Christian thought. However, I refer the reader to the thoughts of Kwame Bediako and Ogbu Kalu. Bediako is one of the most respected African theologians and Kalu is one of the most respected African historians of Christianity. Some are sometimes surprised that I include Kalu in discussing African Christian thought. One would not express this surprise if they are familiar with the body of Kalu’s work, especially his work on the rise of African Pentecostalism, a phenomenon that he credits to the Pentecostal ability to eloquently address the cosmology described above. For more on the thoughts of Bediako and Kalu, see Kwame Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004); Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995); Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
134. FN62 62Bediako, Christianity in Africa, 260-262.
135. FN63 63E. Kingsley Larbi, Pentecostalism: The Eddies of Ghanaian Christianity(Accra, Ghana: Center for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, 2001), 7-8.
136. FN64 64For more on African neo-Pentecostalism see Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 87ff.
137. FN65 65Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 170ff.
138. FN66 66Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 180.
139. FN67 67Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 178ff.
140. FN68 68Prophet Joshua of Nigeria is now one of the foremost Pentecostal seers and healers in Africa. For more about him see his Web site: http://scoan.org/index.htm.
141. FN69 69Pentecostal scholars have only recently begun to acknowledge that Pentecostalism could be antagonistic to the scientific imagination. For more on this see, James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong, ed., Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010).
142. FN70 70It is quite interesting that Kalu describes those who critique the magical interpretations of these new churches, especially Paul Gifford, as “enemies” of the new movements. See Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 199.
143. FN71 71This is an echo of Henrietta L. Moore and Todd Sanders, ed., Magical Interpretations, Material Realities: Modernity, Witchcraft and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa(London: Routledge, 2001).
144. FN72 72See Mark Oppenheimer, “On a Visit to the U.S., a Nigerian Witch-Hunter Defends Herself,” New York Times(May 21, 2010): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/22/us/22beliefs.html?_r=1; Christian Purefoy, “Nigeria: Children Accused of Witchcraft,” CNN.com. August 25, 2010. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2010/08/24/purefoy.nigera.childwitch.pt1.cnn.html. Even though the governor of Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria, Godswill Apkabio, says that reports of the accusation of children as witches are much exaggerated, he does not deny that the unpleasant phenomenon is present in his state.
145. FN73 73For more on Ukpabio, see the New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer, “On a Visit to the U.S., a Nigerian Witch-Hunter Defends Herself.” Also see her ministry Web site, Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministry, at: http://libertyfoundationgospelministries.org/index.html/.
146. FN74 74Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 151-152. In fact, nowhere in this impressive work does Kalu mention the unsalutary connection between Pentecostalism and the rise in the accusation of children as witches.
147. FN75 75For more on the film visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUeKBibBN0I.
148. FN76 76See Isioma Madike, “No Peace for Witches in Akwa Ibom, Helen Ukpabio Vows,” Daily Independentvia AllAfrica.com(5 January, 2009). Available at: http://allafrica.com/stories/200901060164.html.
149. FN77 77Dan Harris and Almin Karamehmedovic, “Child Witches: Accused in the Name of Jesus,” ABC News/Nightline(May 21, 2009), available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/child-witches-accused-jesus/story?id=7613395.
150. FN78 78Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity, 83-112.
151. FN79 79For more on the critique and defense of the Christian faith from its very beginnings see Paul Hartog, “Greco-Roman Understanding of Christianity,” in The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought, ed. D. Jeffrey Bingham (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 51-67 and Oskar Skarsaune, “Justin and the Apologists,” The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought, 121-136.
152. FN80 80For more on how elements of the Christian faith have been critiqued in modern times, including the decline of belief in hell in the West, see the little, important book by the controversial Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, Credo: The Apostles’ Creed Explained for Today(London, UK: SCM Press, 1993).
153. FN81 81Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, 242-243. For more on the claim that many Africans do not sufficiently stress rationality see Wiredu, Philosophy and African Culture, 35-48.
154. FN82 82Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, 247-248.
155. FN83 83John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy(London: Heinemann, 1969), 1.
156. FN84 84Wiredu, Philosophy and African Culture, 1-6.
157. FN85 85For more on this see Will Ross, “ ‘Prayer Camps’ Chain Mentally Ill,” BBC News(8 May 2009). Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8040057.stm.
158. FN86 86Lesiba J. Teffo and Abraham P. J. Roux, “Metaphysical Thinking in Africa,” in The African Philosophy Reader, ed. P. H. Coetzee and A. P. J. Roux (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 144.
159. FN87 87Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 179. Kalu’s conflictual image of the Christian understanding of salvation is taken from Ephesians 6:10-17.
160. FN88 88Keith Fernando, The Triumph of Christ in African Perspective: A Study of Demonology and Redemption in the African Context(Carlisle, Cumbria UK: Paternoster Press, 1999), 379.
161. FN89 89This understanding of the sovereignty of God is similar to the view of God espoused by some Muslims in Dogondoutchi, the Nigerien people studied by the anthropologist Adeline Masquelier. Because this view of God’s sovereignty undermines bori, some boripractitioners hold that Islamic prayer has spoiled everything; hence the title of Masquelier’s book, Prayer Has Spoiled Everything. However, this understanding of God should not be seen as bad news for African traditional religious cultures. African traditional idea of God can also be interpreted in a similar light in order to undermine the power of malevolent spirits by drawing from the resources of African Traditional Religions themselves rather than from apparently alien religions such as Christianity and Islam.
162. FN90 90See “Pope Warns Angola of Witchcraft,” BBC News(31 March 2009). Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7956460.stm.
163. FN91 91For more on Otabil’s response to the witchcraft imagination see Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity, 121.
164. FN92 92Parrinder, Witchcraft: European and African, 207.
165. FN93 93For the breakdown of African educational systems in the last fifty years or so, see Joel Samoff and Bidemi Carrol, “The Promise of Partnership and Continuities of Dependence: External Support and Higher Education,” African Studies Review47 no. 1 (April 2004): 68-71.
166. FN94 94Ferguson, Global Shadows, 31-34.
167. FN95 95See Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why The Poorest Countries Are Failing And What Can Be Done About It(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
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/content/journals/10.1163/156921012x629367
2012-01-01
2015-06-30

Affiliations: 1: Stillman College 12319 Huntington Village Dr., Northport, AL 35475 USA, Email: Dngong@stillman.edu

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