When planning to spend Christmas 2001 with family in England, the question of house security in Zomba had to be considered. Burglaries are fairly common in Malawi – and are not confined to homes that belong to the relatively affluent minority. Our own bishop was burgled recently, and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Zomba suffered two attacks in close succession – but so did the poorest of the poor in our nearest local village. Thus Duncan, our recycling agent (who calls each morning for his breakfast, collects our waste papers and packaging, and usually brings us a cabbage or a paw-paw in exchange), had his plastic raincoat and other meagre possessions taken from the small shed where he lives. We have a wire fence installed by my predecessor and employ a watchman, but I suspect African protective measures would be even more effective. If, before going on leave, I had summoned a singanga (medicine man) and he had buried charms around the property with suitably impressive incantations, word would rapidly have spread that thieves intruded at their own risk, and could well expect misfortune, sickness or even death to follow swiftly. In the event, I felt a liaison with magical forces might not match well with missionary zeal!
Witchcraft beliefs are not of course restricted to Africans. Many parts of the world have experienced them, both in the past (as in Biblical times, for example, Isaiah 19.3 and in medieval Europe) and the present (even in contemporary England and France). It was the usual policy of British colonial administration to prohibit the practice of witchcraft along with its accusation. It regarded these beliefs as primitive, baseless and repugnant, needing to be repressed by law and eliminated through the spread of enlightened civilisation. Seldom, however, was policing adequate to achieve these aims, and in reality subordinate traditional authorities administered ‘native law and custom’. In Malawi, perhaps to prevent public lynching, Dr Banda’s government allowed for the trial and conviction of witches. In England at least one Anglican diocese resorts officially to prayer. 1998 saw the introduction in Somerset of a rite to counteract past sorcery which included these words, ‘Cleanse us and our generation from any adverse effect of the past.’ Around this time a young woman in my parish told me that in hospital she had seen the adjacent patient apparently praying at her bedside and had remarked to her, ‘How refreshing to find a fellow Christian.’ She was dumbfounded by the response, ‘No, I belong to a coven, and I’m praying for the death of all the new-born babies here.’ I am now less confident than I once was (as a student of mathematical sciences and cosmology) that such malignancy is wholly ineffective.
Early Modern England
The marked increase in witchcraft accusations in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Britain has been attributed by Keith Thomas to two principal, but related, factors: one is the birth of the Church of England, and the other is the rise of Protestant individualism. He argues that when misfortune struck and uncanny things happened in earlier times, the Catholic Church had its own armoury of protection: relics, pilgrimages, the prayers of the saints allied with the power of exorcism. Write these off in the name of scriptural religion (and conveniently overlooking the many and varied ways our Lord confronted evil), and the ordinary Christian is left feeling vulnerable. At the same time his social world was being challenged and changed, and growing prosperity left many feeling guilty about those in their community who were being left behind. Thus, it was typically the poor neighbour turned away at the door whose subsequent curse was most feared. In due time the Poor Laws and eventually the Welfare State quietened people’s consciences by providing alternative relief.
Magic in the Transvaal
In a fascinating new book Witchcraft, Power and Politics, the ethnographer Isak Niehaus has charted the more recent history of witchcraft accusations in the Northern Transvaal. He sees such beliefs as a form of protest and resistance for the weak, as it were, a popular mode of political action. He suggests witch-hunting can be seen as ‘a creative attempt to eliminate evil’ – indirectly also a warning to the rich and powerful to redistribute their wealth. ‘Villagers situationally invoke witchcraft beliefs as they encounter perplexing events, experience prolonged conflict in marriage, or suffer unspeakable misfortune … [witchcraft] has less to do with civilization and African identity than with their experiences of misery, marginalization, illness, poverty and insecurity.’ And perhaps their instinct is right: their life-situation is indeed the result of human processes, of choices made by others which exclude them from the good things that life can offer. To say an illness is the result of viral infection, or that poverty is the fruit of impersonal ‘market forces’ is to temporize. In the end one cannot deny that human actions and decisions have been employed. If there has been any mistake by those who feel victimized, it is perhaps too readily to seize upon some person conveniently at hand who can be blamed.
Niehaus examines briefly the response of Churches in South Africa to this phenomenon. He notes that ‘only the ministers of mission [i.e. mainline] Churches discouraged the belief in witches.’ Thus, a Methodist remarked, ‘If people are sick, they’re sick, if people are dead, they’re dead. We must not ask why.’ But Niehaus points out that such teachings had, and have, little impact compared with the hugely popular Zionist churches which actively recognize (like medieval Catholicism) the existence of witchcraft beliefs, and practise appropriate remedies. This of course can also be seen as our Lord’s response to suffering in his own day: a later ‘scientific’ or (supposedly) ‘rational’ culture may not give credence to the existence of personal devils nor of individual evil spirits, but his ministry was effective because it was properly inculturated in terms of first-century Jewish beliefs. Nevertheless it was also exercised on a more cosmic scale, as St. Paul recognized: there is evil operative within this world (whether or not it can be ascribed to ‘principalities and powers’ or to more demonic sources) and our faith – which always needs contextualizing – is that in Christ and the power of his Holy Spirit it has met its match.
I do not conclude, though, that I can dispense with my watchman and rely wholly upon prayer for protection from thieves!
Rodney Schofield teaches at Zomba Theological College, Malawi