The story of the witch hunt is one of demonic Sabbaths, dunking stools and burning pyres. We would hope the fear of witches is just a child’s fantasy, before age and reason steps in. However, what if that fear could transgress the world of nightmares and become reality? Imagine if a witch hunt was carried out not amongst the characters of a fairy-tale, but in actual communities?
What makes the phenomenon of a witch hunt so horrific? Being innocent but being accused. Having no means to appeal to your persecutor. Young men attack old women. Adults attack children. No one can help you without risking accusation themselves. You are damned if you defend yourself and damned if you don’t. Sadly, this phenomenon is becoming all too familiar in many parts of Africa today.
In Gusii, Kenya, in 2009, it was recounted that during a witch hunt suspects were rounded up and arrested in their houses at night, and ‘chased and caught…like prey by day… their hands and feet bound with sisal ropes…torched after being dowsed with gasoline…while the villagers drew back to watch the victims agonize and perish in the flames…’
Picture a woman in her eighties, defenceless but for her “sorcery”, accused by a group of young men of witchcraft. ‘Your days are over, old woman’, they chant as they slash into her skull with machetes and cut off her hands. Her “sorcery” has failed her. Blood stains the walls of the house in which her family continue on, shamed and ostracised.
These details are terrifying. The horror of the witch hunt numbs me to the bone. Though surely this is just a deep seated part of African culture? Are we not safe because these primitive societies are so distinct from the West, both geographically and cognitively? Can we not leave them to it, and wait for the rationale of modernity, westernisation, capitalism, commercialism, and globalisation to reach their communities? In that case, let us sleep easy, proud of how far our own development has come.
But what if we knew that it is only since the 1990s and the onset of economic globalisation that witch hunts have proliferated, in ways unprecedented in the pre-modern era. Some anthropologists put this down to the global expansion of capitalism. Throughout Africa, governments race to catch up with the West, while richer states and businesses partake in ‘land grabs’ and foreign trading. Local economies have been undermined and competition for resources made more extreme. Unemployment has at times reached unprecedented levels, the currencies devalued, and basic services eroded. This is typical of the ladder of capitalism; some might climb it, but just as many have it kicked from beneath their feet. Nevertheless, in the West we are taught about this process, and it has become such a well-integrated paradigm that we tend to just accept it. The hope that we might “rise” means we still strive for capitalism’s fleeting promises even as we fall, and we do not question the premise of its logic.
Still, what about when this process is intensified in a traditional subsistence-based community, where the ways and woes of a liberal economy are not as familiar? Is it really so irrational and primitive, that the devastating realities of being one of the losers of the new global game, are increasingly being attributed to ‘the occult’? After all, with all our Western knowledge, we still discuss the ‘invisible hand of capitalism’. Is this so far from the invisible hand of witchcraft? Are market forces really that distinct from supernatural forces? Neither belong to entities that we can actually see or hold to account. In response, competition has become the catalyst for accusations of witchcraft. When one individual profits and the others are left behind, could black magic be afoot? When a foreign trade company brings in hundreds of immigrant workers, yet local residents continue to suffer the effects of unemployment, perhaps the owner has raised a work force of living dead? Perhaps a witch has helped them enslave spirits into ‘ghost labourers?’ With rising mortality rates, malnutrition, and the spread of AIDS, people are left desperate to find answers to their problems.
Perhaps the supernatural is not so irrational.
The victims of witch hunts are not guilty of supernatural crimes, but they are being demonised and tortured nonetheless. Between 1991 and 2001, reports claim that 23,000 “witches” were murdered in Africa, 500 a year are lynched in Tanzania alone, and, in Ghana, 1000 women live in exile in hellish “witch camps” to ‘keep their neighbours safe’. Should those who are accused of witchcraft be put on trial, or those who persecute them? Or should it be the agencies that are promoting capitalism without restraint or caution? These agencies could include the World Bank, the IMF, and the African governments, who believe economic liberalisation is still the greatest good, regardless of the all-too-real negative consequences.
It’s hopeful to think that these huge institutions and foreign investors would ever think twice about the effect economic liberalisation is having on the psychological rationality of a distant community. After all, when we live in the relative safety of the West, could we really be afraid of the big bad bank?