There are some things that even the most devout religious adherents in the United States would scoff at that are held to be very serious beliefs of the supernatural elsewhere in the world. So much so, that lives are affected or even ended because of these supernatural beliefs and superstitions. I think it helps to examine these in order to put Western religious superstitions in perspective.
I’ve spoke with West Africans that point out that Christian missionaries would ridicule their beliefs which ranged from witches flying in the night abducting the hapless to talking baobab trees, but that these same missionaries would try to pass of their very strange beliefs in sorcery that turns wine to blood and that three gods are really one.
To illustrate just how real witchcraft is to traditional African culture, here are a few news summaries of recent witchcraft news:
A man in Malawi is sentenced to five years of imprisonment for violating the Malawi Witchcraft Act, which criminalizes the practice and teaching of “witchcraft.” The normative and legal position of the Malawian government is that witchcraft doesn’t exist, but the very real situation is that people do believe it’s real. Because of this, they make claims and accusations against others and retaliate or participate in vigilante justice if they think witchcraft is being used.
The man in the story linked above, Chikumbutso Mponda, is alleged to have “fallen from his magical plane” while he was in transit to his home village. Apparently he flew over a “magically protected” building that brought him down. I tried to read the story a couple of times to determine if the author of this “news” article was reporting what the man believed or what his accusers believe. I couldn’t tell. It was written as though it is a given fact that “magical planes” exist and this guy fell from one.
According to Mponela Police public relations officer Kondwani Kandiado, the court heard that on Christmas eve Mponda was traveling from Lilongwe to his home village in Ntchisi using a magic plane.
Due to lack of money for transport, he boarded a minibus to Mponela where he arrived at night.
Kandiado said since it was at night and fearing for their lives, the convict and a friend decided to use a magic plane for the remainder of the trip.
“Unfortunately, Mponda fell from the magic plane after it flew over a house at Mponela Trading Centre, which was heavily protected magically,” said Kandiado.
After a brief illness, a two-year old girl died and her distraught father pointed a finger at the women who were then dragged out of their homes, tortured and killed:
A large and wild mob of angry youths stormed homes of the two women, dragged them out and later beat them to death. One of the women, who eked out a living from fishing, reportedly bled to death, after being stabbed in the breast, while the second was burnt alive.
The evidence of witchcraft? The father consulted with a witchdoctor before his daughter’s death and the witchdoctor claimed the two women were planning to murder the child through witchcraft. What is clearly at work here is that the “witchdoctor” was being consulted instead of a professional health practitioner and she hedged her bets in case the child died in her care. That way, the grieving father wouldn’t direct his revenge to the woman/witchdoctor whom he paid for services.
Apparently his opponents cast spells and buried live goats at each polling station, accusations which the minister, Suleiman Shakombo, says he can “prove in court.” Wouldn’t he be better off proving it at a polling station with a shovel?
Whether or not government officials in Malawi officially or unofficially accept that witchcraft is real, Tanzania’s government appears genuinely concerned with the rise in crime associated with witchcraft beliefs. Rape of infants to obtain good fortune or the trade of organs from infants and albinos to also obtain wealth are some of the more heinous beliefs. At least its clear that the Tanzanian government and perhaps the author of this article isn’t accepting a priori that witchcraft is real, as witchcraft is referred to as a set of “stupid beliefs.”
Out of Africa
Witchcraft is also an issue outside of Africa.
The Tajik government has taken a skeptical stance against witchcraft, fortune-telling, and the like in recent legislation. Many citizens have complained that there are more important issues for the legislative body to attend to, however, the Tajik authorities cite some 5,000 practitioners of witchcraft and divination, a figure that is rising fast, and the growing concern that the elderly and sick are more and more seeking assistance from charlatans and scam artists rather than professional medical help.
But all is not well in Papua New Guinea, where the author of the story above describes the brutal murder of a young woman accused of being a witch by a vigilante mob. The accusation: that she removed the heart of a man, killing him and that the heart was found under her bed. I’m betting the mob didn’t wait to see the heart or to get an autopsy report.
A group of men stripped her naked and forced her to walk the streets, torturing her with red hot iron bars and bush knives. She was in great pain until she died few hours later. No one mourned over her and there was no funeral. She was believed to have caused many deaths through sorcery, hence, even her blood relatives did not want to be seen to be on her side. Otherwise, they would also be blamed for sorcery practices, or making sorcery plans I found it very hard to believe that this young woman could possibly remove a human heart through “sanguma”. However, I couldn’t say anything at the time, and kept everything inside of me.
The author quotes an Australian member of the World Health Organization that cites a positive correlation between witchcraft related homicide and the increase in cases of HIV/AIDS, suggesting that fear is a strong motivator for superstition.
These cases of “witchcraft” are absurd, but they illustrate the true “spells” that humanity is susceptible to: belief. We tend to believe the absurd when it ties into hope, fear, and our own mortality or the mortality of those for whom we care about. The absurd belief that witches can remove a heart from a victim through “sanguma” or fly “magical planes” in the night aren’t really all that different from the unquestioned acceptance of “faith healing,” transubstantiation, zombie messiahs, virgin births, casting out demons and demons in the first place.
If you’re a Christian (or a Muslim or a Jew), and you don’t at least wonder for a moment whether or not your beliefs are any less absurd than that of the people in the stories above, then you are living in a delusional state.