[News] Nigerian Witch Hunts

19 10 2009

I have a handful of posts in various stages of completion, but then this Wild Hunt post comes up in regards to Nigerian witch hunts.  I’m going to put the other posts on hold for a moment and just talk a little about this one.  I don’t have anything strong to say, just some thoughts about how the picture is more complicated than it appears.

One of the things I worry about when I see stories like this one (and the attendant discussion in the comments), is that people come away from it with a distorted picture of how Christianity has influenced these sorts of things.  Especially in pagan communities where the medieval witch hunts have played such a pivotal role in the community’s self consciousness, I think there it gets too easy to jump on the what’s wrong with Christianity bandwagon.

One thing that we really need to appreciate about this situation is that witch hunts in Nigeria did not begin with Christian influence.  Witch hunting and witch finders have plenty of roots in broader African spiritual traditions.  While I don’t have the expertise to speak for the whole continent, I know non-Christian varieties of this practice can be found in West and Central Africa.

Christianity is thus not bringing a witch hunting complex to Nigeria.  As Stephan Palmie notes (following Terrence Ranger’s work) in Wizards and Scientists, Christianity often makes its appearance in modern African culture as a “novel witchfinding cult” (50), i.e. as one witch finding cult among many.

This is not to excuse missionaries who overlook the brutality of ‘Christian’ witchfinders.  If they want to bring the Good Word to Nigeria, they need to struggle against its corruption into torture.  However, the problem will not be solved simply by addressing missionaries.  If witch finding precedes Christianity, it won’t be challenged by just challenging Christianity.

However, it is necessary to challenge missionary approaches that take it as paramount to destroy native religious expressions to prepare the way for Christian doctrine.  Those native religious traditions, with centuries of moral discourse, contain within them the tools to criticize and reign in brutal witch finders.  Moreover, they provide people with forms of combating witchcraft that don’t entail having to find a witch.

When those traditions are weakened and attacked, the underlying problems they address (like witchcraft) remain and become more intractable.  The concepts become less exact, their application more superstitious.  The opportunity for outright charlatanism and opportunism, too, increase dramatically.




6 responses

19 10 2009

There are a lot of economic factors at work in the child-witch cases. The evangelical churches are competing for members, money, and influence, and this encourages the less-scrupulous among the ministers to turn to witchcraft denunciations as a means of building reputation. Churches that weren’t initially willing to play that game are forced to get into witch-hunting to stay competitive. Meanwhile this is going on in an atmosphere of poverty and social instability, where a family can come unglued by sickness or unemployment and turn on its weakest members in an effort to fix things . . . some of the families who abandon their children or kill them due to witchcraft denunciations are probably even relieved to have one less mouth to feed.

And yeah, witchery and witch-hunting are not new in Africa. Part of the current fuel for these attacks against child-witches are instances of violence and murder by gangs working _for_ sorcerers. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8296495.stm)

So . . . I’m half-agreeing, half-arguing with you ; ) It _is_ necessary to look beyond Christianity to the indigenous roots of witchery and witch-hunting in Africa in order to try to solve the problems of both kinds of attacks. It _is_ necessary to protect indigenous definitions of and ways of dealing with witchcraft that don’t rely on killing the witch. But it’s also extremely necessary to curtail Christian witch-hunting atrocities in Africa, and cut off First-world church support (tacit or overt) for these practices.

And finally, none of this would likely be as big of a horrible issue if African societies could be made more economically and politically stable. People are much less likely to attack witches, or agree to the murder of albinos for their body parts, if they aren’t terrified for their livelihoods.

19 10 2009

I actually think we’re just agreeing. ;-)

I do think (and said so) that we need to hold missionaries accountable for their involvement, right down to their role in the destruction of local culture.

I just don’t think that we should overlook the role local, traditional, ‘pagan’ (to use the word really loosely) values play in creating these situations.

You just have a clearer idea about how big a role economics plays. I’m not entirely sure about that yet. I’m sympathetic (surprise), but hesitant.

19 10 2009

I seem to always assume an economic factor. It may just be the little Marxist dwelling in my heart . . . but, as the song says, “money changes everything.” ; ) And it’s very common to have correlations between community stresses (which tend to be economic) and witch accusations.

19 10 2009

Ack, I didn’t mean to post that just yet. Anyway, I was going on to say that where I feel that we’re in some disagreement is over how much importance to place on the culpability of the evangelical churches. To my way of thinking (bolstered, I admit, by just a couple of newspaper articles at the moment), it’s true that ‘pagan’ witch beliefs do exist as part of Nigeria’s various cultures, BUT it looks like these churches and their ambitious pastors are taking advantage of the poverty and fear of their parishoners to improve their positions and spread their messages, via witch-hunting.

Or put it another way, witch beliefs are common, and witch-hunting has a long history in lots of places; but something always provides the stimulus for a bout of witch-hunting. Maybe there would be child-witch hunts going on in Nigeria now even without the churches’ involvement, but we can’t know that. What we do know is that the churches are stirring it up now; and whatever other factors are stimulating the witch-hunt, we _know_ these pastors are a major one.

So, basically I feel like you’re cutting them evangelical bitches and sons of bitches that tell families that their 8-year-olds are the witches who are cursing them a little too much slack.

20 10 2009

I’m not sure if we can actually know if these pastors are a major cause, though. That is part of my concern. Okay, let me do what I probably should have done in the first place and take note of some problems I had with the article itself that made me feel like something was missing.

The article mentions precious few significant numbers: as many as 15,000 witch child accusations, 1,000 deaths, 200 cases in which the AP reports that pastors have been ‘involved,’ and 13 churches in 2 states of Nigeria.

We don’t have any clear parameters established for what pastoral involvement entails, we don’t know how many cases the AP investigated, we don’t know how the accusation / death rates were calculated.

Still, taking it all in good faith, it leaves me with the impression that a very small number of evangelical pastors are involved in this–roughly 13 (usually one pastor to a church). And they are explicitly identified as rogue churches, not following the leadership of any First World organization.

That suggests that there is more going on here than strictly falls under the rubric of evangelical work. 13 churches for 1,000 deaths? Possible, sure, but it sounds a little peculiar to me.

I’m not suggesting that the broader context of witch finding fills in all the background or justifies the actions–it’s just that without it, I feel like we are likely to over-emphasize the role of First World evangelicals while de-emphasizing the role of the Nigerians involved.

I also feel a little uncomfortable talking about whether I cut them slack or not. It seems to me like the evidence has not been fully brought to light and that judgment, even of the peanut gallery sort I can make, would be premature.

28 10 2009
Ethics & talking about witch hunts « Dreaming the Future Closer

[…] what I can to get a better sense of what might be going on with the Nigerian witch hunts (so far, here and here).  As I do so, I become increasingly aware of how complicated the situation gets.  The […]

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