Witchcraft in Africa

This piece delves into the often objectified world of Witchcraft in Africa. Using different case studies, I argue that western media’s negative representation of witchcraft has turned modern Africans away from the authentic culture of many groups of individuals.   With modern pieces like Henry West’s Ethnographic Sorcery to the classic E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Azande, my essay combines theory and ethnography to support my conclusion.


Published in the Binghamton Undergraduate Journal of Anthropology



Witchcraft, or sorcery, is a prominent aspect of many African cultures. To Westerners, perceptions of devil worshipers flying on brooms prohibits reasonable interpretations about the nature of witchcraft. A UNICEF-sponsored anthropologist in South Sudan, Aleksandra Cimpric defines witchcraft as the all-encompassing practice, which includes the popular custom of sorcery. She states that “witchcraft covers multiple terms in local languages referring to various phenomena whose interpretation relies heavily on their context” (Cimpric 2010: 11). In this paper, both sorcery and witchcraft are treated in the same practice. Cimpric’s definition allows one to comprehend witchcraft’s role in African societies. Iona M. Lewis, of the Encyclopedia Britannica, defines one of the central claims in this paper, declaring that “witchcraft explains the problem posed when one seeks to understand why misfortune befalls oneself rather than someone else” (Lewis 2016). Based upon this premise, one can use specific case studies of witchcraft’s role as a moral guide to gauge their societal standing. The Azande in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Muedans in northern Mozambique, and the vast majority of South Africans utilize witchcraft to elucidate unexplained phenomena. While western language invites words like ‘coincidence’, ‘luck’, ‘or fate,’ to define unexplainable events, these words do not exist in most African cultures (Butler 2016). Therefore, is is vital to follow E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s advice about African witchcraft. One of the first anthropologist to review witchcraft in Africa, Evans-Pritchard uses his example of Azande culture to clarify that “the Zande notion of witchcraft is incompatible with our ways of thought (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 81). With Evans-Pritchard’s claim, it is evident that western investigation of witchcraft depicts inaccurate perceptions of African culture. However, being culturally relative in one’s analysis of witchcraft’s influence in different African cultures and societies allows one to authenticate witchcraft’s role as a sophisticated moral framework.

In order to accurately evaluate ethnographic case studies about witchcraft, it is vital to first understand the origin of witchcraft’s inaccurate portrayal in western academia and media. Westerners’ first encounter with African witchcraft was Jean Rouch’s, Les maîtres fous, an enthofictional documentary about spiritual possession in northern Niger. Documenting the Hauka ceremony provided Europeans with images of Africans foaming at the mouth, eating a dog, and contorting their bodies in grotesque configurations (Les maîtres fous 1955). The film, first showed in France in 1955, entrenched a view of savage behavior around all African religion. Despite these false predictions, the film aimed to demonstrate how the ceremony exemplified an inversion of power in colonial Africa. Dr. Paul Stoller states that “…the Hauka way of mastering domination, of redirecting European power to African networks…” was a coping mechanism for Africans (Stoller 1995: 123). The possessed participants became their believed entities, seeking reconciliation for their false-doings. Stoller continues: “In anthropology, it is especially important to consider these smells, tastes, textures and sensations, particularly in those societies in which the Eurocentric notion of text are not important” (Stoller 1995: 22). Les maîtres fous and Stoller’s arguments show how the absence of a Eurocentric analysis of witchcraft created a savage view of the practice. However, in African reality witchcraft is as common as western religious practice. Evans- Pritchard solidifies this claim, stating “unless the reader appreciates that witchcraft is quite a normal factor in the life of the Azande [Africans practicing forms of witchcraft], …he will entirely misunderstand their behavior to it. To us witchcraft is something which haunted and disgusted our credulous forefathers. But the Zande expect to come across witchcraft at any time of the day or night” (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 64). By being culturally relative, or viewing the foreign paradigm completely from the point of view of only those who participate in witchcraft, one can then properly assess the cultural and social importance of witchcraft in case studies from vastly different regions of Africa.

Practicing witchcraft is a vague process with numerous forms of participation. Therefore, comprehending three distantly unique examples of witchcraft is vital to understand its importance within African society. Continuing with E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s research, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande serves as a tool to demonstrate one specific way witchcraft is utilized in African society. In central DRC, the Azande rely on witchcraft for the causation of uncommon events. Evans-Pritchard claims that “we must not be deceived by [Azande] way of expressing causation … [t]hey are foreshortening the chain of events, and in a particular social situation are selecting the cause that is socially relevant” (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 73). For the Azande, witchcraft dictates the attitude its followers should possess in times of infortunes. The Azande use of witchcraft “provides them with a natural philosophy by which the relations between men and unfortunate events are explained and a ready and stereotyped means of reacting to such events” (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 63). This view of witchcraft provides answers to complex life situations. The Azande practicality of witchcraft contrasts from the far away Muedan perception in northern Mozambique.

Henry West, PhD in Anthropology from University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides a different definition of witchcraft from his research on the Muedan plateau in Mozambique. For Muedans, acts of sorcery were equivalent to practices in witchcraft. The biggest act of sorcery is the perception of lions as a reflection of current moral standing. If a Muedan encountered a lion, the nature of the lion would change based on personal reflection of perceived proper social interaction. West says that “sorcery lions… were made, not by sorcerers in an invisible realm, but instead by ordinary, self-deceived Muedans” (West 2007:55). For Muedans, “…sorcery provided an idiom for the expression of social tensions between Muedans of various categories and their respective sociological others” (West 2007:17). The analysis of sorcery as a tool of witchcraft provides another diverse example of witchcraft’s prominence within African cultures. A final, completely different example of witchcraft is evident in South Africa, demonstrating how witchcraft explains the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

South Africa remains one of the most ethnically diverse landscapes in the enormous continent. Despite possessing numerous ethnicities, a majority of traditional groups rely on witchcraft as their outlet for poor conditions. Dr. Adam Ashforth states that “witchcraft in the South African context typically means the manipulation by malicious individuals of powers inherent in persons, spiritual entities, and substances to cause harm to others” (Ashforth 2001: 9). He continues: “Discourses of ‘witchcraft’ can thus be represented as modes of posing and answering questions about evil: about the beings, powers, forces and modes of action responsible for causing suffering in the world; about the nature and meaning of their effects” (Ashforth 2001: 10). For South Africans, witchcraft serves as a tool to establish causation of negative events. While similar to how the Azande utilize witchcraft, it is important to note the difference. South Africans reserve witchcraft to “[inform] understandings about other peoples’ motives and capacities…” (Ashforth 2001: 21). Using the contemporary example of perception of the HIV/AIDS disease, South Africans relying on witchcraft as an explanatory tool to interpret the disease as evil individuals seeking to harm the innocent. With three geographically, culturally, and socially diverse example of witchcraft’s implementation, one truly witnesses witchcraft’s importance in the African realm.

Witchcraft serves as a societal hierarchy and moral framework for Africans. The three case studies all demonstrate similar practicality of witchcraft. In DRC and South Africa, “the witchcraft paradigm… constitutes a way of understanding one’s place in the world” (Ashforth 2001: 10). Likewise, in Mozambique, “…[witchcraft] constitutes a discursive space in which Muedans could speak about the world and act within it in ways they could not through other discursive formations” (West 2007: 69). From these conclusions about witchcraft, it is clear that the unique practice is vital to these societies. In Cimpric’s report on witchcraft, she determines that “the issue of whether witchcraft actually exists has long since been abandoned. Witchcraft exists as a social and cultural reality” (Cimpric 2010: 10). Now, with the appropriate understanding of witchcraft and its importance to African societies, it is clear why western perception of witchcraft is inaccurate and therefore incompatible for a western dissection of cultural importance.

The introduction of western religions to Africa through colonialism created a biased and judgmental view of witchcraft. Christianity specifically defines witches as heathens and immoral pagans who require spiritual redemption. Obviously the western model is ethnocentric and therefore inaccurate, but the origin of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ paradigm created immense scrutiny of those Africans still practicing witchcraft. The Norwegian scholar of Theology Rune Blix Hagen states that “the African concept of magic has lost what was originally neutral and morally unbiased in character. A veil of Christian and Western diabolism… descended upon the traditional beliefs of African witchcraft and made these beliefs much more dangerous than earlier” (Hagen 2004). The racist presumptions of the diverse nature of witchcraft made new generations shy away from, and even ridicule, the traditional system of societal standing. Dr. Lewis argues that “like their ancient and early modern European counterparts, modern Africans who believe firmly in the reality of witchcraft do not lack the power of rational reasoning” (Lewis 2016). While only the culturally relative acknowledge this truth, many westerners and Africans shy away from witchcraft discourse. The western judgmental attitude gradually merged into a derogatory analysis of the practice of witchcraft. Cimpric states that “behaviors commonly associated with accusations of witchcraft include violence, mistreatment, abuse, infanticide and the abandonment of children” (Cimpric 2010: 5). Lewis then applies Cimpric’s claim to witchcraft overall, elaborating that “like those in Western society suspected of child abuse and Satanism, African witches in the popular imagination are believed to practice incest and other perversions” (Lewis 2016). Evidently, the introduction of western religions and strict moral code caused the negative and completely incorrect assumptions of witchcraft in Africa. Hagen concludes his article saying “while witches, magic and sorcery are reduced to prime products of entertainment in the Western world, the same phenomena prove to be harsh and brutal reality in other parts of the world” (Hagen 2004). Westerners do not realize the long-term effects of their exploitation of credible, different African culture.

From the harsh definitions of witchcraft in western media, some Africans latch on to the thought that anything involving witchcraft is inherently evil. A few African news articles highlight the peculiar attempt to define witchcraft negatively. The British news agency Reuters published two articles in 2008 trying to blame specific coincidences on witchcraft. Joe Bavier claims that witches attempted to steal men’s penises. Reuters published: “Reports of so-called penis snatching are not uncommon in West Africa, where belief in traditional religions and witchcraft remains widespread, and where ritual killings to obtain blood or body parts still occur” (Bavier 2008). Similar to this absurd statement, Wangui Kanina wrote about the mass murder of witches in Kenya, saying “a mob has burned to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft in an area of west Kenya where traditional beliefs run deep” (Kanina 2008). A year later, UNICEF writer Rebecca Bannor-Addae blamed witchcraft for creating oppressive conditions for children. She published that “studies in neighboring countries suggest that witchcraft accusations against children, women and the elderly may be an expression of the inability of families to solve a crisis or cope with death and illness. Witchcraft also often serves to explain the incomprehensible” (Bannor-Addae 2009). From the three media articles, it is apparent that witchcraft has a negative connotation in modern African society. Unfortunately, this poor assumption of traditional beliefs is a direct result from Europeans inflecting their views upon unique and diverse people.

Appreciating the differences of witchcraft discourse in Azande, Muedan, and South African societies allows one to see the diversity that the practice possesses. In all varieties of witchcraft, the custom creates a moral evaluation and a social hierarchy for its active members. West explains that “Not only did they [individuals who practice witchcraft] …experience [witchcraft’s] reality through its verbal constructs, but they conceived of [witchcraft] and the words that spoke its reality as one and the same” (West 2007: 56). For a western observer, the complexities and applications of witchcraft will always remain impossible to comprehend fully. Unfortunately, the obvious bias against witchcraft continues to discourage any individual looking to appreciate the unique culture. For Africans, witchcraft remains one of few cultural and societal practices authentic to many on the continent. It prevails to be the most malleable and practical moral guideline and social standard for Africans.



Ashforth, Adam. “AIDS, Witchcraft, and the Problem of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Unpublished, May 2001, 1-35.

Bannor-Addae, Rebecca. “Central African Republic: Children, not witches.” Bangui. UNICEF Media Centre, Apr. 2009. UNICEF.

Bavier, Joe. “Penis Theft Panic Hits City…” Kinshasa. Reuters, 23 Apr. 2008.

Butler, Noah, Dr. 2016. “Ethnographic Interlude.” Discussion on Les Maîtres Fous. Loyola University Chicago, Chicago. 16-18 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Cimpric, Aleksandra. “Children Accused of Witchcraft: An Anthropological Study of Contemporary Practices in Africa.” UNICEF WCARO, Dakar, April 2010. 1-55. UNICEF.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande.” Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 24 Jun. 1976, 63-83.

Hagen, Rune Blix. “The Witch-hunts on African Sorcerers.” Translated by Mark Ledingham. University of Tromsø: The Arctic University of Norway, July 24, 2004. Aftenposten.

Kanina, Wangui. “Mob burns to death 11 Kenyan “witches”. Nairobi. Reuters, 21 May. 2008.

Les Maîtres Fous. Directed by Jean Rouch. Paris: VISA Ministeriel No. 30557, 1955. Ethnofiction.

Lewis, Ioan M. “Witchcraft.” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2016.

Stoller, Paul. “Embodying Colonial Memories; Spirit Possession, Power and the Hauka in West Africa.” Routledge, 29 Sept. 1995, 16-26, 115-124.

Walters, Noah. 18 Feb. 2016. 2×2 Week 6 (February 13 & 15): Ethnographic Interlude. Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago. Paper.

West, Henry G. 2007. Ethnographic Sorcery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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