Today’s New York Times article on Africa’s witches is accurate and, of course, upsetting. Children should not be demonized, and physically abused, out of a fear that they somehow channel the supernatural. Yet the Times story raises a recurring question about the validity of turning Africans into spectacles. Every society has its superstitions; and even the unexplained provokes non-rational explanations. The mere existence of “witches” and “witchcraft” in Africa, moreoever, isn’t new or news. What’s worth exploring in journalism is not the pornography of “juju” in African society — a kind of false shock over the continued existence of supernaturally-inspired brutally — but rather the “higher” purposes served by the persistent reliance on supernatural explanations for personal and societal setbacks and achievements. We know, for instance, that the supernatural remains a potent weapon against expressions of female independence and power. But gender is not the only realm conditioned by the non-rational. Political behavior in Africa remains surprisingly subject to the realm of the unexplained. The best recent exploration of this subject is the brief “Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa” by the industrious Africanists Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar.
Nov 15 2007
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