Africa’s legendary love for superstition and witchcraft

What you need to know:

Shocking. Sometimes people engaging in witchcraft are those you least expect to have time for it.

Last week, Daily Monitor published one of those stories some Ugandans would not even bother to read, but the story grabbed my attention because it illustrates how seriously superstition/witchcraft is taken by Ugandans and Africans in general.

The story said that Kampala Metropolitan Traffic Commander Norman Musinga had ended his marriage with his estranged wife Esther over witchcraft, which he said was incompatible with his Christian faith. According to the story, Mr Musinga said he had, on many occasions, found strange things under their matrimonial bed.

Nearly everyone who knows anything about life in Uganda and in Africa knows that superstition/witchcraft is taken extremely seriously. The problem is that it is taken seriously for no good reason. In fact, superstition/witchcraft often creates and never solves problems.

In 2008, for example, businessman Godfrey Kato Kajubi shocked the country when he murdered 12-year-old Joseph Kasirye, who was a pupil at a primary school in Masaka, ostensibly to grow his business. Kasirye was beheaded and his private parts cut off. The gruesome murder had been recommended by witch doctors.

Sometimes people engaging in witchcraft are those you least expect to have time for it. In January 2016, Daily Monitor published a story saying Uganda’s ambassadors and their accounting officers were clashing over money and engaging in witchcraft to protect their jobs.

The paper reported that two embassies had separately reported suspected witchcraft while one family had petitioned the Foreign Affairs ministry in Kampala to investigate claims that their daughter had been bewitched.

Ugandans appointed to serve as diplomats are generally well educated and have university-level education. They would be expected to know that superstition/witchcraft does not work because there is no incontrovertible evidence to support its efficacy.

Yet many Ugandans—diplomats and non-diplomats, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old—believe in superstition/witchcraft.

Witchcraft does exist even in Africa's most advanced nation, South Africa. The sangomas, or witch doctors, in South Africa do not get any formal training like medical doctors. Anyone who is bent on becoming a sangoma can become one in less than no time. And they make a lot of money.

Many Ugandans who have failed to earn a decent living have flocked to South Africa to work as sangomas and have escaped poverty, setting up shrines where they literally con people. Black South Africans account for the largest proportion of people consulting sangomas.

But how the sangoma industry thrives despite the lack of evidence that sangomas solve real problems is baffling. In March 2019, The New York Times published a story about sangomas, which sprung up some unpleasant surprises.

One witch doctor named Martha Shokwakhe Mtshali, whom the Times described as a prominent Zulu healer, said she had a patient who complained that her hut was overrun by mice. When the Times reporter asked why someone would consult a healer about a mouse problem, he was told that the woman’s neighbours envied her and sent the mice to make her life miserable.

The solution to the mice problem? She was told to burn certain herbs and sprinkle the ashes. Some would say that a cat in her hut would probably be the best solution.

In the same story, the reporter said that he once asked a sleeping sickness patient what she thought had caused her problem, and the patient blamed her husband’s family, saying they had cursed her because they had paid three cows for her and she had produced only three children in return.

But sleeping sickness is a vector-borne parasitic disease and is transmitted to humans by tsetse fly bites. That is irrefutable scientific evidence, but for witch doctors and their clients, it does not make sense.

Such is the importance attached to witch doctors in Africa that the World Health Organisation estimates the continent has 80 healers for every medical doctor. But their work can attract derision, especially from rational, independent observers who can easily tell that the witch doctors’ words have rarely been consistent with the results of their practice.

In 2014, for example, Ghana’s best-known witch doctor, Nana Kwaku Bonsam, was quoted by the international media as claiming that he was responsible for the knee injury that prevented Cristiano Ronaldo’s participation at the World Cup.

But if Bonsam has the magic to cause injuries to star footballers like Ronaldo, why didn’t he cause injuries to Uruguayan players who edged Ghana out of the 2010 World Cup at the quarter-finals? And, crucially, how does Africa expect to develop when its people cling to superstition/witchcraft and ignore real solutions to problems?

The writer is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
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