Decolonisation of witchcraft in Africa and its effects on women’s equality

By Alex Costagliola

Today, witchcraft and occult practices in Africa are largely understood within the context of pre-colonial and colonial views that conflated local, traditional practices with Western ideas of witchcraft, which was seen by the Christian Church as an “explicit rejection of the Christian God and defection to his adversary, the Devil”. The association of witchcraft with religion during colonial times meant such practices were heavily suppressed, as white, Western missionaries aimed to spread Christianity throughout Africa. As much of Europe sought to colonize, they attempted to “civilize” the continent, rather than draw attention to the practice of witchcraft, as pre-colonial scholars did, curtailing the use of severe capital punishment and executions of people practicing witchcraft.

While colonialism sought to mitigate harm to witches by pushing Christianity as a reformist agenda to the ‘dark’ and ‘primitive’ conceptions of Africa, this has since proved problematic. Today, accusations of witchcraft have resurfaced across the continent. Assaults on ‘witches’ have intensified, particularly amongst poor women and children.

The role of witchcraft in Africa

Since the end of colonialism, conceptions of witchcraft practices have evolved to incorporate aspects of modernization. Among the Maka, Duala, and Bakweri populations of Cameroon, former conceptions of witches highlight that witches were said to transform at night and devour their own relatives.  With the rise of capitalist economies throughout Africa, these conceptions have changed. As an example, witches in Cameroon are now said to turn their victims into zombies to sell them or put them to work.

In Ghana, belief in witchcraft has also been embedded in aspects of Christianity. Fears of being cursed by witchcraft has resulted in the practice of exorcisms for those who believe that spirits may be hampering their progress.

Accusations of practicing witchcraft often arise when misfortune occurs, including sickness, death, alcoholism, or mental illness. These accusations tend to disproportionately affect women, especially women who are widowed or have minimal familial support. Accusations can also arise from jealously within the household, especially when a husband has more than one wife.

Woman and her baby accused of witchcraft in Ghana. Photo credit: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com

Implications on women’s equality

Decolonial discourse (which aims to deconstruct the colonial sentiments of African ‘primitiveness’) on witchcraft throughout the African continent has proven to be disproportionately problematic for vulnerable women and children who in many cases are banished from their homes and villages when accused. A report by ActionAid in 2012 highlights how witch camps, particularly common in Ghana, provide housing for women who are accused of witchcraft. The women are often banished to these villages alone or with their children, forced to live in impoverished conditions within the villages where they are assumed to be unable to practice their magic. Upon arrival to the camp a ‘purification ceremony’ is performed to exorcise the witch spirit and “set the victim free”. These women are considered the lucky ones, however, as many women are often murdered or imprisoned after being accused of witchcraft. According to the report, women and children have limited access to food, shelter, and education in these camps and face discrimination and absence of social support or physical protection. Although the Ghanaian government has made moves to close these camps, their closure would leave women accused of witchcraft susceptible to violence or death if they were to return to their homes.

The existence of witch camps across Africa today demonstrates how decolonial sentiments surrounding witchcraft have increased violence against women accused of its practice. These accusations demonstrate the fundamental challenge to a revival of witchcraft practice in Africa, particularly as it becomes embedded in attributes of modernization including capitalist economies and infusion of Christianity and traditional practice.

Confronting the marginalisation of women as demonstrated by witchcraft accusations will require agencies, governments, and researchers alike to contend with how decolonisation has impacted the increasing frequency of these accusations since the 1990’s, while ensuring that such confrontation does not reinforce pre-colonial and colonial Western sentiments on traditional practices.

Alex Costagliola has a degree in Global Studies from Loyola University Maryland and is studying for a Masters in International Development at the University of Edinburgh.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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