The gender element in witchcraft (Zimbabwe)

Sunday News (Zimbabwe), 3 Nov. 2009

Talking Spiritually with Rev Paul Damasane

In the English language we refer at most times to the witch because in my view we always expect the practitioner to be a woman.

Why is it so? Even the fairy tales in Western folklore show the evil fairies to be wicked old women. In the same manner that it is always the stepmother who is wicked and not the stepfather! You be the judge. 

WE have discussed to a large extent the notion of what witchcraft really is in the African context.

As we venture into the depth of this phenomenon something pricks my heart firstly on the language generally used by people in this subject.

There is a lot of reference to the witch and seldom to the wizard. There is a very thin line that demarcates the practice of witchcraft and that of sorcery.

I have tended to conclude that the two are references to the same only that the latter tends to be perceived as the more scientific and less harmful of the two.

Let us rather walk on the lane of the morality of this whole witchcraft story. From time immemorial, and I will attempt to use examples from even Medieval Europe, witch-hunts have always pitted the powerful against the less powerful. Or is it better rather to state it as the fight for power and control.

The eminent Tanzanian theologian Fr Laurent Magesa explains that witchcraft is supernatural. The witch is a person possessing or possessed of, or by, supernatural forces which he or she uses knowingly or unknowingly, selectively or indiscriminately, to harm others often for no apparent reason. Magesa writes that “evil, in the African perception, is always incarnated; it does not exist except as it exists in the evil person, that is, in the witch.”

In the English language we refer at most times to the witch because in my view we always expect the practitioner to be a woman.

Why is it so? Even the fairy tales in Western folklore show the evil fairies to be wicked old women. In the same manner that it is always the stepmother who is wicked and not the stepfather! You be the judge.

It is no accident in my view that women are almost always selected or sniffed out as the witches and not men.

It is my humble submission that, while it is true that there are male practitioners in this field, the incidence of the female practitioner occurs in the scenario where there is a power imbalance where the man feels threatened.

The common victims are the most vulnerable members of our societies, these are the old women, women (younger ones who seem to be very successful in one thing or the other) and children. Is it because men can defend themselves or gender victimisation is at play? The tsikamutandas are not female messengers of good against evil but are on the main male and power hungry at that!

Scholarly works from many different societies and time periods have shown that witch-finding rituals, popularly called witch hunts, are used by more powerful segments of a society to persecute people who are opponents or who present a threat to established power.

Christina Larner shows that in sixteenth and seventeenth century England the church and State entered new forms of co-operation and identification that especially targeted women as witches.

Her explanation is that men identified themselves as the proper professional group to offer healing services, and women were persecuted because their healing traditions competed with this new system.

It is important to understand that the disproportionate number of women targeted by European and American witchcraft accusations should not be taken to mean that this focus is a universal.

In some societies, men are more commonly accused of witchcraft and represent that society’s ideal witch. Diane Ciekawy (1999) shows that among the Mijikenda in Kenya witchcraft accusations are primarily directed towards men. In her analysis of the witchcraft accusation process, women collect evidence and shape ideas about culpability in the homestead, thereby wielding a great deal of power. The work of Rosalind Shaw with Temne women in Sierra Leone illustrates the ways that women are active agents in diviner consultations.

She shows how women can select from diviner consultations the explanations for their problems that they most favour.

These chosen explanations can resist patriarchal explanations that disadvantage them or create less favourable power relations.

While witch hunting is a thing of the past in Europe and the entire Western world, in Africa it is an ongoing activity.

Attacks on witches, persecution and killings still take place. Most of the victims are women and children.

Not so long ago there have been several reported cases of witches being attacked or killed in different parts of our continent.

In Eastern Cape of South Africa, a woman, her daughter, and grandson were hacked to death for allegedly practising witchcraft.

In Ghana a woman was almost lynched by a mob on the suspicion that she was a witch. The mob pursued her after a neighbour had dreamt that she was strangling her to death.

In Uganda, three suspected witches were lynched in Kitgum. The women were accused of using witchcraft to kill a man in the district.

Is this not a typical account of witch hunting detail? Help me understand why it should be women always.

In 2004, in Edo State, Nigeria, 27 men and women suspected of witchcraft died after being forced to drink a local concoction believed to identify witches.

Does this not sound familiar with the tsikamutandas activities of early this year in our very own country?

A 70-year-old man killed his son in Kaduna in Northern Nigeria, alleging that he had used witchcraft to kill his three children in quick succession.

In Tanzania and Mozambique there have been reported incidents of killing, torture and maiming of suspected sorcerers.

For instance in 1998 in Lagos, Nigeria, a middle-aged woman was stoned and later burnt to death after she allegedly confessed to having practiced witchcraft.

The woman reportedly claimed to have killed 10 people, including her own children, as well as being responsible for the repatriation of her brother from Europe.

As in all cases of witch confession, no-one tried to critically examine or confirm these claims. No one tried to find out whether this woman was mentally sound.

At best, witch confessions are elicited under duress by a mob or are made by individuals of questionable mental health. Besides, in some cultures in Nigeria, witch confession is believed to be therapeutic.

Among the Okpameri people in Southern Nigeria witch confession is believed to be curative. So those suffering prolonged and complicated ailments are urged “to confess and be healed”.

For those of us that watch Emmanuel TV will testify to a lot of instances where witchcraft is exposed and in many instances there is an imbalanced mix of women and men victims and practitioners.

Is it really a case of victimisation or there is an explanation to this phenomenon? I can only profer an explanation from an African perspective which may also be deemed biased by some of you, I stand to be corrected.

Age is associated with knowledge among our people and for old women because of their perceived uselessness in society and to men in particular these old women tend to be vilified as witches. An old man in the same society is always taken as a sage and not a witch. He is respected as the bearer of the history and the philosophy of the community but the old woman is viewed as a threat to the same community. What is she alive for if it is not to harm society and teach the young women some evil tricks is the view communities have?

This view is not articulated in as succinct a manner as I have done but is subtly done. There is a further view that is held that suggests that these old women have lived this long because of eliminating many other strong people within society.

One elder said to me that women are more gullible than men and because witchcraft is an inherited trait it is easier for a woman to get it from an aunt, mother or grandmother than a son from a father, uncle or grandfather.

Even in the latest confession to witchcraft in Mrewa last month shows how a married woman who although she practiced with her husband was tutored into the science by a female relation. They say it is easier for a young girl ukucatshelwa ubuthakathi than a young boy. Women are said to be more meticulous in dealing with grudges than men who will choose to rather fight it out than stealthily use a nocturnal and clandestine manner to deal with a crisis.

I still stand guided by your views as well, Father Magesa says, “Belief in witchcraft shall therefore persist as long as African Traditional Religion exerts influence on Africans. As it is, most African Christians subscribe to two faith traditions. Perhaps the church should not dismiss witchcraft as superstitious nonsense but instead develop appropriate pastoral responses that take into account the African worldview.”

I close today by asking you a sincere question of if there is a relationship between women in witchcraft and women in church. Are women simply not being victims of deeper spirituality than men?


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