The Gambia’s Witch Hunters: when will they hit the cities?

Samsudeen Sarr, The Gambia Echo, 3 March 2009.

…There seems to be an overwhelming indifference among Gambians over what has been happening, leaving me rather intrigued over whether the muteness partly due to the country’s long history of believing in the actual existence of witches and the need to periodically hunt them down through any spiritual means possible. I still could remember the excitement generated in the past by the prospect of “Fangbondis” (masquerades with supernatural prowess) coming to town to “HUNT & KILL WITCHES”. I will later elaborate on why I will not entirely rule out the probability of that theory. Critically looked at within that same paradigm, I am further tempted to conclude that people are cautious and deliberately evasive over the taboo that for centuries has been too cruel to individuals carrying the label of practicing the craft?  For fear of being accused of witchcraft by saying anything in defense of those being victimized could very well be the cause of the snobbish attitude, typical of many Gambians in serious doubt. Or is the silence in essence another demonstration of the fear most Gambians have about Jammeh and his government even if his actions border on pure irrationality? Of course, one could easily make a case given the fact that Jammeh has over the years been quite relentless in applying his intimidation weapon of instilling fear in Gambians to where perhaps only those of us living away at safe distances could boldly criticize him. Yet after fifteen years of what could be best described as his regimental rule, I still consider it beyond my pay grade in determining the degree of impact, if any, criticizing him with all toughness from abroad has helped to change his ways. What is obvious is that as long as he is in power, The Gambia remains a no-go territory for some of us.  It’s rather unfortunate, but safety well before freedom comes first; the reason why I now feel more sympathetic with those at home playing it safe instead of blaming them for not acting tough enough or not being confrontational for their freedom, which in past instances had cost some their precious lives. My heart even goes further to those hopeless ones who had always wished they could leave like all of us but are constrained, being too old for the adventure or have personal commitments especially, family responsibilities. For these folks, everyday of their lives under the regime takes a heavy toll on their emotional health. But on the flip side I will also tell them that it is no more harder for them not to leave as it is for us not to be able to at least come and attend the funeral of deceased family members. In particular, I yearn everyday for the moment when I can go back to my native home of Serekunda, and see where my brother, mother and grandmother all of who died in my absence were laid to rest. And after retirement from active work, my dream is to go back one day to The Gambia and peacefully enjoy the rest of my life as a private citizen; but the dream remains a nightmare as long as Jammeh stays in charge and runs the country with minimal tolerance for dissent.

I couldn’t and never would understand how a 21st Century Head of state can claim to have supernatural knowledge empowering him to be hearing voices from the Quran that revealed the secrets of the cure for Aids, cancer, diabetics and the like. That was his medical prophecy few years back; and now this, hunting witches. My discussion therefore, centers on what we are as a nation and people weigh heavily in why Jammeh acts the way he does.      

To start with, I wish to humbly beg to defer with Mr. Sallah for viewing the enigma as an abuse of human rights, because by that trajectory, I am afraid of the message being misconstrued, especially outside The Gambia, with the notion that those targeted were simply practicing their human rights as witches.

Certainly, the practice of witchcraft in modern times is now one of the most pervasive and legal human activities with websites of those claiming to be witches accessible all over cyberspace. A Google about witches will not only lead one to numerous websites of practicing witches but will further provide one with all types of books, periodicals and information about the subject and the people passionately involved in it. Witches in today’s modern world after centuries of being sentenced to the stake, hanged on gallowses, banished in the wilderness at the mercy of wild animals, slaughtered in pogroms, tortured by crazed mobs, humiliated and dehumanized in manners that defied human logic, have now been understood to be harmless human beings whose past suffering had all to do with our ignorance and prejudice. But I wonder how in turn we as Gambians are with this reality or whether our country is even ready to explore the idea of studying and understanding it within the same contemporary framework.  My personal experience with many Gambians engaged in debating the myth about witchcraft -and that is what I believe it is all about-the “Gurus” on the subject are usually contemptuous to any attempt one might make to demystify the conventional wisdom. Perhaps Mr. Halifa Sallah’s fearlessness in coming out openly to challenge the dubious exercise has a lot to with his liberation from the retarded belief in witches and therefore, cares less if anyone accused him of being one or not.  

Anyway evidence of the origin of the plight of so-called witches was traceable through the 1400s, when there was a radical shift in the churches’ hostility from Jews and heretics towards them, prompting Pope Innocent V111 to issue a bull in 1484 declaring that witches did indeed exist, making it a heresy to believe otherwise. In effect, thousands of so-called witches mainly women suffered rampant torture and murder in efforts to force them into confessing that they flew through the sky, had sex with demons, transformed into animals and engaged in all sorts of satanic magic.

The tragic hanging of nineteen innocent civilians in Salem Massachusetts in the summer of 1692 is still being remembered as one of the most barbaric and ignorant tragedies committed against people falsely accused of practicing witchcraft. The fact that all the convicted victims were found guilty in a regular court of law presided by regular judges vividly epitomized the abuse of judicial power during that dark era of American history. Nevertheless, the sad incident was somewhat considered pivotal to what initiated the subsequent soul searching that finally culminated into the social demystification of the demonic concept. It was followed by a period of sincere atonement with the construction of a memorial at the hanging site that now attracts thousands of pilgrims annually from all over the world in sympathy with the dead.

In an ideal atmosphere Gambians would probably have taken this dehumanizing event as the catalyst to engage in a positive search for clarity about witches and their mystery. 

The opposition parties could have for example, under one leadership, exploited the opportunity and jolt out of their obstructive differences and launch a unified nation-wide sensitization tour aimed at educating the citizens about the hoax behind the exorcism. They will encourage the people not to take them seriously and peacefully support each other through their religious faith and to avoid being influenced by their old habits of stereotyping witches wherever they were “ACCUSED“.  It will be all about educating the masses about witches and the Pseudo Science behind their existence.

Following many years of scientific study and research about the mystery of witchcraft in most western societies, it is clear that the absurd stigma characterizing those who practiced the craft has long been lifted and outlawed, allowing them to freely practice it as their inherent human rights.

That’s why I think that those outside The Gambia could be misled into thinking that witches being hunted in The Gambia are the same as the standard universally accepted ones. Not at all in The Gambia, where nobody believes he or she is a witch, let alone openly proclaiming it for anyone to know who they are.

In my judgment therefore, and I remain to be corrected, that those being accused, identified and subjected to state sanctioned intimidation; given the involvement of security forces constitutes government’s flagrant abuse of power. Well, one can also figure it out as government solicitation of primitive con artists to dehumanize helpless innocent citizens.  But like I said, telling the Jammeh government the hard fact that they are abusing state power and committing what is clearly a crime against its citizenry is a serious risk I wouldn’t take if I were remotely reachable by his frightful agents.

That might even result into what every Gambian must be dreading at the moment, i.e., to be singled out and treated as a witch. For despite the shady characters and methods involved in the process, the unfortunate ones identified as witches might never be given the benefit of the doubt by the spared ones. 

The first question I asked upon hearing about the witch hunters was why anybody couldn’t tell these bozos or Jammeh himself that the way witches are believed to exist in the Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Ghana or any part of African, exorcising them of their “cannibalistic tendencies” is unheard of. Unless the concept is different from what it used to be, witches are believed to be born with their evil crafts and will always live and die the same.

In the Serekunda community and its surrounding where I hailed from with every neighborhood and county punctuated with families or women believed to be witches, the standard procedure of dealing with them was by acquiring the right protective jujus or charms (huge recession proof business for marabouts who fabricated and sold them especially, at the peak of the malaria season); or in a state of emergency the task of hunting them was left exclusively in the hands of “Fangbondis”, the traditionally recognized witch busters. So until we started experiencing the arrival of the phony “Fangbondis” whose hunting skills were notably ineffective because of their inability to fly, a basic skill they all had to master, the community was fine with their occasional presence. But then the program finally came to an embarrassing halt when one night a gang of weed-smoking rascals outran one of the spirits, captured him and severely manhandled the fellow after establishing that he was an ordinary human being. After that, they never appeared again.  Anyway, before the real “Fangbondis” were replaced by the fake ones for reasons I never came to understand, I still could recall how disappointed I used to feel as a child when after a scary night of “Fangbondi” activities we got up in the morning to realize that even those accused of being witches were excited about where the dead witches could be found. Those were the same families who lived in neighboring compounds where our parents had forbidden us to go and play with our peers in fear of their mothers or grandmothers eating us. Oh how I had later wished I could alone take a quantum leap out of that collective primitive perception and walked into Ya Amie’s house or Ya Penda’s or Mam Jabou’s and apologized to them for entertaining the wrong concept that they could eat me if I didn’t stop playing with their kids; they were my best friends in the block.

In fact, I was never able to wrap my mind around how in heaven Mam Jabou who couldn’t account for a single tooth in her mouth and was frequently seen laboring with locally improvised-kola-nut grinder, could be a binge- flesh consumer. Incidentally, I had also wondered constantly whether those so-called female witches actually had a clue about the terrible opinion the society had had about them? I didn’t think so.

Of course in time with experience and objective reasoning, it became obvious that the witch was always somebody else and not me or my family members; that ultimately turned me into a secret non-believer. I had to keep that a secret, something I still do when in the company of the true believers whom one will be amazed by the number of well-educated Gambians they constitute.

It was the same odd weariness I used to feel in the army where almost every officer and other rank used to saber rattle around with who had the best bullet-proof jujus, a mind set that in many ways contributed to what elevated Jammeh to the top seat and continue to be his key weapon against potential opponents. We used to have soldiers in the barracks who would swear over having jujus that could make them disappear in any field of armed conflict; others bragged about having potent ones that would shield hundred people around them from the danger of any weapon in a battlefield. Jammeh, who transferred from the Gendarmerie as a military police officer about two years before the coup came with the best juju story. His jujus, he used to boast around could cause a rocket launcher misfire, if fired anywhere near him. You would at times be tempted into thinking that the barracks was a place carved out of the village Umofia in Chinua Achebe’s classic story, Things Fall Apart.

And mark you, contrary to the belief that the officers who organized the coup were first battle tested in Liberia‘s civil war, not a single one among them had ever been to any peacekeeping mission outside the Gambia or being tested in any kind of battle. In the definite clarity of hindsight, I will also add that the vast majority of the bravest and most “invincible” never survived the crisis that erupted after the peaceful coup, thanks to their greater dependency to what they believed could make the best out of them and not what was tactically prudent in combat. When the time came to test everyone, only the cold-blooded killers, with real killer instincts shined; and they were not necessarily among the “bravest“. 

I always thank the almighty god that the GNA was never involved in a full blown war where commanders had to lead sections, platoons or a battalion of such men into a battlefield. And the last time I checked, the contours in the army remained unaltered with Jammeh still holding the “invincible” baton and would do everything for the sustenance of the myth with the understanding that losing it exposes his Achilles’ heel. Power obtained and maintained through coup stratagems is in almost all cases lost by the same tricks, particularly in non-term-limit governments.  

That might explain how Jammeh suddenly turned into a spiritual aids doctor with claims of receiving his treatment instructions from a voice in the “Quran”; it explains why he publicly stripped Sergeant Kumba Jatta and others of their jujus to prove them weaker than everybody had thought him to be for many years. Only those who didn‘t know Sergeant Kumba, the red-eyed-always-juju-loaded policeman would question the potency of his charms as believed by all Gambians from Kartong to Koina. The guy was scary looking whom even soldiers feared; so demystifying him with publicity added another notch to Jammeh’s spiritual superiority.

It was sorrowful when I saw Gambian Aids patients queuing for his treatment but to hear western educated Gambian medical doctors and a whole university lecturer lending credence to his claim said a lot about who Gambians are. To the critics one might dismiss it as intellectual dishonesty predicated on survival mechanism; but to the non-Gambian observer, it merely catalogued a dysfunctional nation with a leader they perfectly deserved. At least religious leaders could have cleared the air by explaining in their mosques and churches that voices from the scriptures telling humans what to do is down right suspicious and absolutely ungodly. 

So while there may be some few radical Gambians disgusted by the current incident for having no place in a 21st Century society, it would be fair to state that the majority of us still believe that there are witches in our communities wrecking havoc on the vulnerable and palatable humans. Nobody even Jammeh would have embarked in searching for witches in the country if the Gambians hadn’t been too enwrapped in the belief of their existence and danger to society.

We had streets, counties, and entire villages designated as witch habitats with all sorts of stories made up about their demonic activities within those localities. And until modern medicine started shedding light on how, for example, cerebral malaria, a common and often fatal disease in Africa was in most or all cases responsible for the state of delirium among the severely ill, those unfortunate to be named by its sufferers were often accused of being witches, especially if the person died from the sickness. If on the other hand a woman in an ailment-induced trance happened to mention the name of a dead person from another family, that woman and her family members were also likely to be permanently stigmatized for what is thought to be a confession of someone she had supposedly eaten. Sudden deaths due to stroke, congested heart failure, hypertension, and tetanus and even from car accidents were in those dark days frequently attributed to witches or angry demons dwelling among us.

But it was in Ghana in 1996 where a Ghanaian told me the best tale about their capabilities; he had sworn that the witches there even had their personal aircrafts and would occasionally hop in it for intercontinental witching festivals, although he felt disrespected and irritated when I jokingly quizzed him about the location of their airports and fueling depots.  

I still don’t know what was scarier in The Gambia, witches laying siege to neighborhoods in search of people to kill and eat or invisible demons having nothing to do with their lives but idly waiting on treetops to slap the hell out of ordinary passers by. Did I not once say that one of my uncles once ran into these foliage-camouflaged bullies and was fatally whacked? So my parents had made me to believe, as well.

What an eerie feeling I used to have for walking through the serpentine footpath that cut through the bushes from the western perimeter side of the Serekunda school compound into the graveyards to the Bundung highway where pathological liars, to put it bluntly had claimed numerous sighting of dwarfs with feet in reverse configuration-toes in the rear and heels in front-living in the thorny “say-dame” tree; sorry, I don’t know the name of the wild-tiny fruit-bearing tree in English. And it went with the narrative that the dwarfs would wrestle any human unlucky to run into them. All dwarfs were spirits and the thought of wrestling one when I had had no talent in the game was abominable.

Strayed monkeys encountered at night, especially at road junctions having old huge trees were considered women witches; owls of any shape, size or color, wherever they appeared, during the day or night were also witches in active operation hunting for humans; crazy tales of one legged horses heard hopping at night in search of victims to ride them and die were seriously thought to be true; there were scary stories of bouncing and talking footballs demanding to be kicked for death; late night drums calling for drummers to come out and beat them and die was another classic one. And these were not oral stories passed over from the 1400s or 1600s but ones still believed in by people in Africa 

It is therefore fair to say that the Jammeh government’s reckless decision to select certain communities in the country and send witch hunters there to harass and dehumanize the innocent could even be secretly welcomed by many Gambians. So the provisional conjecture that if armed guards were not dispatched to accompany the witch hunters the people would resist them still sounds questionable.   

As a matter of fact the few I had contacted in the Gambia for their view on the matter expressed more concerned about the effectiveness of the hunters’ methods than whether the communities targeted actually had witches.

I am however waiting for the exercise to be extended to major cities like Serekunda, Dippakunda, Bundung and Banjul or Brikama and Bakau where witches should be residing in abundance, foreign and domestic, black and white and male and female. Who knows? That might be the compelling event for the international witches to crank up their aircrafts and redeploy from The Gambia to Ghana. But unless these places are also visited, I will continue to blame Jammeh of blatant abuse of state power through selective humiliation and dehumanization of innocent helpless Gambians for self-mystification.  It’s time for Gambians to wake up from our dangerous slumber and understand that only through that path can freedom be quickly realized.

In conclusion, my condolence goes to the family of President Nino Vieira who had to pay the ultimate price for trying to cling on to power indefinitely even when god provided him with the opportunity to let it go honorably. However, like General Ansumana Manneh and General Verissimo, I once had a close relationship with President Vieira as well; thus in each case of their death, regardless of how I disagreed with some of their policies, I still felt a great pity for the waste of their precious lives, leaving their families in serious peril. And the way I remembered my encounter with these men, they uniformly carried visible humbleness in their attitudes that differentiate them from typically evil people. 

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