Witchcraft, An Idiom of Power (Gambia)

The Gambia Journal, 21 April, 2009

It has been about two weeks since anything was heard of about the notorious witch-hunters supposedly ordered in by President Yahya Jammeh. This came after international public opinion focused some attention on the weird developments in the country following the arrest of opposition politician Halifa Sallah last month.

Gambians are used to seeing extraordinary things happening around their mercurialPresident Yahya Jammeh, but they could not help being startled by his state-sponsored witch-screening campaign launched over two months ago.  

President Jammeh’s witch-hunters, ordered in from Guinea Conakry, were engaged by him for a two-year contract of screening the whole population, identifying witches, isolating them in make-shift detention centers and forcing them to drink mysterious concoctions that sent many sick and several dead. Accompanied by armed and uniformed soldiers and a band of drummers, the witch hunters raided state institutions like police and power stations, Gamtel state telecommunications company headquarters, villages and abducting people they considered witches.   

The belief in witchcraft is widespread in The Gambia even if people have had less cause to be concern with it nowadays than they earlier had.  The inroads of both Islam and Euro-Christian influences have helped push the witchcraft ideology into the back ground but this does not mean that it cannot burst out again given the circumstances.  

Witchcraft, in various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, is the use of certain kinds of supernatural or magical powers in order to inflict harm or damage upon members of a community or their property. In many societies, people distinguish between bad witchcraft and good witchcraft, the latter involving the use of these powers to heal someone from bad witchcraft. The concept of witchcraft is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community.   

Belief in witchcraft, and by consequence witch-hunts, are found in many cultures worldwide, today mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa  and historically, notably in Early Modern Europe, where witchcraft came to be seen as a vast diabolical conspiracy against Christianity, and accusations of witchcraft led to large-scale witch-hunts, especially in Germanic Europe.  

n the Gambian tradition there is hardly anything good about witchcraft, all witchcraft is evil. Witchcraft and sorcery are considered two entirely separate things. Sorcerers on the other hand can be either good or bad. In The Gambia the buwa or doma is a vampire-like mythological creature that may inhabit the bodies of ordinary people and go out on such ventures only at night. They are said to have shifty eyes and be obsessed with food. When traveling at night they emit a phosphorescent light from their armpits and anus.  Domas and buwas are believed to kill ordinary people most especially children, pregnant women, sick people, young people in circumcision camps by remotely sucking their blood. They can also enter the bodies of animals to attack humans. Like the gender connotations of other beliefs in witchcraft of other patriarchic cultures elsewhere, witches are general women, often old ones. The ‘supernatural’ or ‘night’ witches in Gambian mythology inherit their craft along the matrilineal route from the mothers, not from the fathers.  

Under the monotheistic religions of both Christianity and Islam, sorcery came to be associated with heresy and apostasy. Among the Catholics, Protestants, and secular leadership of ancient Europe , fears regarding witchcraft rose to fever pitch, andsometimes led to large-scale witch-hunts. Throughout this time, it was increasingly believed that Christianity was engaged in an apocalyptic battle against the Devil and his secret army of witches, who had entered into diabolical pact. In total, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had lands and possessions confiscated. Accusations ofwitchcraft were frequently combined with other charges of heresy. Ancient Roman Catholics and Protestants used the Malleus Maleficarum, a famous witch-hunting manual used to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely to be a witch, how to put a witch to trial and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. 

The Protestant Christian explanation for witchcraft, such as those typified in the confessions of the Pendle Witches, commonly involve a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. The witches or wizards addicted to such practices were alleged to reject Jesus and the sacraments, observe “the witches’ Sabbath” (performing infernal rites which often parodied the Mass or other sacraments of the Church), pay Divine honor to the Prince of Darkness, and, in return, receive from him preternatural powers. It was a folkloric belief that aDevil’s Mark, like the brand on cattle, was placed upon a witches skin by the devil to signify that this pact had been made. Witches were most often characterized as women. Witches disrupted the societal institutions, and more specifically, marriage. It was believed that a witch often joined a pact with the devil to gain powers todeal with infertility, immense fear for her children’s well-being, or revenge against a lover. 

The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for bad occurrences. Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, fly in the night, and change their shape.  

This denial was accepted into Canon law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-hunt gained force. In 1307 the trial of the Knights Templar shows close parallels to accusations of witchcraft, maleficium, and sorcery and may have been the beginning of the great European witch-hunt. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches  do not exist.   Divination and Magic in Islam encompass a wide range of practices, including black magic, warding off the evil eye, the production of amulets and other magical equipment, conjuring, casting lots, astrology and physiognomy. Muslims do commonly believe in magic (Sihr) and explicitly forbid its practice. Sihr translates from Arabic as sorcery or black magic. The best known reference to magic in Islam is the Surah Al-Falaq (meaning dawn or daybreak), which is a prayer to ward off black magic. 

Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn From the mischief of created things; From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; From the mischief of those who practice secret arts; And from the mischief of the envious one as he practices envy.(Quran 113:1-5)

Also according to the Quran:And they follow that which the devils falsely related against the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon disbelieved not; but the devils disbelieved, teaching mankind sorcery and that which was revealed to the two angels in Babel , Harut and Marut….And surely they do know that he who trafficketh therein will have no (happy) portion in the Hereafter; and surely evil is the price for which they sell their souls, if they but knew. (al-Qur’an 2:102)

However, whereas performing miracles in Islamic thought and belief is reserved for only Messengers and Prophets; supernatural acts are also believed to be performed by Awliyaa (Waliwu) – the spiritually accomplished. Disbelief in the miracles of the

Prophets is considered an act of disbelief; belief in the miracles of any given pious individual is not. Neither are regarded as magic, but as signs of Allah at the hands of those close to Him that occur by His will and His alone. Some Muslim practitioners may seek the help of the Jinn in magic. It is a common belief that jinn can possess a human, thus requiring Exorcism. The belief in jinn, contrary to that of in witches, is part of the Muslim faith. Imam Muslim narrated the Prophet said: “Allah created the angels from light, created the jinn from the pure flame of fire, and Adam from that which was described to you (i.e., the clay.)”. There was no mention of witches. Others say there was no need of mentioning witches because they are only human persons in spite of everything.

Also in the Quran, chapter of Jinn:“And persons from among men used to seek refuge with persons from among the jinn, so they increased them in evil doing ” (The Holy Qur’an (Maulana Muhammad Ali) 72:6) To cast off the jinn from the body of the possessed, the “ruqya,” which is from theProphet’s sunnah is used. The ruqya contains verses of the Qur’an as well as prayers which are specifically targeted against demons. The knowledge of which verses of the Qur’an to use in what way is what is considered “magic knowledge”.

 So it is perhaps safe to say that the belief in witchcraft is part of an African tradition independent of Islam and Christianity. So much so in fact that many take Africa to be the natural abode of witchcraft. And so it has been since the time of the pharaohs, when in Greco-Latin literature Egypt appeared to be the origin of all witches. In anyway many Africans still continue to believe in the existence of witches, the efficacy of sorcery and in the co-existence, side by side of the real world and a spiritual world of equal relevance. And Africans soaked in Western learning often also subscribe to this belief. It is still amazing that the mainstream of educated Africans continue to reinforce the image of Africa as the abode of witchcraft — as the continent where even under conditions of modern technology (including advanced equipment in the domains of armament, information and communication), modern science, modern organization (the modern state; the formal organization as the dominant expression of civil society), and the effective inroads of Islam and Christianity as major world religions, witchcraft remains  a dominant discourse.  

The matter is further complicated by the fact that Western modernity has had its own share of occult images — ranging from zombies and vampires to astrology and other forms of divination, shamanism, UFO-ism, gaiasophy, the teachings of South Asian gurus processed for European and North American consumption, and whatever the constantly innovating spiritual fashion industry of New Age will bring. Are these beliefs in the proper sense of the word, comparable to nineteenth-century Danish villagers’ beliefs in the invisible world claimed by their version of Christianity, or nineteenth-century African villagers’ beliefs in the powers of their ancestors to effectively interfere in the visible world? It is this ancestral belief that provides pillar for the belief in witchcraft  that has not disappeared under the onslaught of modernity, but has installed itself at the very heart of modernity.

Some academics have suggested that the African actors’ discourse concerning power in the post-colonial state, and concerning the acquisition and use of modern consumer goods, hinges on their conception of witchcraft. Whereas witchcraft cases in the colonial era, especially in former British West Africa , were based on the official dogma that witchcraft is an illusion (so that people invoking witchcraft would be punished as either impostors or slanderers), in contemporary legal practice in The Gambia of today witchcraft appears as a reality and as an actionable offence in its own right. In our view, the inroads of modernity and post-modernity in Africa have not rendered witchcraft obsolete. It is, however, no longer a concept tied to a rural cosmological order. 

Such a rural order does not exist any longer. Instead, new regional and national settings have emerged in which witchcraft has managed to insert itself as a central aspect of the discourse and the experience of modernity — having severed all connections with the village and its once viable kinship order. Witchcraft, it has been said, is an idiom of power. Yahya Jammeh has changed the title for secretaries of state, they will again be called ministers, he has almost ordered the National Assembly to remove the limit on the number of ministers he can appoint to his cabinet, do not be surprised to hear him establish a Minister for Witchcraft.        


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