The Legacy of Salem: Modern Day Witch Hunts and Their Causes

by Cullen

Trouble is a brewing. Crops are spoiling in the fields. The weather is grey and foul.  Animals are biting back against their masters. Children are sullen, disobedient, and aggressive. Worse yet are the stillbirths and mysterious deaths that are growing more and more common. Something wicked’s come this way. It must be… a witch.

Now, if you are a typical person in the 21st century, you’re probably scoffing at your screen as you read this. Witch hunts probably seem like a figment of a murky and backward past. However, witch hunts and even witch killings are a frightening reality in much of the Global South. In fact, just last April, 78-year-old Adelina Mohlakoane was accused of witchcraft and beaten to death by an angry mob in Copesville, South Africa. Her son had this to say: “My mother died just like that. She was killed over rumours which are not even true.”

Killings like this are not isolated occurrences. Across Africa, India, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea, people are being accused and often killed due to  rumors of them being witches. Between 1987 and 2003, 2,500 people were killed for this imaginary crime in India according to the UN estimate, which scholars see as highly conservative. The Tanzanian government reported that 3,072 victims were killed in the Sukumaland(from 1970-88) region alone.  In March 2009, hundreds of Gambians were arrested by members of the presidential guard of former president and dictator Yahya Jammeh for “witchcraft”. They driven to concentration camps where they were forced to drink poison. Meanwhile, hundreds of attacks on so-called witches have also been reported in places as distant from each other as Nepal, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and South America.

The victims of the killings are primarily of women, especially elderly(50+-year-old) women, although occasionally men and even children and infants are targeted. The perpetrators are normally unemployed young to middle aged men. Although even people in higher social circles are often accused, the victims of and participants in the killings are almost all lower class.

The killings have devastating effects on the families of the accused. Witchcraft in Africa is traditionally seen as an inheritable attribute, so if one member of the family is accused, then their children are often suspect. Huge numbers are traumatized in exorcism rituals. The Congolese department for welfare states that 50.000 children are kept in churches for such purposes. Many children are also orphaned when they or their mother and family are accused of witchcraft, including 32 000 of all street children in Kinshasa.

 What could drive people to commit such horrors? Scholars are split. Some believe that the killings of elderly women primarily come from a survival motive. According to Dr. Mette Brogden, “Many societies, from the Artic to the tropics, when they perceive a resource threat to the common good … kill expendable persons, thereby stabilizing their conditions. The expendable persons were the very young or the very old.”

Others believe that believe that this these survival style conditions are being brought about due to the disruption of the traditional agrarian and communal economy by neo-liberalism. Due to debt obligations to the IMF, countries in the Global South are forced to enact Washington Consensus policies, which restrict their ability to provide welfare to their citizens and open up their countries to neo-colonialist plunder.

Supporting historian Hugo Hinfelaar supports this interpretation. In writing about Zambia, he says the following: “In the current era of uncontrolled ‘market forces’ as preached by the present government and other supporters of neo-liberalism, confiscating land and other forms of property has taken on a more sinister dimension. It has been noted that witchcraft accusations and cleansing rituals are particularly rife in areas earmarked for game management and game ranching, for tourism, and for occupation by potential big landowners. […] Some chiefs and headmen profit from selling considerable portions of their domain to international investors, and fomenting social disruption in the village facilitates the transaction. A divided village will not have the power to unite and oppose attempts to having the land they cultivate being taken over by someone else. As a matter of fact, the villagers are at times so engaged in accusing each other of practicing witchcraft that they hardly notice that they are being dispossessed and have turned into squatters on their own ancestral lands.”

Not all agree to this interpretation of the crisis. Some believe that the perpetrators of these attacks are carrying out what cultural Marxist Max Horkheimer called “pathetic projection”. Basically, pathetic projection is the psychoanalytic theory that individuals have repressed sexual urges and destructive desires, which are channeled by society towards an acceptable target. This theory serves to explain some of the contradictions of the other two; namely why the rich also take part and are the target of rumors of witchcraft, and the sheer excessive levels of brutality with which are enacted against the accused.

Some also blame the rise of fervent fundamentalist pentecostal churches across Africa for the killings. Others point the finger at an exploitative film industry, which produces pictures such as “End of the Wicked” (1999)  and “Enjoyment in Hell” (2007) depicting witchcraft as if it were a real phenomenon, in keeping with African tradition on witch-focused media.

Whatever the cause, it is clear that these atrocious killings can not be permitted to continue. However, many are baffled at the reluctance of intersectional feminists to talk about this horrific abuse of human rights. No doubt many wish to avoid contributing to a condescending narrative about the Global South in the media, or at worst a justification for more colonialism.

However, this argument loses much of it’s weight when historical factors are taken into account. According to Dr. Elom Dovlo and Adeyemi Ademowo, Pre-colonial Africa had no witch killings, a claim which has been challenged by some due to lack of records. What is clear though is that, whatever pre-colonial Africa’s witch situation was, the one in modern day Africa is much worse.

To combat this epidemic, local governments have tried various measures. Ghana and South Africa now have “safe spaces” for women fleeing from witch hunts. South Africa’s pension reform in the ‘90’s significantly reduced witch hunt fatalities by turning the elderly into a financial asset for struggling households. But in order for assistance to these marginalized people to continue, it is vital that funds be allocated to concerned activists and that the Washington Consensus, which has caused so much harm already, be rejected once and for all.

Works Cited

CEGA | Center for Effective Global Action. Web. 08 May 2017.

http://cega.berkeley.edu/assets/miscellaneous_files/wgape/2_Miguel.pdf

Ngubane, Nompendulo. “South Africa: Woman, 78, Accused of Witchcraft Beaten to Death.” AllAfrica.com. 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 08 May 2017.

“Universität Duisburg-Essen.” Willkommen Bei DuEPublico – Duisburg-Essen Publications Online.

Web. 08 May 2017.

http://duepublico.uni-duisburg-essen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24612/03_Federici_Women.pdf

“The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network.” WHRIN. Web. 08 May 2017.

http://www.whrin.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/childreninafricanwitchhuntsfinalversion-1-Felix-Riedel-2.pdf

Links to Organizations to support to counter this menace:

http://www.whrin.org/africa/

Advertisements