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.

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

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

Web. 08 May 2017.

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

Links to Organizations to support to counter this menace:


The Dangers of Self-Diagnosis

Hey everyone! This is Sage here! I hope you’re all enjoying your March break. I’ve already watched about a season of Grey’s Anatomy since Friday night. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Instead, I’m here to talk about an issue that is very important to me; the dangers of self-diagnosis.

Self-diagnosis is quite self-explanatory; it is the act of diagnosing yourself with an illness or disorder instead of consulting a doctor or mental health professional. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, it’s become something of a fad on tumblr, and has become the basis of many arguments in the mental health community. As someone who is very interested in psychology (and hopes to become a therapist!), I’m here to debunk one major argument used by many pro self-dxers:

“It’s not like I’m hurting anyone by doing this, so what’s the problem?”

Well, actually, you can. Not only can you hurt other people, but you can also hurt yourself.

Some psychologists are so fed up with their patients self-diagnosing themselves that they become skeptical of their other patients. Imagine, for a minute, that you were a psychologist; you spent almost a decade in university to learn about the intricacies of the human mind. You’ve studied textbooks and diagnostic reports and finally, you get a job where you can do what you’ve always wanted to do; help people. And then imagine someone comes in and tries to do that job for you. Someone who thinks they know as much as you, or even more so, after hearing about a disorder once on tumblr and then researching it for twenty minutes. It would be frustrating, devastating even, to know that someone in front of you needed your help but refused to let you give it to them. Besides, it would make you angry to think that they thought they could diagnose themselves. Even professional doctors and psychologists cannot diagnose themselves because they cannot be impartial.

As I said before, self-diagnosis can be dangerous to you too. In fact, you’re the one who can be hurt the most. If you self-diagnose yourself with a disorder– let’s say OCD, for example– you are going to start looking back at your behaviour and wondering what you can use to validate your self-diagnosis. Chances are, you’ll label things as symptoms when they really aren’t. But here’s the worst part of it; if OCD symptoms are always on your mind because you are constantly monitoring your behaviour for them, you are going to start showing symptoms even though you weren’t before. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An incorrect self-diagnosis can cause physical harm as well. If you manage to convince a psychologist that you have a disorder you don’t actually have, and they prescribe you with medication, there could be consequences. There are many different medications out there to help with many different symptoms and illnesses, but it can be dangerous to take the wrong one for what you’re struggling with. For example, if you self-diagnose yourself with depression, you may decide to start taking antidepressants. But if the symptoms you misinterpreted as depression are actually symptoms of bipolar disorder, you could cause your mental illness to take a turn for the worse. PsychEducation’s article “Antidepressants That Aren’t ‘Antidepressants’” states these facts: “Antidepressants can make bipolar disorder worse in several ways … They can cause hypomania* where there was none. They can induce cycling**, or make it worse. They may keep a person from becoming truly stable.” (PsychEducation). Therefore, if your treatment involves medication of any kind, it is of the utmost importance to receive help from a professional.

You can also believe that what you have is a mental disorder when, in reality, you have a different problem entirely. This article, “The Dangers of Self-Diagnosis” by Psychology Today, explains this quite well. The article states, “One of the greatest dangers of self diagnosis … is that you may miss a medical disease that masquerades as a psychiatric syndrome. Thus, if you have panic disorder, you may miss the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism or an irregular heartbeat. Even more serious is the fact that some brain tumors may present with changes in personality or psychosis or even depression.” (Psychology Today).

As I said before, I love psychology. I’m fascinated by the human brain and the disorders that can arise in it. I’m conscious of the social stigma around mental illness, and self-diagnosis is doing nothing to combat that stigma. It puts a bad light on the people who do their research, but know that in the end, they cannot diagnose themselves. It gives fodder to the people who will stop at nothing to shun mentally ill people. And it can hurt you, both mentally and physically.

All I can hope for is that this article can help someone out there before it’s too late.

*Hypomania = an emotional state characterized by a distinct period of persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood, lasting throughout at least 4 days (PsychCentral)

**Cycling = not the sport in this case, but rapid mood swings characteristic of bipolar disorder.