Professor of Anthropology and Head, Department of Anthropology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), P. J. Ezeh presented the lead paper at the just held controversial international conference on witchcraft at the university. His paper has continued to raise dust particularly with his submission that witchcraft does not exist. To the immediate past President of Pan-African Anthropological Association (PAAA), witchcraft does not exist. He described it as mere adult bugbear currently used mainly by new generation churches to exploit the poor and uninformed.
What was actually the motive of the organisers of the UNN witchcraft conference?
I wasn’t one of the organisers but was brought in through the recommendation of my friend who came in from Japan. He has interest in the field and had asked me how prepared we were for the conference. It was when he knew that I wasn’t involved that he asked how they could be planning such conference without getting a scholar in anthropology like me involved. So, that was how I got involved. I had to opt out of a conference abroad to participate in the event. But it is important that issues are addressed intellectually. To that extent, what happened was very unfortunate that certain interests didn’t what to allow an academic discourse; they started raising alarm where there was no cause for such. Even when all these happened, many people even Christian leaders reached me via WhatsApp or SMS expressing support for the conference. A lot of people didn’t see anything wrong in the conference. However, the conference eventually held; and people saw that we were not convoking conference of witches and wizards. And by the way, which witchcraft were they scared of; does it really exist?
That was the focus of your presentation; you submitted that witchcraft was mere fantasy, an adult bugbear…
Well, this is what the most rigorous researches in the science that makes a specialty of studying autochthonous social structures and social processes everywhere on our planet have found. And the findings are consistent across space and time, whether it is ancient or present time, or anywhere in all the continents.
Some people may say, if this is the case, why then does the mention of witchcraft generate so much panic, indeed tension? What then is the essence of my paper? What I addressed in my paper is witchcraft belief. The claims on the nature of witchcraft are, of course, part of the belief. So, belief is just what it is: belief. It does not always translate to the existence of whatever it is that is claimed to exist. Sometimes it may, at other times it may not. Studies have shown that what all those experiences with belief in witchcraft in societies outside Africa have in common is that they belong to the past. In Israel, in European countries, and North America it will be laughable to talk seriously about witchcraft as a real-life experience today. Things pertaining to witchcraft survive in the lexicon in figurative sense only. Professor Daniel Offiong, one of Nigeria’s best known experts on the subject, spent about ten years studying witchcraft.
Like Offiong said, most of the modern world has forgotten about the fear of witches; for example, European witchcraft is now a forgotten reality that can be recaptured by a new effort of the imagination. This is unlike what happens in Nigeria and generally all over Africa. The fear of witchcraft and witches is very dominant and many things are explained with the idiom of witchcraft. We know that the African situation has contributed to most of the anthropological knowledge on witchcraft in the contemporary society, the reason being that cessation or vitiation of the belief in witchcraft in the technologically advanced world predated the emergence of socio-cultural anthropology as a social scientific discipline. Witchcraft in anthropological study of Africa provided the opportunity for the first fieldwork on witchcraft belief, and the first person to take up the challenge was Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, known better with his emblematic initials, E.E. Evans-Pritchard. In 1927, he went from the London school of Economics (LSE) to the then Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to study the Azande for his PhD, returning afterwards for the fieldwork that led to his magnum opus on the cosmogony of his hosts. Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande that he published in 1937 is still considered an important authority in the studies of witchcraft belief and related fields. Perhaps the most remarkable dimension that Evans-Pritchard brought to the subject is the distinction between witchcraft and sorcery. The Azande believe that being a witch is inert.
To them, one may even be a witch without knowing. All actions of the witch are malevolent. In contradistinction to witchcraft, a sorcerer always knows that he is one. The sorcerer sets up a practice and is usually consulted by people in need of his services. Unlike the sorcerer, the witch cannot be consulted by a client. The witch or her male counterpart functions for herself or himself although she/he might do this with her/his likes in whom she/he might be in league. But like the witch, all actions of the sorcerer are malevolent. I urge that we shouldn’t confuse these two other categories with divination. Like witchcraft, and sorcery, divination is held to be a preternatural practice. But unlike the other two, divination may not always be designed to cause harm. Divination is usually to predict the future and probably attempt to obtain favourable outcomes for the client.
Are you saying that witchcraft is like an African thing?
Not really; it’s one of the features of underdevelopment; poverty and the likes. People are using it to explain away their failures or inability to understand happenings. Also, people are actually using it to manipulate the ignorance of others. Truth is as a rule, there cannot be witchcraft belief where strife is minimal and people live in peace. The fact that witchcraft usually metonymies crisis that arises from material interests or power relations which has nothing to do with spirituality was also well documented in Offiong’s study of witch-hunt among the Ibibio of Nigeria in the 1970s. His study showed how a major transporter was accused by the campaigners of burying a charm at a major roundabout in the Uyo city which made everyone that passed there to lose some money. It was such money that made him one of the richest transporters in Nigeria at the time. It is an important attribute of those who believe in witchcraft that no claim is too wild or nonsensical for them to accept. In the Uyo case, it eventually turned out that rivals of the transporter wanted to disable him so that he could not compete during an oncoming major season for their business. What that showed was that people do all these things as business even by those I call new churches.
It’s unfortunate that witch scares continually erupt in Akwa Ibom and other places in Nigeria after that widespread campaign in the 1970s. Scores of vulnerable children have been among innocent people who get tortured and in some cases murdered. Regardless, it’s important to point out that there are always two types of people, where witch scare is involved. One category are people who know full well that the whole notion of existence of witchcraft is hocus-pocus or meaningless, but they, nevertheless, continue to manipulate it for their own wicked selfish gains. The other category are those who due to limited knowledge believe that witchcraft actually exists and in consequence make themselves a pawn in the hands of their smarter fellows. In all places where witch scares happen, the greater majority belongs to the latter category.
So, what is your summation on the existence and potency of witches or otherwise?
I stated in my paper that there might have been a time in the past when witchcraft belief served an effective social-control purpose. Society’s collective feeling regarding witchcraft was potent when it came to removing anyone exhibiting extreme anti-social behaviour. Because witchcraft practice was a mere figment; it was almost always impossible to deny successfully, and so anyone whose behaviour was considered dangerous might be accused of the practice.
It used also to be useful in explaining some occurrences that were hard to understand by familiar parameters. As Evans-Pritchard reported, all misfortunes were explained by the Azande by referring to the myth of witchcraft. In one word, witchcraft belongs more to the social psychological space. Religion merely exploits it in the same sense that a nursing mother anxious to calm or control a recalcitrant child might refer to a bugbear. The differences are that in the case of witchcraft, it is adults that are telling co-adults that the bugbear exists, and that in the case of these adults, their intention is, typically devious, cruel, and self-serving. Siegfried Frederick Nadel in a study 1952 summarized the situation even in the context of the Mesakin where the belief in witchcraft was really a function of limited knowledge of causality in certain social transactions. He stated that witchcraft beliefs are causally related to frustrations, anxieties or other mental stresses precisely as psychopathological symptoms are related to mental disturbances of this nature. Naturally, he counselled against resorting to witchcraft beliefs as a coping mechanism for difficult social challenges.
Therefore, what I think is the solution to the menace of witchcraft scares in a place like present Nigeria is strengthening of the secular institutions, especially those that are involved in knowledge production. It is not true that witchcraft beliefs are exclusive African phenomena.
Witchcraft beliefs were rife and virile in Asia, Europe, and America and other places. Witchcraft beliefs ended there because a rival knowledge derived from the sorts of scholarship and science of modern institutions of learning drove them out. Witchcraft beliefs cannot co-exist with robust and credible scholarship and science. The emergence of these types of knowledge production in Europe and the rest of the technologically advanced world is the reason witchcraft beliefs ceased to exist there. They are capable of doing the same thing in Africa, nay Nigeria, if people go beyond mere lip service to scholarship and science.