Traditional religion and accusations of witchcraft in West Africa.
Centuries after the introduction of Islam and Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa, traditional religions may have been relegated to the margins in much of the continent but they still have a powerful hold over the culture of many Africans.
Traditional religions, or at least elements of them, are often practiced alongside peoples’ professed faith, despite the best efforts of Imams and priests to paint the acts as haram or heretical. However, the traditional, African view of Islam and Christianity has not always been the same because of the accommodating nature of some traditional religions: the Allah of the Muslims and the God of Christianity could be seen as the One Creator God found in most African religions. Indeed it could be argued that Africa is the home of monotheism, as what westerners see as pantheons of deities in polytheistic religions, Africans see as intermediaries between mankind and the One God, more like angels than demi-gods.
Of course I am obliged to generalise, as the vast continent holds a huge variety of beliefs but these themes are certainly common among many, different African cultures. A key common element is the place of ancestors, their spirits play a key role in communicating with the higher powers so are revered and offered sacrifices. Spirits too are a vital element, they can be good or bad, exist in both living creatures and inanimate objects or be attached to particular locations, ancient Baobab trees being a common example. Traditionally, these are very real entities for Africans that are very much part of everyday life.
People with special powers, such as witches, are to varying degrees seen as able to harness the powers of spirits and ancestors or ask for their intervention to achieve all kinds of desirable outcomes such as curing illness, granting fertility or advantage in battle and often more nefarious deeds like inflicting disease or misfortune upon a rival.
Should someone gain wealth, power, skill or whatever, it is not necessarily seen as simply the product of determination or good fortune but the role played by powerful forces lying at the intersection of the visible world and that just beyond. Hence, a claim of witchcraft made against someone is not a matter of idle gossip but something with very real consequences. Claims can be taken at face value in communities if enough people feel they have merit, others may be adjudicated upon by a respected religious figure but the result is often banishment from the community as the person has become a source of bad luck or evil. Across Africa, thousands each year are even killed on the basis of such accusations, although Burkina Faso doesn’t suffer unduly in this.
Although men can be the equivalent wizards, it is generally women who suffer the effects of this practice, leaving them destitute and homeless as men can generally find support among family elsewhere. Older women are particularly accused because it is said that they gain their long life by stealing the souls of the young, so they may be blamed if a young person dies. Burkina Faso is no stranger to these problems and steps have been taken to provide support for women affected by exile from their communities. I visited one such programme, named Delawende set up by a local NGO in 1963 and supported by UNESCO, an hour or so from the capital Ouagadougou. In all about 400 women are supported in a number of centres.
Around a covered, raised area a bit like a market hall sit about forty, one room homes for abandoned women. The NGO provides facilities to make things like handmade soap to sell, so the women have a sense of purpose as well as an income that can be generated whilst chatting with their neighbours in the shadow of the porch that links the doorways. Others tend a communal garden that helps feed the whole community.
Speaking to four of the women, with my friend Mamadou acting as interpreter, all of them rejected the claims of witchcraft and expressed their gratitude for the support of the project. The sad reality is that far more human concerns and maliciousness prompted their expulsion from their families and villages than any interaction with the spirit world. The claims are often motivated by jealousies over love or personal rivalry. Widows are often affected because they lack a husband who can publicly counter the accusations.
The strength of family and community values in Burkina Faso mean that women’s expulsion from villages is not endemic (even so, possibly hundreds are affected each year) but it’s not a problem that is going to disappear overnight without increased government intervention to change attitudes. An action plan launched in 2012 laid the groundwork for change and made some progress. As the campaign against FGM has shown significant change is possible: the practice has reduced considerably in recent years but poverty, corruption and political instability give governments a heap of other, pressing priorities. With this level of challenges that western governments never have to face, the progress on both issues has to be applauded.
For further insight into villages of witches read Spellbound: Inside the witch camps of West Africa by Karen Palmer, that looks at the situation in Ghana, where many issues are typical of the region.