Suffering in all forms is pervasive and present in all humans regardless of age, race, religion, status, or sex. It is almost as if human beings are born to suffer.  From the beginning of the first humans, suffering has been part of human existence.

It is natural for human beings to seek the cause(s) of this suffering in their midst and, of course, find a solution. Every human community has always sought to find out what or who causes this human pain and suffering. Some believe in some malevolent gods, demons or evil spirits who cause the suffering. Others believe in physical causes such as viruses or diseases. Still others attribute suffering to destiny. Various religions also have differing explanations why there is human suffering.

Suffering Caused by Witches

In traditional Africa, people accused of being witches are believed to be the major cause of suffering. Witches are responsible for causing barrenness, poverty, still births, miscarriages, bad luck, death, etc. Carol McKinney, who studied the phenomenon of witchcraft among the Bajju of Kaduna State, Nigeria, defines witchcraft as “an inherent capacity to exert supernatural influence over another person. This influence frequently causes harm, and it explains phenomena such as breaches in social relations, anti-social behavior, unexpected occurrences, sickness and death.”[1]

This belief is not irrational; rather, it is a serious philosophical and pragmatic attempt to deal with the question of evil. It has its own natural logic. According to E. E. Evans-Pritchard,  “This explanatory system provides answers to questions of why particular occurrences happen to specific individuals at the time they do. It does not invalidate their understanding of empirical cause and effect of an occurrence. Rather it deals with its ultimate cause” (Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, 71).

Natural causes and witchcraft are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The one supports the other, accounting for what the other does not account for. Those who affirm witch beliefs do not deny the working of natural causes. They would never deny that a motor accident caused the death of a young man crushed by a car. But they would assert that this was not a complete explanation; things do not “just happen.”  From the pre-Christian era to the contemporary world, witchcraft is a very powerful and a generally acceptable explanation and justification for all forms of human suffering.

Persistent Nature of Witchcraft Belief

Though witchcraft belief and practice predates modern Africa, it still exerts pervasive influence not only among unbelievers, but among believers on the continent. It is important to recognize that witch beliefs are difficult to question or doubt. Many other customs and practices, such as the killing of twins, have been discontinued but not so with witchcraft belief and practice. It has persisted and still has a strong hold on many people. It is a belief that most African children are steeped in from infancy. In adulthood, the belief is already so strongly accepted that it is part of the identity and worldview of the person. And when coupled with the beliefs of the community, it makes it even stronger and irresistible.

Witchcraft belief is also an emotive belief that is not easily discarded or banished even in the light of scientific evidence or proof. Traditional proofs of suspicion, suggestion, accusation, and charge follow patterns that are highly problematic, yet difficult to counter. For example, when a  young man contracts HIV through an immoral lifestyle and dies from it, his family members may well attribute the death to an elderly uncle said to have bewitched the young man. This sort of process has happened over and over again. It is common to hear preachers allege that a young married woman is unable to bear children because  she is the cause of her barrenness or somebody else is responsible for her inability to bear children. Traditionally, witchcraft is often shrouded in fear, secrecy, gossip, suspicion, guess-work, village consensus, speculation, suggestion, fear, camouflage, cover-up, malice, and mob justice. To paraphrase Norman Miller (Encounters with Witchcraft, pp. 198–202), for millions in Africa who are influenced by witchcraft thinking, witchcraft ideas are invested with deep emotions that often overshadow reason and which deny fair play and opportunity for the individuals accused of having harmed or even killed others through witchcraft to defend themselves against the charge or suspicion.

The accusation that people said to be witches are the cause of suffering is common place.  In much of Africa, these accusations are common, even within the Christian community, and in my experience are getting worse by the day. The accusations and consequences that sometimes even involve capital punishment are so severe that we have to examine whether or not the verdict is justified that a person said to be “a witch” is actually responsible for the suffering of another human being.


[1] Carol V. McKinney, The Bajju of Central Nigeria: A Case Study of Religious and Social Change. PhD dissertation, Southern Methodist University, 1985, 59.