The attempts by fellow contributors to define witchcraft are admirable but given the different understandings that it has acquired in various contexts, a simple “one-size-fits-all” definition is difficult to sustain.

When it comes to Africa south of the Sahara, witchcraft almost always denotes human-perpetrated supernatural evil, and most of its supposed protagonists are women. Speaking about witchcraft and different cultural contexts, I recall my young daughter returning from school one day excited about the fact that she had opted to be a witch in a school play. We lived in England then where I was a student at the University of Birmingham.  She was only about eight years old. How does an African parent explain to an excited daughter that she had chosen to act a character that could scar her reputation for life?  If we were in Ghana where we live now, no school teacher would think of asking a primary school girl to act as a witch in a play. She would have grown up with suspicions around her. Any hint of inexplicable success in her life was then going to be interpreted as the use of witchcraft for self-serving ends at the expense of others.

Those making the headlines as witches, though, are not always people who have achieved in life. They tend to be poor, marginalized, and sometimes psychologically challenged people. In my first post, “When Witches and Wizards Crash Land,” I made the point that beliefs in witchcraft and witchcraft accusations take on a life of their own partly due to newspaper reportage. I received a response from someone in southern Africa who describes what is going on with those accused of witchcraft as a “holocaust.” In other words they are being lynched in high numbers! I do not doubt the claim, given the fact that in east Africa albinos now fear for their lives because traditional medicine men and women, “witchdoctors” as some are called, actively hunt them down like “bush meat.”  Albino body parts are used as potions for success and protection against the perceived evils of witchcraft.

On Saturday, March 14, 2015, two Ghanaian newspapers, The Ghanaian Times and the Weekly Spectator, both reported that the police had rescued a young woman from being lynched by a mob. The story is significant not simply because it relates to witchcraft accusations but also because the papers are national papers owned by the government. The alleged witch, a 21-year old woman who later claimed to be from Kumasi in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, was found naked on the compound of a senior high school in Dodowa in Accra, the capital. She was found at 2:00 a.m.—a time during which witchcraft activities are believed to be at their peak.

Stranger Than Fiction

Witches, in the public imagination, can assume the form of particular birds for their nocturnal activities. Vultures, because of their scavenging activities and owls because of their “ugly” looks are always suspicious species in west Africa. A security man at the Ghanatta Senior High School claimed to have shot at an owl with his catapult. The bird, according to this night watchman, was being a nuisance at that time of night. The bird flew away but minutes later, the night watchman claimed to have seen somebody emerge from the dark in the direction in which the bird had flown. Instead of an owl, he was surprised to see a naked woman emerge from the dark.  His conclusion?  The woman was the one who had appeared as an owl flying over the boys’ dormitory of the school. According to the security man, the alleged witch claimed to have come to the school compound for a “meeting with some women.” The watchman must have shouted for help that he had “arrested” a witch, otherwise there was no way to explain how a crowd could gather around this vulnerable woman at 2:00 a.m. Several aspects of this story feed into the popular profile of witches in Africa: first, they fly in the dead of night; second, they take on the form of certain birds like owls; third, they are usually female and fly naked; fourth, they meet in groups, and this naked woman claimed to have a meeting with “some women.” All these lead to the conclusion that this woman was a witch and must be lynched for her antisocial behavior.

Why do we not make room for the fact that this was a homeless, mentally challenged woman who needed help? This woman from what I know and have experienced can never win a case against herself for witchcraft activities in the court of public opinion. The reason for that is simply this: in the worldview underpinning witchcraft beliefs the very fact of homelessness and mental difficulties result from the curses of practicing the trade of witchcraft. Having been exposed to such stories in the media, my daughter is now wiser!