Is there such a thing as “good witchcraft”? Witchcraft discourse now plays an important role in the understanding of modernity and the progress that some have made in a technologically sophisticated world (Cf. Opoku Onyinah, Pentecostal Exorcism, p. 4).

In an early 1970s highlife hit a popular Ghanaian musician sang that “white witchcraft” is good because it is used to promote communal welfare and development. “Black witchcraft” associated with black people, he noted is only used for destructive purposes. The lyrics singled out mental problems as the chief means by witch black witchcraft may be used to bring victims to ruin and shame.

Black Witchcraft: An Autobiographical Account

To understand how black witchcraft works, consider this true story from my childhood. When I was growing up in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana’s twin-city in the 1970s, most young men wanted to go to sea. Sekondi-Takoradi is a port city and many of these young men on completing middle school took up odd jobs at the port and stowed away on ships at the least opportunity. Somehow a number managed to regularize their trade and returned from seafaring with many fine things associated with modernity in the Western sense at the time: jeans clothes, ladies underwear, pressing irons, washing detergents and brassieres, perfumes and scented bath soaps, nice cars and many other such things. The returning seamen attracted good company and fine girls and the city had several nightclubs that hosted them and their female companions.

A gentleman who lived in my neighborhood had the opportunity to “choose” as stowing away was popularly referred to in the twin-city. He returned with a 504 Peugeot saloon car. Its manufacturers had just released the model of vehicle. Issah’s car therefore became the talk of town. He was Muslim but his regular girlfriend was from the Ewe tribe and a nominal Catholic. Issah’s family protested the relationship but to no avail until the two went on to have a son. Already there was talk that family members envious of Issah’s newly found wealth as a seaman wanted to destroy him by witchcraft and his choice of wife had angered them and strengthened their resolve. As most of such stories still are, all these remained rumors and I heard some of it.

Issah returned to sea and brought back even many more attractive material things. The recipe for attracting the attention of witches is to be successful. Within days of his return, Issah started behaving strangely and the next thing we knew, he was roaming the streets, mentally deranged. His son fell seriously ill and the story of Issah ended tragically when he passed on a few years after. This is a true story and it is ironic that only a few years after it, a highlife musician from the same twin-city released the hit song, Anyen, which in the Fanti language of that part of Ghana simply meant, “witch.”

It’s not Black and White; Witchcraft and Modern Development

The lyrics are instructive. It first praises “white witchcraft” of the West because it had been used to build airplanes, trains and other impressive infrastructure that enhances life and makes people “happy.” As for “black witchcraft” of the African, it is only used for destruction: “You see your fellow African doing well and you say, I will destroy him/her. Very soon that successful man or woman is naked on the streets. The witchcraft of the white man is good witchcraft but that of the black man is used only for evil” (See Onyinah, Pentecostal Exorcism, p. 49).

The Although witchcraft is considered to be a supernatural power used to perpetrate evil and destroy competitors, there is also belief in and talk of some forms of witchcraft or wizardry that may be used for constructive purposes.highlife track was popular in Ghana’s dancehalls especially along the coastal regions where the Fanti language is spoken. Although witchcraft is considered to be a supernatural power used to perpetrate evil and destroy competitors in particular, there is also belief in and talk of some forms of witchcraft or wizardry that may be used for constructive purposes. That sort of “white witchcraft” is what has enabled the West to develop and because “black witchcraft” is destructive, it has led to retrogression in life and by extension the continent in Africa.

I find it instructive that even development is problematized in terms of the use of supernatural power and ability. The worldview underlying such beliefs goes further than mere witchcraft. In African traditional philosophical thought, any endeavor that brings progress and prosperity has a supernatural force behind it. It explains the inseparability of sacred and secular realities in African systems of thought. This worldview, I contend, partly explains why successful people, especially from poor families, backgrounds, and neighborhoods, always come under suspicion regarding their sources of success. For example, there is no vernacular word for “genius” and so even within academic environments those who excel may be accused of using some form witchcraft to outclass others.

It explains why Ghana’s celebrated soccer star, George Opoku-Afriyie, was nicknamed Bayie, also the Asante term for Anyen, witch/wizard. His talent was too much to be considered “natural.” There is room for doing well but outshining everyone in the midst of poverty and lack places people under suspicion. Materially wealthy people, for example, are usually accused of either being witches themselves of relying on its power for their success. I am uncertain whether “good witchcraft” has always been part of traditional worldviews but certainly there is now the belief that personal and communal success may stem not just from natural talent and ability but from the deployment of supernatural power—which in some cases could be used to destroy—for rising above debilitating circumstances in order to do well in life.