In the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, believers in witchcraft claim to observe empirical evidence that confirms the “reality” of witchcraft. One such evidence is mysterious lights—referred to as “witch lights.”

“Witch Light”

During the 2001 witch hunt in Aru (see my previous piece, “The Sparking Story”), some people were accused of being witches because villagers reported seeing lights flying from/to their houses. In the local language (i.e Lugbarati), expressions such as “she or he shines by night” or “she or he has fire” connote that the person referred to is a witch. I, personally saw mysterious lights in February 2015 around 4:30 a.m. on a peripheral road of Aru town, as I was riding a motorcycle on my way to another town.

When I first saw the lights on the road, I thought people who were coming back from night parties were using torches, or flashlights, to light their way back home. Then, as I would approach the spot where I thought I saw the light, I found no one on the road, no house or shop by the wayside. These ‘unidentified’ lights which have been reported many generations ago deserve some attention.At one point, I noticed that two lights shone for some seconds at both sides of the motorcycle I was riding alone. No other motorcycle was following me, and I met no other motorcyclist coming from the opposite direction either. The area was bushy with no surface for light reflection. It rained, but we did not have water on the road surface to reflect lights. I was simply puzzled.

For the Aru residents, these were without any shadow of doubt “witch lights.” Since then, I am searching for a defendable explanation. Beliefs in those lights as evidence of witchcraft are very strong; therefore, these ‘unidentified’ lights which have been reported many generations ago deserve some attention.

“Witch-Light”: An Interpretation Conundrum

As we consider these lights, the first thing to know is that people from various cultures all over the world have reported mysterious lights. But they do not all interpret the lights the same way. In some cultures, people report seeing mysterious lights but do not provide an interpretation of them. People are only puzzled over the mystery. In other places, people associate mysterious lights with nature spirits or spirits of ancestors. In other places, lights are interpreted as portents of good or bad future events. In America today, people often interpret mysterious lights as caused by extraterrestrial aliens from other planets. And in many places, as in Aru, people associate such lights with evil persons carrying out witchcraft activities.

There are, of course, many things that cause lights. And since lights can be seen from great distances, it is not surprising that people at a distance will not be able to tell what the source is. But sometimes lights appear in ways that seem unusually mysterious, with no known explanation.

There are many places where people have studied the appearance of mysterious lights, such as the Brown Mountain lights (North Carolina, USA), the Gurdon light (Arkansas, USA), the Hassdelen lights (Norway), the Paulding lights (Missouri, USA), Spooklight (Michigan, USA), and others (e.g. sky in polar spaces).

In the case of Aru’s mysterious lights, these are its characteristics:

  1. The Aru lights are yellowish white, not multicolored like some of the lights studied above.
  2. They have been reported in different places: in villages and towns, in bushes, forests and on roads, on hills and in valleys, on the ground and in space, inside houses and on the roofs, etc.
  3. They reportedly first shine bright like a projector, and then progressively dim low, but not as fast as car indicators, while they fly from one place to another. They can be seen flying toward a certain point or from a point to different directions. Some people reported to have seen them at a distance of less than 500 m (e.g. including myself); others saw them in villages located at more than a kilometer.
  4. They have been seen around midnight and before dawn. People say that in the middle of the night witches are producing them on their way to their night activities. Before dawn, they are returning home.

In some places where people reported mysterious lights (Brown Mountain, Gurdon, Spook Lights), careful investigation revealed that unusual reflections of automobile lights were the natural cause. But I do not think that in the case of Aru lights, car lights can be the explanation. Aru is a rural area where we do not have many cars. Those lights have been spotted in areas were villagers have seen very few cars or in the bushes where cars cannot access or where there are no roads for cars or motorcycles. People born in the 1930s reported the appearance of these lights well before cars, motorcycles, bicycles or battery torches arrived in Lugbara land. Even fireworks have only recently been introduced into the region.

“Mysterious-Light” and Science

Other research on mysterious lights has focused on “feu follet,” small flames that were shown to be caused by the spontaneous combustion of gas coming from the decomposition of organic matter. While this understanding may fit lights seen in cemeteries, Aru lights have been reported in village courts where the soil does not seem to have enough organic matters in decay. Moreover, Aru lights move high in spaces where the wind will have diluted the gasses produced by organic matters. The ubiquity of the appearance of lights in places where non-organic matters are found reduces the chance of ‘feu follet’ explanation.

Researchers who studied mysterious lights in Hessdalen (Norway) suggested: “One possible explanation attributes the phenomenon to an incompletely understood combustion involving hydrogen, oxygen, and sodium and occurs in Hessdalen because of the large deposits of scandium there. One recent hypothesis suggests that the lights are formed by a cluster of macroscopic Coulomb crystals in a plasma produced by the ionization of air and dust by alpha particles during radon decay in the dusty atmosphere” (see Wikipedia’s entry on “Hessdalen lights”). If such researchers correctly understand the mysterious lights of Hessdalen, we may hypothesize that because we live on the same planet, what happens in Norway may be what is happening in D.R. Congo. Of course, this is only speculation unless and until we first establish that the geophysical compositions of Hessdalen and Aru are similar.

Concluding Thoughts

Other studies of mysterious lights are interesting both because people in other places do not always interpret the mysterious lights in the same way (as about witchcraft), and because they show that sometimes there are really natural explanations for phenomenon that seem unusual or mysterious.

The challenge I face is that people point to this phenomenon of mysterious lights as evidence that their neighbors truly are witches doing evil things through witchcraft. While other studies on mysterious lights give me ideas of what might be happening, I am not certain myself of what is occurring with these lights in Aru. And even if this phenomenon can be scientifically explained, very few people in Aru will have the scientific education that will allow them to understand the explanation. In the absence of another compelling explanation, these lights will probably continue to be understood as evidence that within their community are people who are truly witches with mysterious powers—the very reason for the misfortunes of others.