My friend the witch doctor

Occasionally folks here bemoan political correctness. There is something like PC that pervades a lot of social science, anthropology in particular. For example a half century ago there was a lot of interesting anthropology about witchcraft, an interest of mine, but starting in the 1960s anthropologists increasingly saw themselves as activists and advocates for people with whom they worked, especially low-tech people. Witch doctors became “traditional healers”, prostitutes became “sex workers”, delinquents became “at risk youth”, and so on. While respect and manners are important, semantic cleansing has led to the loss of a lot of knowledge about human cultural diversity.

About a quarter century ago I was doing ethnography with a group of prosperous ranchers in the northern Kalahari who call themselves Herero. A young man in his mid-twenties named Kozondo was working for our group as a combination translator and mechanic and camp helper. He had graduated from secondary school, no small achievement in Botswana’s UK-derived system, and his english was quite fluent. One day I was interviewing a young mother when she used a (Herero) word I did not know. I asked Kozondo and he replied, with not a moment’s hesitation, “colostrum”.

On this trip it became quickly apparent that something was wrong with him. He was uneasy and distracted during the day and even more uncomfortable into the evening and night. There was an annoying group of giant eagle owls near our camp, and when they started hooting Kozondo would jump into the cab of a truck, close the windows, lock the doors, and spend the night cramped inside. When I sat him down to try to understand the problem he told me that he was being witched, that someone was trying to kill him. I gave him my familiar assurance that there was no such thing as witchcraft, that it was false superstition, and so on, but he would have none of it.

Only a handful of Herero shared my skepticism about witchcraft. People in the neighborhood as well as several other employees were concerned about Kozondo’s problem. They told me that he had to be taken to a well known local witch doctor. “Witch doctor” I said, “you all have been watching too many low budget movies. We call them traditional healers these days, not witch doctors”. They all, including Kozondo, would have none of it. “They are bad and very dangerous people, not healers” he said. It quickly became apparent that I was making a fool of myself trying to explain why “traditional healer” was a better way to talk than “witch doctor”. One of our group had some kind of anti-anxiety medicine. We convinced Kozondo to try one but it had no effect at all. Everyone agreed that he must consult the witch docter so we took him.

The local witch docter was well known in the area. We were camped at the edge of the Okavango delta so many of the locals were not Herero, who are a desert people, but indigenous people of  the delta. Desert people refer to people of the delta as Goba. The Goba are reputed to be accomplished witch doctors and to have green thumbs growing marijuana but they are also regarded with some fear. After all, Herero say, they eat fish, as do crocodiles. If Kozondo could get help, we reasoned, it would be well worth the five buck fee (actually five Botswana Pula, close to five dollars). The witch doctor was a disheveled man, covered in grime, with either two or three teeth in total. He had a pouch with pieces of porcupine bone, twigs, and nuts. He tossed the contents of the pouch on the ground, studied the pattern, and made his diagnosis. He confirmed Kozondo’s self diagnosis of witchcraft and asked about whether Kozondo was owed money by anyone. This was an easy guess, of course, since Kozondo was well paid and prosperous. It became clear to Kozondo that his assailant must be a cousin who owed him a hundred Pula. When we asked about treatment, the witch doctor shook his head hopelessly and said that Kozondo would have to go to a specialist in Maun, the nearest large town, about 100 km away.

In for a penny, in for a pound, we thought. We also needed supplies, so one of our crew went off to take Kozondo to the specialist. Fifteen bucks poorer, he returned with supplies and with a cheerful relaxed Kozondo. The specialist had given him several different powders which he was to sprinkle in the campfire as evening approached. The powders repelled witches, and Kozondo would be safe. In addition he must be careful to wear sunglasses during the day, every day, since eyes are an easy invasion route for witchcraft and sunglasses protect them. The cure worked, and we had no further problems.

That evening we had something like a seminar with our employees and neighbors about witchcraft. Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself. The way it works is like this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, he discovers that I am seething with jealousy of his facility with words, so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family. Among Herero there is no such thing as an accident, there is no such thing as a natural death, witchcraft in some form is behind all of it. Did you have a gastrointestinal upset this morning? Clearly someone slipped some pink potion in the milk. Except for a few atheists there was no disagreement about this. Emotions get projected over vast distances so beware.

Even more interesting to us was the universal understanding that white people were not vulnerable to witchcraft and could neither feel it nor understand it. White people literally lack a crucial sense, or part of the brain. An upside, I was told, was that we did not face the dangers that locals faced. On the other hand our bad feelings could be projected so as good citizens we had to monitor carefull our own “hearts”.

This all went on for an hour or so and I am ashamed to admit, here, that when the crunch came I blinked. Our employees were so adamant to show me the truth that they pooled their money so they could take me to the local witch doctor, who would turn me into a frog. “Of course he can do that, it is easy for them to do, even to white people” they said. I thought for a very short time and took the coward’s way out, I refused their interesting offer, the risk was a little too much for me.

As I recall my description above is similar to what has been reported from many regions of Africa. I am not so sure of that since it has been forty years since I read any of the anthropological literature on the matter. A colleague pointed out a few weeks ago, after hearing this story, that if it is nearly pan-African then perhaps some of it came to the New World. Prominent and not so prominent talkers from the American Black population come out with similar theories of vague and invisible forces that are oppressing people, like “institutional racism” and “white privilege”. Then I recalled that the most prominent atheist among the Herero I knew was the son of a German engineer and a Herero woman.

When I have another attack of ambition I will write about a scary witchcraft matter that sucked me in, several years before this incident. in which a Goba flew on a gourd 200 miles across the desert, turned into a lion, killed a man, turned back into a Goba, mounted his gourd, and flew home.

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36 Responses to My friend the witch doctor

  1. gcochran says:

    “Greg falls and hurts himself”

    Much is now explained.

  2. Gilbert Pinfold says:

    Lucky you weren’t in that region ten years earlier. Exactly thirty-five years ago, things were a little ‘hotter'; with the erstwhile SADF engaged in a near-conventional war against Cuban commies and local MPLA/SWAPO in Southern Angola. Plenty of bad vibes for everyone in those parts.

  3. Gilbert Pinfold says:

    Whoa… correction: Twenty five years ago, it was. Operation Modular, and its forerrunners would have been in full swing nearby.

    • harpend says:

      You are right about all the bad vibes, especially in Namibia. In 1987 we went to Rundu via Shakawe for a break and to get supplies. We stopped at the first SWA police post to show our passports. There was a counter at the back, a large window in the front, and just in front of the window was a machine gun on a tripod with a big box of loaded clips next to it, all surrounded by a belly high wall of sandbags.

      While we were doing our business I heard a “snick-snick” and turned to see my 11 year old playing with the machine gun. I frantically grabbed him, but the cop said “No, no, he is a fine lad. He has to learn about these things.” and proceeded to give him a lesson in how to use a machine gun (with no live rounds thank goodness).

      The next day we were staying in a beautiful motel on the bank of the Okavango in Rundu, sitting on the lawn reading paperbacks, and we heard on the radio that hostilities in Angola had ended. We were relieved until, ten minutes later, five Mirages laden with bombs flew over at treetop level, heading north into Angola.

      On the way back we passed a somewhat shot up column of Buffalos, heavy armored trucks with V-shaped bottoms to deflect mine explosions, on the main road back to Botswana. Several were being towed on trailers.

      We did not go back to SWA for R&R again after that.

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  5. dave chamberlin says:

    good read, tell us more witch doctor stories. I wonder if contact lenses work as well as sunglasses.

  6. Judy E says:

    I’ve thought about these ideas a lot. Being married, for awhile, to a man from the “old country”, in this case Iraq. I just think we can rise above these things and it really doesn’t take that much power or knowledge. Just a statement that, “I will not be affected by these things.” Or, using the new age wording, “I am protected.” Thoughts are thrown around all the time. If you are vulnerable, you can call them to you. Now, specific spells that are sent can be a different story. Lives have been ruined.

  7. Deckin says:

    This is perhaps more than slightly off topic, but since you’ve raised the issue of what psychological concepts may be holdovers from Africa, I wonder if, in the mass of linguistic research on African American English (nee Ebonics), there’s been any semantic analysis of its more common metaphors and similes. Just anecdotally, I find the general conceptual panoply to be more rudimentary, more coarse grained. Lots of talk about ‘levels': ‘you’re on a whole n’other level’, etc. I wonder if there’s any evidence to disentangle whether this is peculiar to the continent and experience there or whether it’s generally a sign of cognitive simplicity.

  8. pconroy says:

    I worked with 3 guys from Ghana (2 Ashante and 1 Twi) years ago, and they all assured me that witches existed and that they could fly and do all kinds of stuff. I questioned one guy closely about this and he insisted he had seen a witch fly into a tree.

    I also worked with a girl who had grown up in Haiti, and firmly believed in the same stuff and was terrified of witches and bad spells. She claimed that her parents had a series of bad luck in Haiti and that there was a neighbor that had but a hex on the family, and that they would all have died had they not left Haiti. She said it started when as a kid she noticed someone had thrown a doll over their wall into their back yard, and when she took it to her parents they were horror stricken, as they knew that they were cursed. In the US, she had an almost paranoid fear of other Haitians, in case they had been sent from Haiti to do harm to her family.

    I told her that I didn’t believe in Voodoo or witchcraft in general, and she assured me that it was very real and I was being foolish to ignore it…

  9. j says:

    Europeans are immune to magic in Africa, but in Europe itself they were living in terror of witches only a few generations ago. Even today they fear invisible evil forces like synthetic food additives weakening them and making them fall ill, gases that bewitch global climate and cause storms and floods, and so on.

    • Matt says:

      I think there is a bit of a distinction (whether or not these example are properly representative of Africa and Europe) in that those “forces” you’ve mentioned don’t really involve or less reliably involve much human intention or don’t have much to do with how people feel about things.

      Being the victim of institutional racism and witchery revolve very much around how people feel about you, even if not entirely consciously, while there is an (admittedly sometimes quite questionable) mechanical explanation in your examples. Those hypothetical processes would operate identically no matter how anyone felt about the matter, provided they did the same things. There’s not a leap from intention to effect, from theory of mind to theory of reality (if that’s the right term).

  10. Gene Berman says:

    As an anthropologist, you might be interested in a book about African tribal medicine men (not “witch doctors” but guys with some impressive pharmacology) called “Empire of the Snakes” by Carnochan and Adamson.

    The two were sent by the Smithsonian to collect snake specimens. Not being very successful, they were told by tribesmen that they needed the help of “snake-men,” a cult or guild of inter-tribal specialists in potions, remedies, etc. They got friendly with some of them, who helped them materially with their collection activities. But the focus of the book is more on the astounding form of medicine practiced. It included scarification that immunized recipients against every sort of venomous snakebite (by snakes which these guys could observe hadn’t been tampered with), hypnotic drugs (during which one so treated had a rough-fibered rope passed up his nose, forced into his throat and out his mouth, from which he was then hung up in a tree for a day), and another with which one of them was treated and sat down in front of a mirror to record his experience. At some point, he became aware that he’d interrupted his writing and was about to resume after what he thought was a few hours (he had a clock in front of him), only to later learn that he’d been “out” for three days.

    I read the book in 1946 and it concerned events that had taken place back in the late ’20s or early ’30s. I also seem to remember it describing another drug with LSD-like effects and yet another used as a flu or cold remedy prepared from certain bird feathers (which proved to have a pharmacologically significant dose of a (then) widely used (in the U.S.) specific medicine for the same purpose.

  11. Cubano says:

    Adding to J’s opinion, I can’t avoid thinking of the Salem Witchcraft Trials when I read this post. Today there are in full swing shows about haunted houses and towns all across America, and these are quite popular. All the ghost stories and conspiration theories going around inside and outside of the American White population make me very skeptical to the idea that “vague and invisible forces oppressing people” are inherent to any particular race

  12. Yes, of course. Twitchiness of various kinds shows up everywhere. The kind of thing I described, local and personal, seems to have a flavor of its own and is apparently similar over much of sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t know much about Salem, but certainly much of West Eurasian religion also features “vague and invisible force” but it also has a different flavor from the African version.

    • Cubano says:

      Indeed. I grew up in Cuba, and there I was exposed in equal amounts to the Spanish traditions and to the African culture that permeates the Caribbean. I got familiar with the rites and the magic that people believe in. Recently I visited New Orleans, and I can tell you that I experienced exactly the same “flavor” of folklore. I was very surprised to find the same saints in a corner of the French Quarter as the ones I knew from the island. So yes, the pattern is there, through biology or common history.
      I say common history because the number of whites that also embrace that kind of folklore in the island is not insignificant.

  13. Don Strong says:

    I came in late. No comments yet about exorcism, end times preachers, homeopathy, antivaxing…
    Anthologists have so much to study right here. Those African witch doctors got nothing on us.

    • billswift says:

      The big difference is that in Africa and the Caribbean the beliefs are near universal. Among Americans those are all minority beliefs, though in aggregate there might be a majority that believes at least one of those.

  14. JayMan says:

    Americans may not necessarily be familiar with this, because beliefs like this don’t seem very common among American Blacks, but this sounds very much like my native Jamaican culture. Belief in witchcraft (or Obeah, as it’s known, at least to Jamaicans) is a mainstay of West Indian culture. All manner of misfortunes that one encounters—especially major ones—happen because they were “set” that way by someone, often out of envy. I would recommend researching Caribbean beliefs in witchcraft.

    • I had a girlfriend from Jamaica long ago. She was telling me once that she had an uncle who was an alcoholic, so her parents went to the “obu” woman to get him to stop. He did. I asked her “Weren’t your parents Seventh Day Adventists?” and she said, “Yes, but in Jamaica that doesn’t keep you from going to the obu woman.”

      Either obu works, or if your relatives go to the obu woman to get you to stop drinking, you figure it’s high time to stop drinking. Could be either one.

  15. Sean says:

    Matt is perspicacious. Read through Evolutionary Paradise Lost? Don’t Adam and Eve It! “Historically, human cognition was notably hyper-mentalistic, to coin a term”

    • harpend says:

      Very interesting read: I have never heard of the guy. Trouble is that it is hard for me to map the (plausible) things that he suggests to everyday observations. I feel the same way about brain “modularity”. It smells right for sure.

  16. TWS says:

    My father had two employees from very rural Louisiana one white, one black and both believed in witches and witchcraft. The white woman would occasionally practice ‘white magic’ like witching warts and fixing other physical or mental issues. The black woman would have nothing to do with it but believed implicitly in the efficacious of witchcraft. When one of their male co-workers left his wife for a younger woman both women agreed that it was due to the woman using ‘witchcraft’, actual spells and stuff not just the natural advantages that all young women possess.

  17. Don Strong says:

    I’m struck by one example you give the first paragraph. Is there more than just political correctness operating with new terminology? Years ago a woman at our university did a dissertation on sex workers in Tijuana, which introduced many of us to this terminology. The work was very interesting. Some of these women have husbands, children, mothers, grandmammas, and lots of extended family structure. Some of them make more money than their husbands. I vaguely recall one who had a successful child. It does seem that the study is more useful to knowlege as one of sex workers than of whores, but I’m an outsider to the social v. physical anthro wars. Would appreciate some feedback on this.

  18. Certainly there is more than PC: simple good manners are also at work.

    “Whore” to an English speaker is simply rude, “prostitute” is close to rude, “lady of the evening” is so-so, “sex worker” is simply descriptive. In my classroom I would scold a student who wanted to talk about “whores”, probably would not in the face of “prostitutes”.

    My example of witch doctors is more complex. There really are healers in African societies, the Bushmen trance dancers being well known. No one thinks there is anything evil about them. Witch doctors (according to the usage where I work) are different. English speakers like Peace Corps volunteers insist on putting them all in the same pot.

    “Delinquents” is fine with me but of course it is judgmental, while “at-risk youth” implies that they are at risk of stealing my car while most often, as I hear the term used, they have already stolen several cars.

    • gcochran says:

      When corresponding with a particular political pundit – Henry, you will recall him as the one we discussed, whose columns are found in your local rag, the one you called a complete fool – I would call him a whore. I now realize that he is really a sex worker.

  19. Intriguing post, what with all the McCall-Smith stuff I’ve been reading. This has been linked and commented on here:
    http://ex-army.blogspot.com/2012/01/political-correctness-and-witch-doctors.html

  20. Douglas Knight says:

    Why is this post split across two pages? I missed the second half the first time I looked at it. I suggest you avoid that if you can.

    PS – I think “prostitute” sounds pretty neutral. I assumed “sex worker” was supposed to be broader, to include strippers, phone sex, etc.

  21. sam@yosemite.org says:

    How is E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande received these days? If I’m not mistaken, his son writes on economists and the economy. Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.

    • harpend says:

      Embarrassed to say I can hardly remember it: must be forty years ago that I read it. Completely out of fashion these days. Perhaps economics is close enough.

  22. The general situation seems to have been similar in Australian Aborigines in accounts I read from the mid 1800s and referenced here:

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2011/12/purposive-killing-infanticide-and.html

  23. Ian says:

    London now has its own quota of witchdoctors since large-scale immigration from West Africa accelerated during the 1990s. They or their helpers hand out postcard-sized flyers advertising their services. Most use the title ‘Professor’, sometimes ‘Sheikh’ appears instead. All kinds of problems can be solved or cured. One flyer in my collection optimistically includes cancer in the list of woes.

    Nigerians, especially Yorubans, are very active in setting up churches in any kind of building they can find. The churches have names like ‘Holy Ghost Zone’ (complete with neon sign) or ‘Mountain of Fire and Miracles’. Belief in curses and possession by demons seems to be widespread and this sits alongside sometimes slick presentation, the use of corporate-sounding slogans (‘Building achievers for tomorrow’s spiritual challenges’) and a Tony Robbins-style personal development ethos.

    The more ambitious churches have street proselytisers handing out leaflets and trying to talk to people. One asked me if I felt cursed in life. I said, yes, that would explain a lot. My life’s just one bad thing after another.

    He looked pleased and said, my friend, you must come along to our church this Friday. That’s when we have the curse-lifting sessions. You want to have a good life, yes? Then come along.

  24. uh says:

    ” There is something like PC that pervades a lot of social science, anthropology in particular. ”

    well, i’m glad you cleared that up.

  25. Lucy says:

    Need a gambling spell for bingo

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