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Belief systems

Invisible Reality

by Helmut Danner

In depth

Masked dancers make contact with the spirit world: a Nayu dancer in Malawi.

Masked dancers make contact with the spirit world: a Nayu dancer in Malawi.

Africans and Westerners experience religion and spirituality in different ways. Traditional rituals and witchcraft have a bearing on life and even politics in Africa. Europeans must understand and appreciate this fact, but they must not close their eyes to its negative aspects.

On 24 February 2013, thousands of Kenyans gathered in the Uhuru Park in Nairobi to take part in a prayer meeting that was organised by David Owuor, a preacher and “prophet”. Kenya’s parliamentary elections were drawing near, and people remembered the deadly riots after the previous election in 2007/2008. To prevent a re-run of those horrors, the visitors in the Uhuru Park prayed for peace, sang hymns and waved white flags.

During the event, six presidential candidates promised to ensure a peaceful election process. They repented sins, held hands, forgave each other and hugged in front of their potential voters. At the end, the preacher assured them that Kenya had been reborn and would hold peaceful elections. The newspapers covered the prayer meeting – and diligently reported that the “prophet” had miraculously healed a blind 10-year-old in its course.

This example shows how religiosity and spirituality are ever-present in Africa, and even matter in politics. Family gatherings, seminars or public meetings are opened and closed with prayers. And it is taken for granted that everyone goes to church on Sunday or to the mosque on Friday.

Forms of belief that combine Christianity or Islam with indigenous African spirituality are widespread, and in addition to the mainstream religious groups, there are also numerous sects. Chants accompanied by drums emanate from tin huts, when preachers hold roadside sermons or baptise in creeks. The influence of Evangelical churches is growing. Unlike mainstream Protestants, they indulge in euphoric expressions of their faith and interpret life as a constant fight between good and evil.

"Missionary Christianity” failed to address African culture and spirituality, says John Mbiti, an Anglican priest and religious philosopher, so African churches and sects have been gaining ground since independence. The “independent churches” try to make Africans feel at home in their communities. To do so, they use traditional African musical instruments for instance. Many exert strong influence over their followers. Some forbid modern medicine and rely only on spiritual healing. Kenya’s Akorino sect, for instance, repeatedly find themselves at odds with the law because sick children are not brought to the doctor.


A second reality

"Voodoo” and “witchcraft” are part of indigenous African spirituality, and it is being mixed with Christianity and Islam today. For outsiders, that is hard to understand, but practitioners are very serious about their beliefs. 

The English word “witchcraft” refers to all sorts of sorcery and magic, often emphasising destructive, evil intentions. Generally speaking, witchcraft appears to be more relevant in West Africa than in East Africa today, and there are great differences between countries and tribes.

Witchcraft rituals are practiced in secrecy and often at night. Typically, sorcerers or healers do not speak about their doings, which makes it even more difficult to understand them or even reconcile their attitude with our Western world view. Mbiti (1999, p. 57) states: “The physical and the spiritual are only two dimensions of one and the same universe. Africans ‘see’ all the invisible universes when they see, feel or hear the visible and tangible world.” For many Africans, the reality of our daily lives has a dimension that we Europeans do not perceive: an ever-present, supernatural power which is not otherworldly. This is what we mean when we speak of African spirituality.

Events are seen in different ways. If someone has a car accident, Westerners assume that the person drove too fast or that the brakes didn’t work. An African is likely to say that someone used witchcraft to harm the person concerned. This belief influences many facets of life and even has consequences for practical issues such as land ownership or law enforcement (see box).

In many cases, Europeans will be able to use psychological arguments to explain what African counterparts consider the influence of ghosts, spirits of ancestors, curses and blessings. But sometimes, there are no such explanations.

Mbiti (1999, p. 70-71) knows such stories. One example happened in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, in the 1960s. On a large construction site, all trees were cut down. But one tree could not be removed, even with heavy machinery. The African foreman declared that a ghost was living in the tree, which would have to leave before the tree could be cut down. A traditional priest was called, who asked for three sheep and three bottles of gin to offer to the ghost, and some money for himself. The blood of the sheep and the gin were poured onto the ground around the tree. Then the sorcerer became a medium, spoke with the ghost and convinced him of moving to a better tree. Afterwards, neither bulldozer nor tractor was needed. African workers easily uprooted the tree with their bare hands.


From healing to killing

Witchcraft has many faces. It can be positive and healing, but also negative and destructive. One good example is that people can forge peace under sacred trees after conflicts, illnesses or natural disasters. The ceremony always includes the healing of the earth, because after the loss of human life, the land must be cleansed. The ceremony is a memorial service, but at the same time it is a ritual that recognises the Earth as the  “mother” who has been hurt or offended.

Traditional medicine men, who get their power from ancestral spirits, have constructive intentions. They help to heal illnesses and make predictions. A medicine man will paint his face white, mutter in a strange language and use objects such as antelope horns, waterbuck horns, impala jaws, eland hair or the reptile skins. He is quite different from a herbal healer, who uses traditional medicine and whose medical skills rely on traditional knowledge, not spirituality.

But there is also witchcraft with evil intentions. Magic is supposed to make someone ill, or even cause people to die or go crazy. David Signer (2004), a social anthropologist from Switzerland, reports from West Africa that people sacrifice roosters or goats and throw cowry shells in order to tell the future and learn how a dispute with an enemy will develop. The location for the ceremony is decorated with fetishes, and the sorcerer makes amulets for those seeking help.

Signer says that jealousy is at the root of evil, harmful witchcraft. In this perspective, no one should expand their level of wealth or influence beyond other people, especially the elderly; and those who become too powerful or wealthy must be weakened, or even destroyed. Signer sees this attitude as one reason why Africa’s development is lagging behind other world regions. He may have a point, but given that Africa’s emerging cities are full of rich and successful people, his axiom cannot be valid in general.  

The belief in witchcraft is widespread however. Witch doctors, who are meant to fight evil witchcraft, will assert that politicians belong to their good clients. Kofi Akosah- Sarpong, the author of the blog www.africanexecutive.com, reports from Ghana, that a study showed  that 41 out of 45 medical students believed in witches – and that illnesses can be caused by sorcery

This belief has devastating consequences. Even in advanced countries like  Ghana and Kenya, people are often accused of being witches, persecuted and murdered. Especially the elderly, women and children become victims. In northern Ghana, there are so-called “witches’ villages”, where women accused of being witches seek shelter (Palmer 2010). UNICEF study pointed out that even children suffer violence as supposed witches in Africa, and some are killed (Cimpric, 2010). Between 1991 and 2001, around 22,500 Africans are said to have been lynched on the grounds of purportedly practicing witchcraft.  

Spirituality is difficult to assess. We Westerners should try to understand African spirituality and accept it. In the African context, the non-physical, spiritual power is part of this world, whereas European belief systems assume an otherworldly God. The belief in a ubiquitous supernatural power mingles with Christianity and Islam. Nonetheless, we Europeans do well to show some scepticism and reject some practices, just as some Africans themselves criticise some negative effects of the witch craze as being “backwards”.  

Helmut Danner lives in Nairobi and used to work for the Hans Seidel Foundation, which is close to Bavaria’s Christian Democrats, in Egypt, Uganda and Kenya from 1986 to 2005. This article is based on a chapter of his rece´nt book "End of arrogance. Africa and the west – understanding their differences" (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers).