The Belief in Witchcraft: How We Got Here
(Part of this essay was previously published in a Nigerian Daily)
Throughout history humans have tried to make meaning of the universe. In the process we have assigned names to the powers in heaven and those on earth as an attempt to pacify and control what is mysterious and less understood. In this sense, if the powers that are not understood could be designated as witchcraft, these then have existed since the beginning of time itself. Anyone who is interested in understanding the belief in witchcraft and its effects on human behavior in different societies can find plenty to read in a local library in the western world, though the same cannot be said of libraries in our homeland. Volumes have been written on this subject of what some anthropologists have termed "supernatural crime". Among us in Akwa Ibom State, the best place to start in understanding this strange belief is Daniel Offiong's book: Witchcraft, Sorcery, Magic and Social Order Among the Ibibio of Nigeria (1991) Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, Nigeria. In this essay, I will attempt to trace the development of the belief in witchcraft. The thing to note in this brief summary is that the belief is an imported European cult, which like other religious practice takes on indigenous elements where ever it spreads. It is worthy to note also that while the cult is no longer as powerful as it once was in the west, illiteracy, ignorance and fear have combined to make this cult a very strong social force among our people in the delta region in Nigeria.
In a book titled The Meaning of Witchcraft by the American anthropologist, Gerald Gardner in 1971, he traced the history of the cult to the Stone Age in France and argued that the belief began as a way to influence the outcome of hunting and the behavior of animals by the cave dwellers. The practice later developed into ceremonies to control the spirits of the animals and those that dwelt in the caves. By 3000 BC, the religion spread to what is now Britain. The ancient Egyptians, according to this theory later adapted the religion and introduced the idea of death and resurrection. The idea of the wandering spirits after death was introduced and kings could control their subjects with stories that if they (the subjects) participated in preparing for the after-life of the king/queen, they could share in his/her immortality. Such a belief provided cheap labor for the temples and pyramids, Prof. Gardner argued. The witchcraft belief later spread to the ancient kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon and there it took on the local flavor.
The ancient Hebrews saw the cult as a foreign pagan belief and there are numerous passages in the Old Testament condemning many aspects of the practice including necromancy. By the time of the New Testament, Greek and Roman philosophers had essentially dismissed the cult as foolishness that was practiced by untrained minds who did not understand how the world worked. Thus, most of the conflicts in the New Testament times were not about the cult itself but some remnants of the beliefs about the after-life and the resurrection. Therefore Jesus found himself arguing constantly with the Pharisees who represented the fundamentalist arm of Judaism. In their effort to present themselves as custodians of "pure Judaism", the Pharisees rejected anything that had a tinge of foreign element and in the process denied the wandering spirit idea and the resurrection of the dead.
The conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, into Christianity and the recognition of Christianity as a state religion by various European powers gave the church powers to proscribe witchcraft and the violation of this edict carried the death penalty. Several European countries killed off suspected witches. This practice of what became known as witch hunt was carried over to the new colonies in America and resulted in the death of several hundreds, including children, by the late seventeenth century. Sadly, those who oversaw these killings were individuals who convinced themselves that they were working for God. In a letter written by the Rev. Cotton Mather of Boston urging people to name suspected witches in 1692, the good Reverend wrote: 'Handmaidens of the Lord should go so as to distinguish themselves from the handmaidens of the devil'. The same parallel can be drawn in Akwa Ibom where those doing the witch hunt claim to be working for God.
THE WITCH IN WEST AFRICA
There is little doubt that the belief in witchcraft was brought to West Africa by European traders who believed that the practice would protect them from the perilous journey of the sea. Some of them initiated their African traders and used this brotherhood to gain a favorite trade term often cheating the Africans in the process. By 1848 when Hope Waddell arrived in Calabar, the belief in witchcraft was already firmly established. As in other places where the cult was introduced, it took on the local flavor. The folks in Calabar believed that nothing could harm a witch except the Esere bean. Given to determine guilt or innocence, individuals were forced to drink this poison at the death of a relative to determine if they were responsible for such death through witchcraft. Hope Waddell wrote in his diary that at the death of King Eyo Honesty II in 1858, all the king's children and relatives were virtually wiped out when all were forced to take this poison. It will take several decades before the Esere bean is outlawed in Nigeria. It is not therefore an accident that the belief in witchcraft is stronger at the coast where there was extensive contact with Europeans and weak in the northern section of the country where the contact was less. As a result of the religion being foreign, sacrifice to the gods of witchcraft is done only with foreign food items such as rice, stew and beer instead of indigenous food items.
Just like those in Europe and America, we in the delta region have attempted several witch hunts in the past including the famous Akpan Ekwong hunt of the late 1970s. Though the practice of witch hunt is officially illegal in Nigeria, the breakdown of law and order and the low standard of education in the country make it difficult to control this ancient belief. Nearly everyone seems to believe in the existences of witches including very highly educated people who are expected to know better. There are several explanations why this belief persists in our area. As sociologists and anthropologists are discovering, what is going on in our area is taking the form of syncretism - an amalgamation of belief systems. For example, the indigenous Ekpenyong cult - the worship of the god of the sea - was syncretized with European cults and became known as Mammy Water. Individuals initiated into the Inyang cult and who were supposed to keep a little pot of sea water in their homes became confused with witches. (Children chosen by the seagod were given the name Inyang) The church dealt a serious blow to indigenous beliefs while allowing the foreign ones to flourish. The Spirit movement that swept our area between 1910 - 1929 drove members of the witchcraft society underground and as it was in Europe, we gave the witches enormous powers and believe that they can do the impossible including having the power of life and death.. Today, as Offiong has written, we accuse each other of being witches and the African independent Churches (AIC) (a syncretistic amalgamation of Idiong cult and Christianity) use that to destroy families. Individuals in difficult relationships where there is conflict tend to acuse each other of using witchcraft. As Offiong pointed out, we rarely accuse strangers of being witches, but daughter in-laws, mothers in-laws and relatives accuse each other where conflict exist. Interestingly, many who believe in the powers of witches do not bother to examine these beliefs because they have been taught to be afraid. Therefore, our people believe that witches can become animals and eat other humans; even the educated people ignore all of their learning and common sense and believe that death comes from others eating the human spirit, and that humans do give birth to fishes. Others believe that a padlock can lock the human uterus We will continue to ignore what we know of the physical world and human biology until we improve our education and health system; we shall continue to believe in irrationality out of desperation when we face difficult times. Until we can find other ways of making sense of the world, many will continue to hold on to straws in the storms of life. Fear can paralyze our minds and fear is how we got to this point where even parents are able to abandon their children when others accuse a child of being a witch.