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Moral Panic and the Witch Craze in Zambia PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Leo Igwe   

You may want to describe the current state of Africa in another way. You may choose to qualify it differently. But it is evident that most parts of sub Saharan Africa  are currently being ravaged by the mindset of the dark ages, the type that prevailed in early modern Europe. Popular mentality is gripped by irrational fear and frenzy. Superstitious beliefs abound, driving people to attack and murder in cold blood those alleged to be witches, be they family or community members. Local authorities are doing very little to address this vicious phenomenon.

This is the case in Zambia.

In March, two elderly peoplePhanele Lupiya, 63 and Chakumanika Mwanza, 89-  were reportedly axed to death by family members in the Eastern Province of Zambia. They were suspected of practicing witchcraft. Lupiya was killed by her nephew, Lovemore Mwanza, 30. While Mwanza was murdered by his own son, Lemani. In a related development, an elderly couple, Jungo Chisola and Matengo Sinkamu were lynched by a mob for engaging in witchcraft practices. According to the report, ‘The two were severely beaten and logs were later piled on them before they were set ablaze’.Witchcraft was also the reason for the gruesome attack and killing of John Chibuye by his son and nephew. The two suspects are currently at large.

Witch hysteria is having a negative effect on the school system as well. Early this year, witchcraft fears caused some teachers to flee their schools in Mufumbwe district. They alleged that some ‘mysterious men’ were having sex with them in their dreams. For them, it is witchcraft and nothing more. "There is too much witchcraft here”, one of the teachers said, “We can’t sleep. Men have sex with us in our sleep. By the time you wake up, you find you are wet. I can’t even count{how many times it happened}”.

But this is not an isolated incident. Complaints about witch orchestrated ‘sexmares’ by teachers have been reported in other schools particularly the schools in rural areas. In 2000, there were many reported cases of ‘witch sex abuse’ in a school that the authorities had to invite a witch hunter. The witch finder indicted five old men including a retired headmaster. They were accused of possessing charms which they deployed to abuse women in their sleep. Luckily, the alleged wizards were exorcised of their charms and subsequently expelled from the community. They were not lynched.

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Zambia. In his book,Culture and Custom of Zambia, Scott D. Taylor said, “Many Zambians believe that witchcraft is practiced; however witchcraft itself is not much so a belief system, per se, as it is a term associated with bad or at least suspicious behavior or in explicable phenomena.”.

The inexplicable phenomena attributed to witchcraft include extreme cases of good and bad, success or failure. Most importantly, people invoke witchcraft to explain cases of misfortune- life threatening misfortune- death, diseases and accidents. During the colonial period, measures were taken to tackle witchcraft related abuses. But these measures were largely ineffective. In his essay, Witch-hunting in Zambia and International Illegal Trade, Hugo Finfelaar explains how the colonial administrators put in place legislation that denied the reality of witchcraft. They introduced laws that were not compatible with the beliefs of the people. The authorities prohibited witchcraft accusations and prevented courts from entertaining witchcraft cases.

These measures drove witchcraft accusations and witch hunting underground. People came up with measures to defend themselves against witchcraft attacks. They took the law into their own hands. Gangs of witch hunting cults like the Bamucapi emerged in the early 1920s. They carried out ‘uncontrolled, illegal witchcraft accusations’ and meted out punishments- torture, banishment, extortion, confiscation of property, of alleged witches.

Professional witch doctors and witch finders still exist in Zambia. They are often consulted and contracted to ‘treat’ or exorcise witchcraft from individuals and communities. Informal witch hunting gangs exist today in communities. Witch lynching mobs easily spring into action to deliver justice to an alleged witch.

Zambia retains the colonial law, enacted in 1914 but amended in 1963. The law has not restrained witch hunters or helped dispel fears, panic and hysteria linked to witchcraft and magic. Police arrest witch killers and attackers in many cases. But nothing is heard about the investigation and prosecution of suspects after arrests are made.

This has to change. The people of Zambia should join hands and help bring to an end the attacks and killing of innocent people in the name of witchcraft. The police should rise up to their duty of enforcing the law and of helping stop this wave of atrocious crimes ravaging many communities in Zambia. Human rights groups should take measures and campaign to protect the rights of those accused of witchcraft. In most cases the accused are elderly people. Skeptics in Zambia should rise up and begin to challenge superstitious belief in witchcraft, sorcery and magic. They should encourage people to seek evidence.

The media in the country should bring a skeptical perspective to reporting witchcraft related incidents. Witchcraft is superstition. The media should report witchcraft related news in a balanced and objective manner; in way that will make people to begin to doubt and question the reality of witchcraft.Education is critical to eradicating superstition and inculcating civilized values.

The schools in Zambia should introduce critical thinking programs and other courses that will encourage rational, natural and scientific interpretation of dreams and misfortune. But how can this happen in a situation where teachers -who should know better- are fleeing their schools due to witchcraft fears? Who will enlighten the people when educators are still living in the dark? When will Zambian schools become citadels of intellectual awakening and illumination? Who will reason the people out of their witch scares and nightmares? Who will help Zambians stop associating their ‘wet dreams’ or misfortunes with destructive magic and the occult? Who will empower the people with necessary knowledge and equip them with requisite cognitive skills against guilibility and credulity?

These are critical questions the people of Zambia should begin to ask.

 

Leo Igwe is a skeptical activist in Nigeria and a former representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He is partnering with the JREF to respond in a more organized and grassroots way to the growing superstitious beliefs about witchcraft throughout the continent of Africa.

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