Wednesday, March 11, 2009

African Witchcraft Does Have a "Bright Side"

I know what you're thinking - most of my stories about African witchcraft range from ridiculous to downright horrifying. Farm animals accused of crimes. Riots breaking out at soccer matches. Neighbors killed by angry mobs. Albinos murdered for their body parts. And the list goes on. However, in the Kenyan city of Mombasa witchcraft finally appears to have done some good.

Kenya's recent election resulted in charges of voter fraud that prompted widespread violence and looting across the country. However, rumors began to circulate in Mombasa that witch doctors had been employed by business owners to punish thieves, and as a result many of the looters sought to return their stolen goods.

In what turned out to be a somewhat comical sideshow amidst the mayhem of post election violence, Mombasa residents started returning goods they had looted from shops for fear of being witched. Most of the 'looters' were returning the goods at night to hide their embarrassment.

Television footage then showed fearful, if not shameful, looters and their accomplices returning beds, sofa sets, planks of timber and other items after rumours that victims had deployed witch doctors to punish the thieves started circulating.

Police officials confirmed the report, saying witchcraft had facilitated their business of tracking down crooks. But welcoming the move, police did not arrest anyone who had willingly returned the stolen goods but gave an ultimatum to all others to follow suit.

So is this just a case of superstition motivating people to do the right thing, or something more tangible that could actually harm a would-be thief?

Residents of this coastal city in Kenya are believed to have a strong belief in the power of witchcraft and say witch doctors have supernatural powers to invoke or revoke evil spirits.

Some of the looters were reported not to either urinate or pass stool, while others' stomachs swell to death.

I've seen too many things as a practicing magician to completely discount these reports, though some of them were probably exaggerated as they circulated by word of mouth. I know that if somebody stole from me spirits would be on the case pretty quickly and I'll bet that the thief would suffer some pretty painful consequences if my property wasn't returned or replaced.

In the long term fear is a bad strategy for law enforcement. People should ideally be motivated to do the right thing because they see the value of a functioning society and economy. However, in the short term sometimes fear is all you can count on, especially after the fact. As one Kenyan police officer commented,

"Whether ghosts exist or not, our work has been made easy ... I wish there were ghosts all over the country."

Apparently African witchcraft does have a bright side, at least for the law-abiding.

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Unknown said...

I wouldn't put it past them to have caused some intestinal problems in just a couple people and let the people's own paranoia work against them.

Scott Stenwick said...

Well, sure, nervousness can cause digestive problems without any magick at all, so once this got going it could have easily taken on a life of its own. The point is that it worked to "bring back the thieves and what they stole."

Whether or not the rumors were set in motion by a spell that caused a real illness is another question entirely that would be hard to answer without reviewing peoples' medical histories, but if I were a shop owner and folks started returning stuff that they stole I would have to conclude that hiring a magician was the right thing to do.