Monday, November 2, 2009

Post-Halloween edition: Witches and sorcerers

When I walk from my room to the main mission building, I often pass one or two elderly women sitting on the ground, legs outstretched, a tired and droopy expression on their faces. This frustrates the Sister to no end. The women's children drop them here and then depart, explaining that they are witches and so the Church should take care of them. The Sister knows these families, though, and complains that many of the kids are themselves drunkards and ne'er-do-wells who simply want to be quit the burden of parents who can no longer work to feed themselves.

As my friends know, I find witchcraft fascinating. I count E.E. Evans-Pritchard's seminal study Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937) – many of whom live in southeastern CAR – among my favorite books. Evans-Pritchard wrote that for the Azande witchcraft is primarily a philosophy, a way of understanding causality that also defines the contours of social values: “the notion of witchcraft explains unfortunate events.” For instance, in warm weather Azande often sit beneath the open-walled roof of their homestead’s granary. Termites sometimes eat through the supports, and the building collapses. In the event that people have seated themselves underneath the granary, and the granary collapses on top of them, Western reasoning would state that it collapsed because termites ate through the supports. The fact that the collapsed roof injured people would be explained as coincidental, if unfortunate. In contrast,

"The Zande knows that the supports were undermined by termites and that people were sitting beneath the granary in order to escape the heat and glare of the sun. But he knows besides why these two events occurred at a precisely similar moment in time and space. It was due to the action of witchcraft. If there had been no witchcraft people would not have been sheltering under it at the time. Witchcraft explains the coincidence of these two happenings."

Evans-Pritchard writes that witchcraft co-exists with empirical knowledge of cause and effect, but it adds blame where a rational explanation would insist on coincidence. For Evans-Pritchard, witchcraft was a coherent system of philosophy, but one that the Azande would come to realize was incorrect.

Yet, all the modernizers' expectations to the contrary, witchcraft has not gone away. Instead, it has surged alongside the surge in economic and social instability that much of the African continent has experienced in recent decades. Contemporary anthropological accounts of sorcery and witchcraft have tried to dig deeper, then, and understand witchcraft not simply as a belief (because when we label something a belief, we tend to imply that on some level it is false, or that people could/should come to realize the error of their thought) but as a taken-for-granted fact of life and a tangible actor in the world.

I find some a lot of this work fascinating, because it stretches the limits of my whole way of making sense of the world: what would it be like to see witches all around me, to understand actions and problems in this way? This, to me, is what is exciting about anthropology.

But seriously, the women at the mission are not witches. They are destitute, desperate old women who have been abandoned as dead weight by their families. Today, my own mother's birthday, I have even less patience for scapegoating like this.

Nevertheless, witchcraft came to dominate my discussion this morning. I stopped by the tribunal to speak with the only official currently there (the president and the prosecutor are both in Bangui pending decisions on various disciplinary matters allegedly to do with their involvement in the illegal bush meat trade), the greffier en chef. He's a personable guy who was eager to discuss the vagaries of Central African law with me. (I'm afraid my blog posts have taken a slightly negative tone, and I feel the need to acknowledge here how generous people have been in talking with me, for which I am very grateful.) He showed me his reports and explained that the most common crime they see is “PCS” - Pratique de Charlatanisme ou Sorcellerie. (Ah, the francophone love of acronyms!)

I went through two PCS dossiers in detail to get a sense of how these cases play out. In one, the accused was deemed guilty, in the other, innocent. I'll start with the latter:

A child with no penis (he has had several operations to put him in order, but the doctor said that he should be treated with gentleness) was at the quartier's bathing area to wash. A slightly older neighbor boy came and shoved him out of the way so as to claim the space for his own. When the penis-less boy's father found out, he beat the pushing-boy harshly. The family of the beaten boy objected. Some days pass. One night, the father of the penis-less boy is bitten by a snake. He notices that the beaten-boy's father is outside, coming toward him. The beaten-boy's father is drunk, barefoot, and going to the edge of his compound (the edge abutting that of the snakebitten man) to piss. They exchange harsh words. Later, the snakebitten man notices that a snake is sitting in his usual chair. With neighbors' help, he manages to get the snake out. At this point, he accuses his neighbor of witchcraft: he transformed himself into the snakes, or sent the snakes. However, upon hearing a succession of witnesses, it was determined that the accused had no reputation for being a witch; no oracular proceeding had determined that he was a witch; and there was insufficient witness testimony to condemn him. He was set free.

The other case involved two women. They were at their quartier's water pump, jostling and arguing about who should be able to pump first. The accused screamed at the victim: “You're going to leave this water pump, and you're going to give birth through your mouth!” The target of her acrimony was in fact six months pregnant and had a miscarriage several days later. Following complications, she died. It was at this point that “En tant que africains mon mari et moi [parents of the deceased] avions décidé de proceder à des recherches traditionnelles pour déterminer les causes de la mort de ma fille” (Being Africans, my husband and I decided to use traditional means of research to determine the cause of my daughter's death.) The traditional healer they found did the egg test 8 times (not quite sure what this consists of) and each time the egg broke when they said the name of the woman they later accused. Furthermore, everyone in the neighborhood knew that she was a witch. (Being a witch is not illegal; only committing public offense through witchcraft is punishable.) And, when first accused, she didn't so much as open her mouth to deny the charges. Verdict: guilty of PCS in the case of the dead pregnant woman.

The lesson in all this: don't get into fights at water sources.

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