Sunday, November 22, 2009

Witchcraft again

Last night as I dozed off reading Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul by headlamp, I came across a passage that struck me as remarkably resonant with descriptions of witchcraft here.

In the book, one of the characters has just described a bomb plot gone awry. The bomb had been placed in a church and set to explode at midnight, but it failed to go off. The police colonel states that the fuse was badly set, but his interlocutor replies,

' “And why was the fuse badly set? One has to go back to the source, colonel. A miracle is very much like a crime. You say the fuse was badly set, but how can we be sure that it was not Our Lady who guided the hand which set the fuse?” '

These are the kinds of questions that animate accusations of witchcraft here in Central Africa. In Christianity, believers tend to cordon such powers off as the provenance only of delineated religious authorities (the baker is not credited with channeling Mother Theresa into the sticky bun that has just come out of his oven – a higher power is). With witchcraft, anyone – including the pushy woman at the water pump – might be capable of wreaking havoc. Makes the world a dangerous and tricky place.

This insecurity is one reason why discipline is so lacking in the armed forces here. An officer will not dare to sanction a subordinate who has known poisoning powers at his disposal. The head of the ECOFAC anti-poaching unit that I stayed with last week described how he had to shift around various members of his force because their wives were recognized as witches and accused of causing all sorts of problems. Clearly, there are many other reasons for the impunity enjoyed by soldiers. For instance, a humanitarian worker was shot by a soldier here in Ndele a few weeks ago, and the general (a government official no longer in the military), the person who should lead the investigation, spent the whole of the next 36 hours too drunk/hung over to deal with the problem and then promptly decamped for Bangui, where he has remained. But the discourse of witchcraft suggests that the reasons might include some beyond simple-to-uproot structural delinquency.

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