Wim van Binsbergen

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For many decades, anthropologists have dominated the academic study of African societies and cultures, and for a similar period most anthropologists have scarcely bothered to investigate the epistemological premises of their discipline. The common assumption was that prolonged fieldwork would take care of whatever nasty questions epistemologists could ask. In the first half of the twentieth century, anthropologists were busily engaged in a professionalisation process which made them surround their juvenile discipline with high walls of institutional and paradigmatic isolationism - through which general developments on the intellectual scene only selectively and reluctantly penetrated. Moreover, the mainstream of Western philosophy had been remarkably Eurocentric, philosophers had their hands full with one language and one culture, and were not particularly equipped to illuminate the interlingual and intercultural quest for knowledge of which anthropology and African Studies form part. From the early 1970s onwards, the epistemological complacency of anthropology has been increasingly assaulted by a series of debates on the imperialist background of anthropology, on decolonisation, on orientalism, on alterity or otherness, on male-centredness, on ethnographic authority, on Afrocentrism, and so on. The title of the panel of the international African Studies Association Annual Meeting where the present chapter was presented for the first time: 'Epistemological and ideological approaches to witchcraft analysis within African Studies: A critical assessment' indicates a new phase of reflection on the problems and possibilities of academic knowledge production in the modern world. Since Marx, Mannheim, and Michel Foucault we have been deeply aware that power relations largely determine - often inconspicuously - any production of knowledge. In the context of African studies this observation is of crucial importance. For here a massive volume of knowledge is being produced by outsiders who cannot by any standards identify as Africa. Moreover, this knowledge addresses a part of the world which was subjected to outside domination for long periods, and whose dependence and marginalisation in the contemporary period of globalisation is only increasing. As Africanists we must constantly consider the foundations of our knowledge production, and we must be prepared to thresh out the contradictions in this production in genuine debate with those of our colleagues who (as Africans, as African Americans, as members of Asian, South American, and Oceanian societies) occupy strategically different positions in a world which is at the same time globalising and under North Atlantic hegemony.

            The study of witchcraft occupies an important place in this endeavour, since for a long time Africa has been singled out as the proverbial abode of witchcraft. This started in Late Antiquity, when Egypt was already singled out in similar terms in the Graeco-Roman perception.2 More recently, throughout the colonial period, witchcraft featured in racialist and imperialist constructions of alterity and inferiority as projected onto members of African societies. A number of phases may be discerned in the academic study of witchcraft as a major topic in African studies:


     the insistence on witchcraft as a manifestation of Africans' alleged fundamentally different modes of thought as compared to inhabitants of the North Atlantic (Lévy-Bruhl, Evans-Pritchard, 1920-40s)

     the vindication of the African subject's rationality by insistence on the logic of social relations behind witchcraft, against the background - considered to be more or less table and timeless - of the stable institutions of African village society (Gluckman, Marwick, the Manchester School in general, 1950-70s)

      witchcraft as one of the symbolic expressions of the African subject's active confrontation of problems of evil, meaning and competition in a context of rapid social and political change (e.g. the study of African religious change centring on Ranger, 1960-1980s; also my own work situates itself here)


and, after a slack period during the 1970s and '80s,3


     the massive insistence on witchcraft in modern Africa interpreted as an African path to modernity in the context of globalisation (Geschiere; the Comaroffs c.s.).


Witchcraft has meanwhile featured in specifically philosophical arguments. These initially reiterated Lévy-Bruhl's position or Frazer's contention that witchcraft (and magic in general) was misguided proto-science - an alternative theory of the natural world and its inner workings. A major breakthrough occurred in this field when the philosopher Winch,4 a follower of the later Wittgenstein, cogently argued the fallacy of the Frazerian approach. Far from expounding a theory of the natural world which is demonstrably false - which would call in question Africans' capability of empirical observation and logical reasoning, therefore would be in conflict with the anthropological tenet of the unity of mankind and with the epistemological principle of charity;5 and would be academic-political dynamite under contemporary conditions - Winch argued that African witchcraft, like any other religious beliefs the world over, comes in where knowledge (the knowledge of members of an African society, but also the knowledge of cosmopolitan natural sciences) runs out. African witchcraft is no more a theory of the natural world than that the Christian and Islamic dogma of Divine Providence is - what these three belief systems have in common is that they seek to articulate what is beyond empirical knowledge; but all may be pushed to a point where they imply the possibility of miracles, i.e. incidental departures from physical laws. African witchcraft is a way of speaking about the unspeakable, and as such perhaps understandable to believers, poets, philosophers and anthropologists, but outside the realm of natural science testing. If we accept this position, epistemology takes away our political embarrassment since clearly our study of African witchcraft no longer implies that Africans' intellectual capabilities are in any way different or deficient as compared to those of the rest of mankind. But for the great majority of Africanists like myself, who did not need Winch to arrive at this insight in the first place, this does not exhaust the potential of African witchcraft as a topic of research.6

            Meanwhile the study of witchcraft in Africa poses the same epistemological problems as any other attempt to study religious beliefs and practices with the concepts and theories which the social sciences have developed in the course of the twentieth century. Personally I have recently made the transition from a chair in anthropology to one in philosophy because I am convinced that without such epistemological reflection anthropology is not going to fulfil its promise, at a time when - with globalisation and the rise of multicultural societies in the North Atlantic - the intercultural knowledge production which anthropology promised to deliver is more needed than ever. However, at this stage I feel I have more to offer as a long-standing anthropological and historical student of witchcraft, than as a novice philosopher.

            The steps in my argument are inspired by two excellent recent texts written by my long-standing colleagues and friends7 Peter Geschiere and Matthew Schoffeleers,8 both in the forefront of the Dutch contribution to African religious studies. Geschiere's argument is contained in a beautiful and thoughtful book,9 which has been widely acclaimed in its French version and whose English version is now playing a major role in the current revival of the study of witchcraft in a context of globalisation - signaling, in Geschiere's words, the 're-enchantment of Africa'. Matthew Schoffeleers' paper serves to suggest the perspective from which I can focus on Geschiere's.

            The present argument operates at a high level of aggregation and generality. I try to contribute to the construction of an analytical context for the description and analysis of witchcraft beliefs and practices. But admittedly I scarcely enter into a discussion of specific descriptive details; this is to be reserved for a later study.

            Throughout the argument I shall deploy the concept of virtuality, which in my recent work I have found helpful towards the definition of relationships of broken reference and meaning gone astray, such as characterise social and cultural phenomena in Africa today. Therefore, let me begin by defining the concept of virtuality and provisionally indicating its use for the study of contemporary Africa.






2.1. Virtuality defined10


The terms virtual and virtuality have a well-defined and instructive trajectory in the history of ideas. In its broad sweep of space and time, its multi-lingual aspect and its repeated changes of meaning and context, this trajectory reminds us of the context we seek to illuminate by the use of these terms: that of globalisation.

            Non-existent in classical Latin (although obviously inspired by the word virtus there), virtual and virtuality are late-medieval neologisms. Their invention became necessary when, partly via Arabic versions of Aristotle's works, his concept of dúnamis ('potentiality, power, quadrate') had to be translated into Latin. While the Scholastic/ Aristotelian philosophy, with its emphasis on general potential to be realised in the concrete and the specific, gradually retreated from most domains of North Atlantic intellectual life, the terms found refuge in the expanding field of physics, especially mechanics, where virtual velocity, virtual moment, virtual work became established concepts around 1800. This was a century after optics - another branch of physics - had formulated the theory of the virtual image: the objects showing up in a mirror image do not really exist in the place where we see them, but they are merely illusory representations, which we believe to observe at the end of the refracted light beams connecting the object, the surface of the mirror, and our eye.

            In our age of information technology the term virtual has gained a new lease of life. While in the context of contemporary automatics virtual largely takes its cue from the meaning given to the term in optics ('illusion'), it has also incorporated the mechanics sense of 'potentiality capable of actual realisation'. In the globalisation perspective we frequently refer to products of the electronic industry; the furtive, intangible projection of texts and images on electronic screens is an obvious example of virtuality. Virtual reality has now become a cliché of the post-modern experience: computer games and simulations which - with extreme suggestions of reality - conjure up, for the consumer, experiences which are as real as they are vicarious.

            Guattari has introduced a related but significantly different use of the term virtuality: for him the term refers to new, unprecedented worlds, which are conjured up by creativity - contrasting science as knowledge of the real with philosophy as knowledge of the virtual. The evocation of these forms of virtuality in the context of art and philosophy is the most inspiring and hopeful aspect of Guattari's work, who however tends to ignore the structures of domination prevailing also in the production of art and philosophy.11

            We need a further abstraction in order to make the concept of virtuality amenable to the analysis of modern Africa. Let virtuality stand for a specific relation of reference as existing between elements of culture (A1, A2, ..., An). This relation may be defined as follows:


Once, in some original context C1, Avirtual referred to (i.e. derived its meaning from) Areal; this relationship of reference is still implied to hold, but in actual fact Avirtual has come to function in a context C2 which is so totally dissimilar to C1, that Avirtual stands on its own; and although still detectable on formal grounds to derive from Areal, Avirtual has become effectively meaningless in the new context C2, unless for some new meaning which Avirtual may acquire in C2 in ways totally unrelated to C1.


Virtuality then is about disconnectivity, broken reference, de-contextualisation, through which yet formal continuity shimmers through.

            Such an approach to virtuality allows us to study the process of the appropriation of globally available objects, images and ideas in a local context, which constitutes itself in the very process of such appropriation. Under conditions of globalisation, this process occurs everywhere in the world today. However it takes on a particularly marked form in Africa, where new technologies, like the computer, television and video, appear to be particularly discontinuous vis-à-vis pre-existing social and technological practices, and where the economic situation moreover imposes exceptional constraints on the introduction and spread of these new technologies. Far better than the classic research tradition which imagined bounded and integrated local 'cultures' to be drawn into contact with the wider world, the concept of virtuality offers a context for the analysis of contemporary African actors' production and sustaining of meaning in a context of globalisation. Virtuality equips us for the situation, which the global spread of consumerism and electronic technology has rendered increasingly common also in Africa, that meaning is encountered and manipulated in a context far removed, in time and space, from the concrete social context of production and reproduction where that meaning was originally worked out; where meaning is no longer local and systemic, but fragmented, ragged, absurd, maybe even absent.

            But let us not forget that virtualising appropriation need not be limited to new forms coming in globally from very distant places. When today in South Central African towns there is a revival of girl's puberty rites whose imagery celebrates a rural cosmology no longer operative any more even in the rural areas, this is an instance of urbanites appropriating a virtualised rural model. It is my contention in the present chapter that a similar process is at work in modern African witchcraft beliefs and practices as found among African elites and middle classes.


2.2. The virtual village


We are all familiar with the obsolete classic anthropological image of a multiplicity of African 'cultures', where 'each' culture was taken to be holistic, self-contained, bounded, integrated, locally anchored, effectively to be subsumed under an ethnic name. This image was deliberately constructed by ethnographers from the 1930s onwards so as to constitute, for the people supposed to adhere to one such culture, a local universe of meaning - the opposite of virtuality. Such a culture was thought to form an integrated unity, so all its parts were supposed to refer to that same coherence, which in its entirety gave the satisfactory illusion of localised meaningfulness.  Marxist anthropology of the 1970s and 1980s represented only a partial, not a radical departure from this holistic classic position.12 Both the Marxist and the classic position would tend to agree that African historic societies have offered to their members (and largely in order to accommodate those very contradictions) a fairly coherent universe, in which the human body-self, interpersonal relations, the landscape, and the supernatural all featured in one composite, comprehensive world-view, whose symbolism and ritual elaboration where to reconcile and conceal, rather than articulate, such internal contradictions as constitute the whole and render it dynamic. The agreement between the classical and the Marxist anthropological position should not be taken as a sign of validity, or as a sign of agreement on my part, given the theoretical position I hold today. African historic societies in the present millennium have invariably displayed cleavages in terms of gender, age, class, and political power, revealing comprehensive historical and structural factors which cannot be meaningfully approached within a narrow spatial and temporal horizon. Classic anthropological theory as well as Marxist modes-of-production analysis is not incapable of casting light on these factors, but when doing so fail to justify the classic obsession for the local and presentist horizon, while even Marxist anthropology in the African context has tended to concentrate on specific social formations whose confinement to narrow spatial and temporal horizons was taken for granted. However, what is involved here is socio-cultural forms of production and reproduction which are very widespread in space (over much of the African continent, if not beyond) and time (several millennia) , not only because of their typological similarity, but also and particularly because they form part of one comprehensive historical transformation process from the Beolithic onwards. Moreover, historic African societies and their cultures have always contained elements whose local integration was only partial: beyond the local society, they derived from, and partially still continued to refer to, other cultural complexes which were often remote in space and time. Both the classic and the Marxist approaches have been incapable of coping with these continuities through time and space. 13

            In this context, the meaning of an element of the local society and culture may be said to consist in the network of referential relations at the centre of which that element is perceived and conceptualised by the participants;14 through this relational network the element is taken, by the actors, explicitly or implicitly, as belonging to that general socio-cultural order, cognitively and emotively linked to many other aspects of that order - a condition which produces a sense of proper placement, connectivity and coherence, recognition, identity as a person and as a group, aesthetics, bodily comfort and even healing.

            In Africa, village society still forms the context in which many present-day urbanites were born, and where some will retire and die. Until recently, the dichotomy between town and village dominated Africanist anthropology. Today we admit that, considering the constant movement of ideas, goods and people between town and village, and the increasing economic, institutional, political and ideological continuity between the two, the dichotomy has lost much of its explanatory value. Town and village have become complementary, even converging options within the social experience of Africans today; their difference has become gradual, and is no longer absolute. However, while of diminishing value in the hands of us analysts, the dichotomy between town and village remains relevant in so far as it informs African actors' conceptualisations of their life-world and social experience. Here the idealised image of the village stands for an imaginary context (no longer to be found in the real villages of today) where production and reproduction are viable and meaningful, pursued by people who - organised along the lines of age and gender divisions, and historic ('traditional') leadership - are turned into an effective community through an un-eroded kinship system, symbolism, ritual and cosmology. Vital in this set-up is that - largely through non-verbal means - ritual manages to construct the bodies of the members of the residential group as charged or inscribed with a shared meaning, a shared identity, and while the body moves across time and space this indelible mark yet remains, to be carried over into new contexts.

            Even in the village context the effective construction of community cannot be taken for granted. Central African villages, for instance, have been described15 as the scene of an uneasy truce between strangers, only temporarily constructed into community - mainly through kinship rituals which take up an enormous part of available resources and even so barely conceal or negotiate underlying contradictions among the village population. Such rituals of kinship (some articulating reconciliation after conflict, and more others articulating over such life crises as pregnancy, birth, adolescence, marriage, and death) transform biological human individuals into competent social persons with a marked identity founded in the local community (or in the case of death transform such social persons into ancestral spirits or transfer them onto living heirs in the face of physical decomposition). Kinship rituals construct, within the overall community, specific constituent identities, e.g. those of gender and age. They refer to, and to a considerable extent reproduce and perpetuate, the productive and social organisation of the village society. Perhaps the central characteristic of the nineteenth-century village order was that the construction of community was still so effective that in the villagers' consciousness their actual residential group, despite periodic conflict, self-evidently appeared as the realisation of the community ideal.

            It is crucial to realise that in the twentieth century, even with reference to rural settings, we are not so much dealing with 'real' communities, but with rural folks' increasingly problematic model of the village community. Perhaps we could say that throughout the twentieth century, the village in South Central and Southern African discourse has been in the process of becoming a virtual village. During the heyday of studies of African religious history, rural ideological change in Africa during the twentieth century16 came to be regarded as a process of people actively confronting the erosion of that model, its becoming irrelevant and impotent in the face of political and economic realities. Employing numerous forms of organisational, ideological and productive innovation combining local practices with outside borrowings, rural populations in Africa struggled to reconstruct a new sense of community in an attempt to revitalise, complement or replace the collapsing village community in what was remembered as its viable nineteenth - century form. The ideological history of twentieth century Africa could be largely written from this perspective. Peasants have been constantly engaged in the construction of new, alternative forms of community on the basis of rather new principles such as derived from political, cultic, productive and consumerist ideas introduced from the wider world. Many of these movements have sought to re-formulate the notion of the viable, intact village community in new terms and with new outside inspiration and outside pressure. Healing cults, prophetic cults, anti-sorcery movements, varieties of imported world religions and local transformations thereof e.g. in the form of Independent churches, struggles for political independence, involvement in modern national politics including the recent wave of democratisation, ethnicity, involvement in a peripheral-capitalist cash economy with new symbols of status and distinction, - these have been some of the strategies by which villagers have sought (often against many odds) to create and bring to life the image of a new world, and a continued sense of meaning and community, when the old village order was felt, or said, to fall apart. And that old village order, and the ethnic cultures under which it was usually subsumed, may in itself have been largely illusory, strategically underpinned by the ideological claims of elders, chiefs, first-generation local intellectuals, colonial administrators and missionaries, open to the cultural bricolage of invented tradition on the part of these comparatively actors.17

            If the construction of community in the rural context has been problematic, the village yet represents one of the very few models of viable community among Africans today, including urbanites. It is the only model which is part of a collective idiom pervading all sections of contemporary society. As such it features massively as a nostalgic reference in ethnic identity construction. Whatever alternative models of community are available, are shallowly rooted and reserved to specific sections of the society: Christians or Muslims (the local religious congregation as a community; and by extension the abstract world-wide collective of co-religionists), cult members (the cultic group as a community), members of a specific ethnic group (where the - usually newly invented - ethnic group is constructed into a community, often with emphatic reference to the village model as a focal point of origin and meaning), the elite (for whom patterns of consumerism replace the notion of community-through-interaction, with the notion of virtual or vicarious global community through media transmission and the display of appropriate manufactured symbols - status symbols in clothing, transport, housing etc.).

            Having identified the village featuring in contemporary African expressions of self-identity and meaning, as a virtual village, let us proceed to examine two recent Dutch approaches to African witchcraft and healing, one by Peter Geschiere, the other one by Matthew Schoffeleers.





3.1. A Malawian healing movement


Schoffeleers deals with a recent and short-lived healing cult in Malawi, around the healer Billy Goodson Chisupe.18 During a few months in 1995 - grabbing an opportunity which fell away with the aged protagonist's death - tens of thousands of people flocked to Chisupe's village home in order to obtain the cure for AIDS which had been shown to him - an ordinary villager until then - in a dream only a few months earlier.

            In terms of the story of the prophet's calling, and the massive pilgrimage to his rural dwelling, the cult replays a scenario that is familiar to students of popular religion in South Central Africa in the twentieth century, from the Ila prophet Mupumani who appeared in the midst of drought and effective colonial penetration in the 1910s, to the Bemba prophetess Lenshina in the 1950s and '60s; both attracted a following of many thousands of people in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and even adjacent territories.19 In the most admirable and convincing way, Schoffeleers situates the brief contemporaneous history of the Chisupe's both within the time-honoured cosmology of the Malawi countryside of which he has become the principal living ethnographer;20 and within the national political and social developments in Malawi during the 1980s and early 1990s. Predictably, considering the accumulated literature on religious movements in South Central Africa, Schoffeleers interprets Chisupe's cult, beyond its claimed therapeutic effectiveness against AIDS, as an attempt to revitalise the country: i.e. the nation-state.

            Chisupe dispensed a reddish herbal solution. The Malawian public and the media - contrary to the healer's own choice of words - insisted on calling this medicine mchape. Of course Schoffeleers would be the first to realise that mchape is the central concept which, while retaining its basic meaning of 'ablution', in the colonial history of Malawi and adjacent parts of South Central Africa has acquired a more specific meaning: that of 'witchcraft - cleansing medicine'; by extension it has come to denote the young men, often returning migrants, who would come to the villages forcing people to surrender their witchcraft materials and to be cleansed.21 However, in the context of Chisupe's cult, references to witchcraft have been so minimal that Schoffeleers sees no reason to refer to them.

            Let us now turn to Geschiere's analysis of witchcraft in Cameroon today.


3.2. Witchcraft in Cameroon today


We are all aware of the unsatisfactory nature of 'witchcraft' as an analytical ('etic') term; yet the term is acceptable since, far from being an alien imposition, it is the (inevitably defective) translation of a 'emic' concept found in many African languages and consciously informing actors' practices. Geschiere rightly argues that we should not waste time over terminological issues before we have considered the actual language usages of the people we write about. In his recent work, as well as in his earlier book on the Maka of Cameroon, he proposes to use a term which he suggests to be more neutral, 'occult forces'.22 However, the intra-disciplinary dynamics of anthropological labelling have persuaded him to largely retain the term witchcraft, and that is what I shall do.

            We may distinguish at least four different contexts where various sets of actors make pronouncements concerning witchcraft:


     the village and the local language prevailing there;

     the popular culture of the town with its oscillation between local African languages, one or more urban linguae francae of African origin, and an intercontinental language such as French and English;

     the national elite and its preferred intercontinental language; and

     the domain of intercontinental scholarship, expressing itself again in intercontinental languages.


Geschiere now implies - and this lends to his argument its unique quality - that these four contexts are intimately interrelated and even overlapping in the case of contemporary Cameroonian beliefs and practices relating to witchcraft.

            Witchcraft is the central issue in Geschiere's argument, and at first glance he appears to confirm the image well-known from the literature written by missionaries and colonial administrators from the late nineteenth century till the middle of the twentieth century:23 an Africa which is the abode of witchcraft. But, contrary to the expectation of these earlier European observers and actors on the African scene, Geschiere proceeds to demonstrate at length: that witchcraft has not disappeared under the onslaught of modernity, but has installed itself at the very heart of modernity. Geschiere argues that the African actors' discourse concerning power in the post-colonial state, and concerning the acquisition and use of modern consumer goods, hinges on their conception of witchcraft. Whereas witchcraft cases in the colonial era, especially in former British Central Africa, were based on the official dogma that witchcraft is an illusion (so that people invoking witchcraft would be punished as either impostors or slanderers), in contemporary legal practice in Africa witchcraft appears as a reality and as an actionable offence in its own right. In Geschiere's view, the inroads of modernity and postmodernity in Africa have not rendered witchcraft obsolete. For Geschiere, however, witchcraft is, no longer a concept tied to a rural cosmological order - for that order no longer exists. Instead, new regional and national settings have emerged in which witchcraft has managed to insert itself as a central aspect of the discourse and the experience of modernity - having severed all connections with the village and its once viable kinship order.


3.3. Problems raised by a view which stresses the prominence of witchcraft in contemporary Africa


A number of problems present themselves at this point.

            Not so much at the descriptive empirical level. Those of us who, as Africans and/or as Africanists, have participated profoundly and extensively in contemporary African life, will tend to agree with Geschiere's observation as to the conspicuous prominence of witchcraft in the discourse of the middle classes and the elites, whenever these seek to describe power relations that have to do with the access to and control of modern consumer goods and the state; but also when they seek to define their position vis-à-vis their rural area of origin, which then often emerges as an avoided abode of witches - as an Africa within Africa.

            Not all researchers working in this field however may agree with Geschiere that such witchcraft discourse in contemporary Africa is a manifestation of the existence of a variety of paths towards modernity. If we loosely define modernity as the routinisation of the heritage of the Enlightenment, does then contemporary African witchcraft discourse constitute a path to modernity at all? Or does it simply manifest the fact that, to the extent to which there are witchcraft practices and witchcraft beliefs, no path to modernity is taken or can be taken?

            As a characteristically late echo from developments in such provinces of intellectual life as philosophy, literary criticism, art criticism in general, cultural anthropology in the 1990s has been obsessed with defining modernity, its pluralities and contradictions, its limitations, its defeats by postmodernity. Here anthropology occupies an intrinsically problematic position in that it in itself straddles the line between modernity and postmodernity: modernist in its method and scope, postmodernist in its emphasis on identity, locality, plurality, relativism and stress on situationality. It is therefore unlikely that the dilemmas of African witchcraft research as identified here can be resolved from anthropology alone.

            The matter is further complicated by the fact that North Atlantic modernity and postmodernity have had their own share of occult images - ranging from zombies and vampires to astrology and other forms of divination, shamanism, UFO-ism, gaiasophy, the teachings of South Asian gurus processed for North Atlantic consumption, and whatever the constantly innovating spiritual fashion industry of New Age will bring. Are these beliefs in the proper sense of the word, comparable to nineteenth-century Dutch villagers' beliefs in the invisible world claimed by their version of Christianity, or nineteenth-century African villagers' beliefs in the powers of their ancestors to effectively interfere in the visible world? Or are these North Atlantic postmodern beliefs rather 'make-beliefs', with a characteristic high level of virtuality and performance, true and compelling on the video screen but not necessarily so in everyday life? Might not the same apply to contemporary African witchcraft beliefs as circulating at the regional and national level? What if these can be shown to be 'virtual' as well? And what about the relation between such a 'virtual' national and regional discourse on witchcraft, and witchcraft as an aspect of the time-honoured kinship order at the village?

            Another problem concerns, not anthropological interpretation, but the political and ethical implication of such interpretation. As my friend and colleague Peter van der Veer, the South Asianist, never tires of observing, one or two decades after the debates on the imperialist nature of anthropology and on orientalism,24 it is rather amazing that the mainstream of Africanist writing continues to reinforce the image of Africa as the abode of witchcraft - as the continent where even under conditions of modern technology (including advanced equipment in the domains of armament, information and communication), modern science, modern organisation (the modern state; the formal organisation as the dominant expression of civil society), and the effective inroads of Islam and Christianity as major world religions, witchcraft remains (or has become?) a dominant discourse among, of all people, those Africans participating more than others in modernity and postmodernity. Is this a true rendering of the descriptive reality of contemporary Africa? Or is it in the first place, as van der Veer suggests, a 'localising strategy' (Richard Fardon)25 on the part of Africanists: an intra-disciplinary consensus according to which it is fashionable and appropriate to write on Africa in terms of witchcraft, in the same way as South Asianists are in the habit of writing on South Asia in terms of sharply conflicting communal identities (between Muslims and Hindus - reified categories which the orientalism debate has urged us to deconstruct)26, and on the Middle East in terms of a constant pendulum-swing between formal and popular Islam?27

            At this point in my argument we can only raise these questions. Let us continue our juxtaposition of Schoffeleers' and Geschiere's argument, in the hope that this will help us clarify the theoretical issues raised in this section.


3.4. The absence of witchcraft in Chisupe's movement


In Schoffeleers' argument, by contrast to Geschiere's, the witchcraft element is absent. I am inclined to think that this is a valid rendering of the actual situation. Schoffeleers is the Malawi specialist, there is corroborating evidence from Probst, van Dijk and other recent ethnographers, and most importantly: the extensive research on religious transformations in South Central Africa - the massive research output over the past three decades - certainly has revealed the existence of a limited number of interpretative options open to African actors besides witchcraft.

            Yet in his oral presentation of the text on which I base my argument here,28 Schoffeleers admitted, of course, that in Malawi the term mchape carries general connotations of witchcraft; and regardless of the issue whether witchcraft might have been a more prominent aspect of the Chisupe movement than his argument suggests (apparently it was not), he also pointed out that given the primary audience he had in mind for his paper (notably, producers and consumers of African Theology) he could not afford to enter into a discussion of witchcraft if he did not want to lose that audience.29

            Let me elaborate.Witchcraft was the main issue in some religious expressions which, having become fashionable, swept as cults across the region - but not in all. Ironically, witchcraft - eradication movements do not constitute the crucial limiting case their name would suggest, for the active confrontation of the witchcraft in others presupposes, not an interpretative alternative, but a firm belief in witchcraft as the central explanatory factor in evil. The prophetic idiom represented by the prophet Mupumani addressed an ecological i.e. productive concern with rain and vegetation; none of our sources suggest that his cult addressed witchcraft at all. Cults of affliction, which have formed the major religious expression in western central Zambia during much of the twentieth century, represented the African actors' radical departure from the theory of witchcraft as an explanation of evil: not human malice, but capricious non-human alien spirits, were cited as the cause of illness and distress; these spirits were reputed to emulate the spatial displacement, to travel the very roads, of regional population movements, long-distance trade, labour migration, colonial penetration and mass consumption of foreign-produced manufactured goods. Christian churches, to cite another major alternative to witchcraft as an interpretative religious idiom, have operated a theory of evil which not so much accepts witchcraft as a mode of explanation, but offers an alternative explanation in terms of sin and salvation, and by doing so provides a shelter for many of those fearing the witchcraft of others as well as the witchcraft inside themselves. All this does not mean that the people practising cults of affliction or Christianity ceased believing in witchcraft or engaging in witchcraft practices - but at least they had access to a religious variant where witchcraft was not the all-overriding mode of explanation of evil.30 But whereas in my earlier work - following Horton31 rather than Winch - I have stressed this aspect of witchcraft beliefs as a theory of evil, I now feel that this approach was too intellectualist, smacked too much of the European theological and philosophical discussion of the problem of evil in terms of the theodicee, Job's predicament, etc. African witchcraft beliefs, although potentially leading on to a theory of causation, would now seem to have been primarily a labelling device: naming, not explaining, evil from the perspective of the kinship order and its narrow, nearby horizon.


3.5. The construction of a discursive context for analysis: (a) the village as the dominant locus of cosmological reference


A crucial difference between the arguments of Geschiere and Schoffeleers lies in the way in which each constructs a discursive context for his analysis.

            For Schoffeleers this is a regionally embedded context: the argument moves back and forth between, on the one hand, post-colonial Malawi, whose socio-cultural and political outlines we need to know in order to understand the story - and on the other hand some generalised Malawian village environment, which constitutes the setting for cosmological notions around trees and their healing power, and for the typical biography (including temporary death, a visit to the underworld or heaven, and rebirth on earth) of the prophet and the healer.32 The village is the very place where ancestors may yet appear in dreams dressed in bark-cloth (the standard pre-textile clothing in East Africa and South Asia). Emic meaning is implied at the level of the actors, and etic interpretation is rendered possible at the level of the academic writer and reader, by Schoffeleers' dextrous juggling between these two regionally nested sets of references - the nation-state and the village. Much of Schoffeleers' argument is by imputation: the two spheres are suggested to be distinct yet continuous and interconnected, so that meanings and conditions applying to one sphere can be carried over to the other. Is not the crux of the Chisupe's dream-derived message that there is a cure for every ailment, including AIDS, including perhaps the ailment of the post-colonial state?33


3.6. The construction of a discursive context for analysis: (b) leaving the village and its cosmology behind, and opting for a globalising perspective


Geschiere as an author can be seen to struggle with the same problem as Schoffeleers does: where can we find a locus of meaning and reference, for the African actors, as well as for the academic discourse about their witchcraft beliefs and practices?

            Both our authors derive their inspiration and their analytical confidence, rightly, from their years of participant observation at the village level. But for Geschiere the village and its cosmology is no longer a dominant reference.

            Which village, in which region, anyway? Geographically, some of the data which Geschiere presents as having triggered his analytical curiosity may derive from a Cameroonian village, but on closer inspection his corpus highlights the discourse and practices among African elites and middle-classes, and between anthropologists and selected Africans who, employed as anthropological assistants, may be considered middle class. I deliberately used the word corpus, whose textual and finite nature, with its sense of procedural appropriation and processing rather than contingent and dependent immersion, differs considerably from the standard anthropological material based on prolonged participant observation. After all, Geschiere frequently boasts that his first professional identity was that of historian, not anthropologist. These methodological procedures constitute deliberate and strategic choices on Geschiere's part. Having previously written on occult forces at the village level, in his monograph on the Maka and in a number of shorter pieces, in his recent book he emphatically seeks to move away from the village setting. He wishes to explore how witchcraft operates in a context of 'modernity': the state, the district capital, the city, modern consumption, elite behaviour. It is here that he has a chance of making an original contribution to the already vast literature on African witchcraft, where village contexts predominate. These choices inevitably have an effect on the nature and the quality of the data at the anthropologist's disposal: they direct the research to contexts which are geographically dispersed and structurally far more complex than most African villages; contexts moreover which feature social actors endowed with such social and political power that they can effectively impede participant observation; and finally, contexts which are often downright intimidating, involving threats of inflicting occult injury.

            It is not only the choice of a national or even international level of variety and comparison, impossible to cover by any one investigator's participant observation, that gives the specific flavour of displacement, of operating in an uncharted no man's land, to Geschiere's discourse on witchcraft in modern Africa. Having studied the village, and with his first monograph many years behind him, he is now operating at a level where the meaning which actors' attribute to their witchcraft practices is no longer informed by the cosmology of some original village environment.

            Or is it, after all? When we compare Geschiere's approach to that of Schoffeleers, the difference may be tentatively expressed thus:


      Schoffeleers has access to the village cosmology and appeals to it in order to partially explain the meaning of contemporary events at the national level, even if he does not argue in detail the interrelations between town and country and the interpenetration of rival cosmologies in Malawi today;

      Geschiere on the other hand plays down the village cosmology and therefore, despite the close attention - throughout his published work - for the interpenetration between the village and the wider national political and economic scene particularly in contemporary Cameroon, is no longer interested in identifying (or may we say: is at a loss to identify) the original locus (the village) where witchcraft beliefs and practices once took shape and meaning.


It is this particular orientation of Geschiere's work on witchcraft which allows him to capture a crucial aspect of contemporary African life: the extent to which the village is no longer the norm, - no longer a coherent, consistent and explicit point of reference and meaning in the African actors' discourse. In contexts of modernity, ( in cities, in the formal organisations of the state, churches and economic life), the African actors express themselves in an idiom of witchcraft which has become virtualised -- although Geschiere does not use that term. While operating in a social context which is very different from the village, and which is informed by very different structural principles than the village, these actors have appropriated into their situation of modernity the concept of witchcraft from the village, have transformed it, have given it a new meaning, and constitute themselves in the very process of such appropriation.

            However, it is my contention that such new meaning as the modern African discourse on witchcraft may entail, however transformed, is likely to be illuminated by a proper understanding of witchcraft in its more original rural context.


3.7. Possible lessons from a rural-orientated cosmological perspective on witchcraft


Much of the well-known anthropological and historical Africanist literature on witchcraft is cited by Geschiere;34 but his insistence on the African middle-class and elite subjects' fragmented modernist social discourse outside the village may render him less perceptive of the extreme antiquity, and the fundamental significance, of the witchcraft discourse in the village context.

            This is especially manifest in Geschiere's claim that the older ethnographic discourse on witchcraft is so very moralistic in the sense that it can only present witchcraft as something evil. Geschiere chides the older authors on African witchcraft for failing to realise that in the African experience witchcraft is ambivalent, also capable of inspiring excitement, admiration, a positive sense of power; brainwashed as it were by this older ethnography, as he feels he has been, Geschiere regrets that he had to discover personally, as a serendipity, that his African companions could be positively fascinated by witchcraft. No doubt there is an element of truth in Geschiere's critique: there is in the older ethnography of African witchcraft a tendency of constructing the African subject - along familiar missionary and colonial lines - as depraved, given to immorality, with limited powers of abstract thought , with a system of thought moreover not conducive to the idea of transcendence; represented in this manner so that 'the African' would appear to be incapable of rising above the limitations of the human condition, hence to be inclined to attribute misfortune to human malice and not to such a supernatural principle as a High God actively intervening in the visible world. Yet Geschiere's attempt to relegate the moral dimension in African witchcraft at the village level to a North Atlantic ethnographic imposition and nothing more, suggests that he has only a partial understanding of the place of witchcraft in the village-based kinship order. Moral ambiguity does not imply amorality but is its very opposite.

            Whatever the difference between acephalous societies and those with centralised political leadership, and whatever the variations across time and space, South Central and Southern African historical cosmologies tend to converge on this point, that they have important moral implications, defining witchcraft as primarily the transgression of the code of social obligations defined by the kinship order. The entire cosmology is an evocation of a kinship-based social universe, whose normal and beneficial flow of life force and fertility depends on a precarious balance between opposites: heaven and earth, life and death, the living and the dead, men and women, nature/forest and culture/the village, etc. It is the three mortal sins against the kinship order which are capable of destroying this balance and of blocking the flow of life force: incest, murder and witchcraft within the local (or by extension regional) community.35 By observing the taboos on incest, murder and witchcraft, the community is effectively constructed as based on: a recognition of extensive kinship (hence the incest taboo); on intra-community peace (hence the taboo on intra-community violence, i.e. murder); and on sociability and reciprocity (hence the taboo on witchcraft as a celebration of individual desires and powers at the expense of one's kin). Witchcraft has been the boundary condition of the construction of the African village community in the very many centuries that this community was the basic context of production and reproduction. I suggest that it is the individual challenge of the non-violent, sociable, reciprocal kinship order that is really at the heart of the original notion of witchcraft in the village societies of South Central and Southern Africa.

            The ambivalence of village witchcraft which Geschiere rightly notes is not a modernist innovation but is inherent in witchcraft as a boundary condition of the kinship order. Before modernity, the kinship order was not virtual in the sense of defined above: it was not a transformative appropriation into a totally different setting; but even then the kinship order was certainly problematic. It needed to be continuously constructed and reconstructed. New-born individuals, in-marrying spouses, captives and migrants needed to be drawn into it and kept within it through socialisation and social control. Even so, in South Central and Southern Africa, villages as localised, spatial contexts of production and reproduction tended to have a life-span of only a few decades. They declined demographically and in terms of internal social contradictions, and new villages were constantly formed. All this required a leadership which oscillates between sociable arbitration and gentle coaxing, and occasional outbursts of assertiveness and initiative. Individuals were constantly on the move from one village to another and from one patron (a senior kinsmen) to another, fleeing the disrupted social relations in a previous place of residence and being attracted by the promises of sociability, care and protection in the next place of residence. Both in an individual's life, and in the life of a village community, there was a continuous movement back and forth between the moral ideal of community (through sociability, non-violence, and the absence of witchcraft) and the embarrassing reality of individual assertion (through anti-social egoistic behaviour, leadership initiatives, challenges, physical violence - which all implied, and usually were cast in the secret ritualistic and symbolic trappings of, witchcraft). This contradiction, and the contingent dynamics it takes on over time, is the heart-beat of village society in South Central and Southern Africa. The moral premium on non-violence and sociability, and against individual assertiveness, is only one side of the medal; its counterpart (conceptualised in the village discourse as witchcraft, locally expressed by such vernacular concepts as wulozi, buloi, etc.; see below) is as necessary and as common as it is normatively sanctioned. The fact that witchcraft often implies a violence which is hidden, still reflects the strong taboo on violence within the kinship order, as characteristic of many African societies.

            Not only is the kinship order internally divided and juxtaposed against individual assertion (whose symbolic conceptualisation and ritualistic procedures are those of witchcraft). In addition, the kinship order, and the villages which it calls into being as contexts of production and reproduction, is set off against other structural modalities in South Central and Southern Africa, which while parasitic upon the village-based kinship order, do not derive from that order, cannot be reduced to that order, and in fact in their socio-economic structure and their symbolic elaboration challenge the kinship order by a recourse to a different socio-cultural 'logic' (in the sense of coherent world-view) altogether. Whatever the cosmological and mythical elaboration of the kingship, the kingship order is never coterminous with the kinship order, hence royals' often extreme reliance on violence, social separation, emphatic denial of the very kinship ties to which they owe their lives and social position, on royal incest, and on close association with witchcraft. The single most important defining feature of the precolonial African state is not its monopoly of violence (as Weber would have it for the European state), but its radical rejection of the kinship order which informs the local communities over which the state holds sway. In lesser degrees and with different symbolic repertoires, the same departure of the kinship order characterises other specialist positions in South Central and Southern African societies prior to the colonial conquest: the trader, the blacksmith, the diviner-priest, the rain-maker, the bard, the musician. They exist by definition outside the kinship order, and therefore inevitably share with royals connotations of witchcraft, anti-sociability, and violence. Their reproduction as professional subgroups or ethnicities, meanwhile, implies forms of intra-group non-violence and sociability, which contradict their outsidership vis-à-vis the overall kinship order, and make for all sorts of symbolic and ritual elaborations.36 It is from these symbolic elaborations, these phantasms, that part of the later imagery of modern witchcraft can be expected to derive.

            Witchcraft, one might say, is everything which

     falls outside the kinship order,

     is not regulated by that order,

      challenges, rejects, destroys that order.

As such, witchcraft is opposed to kinship, group solidarity, rules of kinship, incest prohibitions, avoidance rules concerning close kin, kinship obligations concerning redistribution of resources, the repression of intra-kin violence, and the acknowledgement of ancestral sanctions. Outside of the kinship order is the realm of witchcraft; and it is here that we must situate kingship, trade, and the specialities of the bard, the diviner, the magician and the rain-maker.

            Probably it is incorrect to assume that witchcraft beliefs and practices sprang directly and exclusively, as transformations, reversals and denials, from the kinship order. The specific forms of witchcraft have a history, so has the kinship order (although its history is difficult to study in contexts where written texts are relatively scarce, like in precolonial Africa), and so has the relation between witchcraft and the kinship order. Ironically (in view of witchcraft's reputation of being hidden, dark, obscure), it is somewhat easier to reconstruct the history of witchcraft. For if witchcraft is everything which challenges the kinship order (such as kinship, trade, specialities), then witchcraft has much to do with social complexes that leave more lasting traces than the ordinary face-to-face kinship domain - social complexes that have much to do with the way in which the wider world is connected with the local societies of sub-Saharan Africa. At present we have a fair general knowledge of the history of the magical tradition of the Ancient Near East (especially Egypt and Mesopotamia) from c. 3000 BCE. The same applies to the history of kingship. Now, especially in the fields of kingship and the magical tradition there are such specific, numerous and widely distributed parallels between sub-Saharan Africa and the Ancient Near East, that it is now becoming possible to read the history of African magic (and that of African kingship, but that is another story) in part as the diffusion, and subsequent localisation and transformation, of these social complexes from the Ancient Near East. This idea was first launched by Frobenius,37 and in the course of the twentieth century was increasingly discredited in professional Africanist circles along with Frobenius himself. Meanwhile, we should add, that there is also increasing evidence that the civilisations of the Ancient Near East, in their turn, in their emergence and early history, owed a very great debt to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa

            I could not agree more with Geschiere than when he claims that it is the fundamental ambiguity of African witchcraft which allows it to insert itself into the heart of modernity. Such ambiguity however, contrary to what he claims, does not at all explode but implies, as the complementary concept, the morality of the kinship order. Nor can such ambiguity entirely be relegated to some universal, innate quality of the sacred as being both benevolent and destructive, as stressed by Durkheim and Otto.38 The ambiguity is not even adequately captured by a statement, superficially correct, to the effect that 'witchcraft is an idiom of power'. Witchcraft in the time-honoured village context does not describe power in general, but power in a specific context: the individualising self-assertion which while challenging the kinship order, constitutes that order at the same time.

            In addition to the requirements of leadership and of the enculturation of new individuals, the ambiguity of witchcraft also seems to reflect the material contradictions between the various modes of production involved in African rural social formations, and the ideological and symbolic expressions of those contradictions. The prominence, in the domain of witchcraft, of references to kingship, trade and specialities which each may be recognised as specific, distinct modes of production, suggests that despite having gone out of fashion, the theory of the articulation of modes of production may yet considerably illuminate African sorcery beliefs and practices39 - as it has been argued to illuminate African ethnicity.40 Nor need this suggestion as to the applicability of modes-of-production analysis to witchcraft beliefs be restricted to Africa, as an analysis, along similar theoretical lines, of witchcraft and other forms of magic in the Ancient Near East may show.41 Because modes of production ultimately revolve on the appropriation of nature, we can understand why the fundamental distinction, in so many African cosmologies, between the ordered human space ('village') and the forces of the wild ('forest', 'bush'), particularly empowers roles situated at the boundary between these domains: the hunter, the musician, the healer. This brings us near to an understanding of which specific imagery, with which specific origin in real life, is likely to be employed in the domain of witchcraft beliefs.

            Meanwhile, the amazing point is not so much variation across the African continent, but convergence.

            Extremely widespread in Africa42 is the belief that for any type of excessive, transgressive success - such as attaining and maintaining the status of ruler, diviner-priest or monopolist trader - a close kinsman needs to be sacrificed or to be nominated as victim of occult, anti-social forces. I have extensive reasons to take such beliefs as indicative of actual practices (whose empirical assessment however poses immense difficulties, both of method, of criminal law, and of the politics of knowledge)43. In view of the above discussion of the kinship order and of witchcraft as its boundary condition, these beliefs are understandable as ritual evocations of how specialist statuses challenge the kinship order through their individual assertiveness, violence, and denial of reciprocity and community.

            The South-east Cameroonian jambe as a personalised occult force demanding sacrifices of close kinsmen (in what Geschiere calls the 'old' witchcraft idiom) would appear to be closely equivalent - in belief, practice and perhaps even etymology - to the Zambian concept of the chilombe or mulombe, a snake with a human head which is secretly bred near the river, first on a diet of eggs and chicks, later demanding that his human associate nominates close kin for sacrifice in exchange for unrivalled powers and success.44

            What however seems to be absent from the Cameroonian scene is the concept as enshrined in the otherwise widespread Bantu root -rozi, -lothi, -loi, with connotations of moral transgression, malice, murder, incest, not exclusively through the use of familiar spirits but also relying on materia magica: herbs, roots, parts of human or animal bodies. The fact that this lexical root is so widespread allows us to adopt a historical perspective: we are led to conclude that over 2000 years ago the early farmers and herders who spoke proto-Bantu already had a concept of


'[abstract noun prefix]+ [ root ] l/ro[th]i


whose semantic field must have largely coincided with that of its twentieth-century CE descendent linguistic forms. It is quite possible that the Bantu lexical root [ root ] l/ro[th]i signifies this domain external to, and challenging, the kinship order - that its original sense is alienness rather than moral evil. This hypothesis would then cast light on the puzzling of apparently the same lexical root in the names of the Zimbabwean Barozvi and the Zambian Barotse/Balozi: 'outsiders', 'strangers', 'aliens' with royal connotations, certainly, but not an entire people of 'witches'. The Bantu root vl/ro[th]i would then perhaps be similar to the root vwal underlying such names as Wales, Wallon, Walen, Wallis, Wallachia, in Central and Western Europe - which although often interpreted as 'Celtic' (even Celtic of a particular ethnic group) ultimately means 'alien'. By a very far shot one might even surmise that the two roots [ root ] l/ro[th]i and vwal are etymological cognates.

            Rather more difficult to explain are the extensive geographical continuities attending the new idioms of witchcraft which appeared under conditions of approaching modernity, especially the advent of early-modern consumer goods with the growth of long-distance trade from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE onward. What Geschiere describes for Cameroon, in terms of victims being in some occult way captured and made to work as zombies, I also encountered during field-work in both Zambia and Guinea-Bissau (but so far not in Botswana). And the comparative Africanist bibliography on these topics must be voluminous.

            If the 'new' forms of witchcraft in the 1980s-90s use (in the zombie imagery) the idiom of the slave trade which has been extinct for almost a century, than this is an anachronism - even if the slave trade belongs to a more recent history than e.g. the establishment of ancestral cults. If instead (and John and Jean Comaroff have argued recently)45 it is not downright slavery but indentured exploited wage labour which the zombie metaphor is referring too, then that too would be anachronistic to the extent to which such labour conditions no longer obtain in Southern Africa today. In other words, the reference to earlier forms of globalisation (slave trade, indentured labour) is now used in order to express and contest, in a witchcraft idiom, newer forms of globalisation, such as the differential access to consumer goods and post-colonial state power. This is comparable to the processes of selective borrowing between time frames which I tried to capture in my analysis of South Central African cults of affliction; also these I interpreted as referring, in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century CE, to the complex of long-distance trade which by then had already become obsolete.46


3.8. Modern African witchcraft as an instance of virtuality


My insistence on the kinship order as the long-standing and widespread historical basis of village-centred witchcraft beliefs and practices in South Central and Southern Africa enables us to identify the virtualised and transformed nature of the modern regional and national witchcraft beliefs and practices as studied by Geschiere. This is the case even although Geschiere does not employ the concept of virtuality nor stops to explicate the remarkable features as captured by this concept. Although he does recognise the kinship nexus of witchcraft, he refuses to make his discourse on witchcraft ultimately dependent upon some local village scene in the past or the present. Rather, he describes witchcraft as part of today's national culture of Cameroon, much in the way as one might describe, for instance, sexual permissiveness, xenophilia, and democracy based on institutionalised sub-national negotiation as parts of the national culture of The Netherlands today. Geschiere does not deny that the village context may once have engendered or incubated the witchcraft beliefs and practices which today have such an impact on middle-class and elite life in Cameroon and throughout Africa, but he stresses that today such a rural reference, far from being a determining factor for the actors, has lost all conscious significance for them.

            Being virtualised, the urban, national and elite witchcraft beliefs in Cameroon are suspended in the air. They are not endowed with meaning by any direct reference to actual, concrete practices of production and reproduction within the horizon of social experience of the actors carrying such beliefs. Instead, the conceptual and social basis of these beliefs is fragmented and eroded: a loose bricolage of broken myths and ill-understood rumours about power and transgression, fed by two main sources:


     on one side by the faint and disconnected echoes of a rural discourse and practice;

     on the other by the selective recycling of detached, de-contextualised images of African life, including witchcraft, as produced by Europeans (anthropologists, missionaries, colonial civil servants) as well as by African elite and middle-class actors, and subsequently recycled even wider in present-day African national societies.


Admittedly, whatever their rural origin, 'modern witchcraft beliefs' in Africa may share hardly more than their lexical designation with the time-honoured concept witchcraft as a boundary condition of the kinship order. That kinship order and its implications no longer seem to form part of modern witchcraft beliefs. What has instead been co-opted, appropriated, of ancient witchcraft beliefs into the modernist collective representations at the national and regional level, among elites and middle classes operating in the formal organisations of the state, industry and civil society, are notions in which individual power is celebrated, and is adorned by imagery of extravagance, violence and transgression. In a modern social world where whatever is alien to the rural kinship order, has gained ever greater dominance, witchcraft is no longer a boundary condition, but has become the central norm. Modern life is the kinship order virtualised: turned inside out, invaded by, subjugated by, the outside world against it was once an effective refuge. Modern life, in short, is witchcraft.

            The subjective experience, reported from many parts of nineteenth and twentieth century Africa, according to which people signalled a dramatic increase of witchcraft in recent times, then - far from necessarily corresponding with an actual increase of witchcraft practices - should be interpreted as scarcely more than a tautological expression for the fact that social experiences would be less and less governed by the kinship order, yet at the same time would for the time being continue to be judged from the perspective of that order.

            Geschiere seeks to interpret modern witchcraft by playing down the village nexus and its perspective of the longue durée. Thus he is offering us a new version of Max Gluckman's influential but one-sided adage: 'the African townsman is a townsman', whose social and cultural existence should primarily be interpreted by reference to modern urban conditions which by implication are supposed to render all rural and historical referents obsolete. If we yet try to bring in the rural and historical dimension, we appreciate that modern witchcraft is an instance of virtuality as an essential aspect of the modern African condition.The beliefs and practices of modern witchcraft clearly have the formal characteristics that one would associate with the counterpart, in African cultural production, of the virtual reality of electronic media and games. Modern witchcraft lacks precision and detail, and neither reveals nor claims profound cultural competence. Despite an element of regional variation (which Geschiere lists, beside the kinship link and the ambiguity, among the three major features on witchcraft beliefs in Cameroon today, and of which he shows the potential for ethnic articulation), these beliefs and practices tend to blend into broad blanket concepts, situating themselves in some sort of national or international lingua franca of concepts, ideas and rumours which (also because of the effect of the recycling of North Atlantic reformulations) can hardly be traced back to any specific regional or ethnic rural source of conceptualisation and meaning. Most significantly, Geschiere tells us that actors (for reasons which he does not go into, but which revolve on the virtuality I have pinpointed) often prefer to discuss witchcraft matters not in any of the original Cameroonian languages but in French or English! What a relief for an anthropologist who does not know any Cameroonian language except these to intercontinental ones.

            Recent media research47 has stressed the fact that contemporary forms of art and the consumption of images derive their impact particularly from a transformation of the temporal basic structure of human perception. In the creation of virtuality, time plays a key role. Witchcraft beliefs and practices in contemporary Africa provide an example of this time dimension of virtuality. Geschiere's discussion carries the strong suggestion that these beliefs are situated in some sort of detached no-man's-land, and do no longer directly refer to the village - they are no longer rooted in the productive and reproductive processes there, nor in their attending cosmology. Part of that cosmology, fragmented, disintegrated, ill-understood, and exposed to vaguely similar globalising influences from elsewhere, has been exported to function, more or less, outside the village. Middle classes and elite use English or French to discuss its blurred and collapsed notions. The reference to the village is absent, perfunctory, or meaningless. Modern Africa, inventing its own witchcraft idioms tailored to the tune of the town and the formal organisation, can do without the actual village, and in its conceptualisation of power does not even necessarily take recourse to the image of the virtual village any more.


3.9. The continued relevance of the old kinship order


Still we are left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Does not an interpretation of modern witchcraft in terms of virtuality simply restate the old opposition between town and country in a new idiom? If in the live of African middle classes and elites the village has been left behind for good, this is a sign that the mechanisms of social control by which the village environment seeks to enforce the kinship order as a basis for viable community, no longer effectively extend into the life of the village's successful descendants in town and abroad. In the course of the twentieth century Africanist research has monitored the succession of strategies through which the village has tried to retain a hold over its emigrants: tribal elders in town, marital ties, monetarisation of bridewealth, initiation cycles, rural-based regional cults, cults of affliction and other forms of therapy which could only be extended to urban migrants at the village, parental curses, the lure of prestigious traditional office (as headman, court assessor, chief) after retirement from a modern career, the lure of rural land as an urban migrant's ultimate security the norm of building a house in one's village of origin,, and the widespread norm of being buried in the rural home. All these strategies have consisted of power games between generations and genders, and inevitably they have constituted a fertile context for older and newer forms of witchcraft.

            Let us grant that an increasing number of middle class and elite Africans have sought to escape from village-based strategies and no longer actively participate in village life - although often at the cost of cultivating a fear of the village as a an imagined place of intense witchcraft, which one tries to avoid at all costs and visits to which - if absolutely inevitable - have to be cut short to the extreme. These fears already betray a measure of acknowledgement of the historic kinship order and the obligations it imposes, especially on the more successful and affluent members of the family,- such as urban migrants. Besides, one may cut one's ties with the distant village, but that does not mean that one can entirely place oneself outside the reach of kinship - that one can totally ignore one's parents, siblings, and children, not to speak of somewhat more remote ties. This residual kinship may partially be patterned or re-patterned according to North Atlantic and global models, but in the case of African middle class and elites is also likely to reflect their childhood socialisation into recent versions of the historic kinship order whose boundary condition has been witchcraft.

      We could go full circle and assess what the insights attained by on Geschiere's part mean in terms of a possible re-assessment of Schoffeleers' picture of the Chisupe movement.

            Schoffeleers helped us to pinpoint what could have been learned from a rural-inspired reading of the distant, Cameroonian data, while taking for granted that this perspective was eminently applicable to the Malawian healing movement's discourse. But what about the Malawian actors involved? Were they really prepared for such a reading, and did they have the symbolic baggage to make such a reading at all relevant to their situation? Does Schoffeleers' reliance on such rural insights as prolonged participant observation at the village level accords one, yield insight in present-day Malawian actors' conscious interpretations of the problem of evil as expressed in Chisupe's mass movement. Or does Schoffeleers merely reveal the historical antecedents of such interpretations - a background which has perhaps largely gone lost to the actors themselves? Does the analytical return to the village amount to valid and standard anthropological hermeneutics, or is it merely a form of spurious anthropologising which denies present-day Malawians the right to the same detachment from historic, particularistic, rural roots as many North Atlantic Africanists very much take for granted in their own personal lives? It is this very detachment, this lack of connectivity - a break in the chain of semantic and symbolic concatenation -, which the concept of virtuality seeks to capture.

            On this point the work of Rijk van Dijk is relevant, and revealing. In the Ph.D. thesis which he wrote under supervision of Matthew Schoffeleers and Bonno Thoden van Velzen,48 the assertive puritanism of young preachers in urban Malawi, c. 1990, is set against the background of the preceding century of religious change in South Central Africa and of the interpretations of these processes as advanced in the 1970s and 1980s. Here the urban discourse on witchcraft already appears as 'virtual' (although that word is not yet used by van Dijk), in the sense that the urbanites' use of the concept of witchcraft is seen as detached from direct references to the rural cosmology and to conceptualisations of interpersonal power within the kinship order. Similarly, the events around Chisupe may be interpreted not as an application or partial revival of time-honoured rural cosmological notions, but as an aspect of what Van Dijk describes as the emphatic moral re-orientation in which Malawi, under the instigation of State President Banda's successor Mr Muluzi, was involved at the eve of the 1994 elections, and in the face of the AIDS epidemic49 - in other words, as very much the same kind of national-level, neo-traditional, phenomenon which Geschiere persuades us to see in the contemporary discourse on witchcraft in Cameroon.


As a general principle, I claim that the old kinship order is never far away from the personal lives of even the most modern and urbanised Africans, whatever their class position; the free variation of virtualised witchcraft beliefs, fertilised by whatever global images circulate in the way of vampirism, satanism etc., is not totally virtualised but continues to be fed, to some extent, by the historic cosmology on which the village and its kinship order were based.

            This is also what I have found, in scores of cases many of which I came to understand in detail as they evolved over the years, among my Zambian associates since 1972, and among my Botswana associates since 1988. Among the middle classes and elites, the adoption of new lifestyles and of new emphases in kinship (a tendency to retreat into the nuclear family, to discourage parasitism from distant kin, to recruit one's political and economic followers not among kinsmen but among client non-kin) often goes hand in hand with family dramas in which the old kinship order turns out to be not so easily discarded, and to strike back with a vengeance. At the same time, witchcraft beliefs and practices are obviously no longer confined to the kinship domain, but have penetrated many aspects of modern life, many instances of competition over scarce resources, and many instances of the exercise of power. This is only what we would expect, in African societies more and more taken over by outside forces, images, people and organisations, if our initial viewpoint is correct that witchcraft of old has formed the boundary condition of the kinship order, has constituted the evocation of all that is foreign and alien. Largely severed from the old cosmological context, the imagery of this new witchcraft follows the symbolic repertoire of the old cosmology only to a limited and diminishing extent, and is open to all sorts of free variation, in which the global supply of images of horror, alterity and violence (often electronically transmitted) is eagerly absorbed.




Thus witchcraft in contemporary Africa emerges, not as a timeless, atavistic continuation of an essentially unaltered, historic cosmology right into modernity (Schoffeleers); nor as a predominantly new phenomenon marking Africa's road to modernity (Geschiere); but as the resolution, through a process of virtualising appropriation (amazingly similar converging in many parts of the continent), of the tensions between


      witchcraft as the boundary conditions - in the four of various claims of individual assertiveness - of the kinship order at the village level, and

      witchcraft as the idiom of power struggles in modern situations: the context of urban life, formal organisations, the state


The two poles represent (, in structural implications for production and reproduction, in procedures, and in imagery), largely independent symbolic complexes, yet they are inseparable, in that the 'modern' pole has been constructed on the basis of a specific transformation, towards modern life, of witchcraft as it was - and to a considerable extent continues to be - available in the conception of the kinship order.

            In the same way as Winch's re-analysis has exculpated the study of African witchcraft from allegations of slighting Africans' mental capabilities, my argument exculpates the study of African witchcraft from allegations of North Atlantic, alien imposition à la Peter van der Veer. If today Africa appears to be the continent of witchcraft, this is not because a number of prominent North Atlantic Africanists have colluded to decide that this - despite its suggestion of exotism and imposed alterity - is how African societies are going to be represented, as part of a 'localising strategy'. It is because, on the basis of the historic underlying pattern of kinship-based village communities of agriculturalists and herdsmen going back to the Neolithic, witchcraft (under whatever local emic term) played an important role in defining the moral and productive order in many parts of the African continent. Witchcraft was therefore available for appropriation and virtualisation by African middle classes and elites in their struggle to create meaning in modernity and postmodernity. Without acknowlegment of this shared heritage of African village society, the modernity of witchcraft cannot be understood unless as an alien analytical imposition _which it is certainly not. Acknowledging this common pool of historic inspiration allows us to admit both the continuity and the transformation in modernity. Witchcraft has offered modern Africans an idiom to articulate what otherwise could not be articulated: contradictions between power and meaning, between morality and primitive accumulation, between community and death, between community and the state. If this insistence on an African witchcraft idiom does not render the African experience of modernity and postmodernity any more transparent, it at least - in the face of the avalanche of alien, imported ingredients of modern life - casts this experience in a mode of expression whose extremely long history on African soil cannot be denied.


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1     An earlier version of this paper was read at the panel on 'Epistemological and ideological approaches to witchcraft analysis within African Studies: A critical assessment', African Studies Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, 27th October - 1st November 1998. I am indebted to George Bond and Diane Ciekawy for inviting me to take part in this inspiring session, to all participants for illuminating ideas and criticisms, and to the African Studies Centre, Leiden, for financing my participation.

2     Barb 1971.

3     Which however brought us the seminal: Hallen & Sodipo 1986.

4     Winch 1970. For a complex historical theory of magic combining natural, psychological, social and political factors, cf. van Binsbergen & Wiggermann 1999.

5     Lepore 1993; Davidson 1984; Malpas 1988. Cf. the kindred 'principle of humanity': Grandy 1973.

6      However, see Horton's criticism of Winch in: Horton 1993.

7     Van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985; Van Binsbergen & Schoffeleers 1985.

8      Geschiere 1995;. Schoffeleers 1996.

9      Geschiere 1995; also cf. Geschiere 1996.

10          On virtuality, cf. Jules-Rosette 1990; Jules-Rosette 1996; Korff  1995; Rheingold 1993; Van Binsbergen 1997, 1998; Rheingold 1991; Woolley 1992.

11          Cf. Deleuze & Guattari 1991; Guattari 1992. Cf. Van Binsbergen 1999 and 2000.

12          Van Binsbergen 1998.

13    Cf. Van Binsbergen 1997, 1998.

14          This comes close to the current holistic definition of meaning, which Peacocke cites as the basic stance of global holism:

'The meaning of an expression depends constitutively on its relations to all other expressions in the language, where these relations may need to take account of such facts about the use of these other expressions as [ reveals? - WvB ] their relations to the non-linguistic world,. to action and to perception.' (Peacocke 1999: 227)

15          Turner 1968; Van Velsen van 1971 ; van Binsbergen 1992.

16          Ranger & Kimambo 1972; Ranger 1972; Ranger 1975; Fields 1985; Bond 1976, 1979; Schoffeleers 1979; Van Binsbergen 1981. 

17          Hobsbawm & Ranger 1983; Vail 1989.

18          Probst 1996.

19          Van Binsbergen 1981

20          Schoffeleers 1992.

21          Redmayne 1970; van Dijk 1992.

22          Geschiere 1982.

23          A few examples out of many: Melland 1967; Mackenzie 1925.

24    And, as I would personally add, at a time when Afrocentrism is becoming more and more an established intellectual stance; cf. Howe 1999; Berlinerblau 1999; Fauvelle-Aymar c.s. 1999. I contributed to the latter collection, and wrote reviews of the former two books in Politique Africaine (93, October 2000), and the Journal of African History (in press).

25          Fardon 1990.

26          Gellner 1989, 1963, 1969.

27          Breckenridge & Van der Veer 1993; van der Veer 1995, 1996.

28          Department of Cultural Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Free University, Amsterdam, 12 April 1996.

29          For a characterisation of African theology as a field of counter-hegemonic knowledge production (and thus by implication as a form of localisation in the academic globalisation process - much comparable to and overlapping with, African Philosophy writ large), see: Schoffeleers 1988.

30          These interpretations have been argued at length in: Van Binsbergen 1981.

31          Horton 1967; Horton 1993.

32          Van Binsbergen 1981: 195, 239.

33          No piece by Schoffeleers has reminded me more strongly, in method and theoretical framework, of the best work by Terence Ranger - for instance the latter's masterly short study of the witch-finder Tomo Nyirenda, also known as Mwana Lesa, a piece which, when I read it in draft in 1972, made a more profound impression on me than almost any contemporary scholarly text, provided me with a splendid model to emulate, and committed me overnight to the study of Central African religious history. Cf. Ranger 1975.

34          Geschiere 1995.

35          On this point, cf. Schoffeleers 1978; Van Binsbergen 1992

36          Cf. Van Binsbergen 1992; Van Binsbergen 1993; For a more general formulation of this theory of the state, with specific African applications, cf. Van Binsbergen, forthcoming.

37          Frobenius 1931.

38          Durkheim 1912; Otto 1917.

39          Cf. van Binsbergen 1981.

40          Cf. van Binsbergen 1985.

41          Cf. van Binsbergen & Wiggermann 1999.

42          It may pervade the discourse and practice of independent churches, e.g. the Botswana case of the Guta ra Mwari church: Van Binsbergen 1993.

43          Cf Toulabor's article on human sacrifice and contemporary African political leaders (Toulabor 2000).

44          Cf. Melland 1967..

45          Comaroff & Comaroff 1999.

46          Van Binsbergen 1992: 262f; 1981: 155f, 162f.

47          Sandbothe & Zimmerli 1994.

48          Cf. Van Dijk 1992

49          Van Dijk, in press.


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