free web hosting | website hosting | Business Hosting Services | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting
Notes to:

Witchcraft in modern Africa as virtualised boundary conditions of the kinship order

  Wim van Binsbergen

© 1999 Wim van Binsbergen

go to homepage | go to main text

* Wim van Binsbergen (1947) is Chair of the Theme group on Globalisation and Socio-Cultural Transformations, African Studies Centre, Leiden University, and Professor of Foundations of Intercultural Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy, Erasmus University, Rotterdam. From 1990-1998 he was Professor of Ethnicity and Ideology in Third World Development, Free University, Amsterdam. From 1990-1993 he was President of the Netherlands African Studies Association, and he is currently President of the Dutch/ Flemish Association for Intercultural Philosophy. He is a member of the Kwame/ Legwana Traditional Association, Botswana, and in virtue of this a licensed traditional healer (sangoma diviner-priest), whose practice has often extended to witchcraft cases.

This paper is a substantially expanded and revised version of a chapter from: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, Virtuality as a key concept in the study of globalisation: Aspects of the symbolic transformation of contemporary Africa, The Hague: WOTRO, integral version also available on . 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 Which however brought us the seminal: Hallen, B., & Sodipo, O., 1986, Knowledge, belief and witchcraft: Analytical experiments in African philosophy, London: Ethnographica.

3 Extensive references to the contemporary and earlier literature on African witchcraft will be inserted in a later version of this paper.

4 Winch, P., 1970, The idea of a social science, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, first published 1958; Anderson, R.J., Hughes, J.A, & Sharrock, W.W., 1986, Philosophy and the human sciences, London: Routledge, pp. 177ff.

5 Lepore, E., 1993, ‘Principle of charity’, in: Dancy, J., & E. Sosa, eds., A companion to epistemology, Oxford/ Cambridge (Mass.): Blackwell’s, first published 1992, pp. 365-366; Davidson, D., 1984, ‘Belief and the basis of meaning’, in his: Inquiries into truth and interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6 van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & P.L. Geschiere, 1985, ed., Old Modes of Production and Capitalist Encroachment, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International; van Binsbergen, W.M.J. & Schoffeleers, J.M., (eds.), 1985, Theoretical explorations in African religion, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International.

7 Geschiere, P.L., 1995, Sorcellerie et politique en Afrique: La viande des autres, Paris: Karthala, series Les Afriques, now available in English as: Geschiere, P., 1997, The modernity of witchcraft: Politics and the occult in postcolonial Africa, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. Schoffeleers, M., 1996, ‘The healer Billy Goodson Chisupe and the post-Banda crisis of expectations in Malawi’, in: Antropologie als passie: Studiedag ter gelegenheid van het afscheid van Ineke van Wetering, Amsterdam: Vakgroep Culturele Antropologie/ Sociologie der Niet-Westerse Samenlevingen, Vrije Universiteit, pp. 51-74.

8 Geschiere, Sorcellerie; also cf. Geschiere, P., 1996, ‘Witchcraft, modernity and the art of getting rich: Regional variations in South and West Cameroon, paper read at the conference ‘Globalisation and the construction of communal identities’, Amsterdam, 29 February — 3 March 1996, now in: B. Meyer & P. Geschiere, Globalization and identity: Dialectics of flows and closures, special issue, Development and Change, 29, 4, October 1998, pp. 811-837.

9 On virtuality, cf. Jules-Rosette, B., 1990, Terminal signs: Computers and social change in Africa, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter; Jules-Rosette, B., 1996, ‘What money can’t buy: Zairian popular culture and symbolic ambivalence toward modernity’, paper presented at the international conference on: ‘L’Argent: feuille morte: L’Afrique Central avant et aprčs le desenchantement de la modernité’, Louvain, June 21-22, 1996; Korff, R., 1995, ‘The urban revolution: Civilisation in the concrete jungle?’, paper read at the EIDOS (European Interuniversity Development Opportunities Study network) conference on ‘Globalization and decivilization’, Wageningen, The Netherlands, 14-16 December 1995; Rheingold, H., 1993, The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier, New York: Addison Wesley; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1998, ‘Globalization and virtuality: Analytical problems posed by the contemporary transformation of African societies’, in: B. Meyer & P. Geschiere, 1998, Globalization and identity: Dialectics of flows and closures, special issue, Development and Change, 29, 4, October 1998, pp. 873-903; Rheingold, H., 1991, Virtual reality, London: Secker & Warburg; van Binsbergen, Virtuality, 1997, o.c.; Woolley, B., 1992, Virtual worlds, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

10 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; cf. Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. , 1991, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, Paris: Minuit, pp. 111f; Guattari, F., Chaosmosis: An ethico-aesthetic paradigm, tr. Bains, P., & Pefanis, J., Sydney: Power Publications, originally: Chaosmose, Paris: Galilée, 1992, pp. 24f. Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘De ondergang van het westerse subject: Félix Guattari en de culturele antropologie’, in: Oosterling, H.A.F., & Thissen, S., eds., Chaos ex machina: Het ecosofich werk van Félix Guattari op de kaart gezet, Rotterdam: Faculteit Wijsbegeerte Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, pp. 73-86, 149-150; and the more extensive article: ‘Felix Guattari, culturele antropologie en het einde van het westers subject’, on: .

11 van Binsbergen, Virtuality, o.c.; ‘Globalization and virtuality’, o.c.

12 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. Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Rethinking Africa’s contribution to global cultural history: Lessons from a comparative historical analysis of mankala board-games and geomantic divination’, in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97, pp. 221-254; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., forthcoming, Global Bee Flight : Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World — Beyond the Black Athena thesis.

13 Turner, V.W., 1968, Schism and continuity in an African society: A study of Ndembu village life, Manchester: University of Manchester, repr. of the 1957 edition; van Velsen, J., 1971, The politics of kinship: A study of social manipulation among the Lakeside Tonga of Malawi, Manchester: Manchester University Press, reprint of the 1964 edition.

14 Ranger, T.O. & Kimambo, I., eds, 1972, The historical study of African religion, London: Heinemann; Ranger, T.O., 1972, ‘Mcape’, paper read at the ‘Conference on the History of Central African Religious Systems’, University of Zambia/ University of California Los Angeles, Lusaka; Ranger, T.O., 1975, ‘The Mwana Lesa movement of 1925’, in: Ranger, T.O., & Weller, J., eds., Themes in the Christian history of Central Africa, London etc.: Heinemann, pp. 45-75; Fields, K.E., 1985, Revival and rebellion in colonial Central Africa, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Bond, G.C., 1976, The politics of change in a Zambian community, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Bond, G.C., 1979, ‘A prophecy that failed: The Lumpa church of Uyombe, Zambia’, in: G.C. Bond, Johnson, W., & Walker, S.S., eds., African Christianity: Patterns of religious continuity, London/New York: Academic Press, pp. 137-167; Schoffeleers, J.M., 1979, ed., Guardians of the Land: Essays on African territorial cults, Gwelo: Mambo Press; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1981, Religious Change in Zambia: Exploratory studies, London/ Boston: Kegan Paul International; and extensive references cited in these works.

15 Hobsbawm, E., & Ranger, T.O., 1983, eds, The invention of tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Vail, L., 1989, ‘Ethnicity in Southern African history’, in: Vail, L., ed., The creation of tribalism in Southern Africa, Londen/ Berkeley & Los Angeles: Currey/ University of California Press, pp. 1-19.

16 Cf. Probst, P., 1996, ‘Mchape ’95, or the sudden fame of Billy Goodson Chisupe: An essay on the politics of time and remembering in postcolonial Malawi’, paper presented at the 12th Satterthwaite Colloquium on African Religion & Ritual, 13-16 April, 1996. I am grateful to my colleague Rijk van Dijk for an extensive comment on this section.

17 Schoffeleers, J.M., 1992, River of blood: The genesis of a martyr cult in southern Malawi, Madison: Wisconsin University Press; Guardians, o.c.; and other studies cited there.

18 Redmayne, A., 1970, ‘Chikanga: An African diviner with an international reputation’, in: Douglas, M., ed., Witchcraft confessions and accusations, London: Tavistock, pp. 103-128; Ranger, ‘Mcape’, o.c.; van Dijk, R., 1992, Young Malawian puritans: Young Puritan preachers in a present-day African urban environment, Utrecht: ISOR (Ph.D. thesis, University of Utrecht) and extensive references cited there.

19 Geschiere, P., 1982, Village communities and the state, London: Kegan Paul International.

20 A few examples out of many: Melland, F.H., 1967, In witchbound Africa, London: Cass; reprint of 1923 edition, London: Seeley & Service; Mackenzie, D.R., 1925, The spirit-ridden Konde: A record of the interesting but steadily vanishing customs & ideas gathered during twenty-four years’ residence amongst these shy inhabitants of the Lake Nyasa region, from witch-doctors, diviners, hunters, fishers & every native source, London: Seeley, Service & Co.

21 Fardon, R., 1990, ed., Localizing strategies: Regional traditions of ethnographic writing, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

22 In his oral presentation at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Free University, Amsterdam, 12 April 1996, 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. 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, J.M., 1988, ‘Theological styles and revolutionary elan: An African discussion’, in Quarles van Ufford, P., & Schoffeleers, J.M., 1988, eds., Religion and development: Towards an integrated approach, Amsterdam: Free University Press, pp. 185-208.

23 These interpretations have been argued at length in: van Binsbergen, Religious change, o.c.

24 Horton, R., 1967, ‘African traditional thought and western science’, part 1, Africa, 37, 1: 50-71; part 2, Africa, 37, 2: 155-187; Horton, R., 1971, ‘African conversion’, Africa, 41 : 85-108.

25 Van Binsbergen, Religious change, o.c., pp. 195, 239.

26 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, ‘The Mwana Lesa movement’, o.c.

27 Geschiere, Sorcellerie, o.c.

28 On this point, cf. Schoffeleers, Guardians, o.c.

29 Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1992, Tears of Rain: Ethnicity and history in central western Zambia, London/Boston: Kegan Paul International; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1993, ‘ ‘‘ Geef hem dan maar aan de krokodillen’’: Staatsvorming, geweld en culturele discontinuďteit in voor-koloniaal Zuidelijk Centraal Afrika’, contribution to a special issue on state formation, guest editors H. Dahles & A. Trouwborst, Antropologische Verkenningen, 12, 4: 10-31, 1993; English version: ‘ ‘‘Then give him to the crocodiles’’: State formation, violence and cultural discontinuity in pre-colonial South Central Africa’, forthcoming in Africa. For a more general formulation of this theory of the state, with specific African applications, cf. van Binsbergen, Global Bee Flight, o.c.

30 Frobenius, L., 1931, Erythräa: Länder und Zeiten des heiligen Königsmordes, Berlin/ Zürich: Atlantis-Verlag.

31 Durkheim, E., 1912, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Paris: Presses Universities de France; Otto, R., 1917, Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen, Munich: Beck. 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 the going out of fashion, the theory of the articulation of modes of production may yet considerably illuminate African sorcery beliefs and practices (cf. my Religious change, o.c.) -- as it has been argued to illuminate African ethnicity(cf. my ‘From tribe to ethnicity in South Central Africa’, in: Old modes of production, o.c.). 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; cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & Wiggermann, F.A.M., in press, ‘Magic in history: A theoretical perspective and its application to Ancient Mesopotamia’, in: T. Abusch & K. van der Toorn, eds., Magic in the Ancient Near East, Groningen: Styx; also available on the present website: . Because these 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.

32 It may pervade the discourse and practice of independent churches, e.g. the Botswana case of the Guta ra Mwari church: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1993, ‘African Independent churches and the state in Botswana’, in: M. Bax & A. de Koster, eds., Power and prayer: Essays on Religion and politics, CentREPOL-VU Studies 2, Amsterdam: VU University Press, pp. 24-56.

33 Cf. Melland, In witchbound Africa, o.c.

34 Van Binsbergen, Tears, o.c., pp. 262f; Religious Change, o.c., pp. 155f, 162f.

35 Cf. van Binsbergen, Virtuality, o.c..

36 Sandbothe, M., & Zimmerli, W.C., 1994, eds., Zeit-Medien-Wahrnehmung, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

37 Cf. Van Dijk, Young Malawian puritans, o.c.

38 Van Dijk, R., in press, ‘Fundamentalism, gerontocratic rule, and democratisation in Malawi: The changing position of the young in political culture’, in: Haynes, J., ed., Religion, globalisation, and political culture in the third world, London: Routledge).

go to homepage | go to main text | write to me at: