Thursday, February 14, 2008
Of witches, witch-doctors and the disposal thereof
It may sound strange to Western ears, but belief in witchcraft, the power of witch-doctors and the traffic in muti (medicine, potions, call it what you will) conveying power or warding off evil is rampant across much of the globe.
I was reminded of this by a recent outcry in Sweden concerning plans by a music group to stage the burning of a witch as part of their act. Local womens groups are up in arms at the proposal. However, such acts are horrifyingly commonplace all over the world, even today - as are murders committed by alleged witches or witch-doctors. It amazes me how little people in the First World realize this.
To give some examples: today the BBC reports on efforts to persuade the King of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of a woman convicted of witchcraft by an Islamic court. I've just run a quick search on the IOL Web site with the keywords "witch killing" and found 51 reports from the past decade - on this one news site alone! It cites incidents in Nigeria, Tanzania, multiple cases in South Africa, Zaire and Malaysia, not to mention a spill-over case in London, England. Try it for yourself - click on any one of those links, type "witch killing" into the search box and spend a while looking through the results. Remember, this is one news site in one country. There are many, many more such reports.
I've personally witnessed this fixation on witch-doctors and witchcraft in many Third World countries. Even educated professionals with multiple university degrees are so indoctrinated about this from their youth that they can't shake it off. For example, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in South Africa is the biggest and most active on the African continent. It's up-to-date and thoroughly modern . . . but if you walk down Diagonal Street to reach it, you'll pass many "muti shops" where stockbrokers and traders will buy "medicine" to guarantee good fortune for the day's trading or bad luck to their competitors. Another example: white members of the South African national soccer team were dumbfounded in the 1990's to find that their (black) coach had put packets of muti into the toes of their football boots. They took them out - whereupon the black members of the team refused to play unless they put them back, because if only some of the team used the "medicine" their defeat was certain!
We have similar problems in the West, but we tend to ascribe them to psychological issues rather than witchcraft (for example the tragic case of Andrea Yates). Nevertheless, the outcome is the same. More credulous members of our society will fit right into the "witchcraft" idiom. You don't believe me? I have news for you, my friend. Go to New Orleans and look around the "voodoo" stores downtown - and the number of customers! Visit a local spiritualist center and check out the "seances". Look at the number of people around you who wouldn't think of letting a day go by without consulting their horoscope, or biorhythms, or some other fancy forecasting method, and conduct their lives accordingly. It's all BS, of course, but try to convince them of that!
We've got a long, long way to go before we can uproot ignorance and superstition from our society. I suppose the best way is still humor. I recall with glee the "Not The Nine O'Clock News" version of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches on the "blasted heath". The chief witch turns to Banquo and says to him, "Thou shalt not be King, but thou shalt be Royal."
His reply? (In a falsetto, gay voice) "Oh, I'm going to be Queen!"