Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Witchcraft and the Avoidance of Physical Violence in Cameroon

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Witchcraft and the Avoidance of Physical Violence in Cameroon

Article excerpt

The origin of evil can be postulated to lie in the ego, in the other, or in a third party. The first of these deals with guilt, morality and religion; the second, with persecution and witchcraft; and the third with the fate and mischance underlying tragedy Inasmuch as Western society has promoted an ideal of the unity of personality and self-government, Westerners are very familiar with the first conception of evil centred on the ego and guilt. They can easily accept the third conception too, since it can be considered neutral. However, Westerners are opposed to the second postulate, which seemingly involves uncontrollable matter and irrational, almost delirious, beliefs, such as witches who transform themselves into animals and commit crime from afar.

Evans-Pritchard has shown that beliefs about witchcraft are linked with misfortune, jealousy and rivalry, and that these beliefs can be regarded as an expression of conflicts (1937: 77-117). Favret-Saada has insisted on the fact that the violence of witchcraft disputes, which is transmitted by words, is mainly psychological. Although the relationship between antagonists is broken, they are both still wholly implicated in the matter (1977: 33). Middleton and Winter (1963: 17) and Rosny (1981: 362) have suggested that conflicts involving witchcraft are physically less violent than other disputes. This article seeks to address this point through a consideration of the Bangoua who live in one of the Bamileke chiefdoms in central Cameroon. In order to follow the argument, one must bear in mind that witchcraft and politics are completely separate in Bangoua, whereas they are associated in the acephalous societies of southern Cameroon described by Rowlands and Warnier (1988: 122). This means that, on the one hand, the chief of Bangoua is outside the sphere of witchcraft and that, on the other, witchcraft is always an evil power which humanity can never domesticate. Since witchcraft is uncontrollable, the ego's autonomy cannot be regarded as a determining factor. I shall argue, therefore, that the conflicts involving witchcraft are linked to a conception of personality in Bangoua, which is different from the unified personality in the West. I will show that the divided personality, so well known among the Bangoua, implicitly resonates with Lacan's notion of the 'split subject' of discourse (Lacan 1966: 819). The inversion of the social order as implied in the 'unruly evil' of witchcraft (Pocock 1985: 47) parallels a grammatical inversion in discourse as when, for example, the subject becomes object or the eater is eaten.

Bamileke country

The Bamileke live on a series of plateaus at an altitude of some 1200 m. This country has a pleasant tropical climate, which neutralizes diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness and bilharzia. Moreover, since these mountains are located between the forest and the grassfields, and since the land is rich, the Bamileke cultivate maize and groundnuts as in the north of Cameroon, as well as bananas and cocoyams as in the south. These exceptional environmental conditions have sustained the growth of a population with densities as high as 200 inhabitants per [km.sup.2]. The population is divided among one hundred chiefdoms; this article focuses on the chiefdom of Bangoua, where I did two and a half years of fieldwork spread out between 1972 and 1985. This chiefdom is average-sized; it has 5,000 inhabitants with a density of 75 inhabitants per [km.sup.2].

With such a dense population, land is scarce. Patrilineages are split up into small compounds where a man, his wives and young children live and cultivate their farm. Daughters go to live in their husbands' compounds when they marry, and married sons must find new plots on which to settle their families. A man's goods and domestic animals are inherited after his death by only one of his sons.

The compounds are bounded by hedges and arranged in a bocage which slopes down from grassy hill tops to the rivers flowing through the forest below. …

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