Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Sorcery in the Era of 'Henry IV': Kinship, Mobility and Mortality in Buhera District, Zimbabwe

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Sorcery in the Era of 'Henry IV': Kinship, Mobility and Mortality in Buhera District, Zimbabwe

Article excerpt

 
Tinovengana                We hate each other 
tinoroyana                 we bewitch each other 
tinorevana                 we gossip about each other 
ndizvo tichi urayana       that makes us kill each other 
ndizvo saka tiri varombo!  that's why we are poor! (1) 

The striking feature of this fatalistic statement is the acknowledgement that entanglement in witchcraft is a sheer waste of resources. This is at odds with situations that have recently been documented elsewhere in Africa. Geschiere (1997), Niehaus (1993), and Yamba (1997), for instance, have described social situations in which witchcraft is an all-powerful and inescapable discourse that dominates the mind of actors. This article presents a case-study in which local actors contest the interpretation and narratives of the domain of witchcraft, and challenge its applicability. In the Murambinda headmanship in Save Communal Area, Zimbabwe, witchcraft is important, but not a factor determining social practice.

In the symbolic thought of Shona-speaking peoples, witchcraft and sorcery are known as uroyi. (2) Uroyi is intimately related to people's understandings of 'life forces' - i.e. fertility, sex, disease, and death. In this respect it is similar to situations elsewhere in Africa. The analysis presented here is also similar to anthropological approaches that have viewed the witchcraft discourse as a device to attribute meaning in situations of existential insecurity (Douglas 1970; Evans-Pritchard 1937; Yamba 1997: 203). In the Murambinda area, these insecurities are all too real. Many people are confronted with HIV/AIDS-related illnesses and deaths -- euphemistically called 'Henry IV' (HIV). (3) In contrast to other studies, this article emphasizes the profane rather than the sacred in the study of witchcraft (see Durkheim 1976: 37). It analyses the discourse on witchcraft as a symbolic language that people use to deal with tensions and insecurities arising from particular social practices. It looks at the disco urse -- which simultaneously may be deployed instrumentally in a political sense -- as a device to give meaning to social practices. Such a profane way of looking at witchcraft in times of high HIV/AIDS prevalence requires that attention be paid to the social -- rather than the bio-medical or transcendental -- nature of knowledge. Furthermore, focusing on the social practices related to witchcraft enables us to understand how witchcraft is given a place relative to other social phenomena, rather than seeing it as encapsulating the whole of social life.

Witchcraft has long been associated with tensions among people living in relatively closed communities (Aquina 1968; Marwick 1965). Such a restricted arena of social conduct does not exist in the Murambinda area, which, as far back as the early colonial period, was already incorporated into wider networks of economic exchange, notably migrant labour networks (Andersson 2002). To understand how people become entangled in witchcraft, one needs to appreciate the centrality of kinship in the social organization of these networks that span rural and urban areas (Andersson 2001). They constitute people's major source of social security. The pivotal importance of rural-urban connections in this society's organization goes hand in hand with a persistent identification with the rural home area. Typically, an urban career ends with a return to the land and, if possible, with the occupation of a position in the lineage-based leadership structure (Andersson 1999: 554-5). The sick and dying also seek to return to their r ural home areas whenever possible. To be buried among one's own ancestors is a strongly felt desire. Kinship solidarity is perceived as automatic and natural in this social universe of circulatory migration and identification with ancestral land. Understandably, then, contravention of this solidarity constitutes a major source of existential insecurity. …

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