The Father as Witch

By Colson, Elizabeth | Africa, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Father as Witch


Colson, Elizabeth, Africa


Economic and social forces that play upon household and kin dynamics exacerbate tensions and hostilities among associates, who become suspected of both causing and benefiting from the misery of others. How this is conceptualised depends upon previously existing views of human nature and its potential. The West gives credence to satanic cults whose members sacrifice children and to so-called recovered memories of childhood abuse (Kohn, 1994; La Fontaine, 1998). In Zambia evil is embodied in the person of the witch.

Long ago Monica Wilson, in a comparison of the locus of witchcraft accusations among Mpondo and Nyakyusa, demonstrated that accusations reflect patterns of residence and animosities stemming from the exercise of power and the differential distribution of benefits derived from property and labour (1951: 163). This is in line with Evans-Pritchard's finding (1937: 109) that resentment, fear and envy underwrite the truth of a diviner's diagnosis of the source of evil. An acceptable diagnosis must be plausible to those aggrieved, and plausibility derives from the emotional charge of the relationship. When the focus of accusations shifts, something has happened in the field of relationships that makes the belief plausible that this person, not that, is causing misery, and it must be plausible to both sufferer and supporters.

In recent years such a shift in focus has occurred among Tonga-speakers in Gwembe Valley in the Southern Province of Zambia. Since the 1980s they have increasingly named their own fathers whereas in previous decades the plausible witch was usually sought among other male kin.

In this article I deal with the increased salience of witchcraft accusations and attribution to witches of new forms of power and modes of action as well as with the shift in focus of accusation. Increased salience and changing concepts of a witch's powers reflect the interplay between Gwembe life and the macro-system and are explicable by theories that interpret witchcraft beliefs and accusations as precipitates of the power relations of post-colonial systems (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993; Fisiy and Geschiere, 1996; Geschiere, 1997b). To understand why the Gwembe father has become suspect, local knowledge is essential.

Data are drawn from research among Plateau Tonga (1946-47 and 1948-60, when I also spent a month in Gwembe Valley) and from the longitudinal study of Tonga-speakers in Gwembe Valley initiated in 1956 by Thayer Scudder and myself (Scudder and Colson, 1977). One or both of us visited Gwembe at approximately three-year intervals between 1956 and 1998. Others involved in the study include Jonathan Habarad (1987-88) and Samuel Clark, Rhonda Gillett-Netting and Lisa Cligget, who began to assume responsibility for the study in the 1990s. We have intensive coverage of villages in four neighbourhoods, two in Gwembe North, one in Gwembe Central and one in Gwembe South. On these we have both censuses and a large corpus of field notes supplemented since the 1980s by diaries kept by village assistants. Since 1995 the former Gwembe District has been subdivided into Siavonga, Gwembe and Sinazongwe Districts, but here I continue to refer to these divisions as Gwembe North, Gwembe Central and Gwembe South.

THE PREVALENCE OF WITCHES

The Tonga term bulozi covers covert action by human beings that cause misfortune. Formerly I translated it as `sorcery'; here I use `witchcraft', following the usage of English-speaking Tonga, a usage also preferred by Mbiti (1990: 197) and Magesa (1997: 68).

Fears of witchcraft have varied over the years since 1956. Immediately after 1958, when the Kariba Dam flooded much of Gwembe Tonga territory and forced the resettlement of the majority of those living in Zambia, people attributed illness, death and other misery to the Europeans who had built the dam, flooded their land and thrown them away into the bush to die like animals (Colson, 1972). …

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