There was a time when monsters, magic, and demons were very real to us. In many societies there was once a time when these were normal features of the landscape, powers beyond our control or understanding that kept us cowering in darkeness in our homes. With the advent of science and enlightenment, much of civilization was able to chase away these shadows, to dispel the monsters that had plagued us for so long. Yet, in some societies on this planet such beliefs stubbornly persist to this day. Among these are many places in Africa, where black magic, witches, spirits, and demons are still considered to be very real.
Witchcraft and black magic have long been entrenched in the lore of many African countries, and in many rural areas it is considered a fact of life that witches and sorcerers live amongst us. The range of powers and effects these witches and warlocks have varies from country to country, but generally speaking they are said to be responsible for sickness, famine, and death, and myriad other misfortune, able to curse those who have crossed them and said to engage in all manner of blasphemous, degenerate behavior, and to practice incest and other perversions. It is said that mutilated bodies are often found in Africa, with their organs removed presumably for use in magic charms for witch’s spells, and some will even sell these charms for a price. Many of these supposed witches are said to be unaware of what they are even doing, more driven by irrepressible urges to act malevolently or under the influence of evil spirits. Many will go to witches to cure diseases, or to obtain love spells or charms, but witches here are typically seen as malignant and evil. In most African countries it is largely women, the elderly, and children who are accused of being witches, and albinos are often targeted as well, and to be accused of being a witch is very serious business in these regions, leading to imprisonment, torture, violent exorcisms, lynching, and executions. Here we will take a journey through the darkest underbelly of Africa, populated by witches and sorcerers, black magic, evil spirits, and death.
Nigeria, Africa’s richest and most populous country, is often thought of as the continent's most progressive and modernized place, but belief in black magic and sorcery is strong here. One trend that has caught on among young boys and men is seeking witch doctors to carry out a money ritual that will allow them to get rich quick, and they will reportedly carry out pretty much any demand the witch doctor asks. Cases have been reported of these young people performing profane acts in the street, stealing, or even killing family members. One case involved a man beheading his girlfriend in order to carry out the money ritual. An even bigger problem seems to be children and babies branded as evil or possessed by evil forces, resulting in them being abused, abandoned, tortured, and even murdered. It has been estimated that 15,000 children in the Niger Delta alone have been forced on the streets by witchcraft accusations, and one of the driving forces behind this are various Pentecostal pastors who have made a concoction of a mix of African witchcraft beliefs and their brand of Christianity, and used that to claim to be able to seek out these evil children and either have them cast out or killed, or charge exorbitant amounts from the parents to carry out exorcisms, which are usually violent and can include incarceration, starvation, being made to drink hazardous substances or even being set on fire with gasoline.
One of the most notorious of these is Helen Ukpabio, who is the founder and head of African Evangelical franchise Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries based in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria, and who is largely blamed for the widespread persecution and harassment of children her ministry has deemed as evil. Her organization claims that Satan and other evil spirits have the ability to possess children and mind control them to make them their servants, and she has become a real concern for humanitarian groups because her ministry has expanded exponentially in recent years. She also produces films on the subject of demonic possession of children through her film company Liberty Films, expanding her venomous preaching even further. Many of these films incite fear by using lurid scenes depicting demon kids running amok, killing their parents and neighbors and eating their flesh or drinking their blood. Ukpabio has been accused of singlehandedly creating a massive upsurge in violence against children and cases of children being abandoned, beaten, abused, and stigmatized by their parents, and she has vehemently resisted all efforts to stop her activities, such as a conference against her in 2009, which was descended upon by her followers to devolve into violence.
Another major African country plagued by witchcraft and sorcery is Tanzania, which has deep roots in superstition and where some 60% of the population believes sacrifices to spirits or ancestors can protect them from harm. Indeed, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public life conducted 25,000 face-to-face interviews in 19 African nations and found that among them, Tanzanians hold the strongest belief in witchcraft. Tanzania is especially well known for the belief that the body parts of albinos can be used for all manner of spells and can bring in great wealth. This has resulted in many of those suffering from albinism to flee their homes or face discrimination, and it is not uncommon to find the mutilated bodies of albinos, their limbs hacked off and organs brutally cut out.
Tanzanians also put a great amount of faith in magical healers, with many eschewing actual real medical attention in favor of witch doctors, who are said to be able to magically heal all manner of diseases and afflictions for the right price. Almost all of this sickness is believed to have been caused by a malevolent witch in the first place, and often the “cure” involves breaking the spell or finding the witch who cast the curse. Anthropologist Steve Rasmussen, who spent decades living in Tanzania, has said of this strong belief:
My bishop, John Mwanzalima, told me that every time someone gets seriously sick or dies, people assume someone has caused it. So the next question is, “Who did it? Who is the witch?” People consider who had a relational problem with the victim: Was there envy, anger, or a statement like “you will see!” that could have been a threat? Ancestors or other spirits may also be involved. Possibly their descendent did not honor them so they are punishing or withdrawing protection—thus allowing witches to attack. A Christian version is that sin in a person’s life removed them from God’s protection so that the witch could harm them.
Normally a person would go to a local healer (mganga wa kinyeji) to find the answer to the question of who caused sickness, death, and how to heal or protect oneself from them. Likewise, one could go to a mganga to get wealth or success. A much less frequent, but increasing possibility is that when one is prayed for by a Christian for healing or success, they might prophecy that a witch has caused your problem or agree with your suspicions. Every Tanzanian I talked to knew witches could cause harm through invisible means. The more I listened, the more I realized that they had good evidence for their beliefs. They had heard many stories told to them by parents and others they respected. Everyone in their community operated from the same worldview. They had personal experiences they felt were irrefutable.
Of course, this belief has led to a lot of persecution towards anyone who is even suspected of being a witch, which can result in discrimination, imprisonment, banishment, or worse. Rasmussen says of it:
An elderly man told how he had been accused and people refused to let him go to a funeral and stoned his house, but he confronted them and stayed in the community. One elderly Catholic woman told of being fined a cow for supposedly killing a nephew. A pastor’s wife for 50 years told how police barely rescued her from being killed as a suspected witch a couple months before. They put her in jail and she left the next day. She has had to move from her home and village. A Pentecostal church member told of being chased from town and having her house burned down by her nephew. Although the family resolved this issue years ago, people in the village still refuse to greet her and people in her church will not sit on the same bench with her. Her pastor told me that he believes she is still a witch. His own former pastor from this village told him that he doubted this claim because the reputation of the trouble-making nephew was worse. So the elderly, widows, orphans, and the poorest are neglected, beaten, chased from their villages and have their property taken. In fact, ten times a week someone is killed as a suspected witch in Tanzania.
Other African countries also believe that children can be evil vessels of demons. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is strong belief in what is called Kindoki, which is a kind of witchcraft or possession by evil spirits usually afflicting children. Children who are thought to be possessed by kindoki are subjected to intense and violent exorcisms that include beatings, starvation, and submersion in water, and it is estimated that 60% of the 25,000 homeless children living on the streets of the capital city were expelled from their homes over fears that they were possessed, and an estimated 50,000 children are kept in churches for exorcisms. In the country of Ethiopia, children born with birth defects are thought to exert an evil influence upon others, resulting in deformed infants being killed outright or children found with birth defects left in the wilderness alone to die. It is not only birth defects either, as other supposed marks of evil include being born out of wedlock, the birth of twins, the eruption of teeth in the upper jaw before the lower jaw, and chipping a tooth in childhood. Also, in Sierra Leon children and babies who survived the ebola epidemic are often accused of witchcraft, and the only way to stop this is through a process of “witch cleansing,” which is sort of like an exorcism for babies. In Uganda, rather than being accused of being witches, they are sometimes abducted by witch doctors in order to become human sacrifices to spirits that refuse to be appeased by the normal offerings of goats or chickens, with certain organs and body parts sometimes removed to make potions.
Even in African countries that are seen as relatively developed and modernized, such as Kenya and Ghana, there is a shockingly widespread belief in sorcery and witchcraft, and people are often accused of being witches, persecuted and murdered, especially children and the elderly. In Ghana it is so sad that there are even “witch villages” that suspected witches can flee to for safety, and major construction projects will often be halted in order for a witch doctor to remove spirits from a cursed tree or rock in the way. Anthropologist Helmut Danner gives an example of this:
One example happened in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, in the 1960s. On a large construction site, all trees were cut down. But one tree could not be removed, even with heavy machinery. The African foreman declared that a ghost was living in the tree, which would have to leave before the tree could be cut down. A traditional priest was called, who asked for three sheep and three bottles of gin to offer to the ghost, and some money for himself. The blood of the sheep and the gin were poured onto the ground around the tree. Then the sorcerer became a medium, spoke with the ghost and convinced him of moving to a better tree. Afterwards, neither bulldozer nor tractor was needed. African workers easily uprooted the tree with their bare hands.
There was also the case of a 72-year-old woman who was burned to death in Ghana by six people because they suspected her of being a witch, and, well let me see if I’m reading this right, “falling from the sky and under a tree because she ran out of witch flying gas.” In Kenya there has been a spate of killings of elderly women accused of being witches, such as the brutal lynching and murder of four suspected witches in 2021, and “witch burnings” are common, where a suspected witch will be set on fire on the street and left to flail about and burn as people look on and do nothing to help, and those responsible for these horrendous acts almost always go unpunished. Even politicians get in on the act, such as in Gambia, where in 2009 faith healer turned dictator Yahya Jammeh had 1,000 people accused of being witches or sorcerers locked away in government detention centers and forced to drink a hallucinogenic potion to exorcise the evil spirits supposedly possessing bodies and minds, resulting in at least 6 deaths.
Sadly, this is a common fact in many other parts of Africa, to the point that many humanitarian organizations are alarmed. Indeed, according to one estimate, between 1991 and 2001 alone around 22,500 Africans are said to have been lynched on the grounds of purportedly practicing witchcraft or sorcery. Of course many of these crimes are no doubt carried out for other selfish reasons and are merely using witchcraft as a pretense to take out a rival or someone who is disliked, but it is rather shocking that there is so much talk of witchcraft and so many people dying because of it in the modern world and in many cases in fairly developed countries. To think that this is going on in the modern era is rather amazing, but these beliefs are deeply entrenched in these societies, they have never left the days when we cowered in the dark afraid of the unknown and the monsters prowling about out there, and as long as they remain there this will go on.