Azande Witchcraft – by MJ Steel

Witchcraft might be a slight variation on ghosts and hauntings, but in this case, it offers a delicious introduction to how supernatural beliefs in other cultures can be at great variance with their counterparts in the West. So witchcraft it is!

E E Evans Pritchard
To begin with, a little background information on the Azande: they are an ethnic group found in Central Africa, primarily in what we could now call the Sudans, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic (thanks wikipedia – the textbooks are out of date!). Prior to colonisation by the Brits, they had a huge kingdom, which expanded via the conquest of smaller tribes. The society had a complex social structure, with regional chiefs who answered to a king. Much of this was wiped out by the impact of colonialism, although it suited the colonial Powers-that-be to maintain the chiefs in order to assert their authority, somewhere along the lines of puppet rulers. Another thing that the British colonists, try as they might, failed to wipe out, was the Zande belief in witchcraft.
The major anthropological work on the Azande was carried out by E.E Evans-Pritchard, who went out to study the group during the 1920’s. Among many of the significant areas arising from his work was the nature of witchcraft and magic beliefs among the Azande. His book on this area, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande was ground breaking in that it challenged how we viewed witchcraft in the West.
Traditional view of a witch in the West
Azande witch – ummm?
Now, when we think of witches, we generally think of old hags zipping about on broomsticks, or if we’re being a bit more enlightened, perhaps a Wiccan worshipping the Mother Earth. This isn’t quite the case amongst the Zande, as anyone could be a witch! Also, we might not see much difference between magic and witchcraft in the West, but there is a whole world of difference amongst the Azande. Witchcraft from the Azande perspective is unconscious – anyone can do it without realising. But magic has to be learned, and it can be used for nefarious deeds. During his fieldwork, Evans-Pritchard, lived among the Azande  and he sent out one of his servants, a local, to learn magic. Evans-Pritchard as a white European probably wouldn’t have been taught the ins and outs of Zande magic, whilst it wouldn’t be a problem for his servant. The servant reported back to Evans-Pritchard, allowing him to see how it all worked. Nowadays, this isn’t so much of a problem as anthropologists have since been initiated as Shamans, etc, by their host society or group. Zande witchcraft is a little more complex…
Witchcraft to the Azande is literally a substance found in the stomach. This is passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. Basically, if a man has a reputation for being a witch, then there is a chance his son might also be a witch, but not his daughter. And vice versa for women.  This substance can lie dormant in the belly, but can be ‘awoken’ by jealousy. And the ‘witch’ can be none the wiser to any of this because they don’t realise it’s them that’s causing it. It isn’t possible to simply point the finger and accuse someone of witchcraft because of this, you need to be sure. It takes a bit of investigation. And to do this, the Azande have at their disposal a series of three oracles.
Termite mound in a Zande garden
Let’s take the example of an Azande man who has two wives (the Azande are polygamous).  The wives are ranked by seniority in order of when they married their husband. Suddenly, the older wife becomes unwell. The husband immediately suspects witchcraft as being the cause of this, and he accuses the younger wife as being the cause of this because she is jealous. She will deny it – she isn’t even jealous of the older woman. So now the husband has to find out for definite if it is his younger wife. Time to bring in oracle one, the termite sticks. This is one the husband can do himself.
The husband takes two sticks, asks them if his younger wife is the cause of his first wife’s sickness. Each stick indicates yes or no. Both are placed inside the termite mound and left for a period of time while the termites eat them. Later on, he removes the sticks. The one which the termites have eaten the most give his answer – i.e. it might be the stick indicating no that is the shortest. But this oracle isn’t seen as reliable, so it’s time to bring in oracle number two, the rubbing board, or iwa. This isn’t something the husband can’t do himself and he needs to pay someone to do it for him.
Consulting the Iwa oracle
The rubbing board
The rubbing board basically consists of two boards which are rubbed together. If the board sticks at being asked if the younger wife is the witch, it gives the answer. Like the termite sticks, this is a simple yes and no question.  However! Although the iwa  is seen as more reliable than the termite sticks, it’s still not that reliable. The husband needs to know for sure and get a definite answer. So it’s time to move onto the third and most potent oracle, Benge, or the poison oracle. For this, a witchdoctor is required. And he needs to be paid – he doesn’t come cheap.
Consulting the Benge oracle
Put simply, Benge consists of strychnine being poured down a chicken’s throat, using more than one chicken. To give an idea of how important this oracle is, it can be used in front of a chief to establish a point of law, although it’s use has been decreasing since colonisation. Whether the chicken lives or dies gives the answer to a yes and no question. In this instance, is the second wife a witch? The oracle is asked a more specific question as more chickens get used (about three chickens), for example, is the second wife causing the first wife to be ill? The more the answers swing to a certain the response, the more definite that answer is. So let’s say that this oracle says the second wife is a witch and is causing the first wife to be ill. The younger wife is confronted by the evidence, which she can’t deny. Now she has to cool her witchcraft. She does this by drinking water and spitting it out. The first wife should now get better.
Now, you might be reading this thinking, what a load of nonsense! But think again. Azande witchcraft is significant in anthropology as another system of knowledge and understanding. Primarily it is seen as a way of explaining misfortune. The famous example given in anthropology is the group of Azande men sitting in the shelter of a granary on a hot day to eat their lunch. The granary collapses on top of them. If this happened to a group of men in the West, say the US, they would probably say it was termites in the ground which ate the granary supports, causing it to collapse. Not so the Azande men. They will blame it on witchcraft and not see it any other way.
Collapsed granary – termites or witchcraft – you decide!
In this sense, witchcraft acts as a form of social control. People in an Azande neighbourhood will act in a certain way which won’t cause another person to be jealous of them and attract witchcraft. Conversely, people will also behave so as not to appear jealous and be accused of witchcraft. It has been found to be very pervasive in Azande culture. In fact, witchcraft as a whole plays a major role in general in African societies today.
Other sources to check out for more information:
Ethnographic film (anthropology film) Witchcraft Among The Azande (1982) – it is very good, I saw it at university. Though you’d need to be an academic, or extremely well off to get a copy! This just details the Royal Anthropological Institute record of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s