December 12, 2003
Anthropology of Religion
Are there any conditions under which it could be justifiable to punish a witch? If yes, what are those conditions, what might be appropriate punishment, and what assumptions are you making to support this position? If no, why not?
Yes. A witch should be punished when he or she does not admit to be a witch.
Throughout our readings in Moore and Sanders, we have come to see how closely the rise of witchcraft accusations relates to the postcolonial penetration of the global economy in African societies.
Witchcraft may erupt as a reaction to new riches and new inequalities fostered by SAPs – people who rise quickly in wealth may be suspected of witchcraft and accused. Materially it may as a parallel be the case that the new riches are unfairly profiting from corrupt politicians. But accusing the new wealthy of corruption often triggers back an accusation of jealousy and the incitation to become rich through the new means – by working hard and becoming “self-made men”.
While it is hard to criticize new riches on political grounds, it is much easier to accuse them of witchcraft, because there is no guaranteed way of rebutting such charges. Nyamnjoh has already pointed out that leaving open the possibility of witchcraft accusation creates a whole new dynamics of power that will coerce the riches into more socially responsible behavior (Nyamnjoh 43).
The problem with witchcraft is that it is a multivocalic symbol; it may be used as a tool of social control, but it works both ways – as resistance and oppression. The economically privileged may hold witchcraft accusations against those rising in power or those menacing to set up organized resistance to exploitation. From the perspective of those taking part in popular witchcraft trials, these differences are often hard to tell. A chief or some sort of spiritual authority often settles the matter, but then it is a matter of buying these key people in power in order to escape immune to witchcraft accusations. People actively commodify witchcraft (Parish 133), and the witchcraft pursuit system itself may not be an exception.
This is the point where state intervention is required. Witches should be punished, not because they have really done any wrong (they may or may not), nor because punishment constitutes a reparation to the wrong, but because formal punishment permits the regulation of measures and prevents the search and punishment procedures from being appropriated by the capitalistic system.
A state body responsible for implementing witch control procedures should regulate a series of actors in the village who will respond to witchcraft accusations. The easiest way to establish authority through these actors is by incorporating pre-existing structures, such as the churches or witch-doctors. Responses should take the form of a public acknowledgement of witchcraft, no matter what the context of the accusations shall be. Failure to acknowledge some witches as such would create suspicion among the general population that the government is allied with forces of witchcraftry. (Fisiy and Geschiere 235) Coercion for the witch to identify her or himself as such should come by handing the witch to popular justice should the witch refuse to comply. (Legislation should be elaborated to ensure that under no circumstances killing as a retaliation to witchcraft occurs during these forms of popular justice. Whipping should be fine.) Given that the witch complies and admits being a witch, a symbolic ritual of cleansing or de-witching the witch should be performed. This way, the cultural aspect of appeasing enraged villagers should be satisfied.
On the other hand, the underlying forces that most likely triggered the accusation should be addressed. Cleansed witches should be required to pay a scalable tax depending on the amount of wealth possessed. The revenues should be immediately divided to pay the witch-doctors or church ministers responsible for the rituals and the rest should be invested to community projects, such as schools, bridges, and water systems. The payment of cleansing professionals should be enough so that the decision of prosecuting a bribe-offering-“witch” should not be between starving and letting the witch go, but rather prosecuting the witch and receiving a moderate sum and not prosecuting the witch and receiving a larger sum. This way, at least, such professionals would be given a margin of volition to make their own choices.
An alternative to professionalizing pre-existing cleansing actors would be to train the police or armed forces into witchcraft cleansing. It is possible that the bourgeois class, afraid of losing ground to the government, may incite a coup. The best prevention o this is dismantling the army, but it may create social havoc and is not quite realistic. Soldiers and police should be trained into the rituals, and be paid additional amounts (coming from the common coffer of witchcraft taxation) for their new services.
In sum, witches should be punished, but procedures should be carefully designed as to treat the real issues lurking behind the rise of witchcraft accusation in African societies.