Witchcraft & “Wicked” Women

May 10th, 2013


Witchcraft has its roots deep in African history and culture, long before the dawn of colonization. With the coming of Colonialism, however, Africa was impacted on political, social, and economic levels, which are linked to the occult, and have led to a culture in which women are further to blame and are oppressed.

Colonization has affected witchcraft in severe ways, which look different across the continent. Apartheid and white dominance have caused extreme poverty and political insecurity to be rampant in black communities. This results in jealousy, and many of society’s problems manifest themselves in the form of witchcraft as a result. Additionally, Christians have come in and have attempted to convert native Africans to their religion, and have been a forceful factor in the eradication of witches, who are often deemed wicked women, a context primarily derived from Western culture.

Witchcraft comes with many societal risks and is used as an underlying form of control over women and their behavior. This furthers the cultural distress seen right now such as economic turmoil, social friction, political distrust, and racial conflicts. It is particularly important that this issue is explored, because the issues of poverty, jealousy, and corruption are not isolated, so neither can be chaos, insecurity, and violence—thus the issue becomes one of global importance.



            Witch hunting and witchcraft itself are illegal in most parts of Africa today, as laws with Western ideological undertones are passed. For example, the South African Suppression of Witchcraft Act was passed in 1957, which not only forbade the use and production of witchcraft and traditional South African medicine, but essentially made it illegal to “cry witch”. Witchcraft is a difficult subject to look at, because researches found it so rarely arose spontaneously in social conversation.

In recent years, accusations of witchcraft have risen to unprecedented heights; exactly why this is the case is one of the purposes of our exploration. There is speculation that it is due to unequal economic development of urban areas, reflecting tension between rural villagers and urban elites. Author Adam Ashforth takes this a step further, acknowledging that these kinds of tensions creates jealousy between black community members, and “If people carry jealousy in their heart, the Sowetans say, they can do anything to you”(Ashforth 1200).

Another point of exploration is the issue of women’s suspected involvement in witchcraft. Research done by S. Drucker-Brown claims that these accusations are significant as an attempt to control the behavior of women. Erik Bahre goes so far to suggest that it is a manner of controlling female sexuality in an age when urban settings don’t facilitate Victorian ideas of femininity.

Witchcraft is also a rationale for explaining strained family relations and unfulfilled obligations. Accusing someone of being a witch will essentially cut him or her off from the family and any future inheritance (Daswani, 451). In addition to this, Kirby has found that witchcraft accusations have risen due to several factors:  (1) seasonal rainy season famines, (2) tensions in the house, (3) women’s leisure, (4) men’s frustrations, (5) general insecurity, (6) economic deprivation and food insecurity and (7) availability of an easy solution” (Kirby, 203). It is key to note reason number three “women’s leisure.” This means that women having free time puts people in a suspicious mindset against them, and are thus more likely to be accused of witchcraft.

Though both men and women can be witches, the majority of witch hunts in the past have been aimed against middle-aged female witches. Why exactly women, and specifically older women, find themselves the target so often is also in contention. This is also a topic which we will explore further.


Key Areas of Research:

            While the themes above are common in witchcraft, it does not look exactly the same in different parts of the continent. We will look at two cases to highlight these differences, one being witchcraft in South Africa, where apartheid had a significant impact upon witchcraft, and the second being West Africa, looking at Ghana specifically. These examples will show how witchcraft is still a form of control and dominance for men over women even though they have different means of doing so.


Spellcraft: An Examination of Witches of South Africa

Map of South Africa with Soweto

In South Africa, Adam Ashforth and Erik Bahre have researched and discussed the issues of what creates a rise in witchcraft, and, primarily, why women bear the blame. In general, the literature on the subject is drawn out into three different areas of focus—the impacts of Colonialism and apartheid on political, social, and economic tensions, the impact that the climates of political, social, and economic spheres have on the occult, and why women are the ones to blame. Adam Ashforth and Erik Bahre attempt to put all three questions into the same scope.

Ashforth attempts to convey the narrative of witchcraft by beginning with apartheid. Apartheid and white dominance have caused extreme poverty and political insecurity to be rampant in black communities of South Africa. When apartheid was lifted, black neighbors looked around at each other, and they looked hard. Jealousy was induced, and as a result suspicion. It is argued, as will follow, what exactly the impacts of jealousy are in a social sphere—will the jealous neighbor maliciously accuse a wealthier one of advancing through witchcraft, or will the wealthier neighbor accuse the jealous one of malicious witchcraft?

Nothing solidifies such a lack of faith in one’s self as economic instability. Adam Ashforth discusses this briefly in the piece, “Of Secrecy and the Commonplace: Witchcraft and Power in Soweto”. He discusses extensively the impacts of apartheid on the economic climate of South Africa. The very nature of apartheid severely limited the freedom and mobility of black citizens about the country. As one can expect, this limited access to affluent areas kept black citizens poor. It was only in the very late twentieth century that apartheid finally lifted, and so much of the poverty still exists.

This is also discussed with a little more detail in Erik Bahre’s “Witchcraft and the Exchange of Sex, Blood, And Money among Africans in Cape Town, South Africa”, as he discusses the economic tensions which exist post-apartheid. Here, Bahre offers up a reason for the remaining socioeconomic barriers, though hardly detailed. He goes on to insist that since apartheid was so recently lifted, the educational hurdles still exist for black South Africans who were raised in societies with lower quality education than white South Africans (305). This is a pattern which is seen time and time again—even in America, it has been reported that inner cities, which typically have high populations of black and Hispanic minorities, have lower rates of high school completion, or college aspirations, than the comparatively privileged children of suburbia. And so the possibility of this correlation between poverty and poor education is not surprising.

Moving forward, Bahre also discusses the impacts that this economic strife causes in social spheres, and specifically in gender relations. First, he attempts to prove that women are more commonly suspected than men, claiming that the number of women accused in relation to the number of men accused in the past fifteen years has been twenty to one (308). Ashforth doesn’t directly cite this ratio, but he does agree with the assertion that women are more commonly accused of witchcraft than men. Thus begins the discussion of why this is so. Bahre claims that women are willing to be sexually open—but what they want in return is money (309). Whether that is achieved through prostitution, or through what Americans call “gold-digging”, it does not matter. Ultimately, the outcome is that men see women more negatively, as “typically evil” in their lust for affluence (310). This clearly will bear a connection to witchcraft later on.

Second, Bahre argues that men suffer from serious insecurity as a result of their inability to provide adequately for their families (312). This kind of insecurity about ones’ self can lead to a need to prove that one is capable of control and masculine strength. Bahre argues that this, coupled with general negativity towards women, manifests itself primarily in domestic and sexual violence (315). This kind of gender tension in a social sphere is an obvious cultural stressor.

Ashforth elaborates further on gender tensions which may perhaps lead to the reason behind the negative regard of women. He argues that the sexual freedom and independence of women in a traditionally patriarchal culture leads to the emasculation of black South African men. He says, “Most families in Soweto are headed by women, thus compounding the anxieties of masculinity and the formation of male sexual identities amongst families with female ‘breadwinners’ in a society stressing the norms of male dominance” (1209). He continues, saying that it is also the sexual freedom allowed to urban women that men find to be particularly threatening, especially “in places, like Soweto, where good women are not supposed to have sexual desires, while males are supposed to be rampant”(1209). This seems to be agreed upon by the two authors, who agree that it is modern ideas of femininity which terrify and threaten men, causing social insecurity and mistrust between the genders.

Let us consider how the idea of witchcraft is culminated from all of the above. Adam Ashforth is convinced that jealousy is what creates witchcraft. He says, “The most commonly cited source of the hatred driving the desire to inflict harm through witchcraft is jealousy. If people carry jealousy in their heart, Sowetans say, they become your enemy, and they can do anything to you” (1200). Money and freedom and power are what drive us. If one neighbor has more than another, especially in a social warzone like South Africa, it causes jealousy. Moreover, though white South Africans and Colonists are the ones who instilled the suffering of apartheid, they do not bear the worst of it. Ashforth has an explanation for this as well. He says that, “In many ways jealousy is the flip side of the coin that is egalitarianism. We rarely feel jealous of a king but endlessly envy courtiers of a similar rank” (1201). And so it is that we are more likely to attack and accuse our peers.


The Wicked Witch of the West: Witchcraft and Witches in Ghana

Map of the Regions of Ghana

The experience of researchers is that witchcraft in Ghana is not easy to study; this is because it so rarely arises in casual, commonplace conversation among Ghanaians, and that “to mention witchcraft [is] to admit an interest” (Drucker-Brown, 533).

According to N. Gray, the imposition of laws regarding witchcraft in Ghana have made a decisive contribution to the eventual transformation of witch cleansing (formerly execution, slavery, medicinal cleansing, and ostracizing) from a “coercive, quasi-judicial process driven by accusation into a voluntary, therapeutic practice centered on confession” (Gray, 341). This is due in thanks to the Pentecostal Church.

Through colonization, Europe brought Christianity to Africa. In Ghana specifically, this came in the form of the Pentecostal Church. Daswani describes the Pentecostal Church as a transformative agent that emerges through relationships. The missionary process is said to be “an ongoing process that is never complete and through which Pentecostals are constantly negotiating old and new worlds” (Daswani, 444).

The Pentecostal Church has played two roles in Ghana in regards to controlling witchcraft. On one hand, it offered a chance at redemption of witches, and on the other hand, it targeted witches in sometimes rather violent manners. In the first instance, converting to Christianity was a way out for witches who were experiencing familial tensions and living in poor conditions as some of the lowest members of society. Offering salvation, the Pentecostal missionaries would teach people how to pray effectively, preach in public, and develop spirituality. The Holy Spirit would be evoked and witches could be healed. For some, the church also offered new chances at authority and power, if the individual was suited for it. “The main agenda of this sort of Pentecostalization is deliverance, which is based on the fear of spirit forces, especially witchcraft” (Onyinah 2009, 110).

On the other side of this, we see the church as an instrument against witchcraft.  Meyers’ research shows that these evil actors are agents of the Devil. Before, witches were just another role in society, still pretty low and still evil, but now they have the Christian attribute of being hell-ish. The missionaries assumed the Devil was confronting them through the ‘heathen religion’ in general and the activities of the ‘fetish priests’ in particular. They called forth a fight against witchcraft. Street sermons were held, and they preached the dangers of the Devil (Meyer, 105). Ultimately, by introducing this personalized devil and the association of the gods with demons, “the missionaries strengthened the belief in witchcraft and sorcery. However, they failed to provide for the holistic needs of the people, especially those of healing, exorcism and protection” (Onyinah 2004, 333).

The king, chiefs, and powerful household heads are the ones who are attributed with the ability to see witches, and thus it is their responsibility to defend their domain from attack. Drucker-Brown finds that witches attack at night, and invisibly wobri (“to chew and swallow”) the bodies of their victims, which typically causes lingering illnesses and deaths. It is commonly believed that witches conduct their deeds in spirit form while her physical body sleeps. Sometimes this can appear as a ball of fire (Adinkrah 2004, 335). A victim, however, will often see the witch or witches attacking. This can lead to an accusation being made by a victim during an illness. In some cases, it seems that a name mentioned by a sick person in a feverish state can also be taken as an accusation. Also, children descending from a matrilineage of witches are often thought to inherit tendencies toward witchcraft (Adinkrah 2011, 744).

In the past, post-mortem investigations occurred to reveal the witchcraft substance, known as soo, in a person’s body. Soo is described as a cotton-like residue in the intestinal tract. In addition to this, witchcraft is said to be “inherited from one’s mother and the uterine kin of a convicted witch are always suspect” (Drucker-Brown, 533). This shows that it is inherently (partially literally) a female trait. It should be noted that locals believe that witchcraft is an active practice and that the kin of a witch need not be witches, just suspect.

Additionally, witchcraft can be transmuted through medicines. An active witch could feed an innocent person a witchcraft substance, or it could happen to someone being recruited as a novice. The medicine will be compelled to act as a witch, which could include such actions as being forced to steal the flesh from a victim. This flesh is used to feed senior witches in a communal feast. As such, sudden weight loss is usually considered an effect of a witch attack. Once eaten, human flesh becomes an addiction, which leads to the deliberate consumption of medicine. Variations of the type of attack depend on the type of medicines consumed (Drucker-Brown, 539).

These medicines incorporate substances that are both curative as well as poisonous, and substances that operate both mechanically within the body and metaphysically. Medicine is not only used by witches, but also as a defense against witchcraft (Drucker-Brown, 540).

Use of medicine is very different for males and females. In both cases, a close kinsperson will be the most likely target. Females are most often accused of killing their own infants, killing a co-wife’s child, or attacking a husband or brother-in-law. Men, however, are usually accused of bewitching their rivals (Drucker-Brown, 540).

The primary punishment for a convicted witch is execution. This is not the only option, however. Convicted witches are sometimes sent to the nearby market town, where they are allowed to live segregated from the community but are free to go about the town. They are often sent here if their witchcraft cannot be controlled by the medicines available to ordinary household heads or chiefs, causing further shame. Witch settlements like this are known as pwaanyankura-foango, which literally means ‘old ladies’ section’.  The witches are allowed to live here because the townsfolk are protected with special medicine (Kirby, 199).

This segregation is still a form of punishment, however. The women have had to leave their families and their homes, and are basically branded with a scarlet letter leaving them degraded by their banishment. As the name of the section indicates, many of the women are indeed elderly and face a shortage of food as well as poor living conditions. Most deny that they are witches, but some say that they “must be witches if everyone says they are” (Drucker-Brown, 535). Regardless, being ostracized in the witch settlement if far preferable to them than death.

Moreover, some witches are never formally convicted, but through gossip they still experience many of the social implications. Sometimes even, just for personal advances people will start to gossip about this, which leads to many women falsely being accused. Women, especially those who are older, are considered easy targets in this society (Geest, 448). This is especially true for women whose behavior or outward demeanor is considered eccentric: for example “those who mutter to themselves or are regarded as inquisitive, meddlesome, garrulous, and cantankerous” (Adinkrah 2004, 336).

The following video illustrates many of these issues, specifically for the woman of Gambaga (Northern Ghana). This is a clip from the documentary film by Yaba Badoe called “The Witches of Gambaga.” It is a clear example of the way accusations are based on jealousy and suspicion, and that there are very dire consequences for these women.

The Witches of Gambaga



Though the geographic location of both areas is different, the general pattern that researches reveal to us is strikingly similar. In both areas, we see tensions brought on by Western theology and ideology.

In South Africa, this tension is brought on in the form of the imposition and then relief of apartheid. As Ashforth and Bahre have expressed, the economic barriers brought on by this form of severe segregation have remained racially charged into the modern day, almost two decades after it was lifted. It is the jealousy inspired within the black communities of South Africa that Ashforth blames for the spike in witchcraft accusations in those areas.

Similarly, it is undeniable that Christianity was brought to Ghana by Western colonists. This Pentecostalism has stigmatized witchcraft, apparently supporting violent means of dealing with the issue of witchcraft. While apartheid only wrought disastrous impacts, however, Pentecostalism also provides alternative ways of “cleansing” or “saving” the accused, with methods which involve significantly less violence.

In both cases, women seem to be targeted. In the case of South Africa, while men can be and have been accused of witchcraft, both Bahre and Ashforth agree that it is primarily the women who find themselves at the violent end of the equation. In Ghana, the association between femininity and witchcraft, which is most powerfully exemplified through the language and through the theory that witches tend to receive their powers from their matriarchal line, exposes a bias against women. It becomes undoubtable within this context that women are seen to be the primary possessors of supernatural abilities, and are thus somehow viewed as intrinsically evil.

The reasons for why are varied, but both regions seem to accuse women of witchcraft based on their social behavior. In South Africa, it is sexually free and financially ambitious women who are seen to be the most evil by the society in which they live. This is potentially because the urban settings of South Africa and the general economic strife in black communities no longer support the Victorian ideals of femininity which deal with purity, and the reliance of South African women upon the men of their family (ideally the husbands). In the urban settings, South African women can no longer rely on the economic wealth of men, who, if willing to be married and settle down, rarely provide enough wealth to care for the family to the wife’s standards. In Ghana, witchcraft deals with the social view of women in relation due to the household; specifically, the happiness of the men of the household (which seems to be regarded as the responsibility of the women of the household), the relations between members of the family, and the amount of time a woman may have for leisurely activities. This last note brings to mind the proverb, “Idle hands do the Devil’s work”, and undoubtedly such sentiment is at play here.

The final tie between the two cases is the issue of poverty, social difference, and general insecurity. Both regions show a spike in witchcraft when faced with the insecurity of living under stressful and poor conditions. Undoubtedly, this places instability at the top of the chain when it comes to reasons why witchcraft and violence are so prevalent.




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