I was doing some idle channel surfing recently when I stumbled on Big Brother Africa. Normally such an event would occasion a quick switch to any other channel.
However I found myself pausing momentarily because an interesting conversation had broken out and it was about witchcraft and African traditional magic.
When I tuned in, the Nigerian was talking about the occult-related beliefs from his own Country. Then the Tanzanian housemate chimed in with an excitable spiel about all the mysterious forces at work in her Country.
Her contribution was particularly notable for her belief that a snake drawn on a paper by a witch or sorcerer can bite the intended victim in real life if placed against their skin. It is a development that I think would intrigue experts and cause quite an upheaval in the sciences.
Interestingly there was only one skeptic in the room and his repeated questions and requests for proof were dismissed as being irrational.
I had a good chuckle about the whole affair, but then I read about a group of Indian women who had been stripped naked and humiliated because the community thought they were witches. Suddenly the whole topic did not seem quite as funny anymore.
Of course a belief in traditional magic and its dominance of everyday life is not simply a reflection of a lack of education since plenty of educated people share those beliefs.
Indeed research has shown for example that cult members tend to be better educated than average. There are clearly plenty of other factors at work here which promote this kind of gullibility.
Overstating anecdotal evidence: It was intriguing that none of the Big Brother Housemates had any personal experience of all the spooky events they were discussing. All the stories were second or third hand usually from friends and family.
Filling in the Gaps: We live in a complex world and despite the best efforts of science; we are still trying to make sense of it everyday. A belief in traditional magic would help to fill in the gaps and provide a sense of reassurance for many people.
Modern day scapegoat: In ancient Israel, a goat was released into the wilderness with the sins of the community transferred to it as a symbolic gesture. Some elements of traditional magic seem to play a similar role.
Practitioners could see evil as removable by identifying sacrificial lambs and removing them from the community or even merely from the household.
The sinister twist here is that such scapegoats become human beings and the removal action often means death. The sudden upsurge of ritual murders of Albinos in East and Central Africa marks them out as modern day scapegoats.
Creating modern day morality tales: It was striking that the housemate’s tales were about good versus evil in their purest form. Traditional magic clings to that narrative, setting up a world in which the forces of good and the forces of evil are waged in perpetual combat.
It appeals to people’s sense of drama and narrative and that often sits uneasily with the truth.
The author is a lawyer and regular contributor.