My friend the witch doctor

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

A half century ago there was a lot of interesting anthropology about witchcraft, Henry Harpending notes, but starting in the 1960s anthropologists increasingly saw themselves as activists and advocates for people with whom they worked:

Witch doctors became “traditional healers”, prostitutes became “sex workers”, delinquents became “at risk youth”, and so on. While respect and manners are important, semantic cleansing has led to the loss of a lot of knowledge about human cultural diversity.

About a quarter century ago I was doing ethnography with a group of prosperous ranchers in the northern Kalahari who call themselves Herero. A young man in his mid-twenties named Kozondo was working for our group as a combination translator and mechanic and camp helper. He had graduated from secondary school, no small achievement in Botswana’s UK-derived system, and his english was quite fluent. One day I was interviewing a young mother when she used a (Herero) word I did not know. I asked Kozondo and he replied, with not a moment’s hesitation, “colostrum”.

On this trip it became quickly apparent that something was wrong with him. He was uneasy and distracted during the day and even more uncomfortable into the evening and night. There was an annoying group of giant eagle owls near our camp, and when they started hooting Kozondo would jump into the cab of a truck, close the windows, lock the doors, and spend the night cramped inside. When I sat him down to try to understand the problem he told me that he was being witched, that someone was trying to kill him. I gave him my familiar assurance that there was no such thing as witchcraft, that it was false superstition, and so on, but he would have none of it.

Only a handful of Herero shared my skepticism about witchcraft. People in the neighborhood as well as several other employees were concerned about Kozondo’s problem. They told me that he had to be taken to a well known local witch doctor. “Witch doctor” I said, “you all have been watching too many low budget movies. We call them traditional healers these days, not witch doctors”. They all, including Kozondo, would have none of it. “They are bad and very dangerous people, not healers” he said. It quickly became apparent that I was making a fool of myself trying to explain why “traditional healer” was a better way to talk than “witch doctor”. One of our group had some kind of anti-anxiety medicine. We convinced Kozondo to try one but it had no effect at all. Everyone agreed that he must consult the witch docter so we took him.

The local witch docter was well known in the area. We were camped at the edge of the Okavango delta so many of the locals were not Herero, who are a desert people, but indigenous people of the delta. Desert people refer to people of the delta as Goba. The Goba are reputed to be accomplished witch doctors and to have green thumbs growing marijuana but they are also regarded with some fear. After all, Herero say, they eat fish, as do crocodiles. If Kozondo could get help, we reasoned, it would be well worth the five buck fee (actually five Botswana Pula, close to five dollars). The witch doctor was a disheveled man, covered in grime, with either two or three teeth in total. He had a pouch with pieces of porcupine bone, twigs, and nuts. He tossed the contents of the pouch on the ground, studied the pattern, and made his diagnosis. He confirmed Kozondo’s self diagnosis of witchcraft and asked about whether Kozondo was owed money by anyone. This was an easy guess, of course, since Kozondo was well paid and prosperous. It became clear to Kozondo that his assailant must be a cousin who owed him a hundred Pula. When we asked about treatment, the witch doctor shook his head hopelessly and said that Kozondo would have to go to a specialist in Maun, the nearest large town, about 100 km away.

In for a penny, in for a pound, we thought. We also needed supplies, so one of our crew went off to take Kozondo to the specialist. Fifteen bucks poorer, he returned with supplies and with a cheerful relaxed Kozondo. The specialist had given him several different powders which he was to sprinkle in the campfire as evening approached. The powders repelled witches, and Kozondo would be safe. In addition he must be careful to wear sunglasses during the day, every day, since eyes are an easy invasion route for witchcraft and sunglasses protect them. The cure worked, and we had no further problems.

That evening we had something like a seminar with our employees and neighbors about witchcraft. Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself. The way it works is like this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, he discovers that I am seething with jealousy of his facility with words, so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family. Among Herero there is no such thing as an accident, there is no such thing as a natural death, witchcraft in some form is behind all of it. Did you have a gastrointestinal upset this morning? Clearly someone slipped some pink potion in the milk. Except for a few atheists there was no disagreement about this. Emotions get projected over vast distances so beware.

Even more interesting to us was the universal understanding that white people were not vulnerable to witchcraft and could neither feel it nor understand it. White people literally lack a crucial sense, or part of the brain. An upside, I was told, was that we did not face the dangers that locals faced. On the other hand our bad feelings could be projected so as good citizens we had to monitor carefull our own “hearts”.

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