In African tribal traditions, witchcraft
is part of the accepted supernatural landscape and
is generally something to be feared.
Study of African tribal religions illustrates the African
ancestry of modern Vodun, Santería and Candomblé.
There is a fairly universal belief in a supreme God,
who manifests himself in light and brightness: a shining,
snowcapped mountain, or the light streaming through a sacred grove of trees.
But such a God is remote, accessible
only to the priests or elders. God inspires great awe in his
people, causing them to fear and avoid his symbols, such
as thunder and lightning. The birth of twins is also a sign
from God, creating reverence for the twins’ divinity and
their isolation from the rest of the community.
The spirits of the dead, or the “shades,” however, are
regarded as alive and able to communicate the needs of
humans to the divines. They are always about, participating
in daily living, evident in the rustling of leaves, dust
spirals in the earth, currents in the river. Southern Africans
divide the shades into two categories: the deceased
relatives of any particular family and the founding heroes,
male or female, who define a community, chiefdom
To keep the ancestors happy, living relatives offer
food, drink and animal sacrifice. Offering feasts must
be attended by the ancestor’s kin, since the meal itself is
a communion between the living and the dead. Family
members air and resolve any quarrels before the offering,
since Africans believe that festering, unspoken anger is
the root of witchcraft.
For the tribal African, the power of evil is everywhere,
abetted by witches and their familiars but brought on by
anger, hate, jealousy, envy, lust and greed—all the vices
men observe in themselves and their neighbors. It can
even be brought on by laziness, as certain evil persons
raise the dead to do their work for them (see zombie). Evil
does not come from the shades, nor do the shades possess
a living person. Both are outside influences caused
Members of the Nyakyusa tribes describe witchcraft
as a “python in the belly,” while the Pondo people call it a
“snake of the women.” As in Europe, most witches come
from the ranks of women, poor men and young people.
Others depict witchcraft as a baboon, and members of the
Xhosa tribes see it as a fantastic hairy beast with exaggerated
sexual organs. People accused of witchcraft within a
tribe often confess, attributing their evil to quarrels with
wives, children or co-workers. If witchcraft has caused
sickness, no recovery is possible without the witch’s confession
and subsequent goodwill toward the victim.
In his groundbreaking studies of the Azande tribes in
the late 1920s, Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard found that
the Azande believe witchcraft, or mangu, is a hereditary
trait found in the stomach of a witch. Such an abdominal
condition results in an oval, blackish swelling or sac
containing small objects located near the bile tract. The
Azande admit not seeing this sac while a person is alive
but claim to have extracted it in autopsy. Professor EvansPritchard
speculated that the Azande were describing the
Nevertheless, the Azande attribute any misfortune,
however, small, to mangu. Many people who possess mangu
do not know it; since the spirit of witchcraft leaves the
witch at night to attack the victim’s spirit, such dirty work
could occur while the perpetrator is asleep and unaware.
Nightmares are considered witch attacks. Sons of male
witches inherit the condition from their fathers, while
daughters receive mangu from their mothers. Children’s
mangus are small and inexperienced, so children cannot
be accused of witchcraft until they are older. The Azande
also believe that witchcraft emits a small, bright light,
similar to that of fireflies or sparks, which is invisible except
to other witches or to witch doctors, who are trained
witch-hunters (see witches’ light).
The Azande attribute little witchcraft activity to sorcery.
Sorcery is possible, but unlikely unless a man has
seen an adandala—a species of wildcat associated with
witchcraft, the sight of which is fatal—or has touched his
wife’s menstrual blood or seen her anus.
Witches among the Azande call each other to meetings
where they learn each other’s techniques, discuss
crimes and rub their bodies with a special ointment
called mbiro mangu. A particularly successful supernatural
killing may be celebrated by feasting on the revived
body of the victim. Their familiars, both animal and human,
accompany them and goad them on to greater evil.
Whereas European witches were said to prefer cats, dogs
and toads as familiars, African witches chose owls, bats,
hyenas, baboons, zombies or, among the Xhosa, “hairy
To identify a witch, relatives of the sick first consult
the iwa oracle, a rubbing board operated with a wooden
instrument. The names of possible suspects are placed
before the iwa, and the oracle selects the culprit and his or
her accomplices. Then the family verifies the witch’s name
via the benge oracle: chickens are given poison while a list
of names is read aloud. If a chicken dies while a particular
person’s name is called, that person is guilty.
At that point, a wing from the unlucky chicken is cut
off and attached to a stick like a fan. One of the sick man’s
relatives takes it to a deputy of the neighboring chief, to
maintain impartiality, and the deputy carries the fan to
the home of the suspected witch. The suspect’s reaction
and apparent sincerity are most important; if the suspect
claims innocence and begs his mangu to stop bothering
the sick person, recovery may occur. If not, the procedure
is repeated. If the suspect is a respected figure in
the community, the relatives may announce they know
witchcraft is behind their relative’s illness without naming
names. Their discretion in the affair appeals to the
pride and honor of the suspected witch, and he may stop
the spell in appreciation.
Members of the Tswana peoples deny the possibility of
an uncontrollable mangu; for them, all witchcraft involves
malice aforethought. They do, however, distinguish between
“night witches” and “day sorcerers.” Day sorcerers,
called baloi ba motshegare, use magic to inflict harm
through the use of herbs and other medicinal preparations
on a specific enemy and do not practice witchcraft
Night witches, or baloi ba bosigo, are mainly elderly
women who gather at night in small groups and then
travel about the countryside bewitching the unfortunate.
Instead of wearing clothes, they smear their bodies
with white ashes or the blood of the dead. Admission is
open to anyone, but the applicant must profess her zeal
by causing the death of a close relative, usually a firstborn
child. Initiates receive an ointment that allows them
to wake instantly and join their colleagues when called.
Some tribes say that a special medicine is injected into
the witch’s thumb, and when her thumb itches, she will
awake and depart.
Among their alleged activities is the exhumation of
newly buried corpses, which the night witches accomplish
by using a special magic that makes the body float
to the surface. The witches then take whatever body
parts they need for their spells and medicines. Walls and
locked doors cannot keep a witch from entering a victim’s
house; once inside, the witch cuts her victim and inserts
small stones or fragments of flesh that will sicken him
and eventually cause death unless treated.
Night witches choose owls as their familiars and ride
on hyenas to cover great distances, with one foot on the hyena’s
back and one on the ground. Members of the BaKgatla
tribe say that the witches make their own hyenas from porridge
and then activate them with special medicines.
Although beliefs in night witches are widely held,
many Africans take such stories lightly, acknowledging
that no one has seen baloi ba bosigo at work. But the activities
of day sorcerers are taken seriously, as many people
have seen the results of go jesa (“to feed”), or the practice
of putting poison in food or drink. In some accounts the
poison changes into a miniature crocodile, gnawing away
at the victim’s insides until he dies in pain. But most accounts
describe true poison, acting so slowly that suspicions
are not aroused until the victim is seriously ill or
dying, and making identification and indictment of the
poisoner very difficult.