In the year 1612, in the northern English county of Lancaster, a famous trial took place – the trial of the “Pendle witches”. Twelve so-called witches were involved in the case – ten women and two men – most from the bleak and inhospitable Pendle hill. They were charged with murdering ten people through witchcraft, and accused of much more besides – causing paralysis, “turning beer sour”, killing a horse – all through witchcraft. One died in custody and one was acquitted, but the other 10 were found guilty and hanged.
400 years later, in the northern Tanzanian town of Kahama, a pair of owls flew into a crowded schoolroom. A political meeting was taking place and tensions were high. The local branch of Tanzania’s ruling CCM party was electing its representative to the party’s National Executive Committee. So when the owls flew in and settled on the table in front of the local MP and regional party chairman, suspicions were raised that someone was using witchcraft to influence the election. Allegations flew. After all, as anyone in Tanzania knows, owls are bringers of death.
Lancaster City Museum has been hosting an exhibition on the Pendle Witch Trials. It was heavy on the idea of scapegoats; ignorance and superstition reigned, so people were quick to blame whatever misfortune befell them on people living on the fringes of society. The alleged “witches” were portrayed as the victims.
It can be argued that ignorance and superstition reign in present day Tanzania as well. The country’s founding president, Julius Nyerere, told a former colonial officer that “the most important thing in the lives of people in Dar is witchcraft.” That was several decades ago, but there’s evidence that it remains true today. A 2010 survey of religious belief in Africa by the highly respected Pew Research Centre found that 93% of Tanzanians believe in witchcraft, significantly higher than in any other African country.
In 2008, a mysterious powder was spread around seats in the main chamber of parliament. Almost no election (or football match, or business dispute) is without its allegations of “ushirikina.” And a fascinating article in Mwananchi newspaper this week revealed that “lightning is for sale” in Sumbawanga region. For a mere 40,000 shillings [£12] a witchdoctor will create a bolt of lightning and direct it to strike whoever you choose.
The celebration this week of the International Day of Older Persons has seen a spate of news coverage of witchcraft in Tanzania, both internationally (the Guardian, CNN) and in Tanzania (Mwananchi, Daily News, HabariLeo). The focus has rightly been on the horrific statistic that 500 elderly people, mostly women, are killed each year in Tanzania by people convinced that they are witches – the figure comes from Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Centre.
The western media tends to tell one story about witchcraft – the witch-hunt. In this simplistic narrative, witchcraft is about good and evil: the innocent victims of murderous witch-hunts and the superstitious mob doing the hunting. The Guardian and CNN stories linked above are on these lines, and the story told by the Pendle Witch exhibition was much the same.
But the issue isn’t as simple as that. Yes, the “justice” done in Lancaster in 1612 was no such thing, quite the opposite. And yes, the 500 elderly women killed each year are the victims of superstition and ignorance. But they were not the only victims.
People don’t simply commit murder for no reason. That’s just as true of modern Tanzania as 17th century England. Those who commit such murders are driven to it by fear – fear borne of superstition, borne of poverty and ignorance. I’m not saying that they’re right to kill; fear cannot justify murder. But it is worth understanding what drives people to it.
It’s also worth asking why belief in witchcraft persists. A need to find an explanation for the hardships of life in poverty is part of it. Such misfortunes as being struck by lightning or suffering a stroke can seem random, even if you have been lucky enough to have had a scientific education, which of course the vast majority of folks in 17th century Lancashire and 21st century Tanzania have not.
There are also those who have an interest in spreading superstition and fear. According to one theory, the Pendle “witches” were extortionists, spreading word that they had devilish powers and threatening anyone who didn’t give them what they asked for with a curse. I’m sure there are people in Tanzania today making a living this way.
And the Pendle “witch” case was heavily tied up in the religious politics of the day – Anglican priests spreading the idea that Catholicism was linked with the devil and with witchcraft. A similar point can be made about present-day Tanzania: “Bishop” Kakobe and his fellow “walokole” (literally, the “saved”) don’t hesitate to paint the mainstream religions as evil and vice versa, and the gap between Kakobe and the witchdoctors is particularly slim.
But let me try to end on a positive note. It was clear from the exhibition in Lancaster that witchcraft is no longer taken seriously in present day England. For most people, the main contact they will have with the idea of witches is through children’s books. Compare the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (dating from much the same era as the Pendle “witch” trials), evil, powerful and frightening, to Meg and Mog and you can see how far the UK has come. Harry Potter (where owls also fly around schoolrooms) gets pretty dark, but the point is that witches are now considered sufficiently sanitised that they’re suitable for the very young. And that’s in a country that is highly risk averse when it comes to raising children. If people had even the slightest fear that witchcraft was real, they wouldn’t let their children read these books.
In 400 years, England has come a long way. Let us hope that Tanzania can make this journey rather more quickly.