Killing Our Witches

11 women and men were murdered in western Kenya because they were suspected of witchcraft. According to reports, most of them were over 70 and at least 8 were women. I am having problems processing this information.

The figure of the witch exists in many communities in Kenya, and this figure is, more often than not, the ambivalent object of respect and revulsion. But I am not interested in the ethnography of this figure.

Instead, I am interested in what witches and their counterparts, prophets, represent. I am thinking, here, of Thiong’o’s The River Between, and the tragic history it tells of prophets who were ignored and dismissed as crazy. I am also thinking, to indulge ethno-history for a moment, of the Gikuyu belief that introverted individuals were witches, that those who dared to think or dream or express themselves differently had to be destroyed.

It might seem counterintuitive if not silly to align witches, prophets, intellectuals, artists, and queers, but this kind of clustering allows me to imagine what might be at stake.

Witches are often accused of wishing ill on their societies, of re-forming those societies, imagining them differently. For some, the act of imagining society differently is akin to wishing it ill.

Yet an unwillingness to envision if not support bone-deep changes impoverishes who we are and who we can be.

7 thoughts on “Killing Our Witches

  1. What of the influence of Christianity with it’s patriarchal structure and biased attitude against any spiritual practices that empower women ie witchcraft and divination?

  2. That’s a great question. I’d love to hear more if you’d like to elaborate.

    None of the reports I’ve read about the Kenyan incident mention Christianity.

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  4. A lot of cultures do not have mechanisms to deal with anyone who is deemed ‘different’ from the norm.

  5. What of the influence of Christianity with it’s patriarchal structure and biased attitude against any spiritual practices that empower women ie witchcraft and divination?

    At best (worst?), only some forms of Xtianity are like that. More to the point, there actually are good – non-patriarchal – reasons to be opposed to witchcraft, divination and all the rest of it.

  6. Daniel,

    I have no problem with individuals being “opposed” to any practice. Ideological disagreements are one thing. (And I am not playing the underhanded McCain card that justifies legal inequality as “disagreement.”)

    But, I think you’d agree, that is no license for murder. Had the so-called witches been found guilty of causing harm, surely there could be some legal mechanism, formal or informal, that did not result in needless death.

  7. Well let me try and gather my scattered thoughts together. With many communities pre-colonialism in Kenya. I do believe that men and women both had roles in spiritual practice, they may not have always been equal but they had roles during different rituals.
    But with the coming of christianity, the active role of women was pushed to the background and even validated by some of the letters of Paul. Add to this the demonisation of many traditional spiritual practices under the umbrella of witchcraft. So who would be in touch most with their traditions and be more likely to practice them? More likely the old and more likely the women (women being more spiritual then men is the material of another post).
    So what happens when these practices are looked at by eyes trained in missionary schools? Of course witchcraft! Add any unexplainable phenomena that happens and you have a cause and effect connection established. So what do the people decide to do? Get rid of the cause.
    Yes pedestrian but that is the best I can do at this time. I have noticed over a long time that African christians have an unbeatable fervour when it comes to classing any traditional African practice as witchcraft. If only they took their time and found out about the pagan roots and connections of Christianity.

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