Encounters with Witchcraft: Field Notes from Africa


A renowned authority on East Africa examines the effects of witchcraft beliefs on African culture, politics, and family life.

Encounters with Witchcraft is a personal story of a young man’s fascination with African witchcraft discovered first in a trek across East Africa and the Congo. The story unfolds over four decades during the author’s long residence in and many trips to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. As a field researcher he learns from villagers what it is like to live with ...

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Encounters with Witchcraft

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A renowned authority on East Africa examines the effects of witchcraft beliefs on African culture, politics, and family life.

Encounters with Witchcraft is a personal story of a young man’s fascination with African witchcraft discovered first in a trek across East Africa and the Congo. The story unfolds over four decades during the author’s long residence in and many trips to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. As a field researcher he learns from villagers what it is like to live with witches, and how witches are seen through African eyes. His teachers are healers, cult leaders, witch-hunters and self-proclaimed “witches” as well as policemen, politicians and judges.

A key figure is Mohammadi Lupanda, a frail village woman whose only child has died years before. In her dreams, however, she believes the little girl is not dead, but only lost in the fields. Mohammadi is discovered wandering at night, wailing and calling out for the child. Her neighbors are terror-stricken and she is quickly brought to a village trial and banished as a witch. The author is able to watch and listen to the proceedings and later investigate the deeper story. He discovers mysteries about Mohammadi that are only solved when he returns to the village three decades later.

Today, witch-hunting and witchcraft-related crimes are found in more than seventy developing countries. Epidemics of violence against alleged witches, mainly women, but including elders of both genders, and even children is on the increase in some parts of the world. Witchcraft beliefs may lie behind vigilante murders, political assassinations, revenge killings and commercial murders for human body parts.

Through African voices the author addresses key questions. Do witchcraft powers exist? Why does witchcraft persist? What are its historic roots? Why is witchcraft-based violence so often found within families? Does witchcraft serve as a hidden legal and political system, a mafia-like under-government? The author holds up a mirror for us to think about religious beliefs in our own experience that rely heavily on myth and superstition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is not your usual academic treatise, yet it is full of valuable insights for anybody interested in doing field research in Africa … Very few could have produced this very readable book.” — African Studies Quarterly

“…an engaging and diverting account of the author’s adventures during his many visits to East Africa over forty years … [an] anecdotal odyssey of adventures tied together by presenting all these travels as a quest to learn the true significance of witchcraft.” — Anthropos

“Norman M. Miller’s Encounters with Witchcraft: Field Notes from Africa, is an educational yet entertaining discussion of the author’s experiences with witchcraft in Africa … Miller’s loving attention to the people he encountered, and his respect for local beliefs and customs, is apparent. Encounters with Witchcraft provides an authentic, enlightening reading experience about a subject that has been overly distorted and sensationalized in popular culture.” — Journal of Folklore Research

“With his entertaining, academic, and accessible style, Miller thus paints a complicated picture of witchcraft as discourse, myth, business, and tool … a coherent structure accompanied with numerous images, gives those in need of accessible reading materials for teaching African, or even world history, yet another wonderful book choice.” — The Middle Ground

“In Encounters with Witchcraft, Miller shares the story of his fascination with African witchcraft and his journey through Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda … With fascinating photographs and informative glossaries and maps, this intriguing memoir and history of African witchcraft addresses the violence that superstitious or religious beliefs may cause and holds up a mirror for Western society to think about their own myths and beliefs.” — ForeWord Reviews

“This is an astounding book, full of insights on the very murky world of witchcraft in modern Africa. It explains so much—how witchcraft–based intimidation works, how and why women are victimized, why witch-hunting goes on. The author is one of the few people in the world who could have written this account. He is a veteran fieldworker, an ‘old hand’ in Africa, a superb observer.” — David Gregory, PhD, anthropologist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781438443584
  • Publisher: State University of New York Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2012
  • Pages: 236
  • Product dimensions: 7.46 (w) x 9.62 (h) x 0.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Norman N. Miller is one of America’s early African specialists, living in the eastern region intermittently since 1960, first as a correspondent, then as a university teacher, researcher, documentary filmmaker, and as an adviser to African governments and two United Nations agencies. He has written or edited six books and dozens of articles on topics such as Kenya’s political history, African wildlife management, HIV/AIDS policy, and traditional medicine. As a documentary filmmaker he produced the Faces of Change, a 26 film series which includes five films on Kenya. He holds a PhD from Indiana University in political science and African studies and a certificate in Swahili from UCLA. He is married to Judith von D. Miller, author of Art in East Africa and they make their home in Norwich, Vermont. He has taught part-time at Dartmouth College since 1980.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: First Encounter 1

1 The Colonial Days 7

An Archeologist's View of Witchcraft

Ancient Spirit Paintings

Lion-men and Colonial Witch Trials

Angry Man with a Cross-bow

Witchcraft and the Congo Pygmies

Crocodile Bile and the Poison Principle

2 Living with Witches 51

The Witchcraft Trial of Mohammadi

The Woman Who Poisoned a Chief

The Issue of Death by Suggestion

Witchcraft Symbols in Western Tanzania

Reflections on Mohammadi

3 Through African Eyes: The Arts 77

The Gift of an Execution Mask

Seeing Witchcraft Images in Nature

The Witch's Toolkit: Implements and Artifacts

Guns, Throwing Knives and Power Symbols

Spirit Art and the Ideas of an African Chief

4 Witch-Hunters and Witch-Cleansers 99

Secrets of a Professional Witch Hunter

Using Witch Hunters for Political Coercion

A Famous Witch-Cleanser in Malawi

Faith Healers, Snake Handlers, Herbalists

Kajiwe (Little Stone), Kenyan Witch-Hunter

5 Witchcraft and Violence 117

Meeting Idi Amin in Uganda

State-Sponsored Terror with Witchcraft

Skin Gangs and Secret Societies

On Trial: Witchcraft Court Cases

A Rough Map of Witchcraft in Eastern Africa

6 The Spirit Wars 133

How Prophet Movements Use Witchcraft

Healing the Sick by the Sea

"Evil Eye" Among Desert People

Witchcraft Violence in an African Christian Church

Missionary Zeal: African Spirits versus Christian Spirits

7 Witchcraft and Juju Economics 149

Smuggling of Witchcraft Poisons and Products

Long Distance Trade in Protective Medicines

The Healer's Trade: Witchcraft as a Diagnosis

Commercialization and Urbanization of Witchcraft

Spirit Art, Devil Art and Modern Art for Profit

Witch Beliefs as Barriers to Economic Development

8 Political Witchcraft 175

Witchcraft Threats and Mafia-Like Politics

The Tanzanian Holocaust: The Sungusungu Killings

Meeting Kenya's President Moi

Devil Cults in Nairobi: Alleged Satanic Practices

The Use of Witchcraft in Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army

Rebellion in Kenya: The Rise of Mungiki

9 Lessons Learned 193

"Look, There is No 'Paranormal'"

Lessons from a Little Boy

How Witchcraft Really Works: An African View

Death by Suggestion: A Final Confession

Killing Elders as Witches, the Rise of Senecide

10 Mohammadi's Shadow 203

Return to my Village

Dramatic Changes Over the Years

Why Witches are Never Mentioned

The Truth About Mohammadi's Life

The Mystery Resolved

Epilogue: The Future of Witchcraft 213

Further Reading and Bibliography 215

Acknowledgments and Credits 219

Index 221

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