The Witching Bonds: Witchcraft and Human Trafficking in Africa

During her ordeal, Tupa experienced a brutal and terrorizing witchcraft ordeal. While it is not always something you hear about, witchcraft and healing are a thriving industry in Africa. And it is clear that some trafficking rings are using it to indoctrinate individuals into a life of slavery.    


Raising the topic of African witchcraft can be a tricky business, it brings up all the specters of the exotic and primitive African, the discernable “other” of a shameful colonial past when Africans were an indistinguishable category on the lowest rungs of the social evolutionary ladder. Under today’s lens of intense historical scrutiny, it brings to mind uneasy images of the pompous colonial administrator as much as it does the primal tribesman.  One can easily picture the colonial autocrat and amateur antiquarian just returned from the field offering up native barbarisms on Zulu sorcery to a rapt audience of well-to-do Victorian ladies in the lush sitting room of the London Geographic Society.  It was all just raucous good fun and part of the fascinating asides and dashing tales of life among the aboriginals from the emissaries of progress and enlightenment.  It is hard not to cringe when reading early accounts from government officials – as well as a long line of explorers, anthropologists, and missionaries – whose collective gaze seemed especially fixated on witchcraft, sorcery, and the like, in most cases because it was so exemplary of the singular “problem” that Africa posed as a whole.  Over time, what developed was a reluctance to write about or even acknowledge the topic, nobody wanted to touch upon an area where the slightest misstep opened you up to critiques of neocolonial assumptions from Edward Said and an angry mob of post-modernists, narrative deconstructionists and cultural disciplinarians. 


 Meanwhile, witchcraft not only endured in Africa, but grew.  Far from being an archaic feature of those elusive “traditional cultures” doomed to extinction by outside contact, witchcraft continues to be a simple fact of life across much of Africa.  Eventually, the misgivings associated with acknowledging witchcraft gave way to the obvious realities.  While writing about witchcraft in Africa continues to be somewhat ticklish, and carries with it a strong potential for reifying every cultural assumption and bias about Africa that we would like to think ourselves rid of, we have at least gotten past our willful ignorance of its very existence.  Witchcraft is now generally acknowledged as alive and well across the continent.

In Africa, witchcraft, sorcery, and the “occult economies” – to borrow a term from anthropology – is in many ways the counterforce to the “healing” industry.  Healing is big business – you need only search the local classifieds section of most newspapers to find a long list of healers, herbalists, diviners, prophets, rainmakers, and individuals who are willing to identify the true causes of your personal misfortunes.  There are “traditional healers” in every town and village; you can pay a quick visit to one on your way to buy a bottle of cooking oil at the local shop.  In some countries, there are national organizations and societies that offer certification and regulate membership, graduate from one of these and you can even hang a diploma on your wall.  For those whose lives are lived from earliest childhood with a deep respect for the ancestors and other forces that lie somewhere between God and the living world, an intermediary who can work on your behalf is both normal and necessary.   Most things can be obtained if only the proper healer is at hand: a job, love, rain for your crops, better health, greater fertility, or a victory for your favorite soccer team.  The most acclaimed healers are rumored to have powerful patrons ranging from presidents to popular musicians and other celebrities.


The healing industry merges into other areas, most notably the proliferation of the independent church movement.  Some of these organizations have garnered extraordinary reach and influence.  For example, Chris Oyakhilome (known widely as “Pastor Chris”) is a Nigerian televangelist faith healer who runs several T.V. channels, has an established internet presence including over a million followers on Twitter, and operates an extensive international “prayer network” that doubles as an efficient fundraising strategy. Oyakhilome has been widely criticized for his miracle healing sessions in which he purports to cure HIV among most other diseases and physical disabilities.  His ministry might easily be described as the African version of the televangelist faith healer, and in many ways it is, but there is more to it than that.  Oyakhilome’s “Believers’ Love World Incorporated” spearheads a massive network of independent churches across Africa that combine Christian doctrine with local belief systems, many of which utilize healing and divining practices that are easily recognized and even widely touted as “traditional.”  One can find the local version of “Pastor Chris” in almost any area.  Independent churches are blenders for categories like “Traditional healer,” “Christian faith healer,” and “pastor,” all of which are thrown into the pot and stirred up in order to create something with a truly unique, regional flavor.  


If healers represent the good and altruistic side of the spirit world in Africa, then witches and witchcraft are their evil counterparts. In fact, the whole idea that witchcraft exists is largely reinforced by the number of healers who readily identify witchcraft as the cause of one’s misfortune.  Africa is the land where accidents never happen, there is little room for chance or random occurrence, everything from unemployment to AIDS has an underlying cause.  If it has something to do with the question “Why did this happen to me?” then it can be offered up to a healer for scrutiny.  Healing and divining one’s personal misfortune go hand in hand, and determining who is “witching” you is as essential as adhering to your medication if your particular affliction happens to be health related.  In fact, the epidemiological and biomedical models of disease causation and prevalence – based so much on probability and abstraction – can seem accidental, impersonal, and entirely incomplete in a world where social culpability is both proximate and presumed.  Doctors might be able to answer whatis causing your affliction but they cannot tell you exactly whois responsible (other than to imply that it is your own damn fault in most cases).  It is the healer’s job to answer that question.  And in a place where there is no shortage of personal misfortune and suffering, it is a particularly lucrative part of the job.   


Among anthropologists, explanations most in vogue these days for the continued growth of African witchcraft center around a kind of social anxiety with global capitalism and the obvious disparities between the haves and the have-nots.  The general idea here is that modern forms of capitalism have created conditions in Africa in which – not surprisingly – the majority of people have been left stranded on the dock.  At the same time, globalization and the Digital Revolution have heightened their awareness of this fact, creating an environment in which the question “Why did this happen to me?” is asked now more than ever by an ever-expanding number of people.  In Africa, witchcraft has become a popular answer to that question because it is an effective “weapon of the weak” or, more generally, a tool that can be used by anybody who sees themselves as disadvantaged in some manner.  And like healing, anthropologists – who by definition are a group who likes to turn singulars into plurals – go out of their way to remind us that there is not one witchcraft in Africa, but many “witchcrafts.” Whatever the local manifestations of witchcraft might be, and however they connect with social suffering, personal misfortune, and the modern day angst of Africa and Africans, one thing is for certain: witchcraft is a powerful and readily available tool at one’s disposal, it is ‘out there’ for people to use against one another and to accuse others of using against them.


Given the renewed attention to African witchcraft and the circumstances surrounding it, it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the relationship between witchcraft and human trafficking.  As an extreme form of suffering, disadvantage, and personal misfortune, one would assume that human trafficking would relate in some way to modern day instances of witchcraft in Africa.  In fact, one can find some passing mentions about witchcraft in the trafficking literature, almost all of which immediately grab your attention.  But that is all they are – passing mentions – and the discussion simply moves on.  This oversight is unfortunate since they point to certain aspects of trafficking that on the surface at least warrant closer inspection.  One issue in particular is how witchcraft is used to indoctrinate trafficked individuals into a world of sustained exploitation.  Put another way, is witchcraft being used to create a situation of servility and dependency among trafficking victims? 

In some ways, it is understandable why the connection between witchcraft and human trafficking in Africa has not been made.  For individuals who work in the area of human trafficking, something like witchcraft does not easily register on their radar as “evidence based data.”  And when they do focus on trafficking from what can be called a dependency perspective, it is almost always from a purely economic standpoint, jamming every individual into a rational actor model in a manner that would do the Chicago School of Economics proud.  As for those who do look at witchcraft in some detail, references to human trafficking are few and far between.  It is far safer and more politically astute to approach witchcraft from the broader perspective of global capitalism and in a manner critical of the West than to do so in terms of conditions that might be unique to Africa. And finally there are the victims of trafficking themselves, who are reluctant to mention let alone speak in any detail about something like witchcraft due to fear, intimidation, and the simple fact that nobody’s asking.  In the end, everybody seems to be clinging to a little piece of the puzzle that generally goes unrecognized, which makes witchcraft one of the single most overlooked aspects of human trafficking in Africa.