Money is to the west, what witchcraft is to Africa

I’ve been thinking about witchcraft a lot recently. Whilst in the west witchcraft is confined to images conjured by the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or the sensationalist renderings of foreign cultures generated by national geographic cover photos, the reality of witchcraft as a Spiritual and social phenomena in Africa is undeniable.

Recently an African bible teacher came to our community unpacking his perspective on animism (the worship of ancestors) and witchcraft in South Africa. It got me thinking about how witchcraft functions in Africa; the function that witchcraft provides (and it’s counter-part witch-doctor – the white magic which heals the black magic) is to solve spiritual insecurity.

This term, which I borrowed from Adam Ashforth’s fascinating work “Witchcraft, Violence and democracy in South Africa” describes the sense that there is a dynamic and hard to predict spiritual reality at play which dictates happenings in the physical. Those with Spiritual power (and the vast amount of money it takes to employ the services of a witch) can manipulate this reality through curses and ‘good fortune’ potions.

Those with less Spiritual power (the group in which most africans would consider themselves within) are left to employ the services of witch-doctors to remove curses, protect them with certain wearable objects and give them insight to the source of their various maladies.

In short, whatever Spiritual realities underly these challenges, there is the problem of fear, which is responded to with a desire to control. A fear that negative circumstances are the result of a malicious curse and that only the employment of a witch-doctor can allay. The goal is regain a level of control in a person’s circumstances.

Animism which is connected to this, is the worship of ancestors. It exists all over the world, but our exposure to it comes from South Africa. In South Africa, our anecdotal exposure to it frames the world where ancestors are an intermediary for the Spiritual world, into which they have graduated through death. Negative circumstances in life can often be traced to the anger or displeasure of ancestors who require that sacrifices be made in order to appease them and to resolve the negative life circumstances of the living.

In animism the problem is, again, fear of the wrath of ancestors, seen as the both the intermediary for the Spiritual world and for animism own sense of a higher power, referred to as God. The solution is a sacrifice which appeases the ancestors, although often it seems only for a season. Witchcraft and animism are the main spiritual worldviews we encounter here in South Africa; Both operate on the basis of controlling circumstances to allay a fear. I think much of human religion, including what many people understand of Christianity is to do with control of fear and insecurity of the unknown forces in one’s life. I don’t believe that is the problem Jesus was coming to fix, but instead to liberate us from, but thats for the content for another post.

As I consider all these things from a western-educated mind, I am aware how easy it is to take on a western rationalistic sense of superiority and think that somehow we have moved on from such superstition. But our 6 years in Africa has taught us that there is much wisdom in Africa that the west has either forgotten or never knew, and so few of the perceived fruits of our western education have truly contributed to human flourishing in ways that would lead us to copy and paste them into an african context. It is easy to stand apart from someone else’s culture and point a finger at the glaring inadequacies or the ways in which a culture falls short of biblical standards. But as Jesus’ words to the Pharisees warn us, it is those of us who see the speck in others eyes that need to consider the presence of a plank in our own.

So I began wondering, what is the fear and control social mechanism in western culture? What is our witchcraft? And the best answer I can come up with is money.

Money is how we control our fear. We use our money to exert increasing control over our environments and over our fears.

We use our money to build towers of self-reliance, to not need others, to not be a burden to one another. But in doing so, we, as western culture have never been so lonely. We have never been so connected technologically but disconnected emotionally. Social media helps us voyeur into one another’s lives without the risk and the fear of a live and vulnerable conversation. Money is used to distance us from our fears. At the root, I think people are our greatest fear. Not people themselves but our relationship to them; deep connection and risk of disconnection and rejection in their purest form are often our greatest fear.

So, thats my working theory, money is the west’s witchcraft. Have at it in the comments, I want to know if you agree or not?

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3 Comments on “Money is to the west, what witchcraft is to Africa

  1. Definitely think money is accurate. At the July CPx in our session on animism & folk religion I actually talked from the American perspective of this (i.e., “Here is what animism is to me”) labeling investment bakers as the priests, the American dream as the unwritten sacrosanct text and rituals like the clanging of the stockmarket bell as defining moments. The bridge between us and the gods is our ability to succeed (and in this context this means $$).

    Incidentally I think it really really important for us to be self aware enough to label the folk religions that inhabit and compete with more important ideologies. In the case of CPx it ended up opening a pretty powerful and honest discussion about East African forms of animism (very similar to Southern African) particularly when they didn’t see the American coming in to belittle other cultures but instead open up about the troubles in his own.

  2. Love this Liam.
    I definitely agree that in the west there are things that ultimately sway whether I feel secure about my existence or not, and I think money is a huge part of it.
    I also wonder if a greater lack of physical security for South Africans means that they look to the spiritual more easily for security… where as in the West it seems easy to find stable and ‘trustworthy’ physical security: I can own a house, walk around safely, trust the police, relatively trust governmental decisions about my welfare etc. Do you think this difference means that the West generally do not look for spiritual security anymore?

  3. Pingback: Inspiration: Top 10 of 2015 – Change Writer

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