You have probably watched Nigerian movies and marveled at the common theme of African magic. If you have lived in Africa long enough, you have heard those who claim to be victims or beneficiaries of witchcraft, declare its supernatural powers.
From Malindi in Kenya to Balagaza in Nigeria, magic is a way of life, its mythical powers verge on religion. In Kenya, someone who suffers from a twisted mouth or a businessman who loses a client is likely to blame an envious neighbor or relative for the misfortune.
And witchcraft is big business and not just in Kenya. Before modern religion, magicians and witches were consulted for all ailments and circumstances. They doled out, and still do, curses and blessings for believers and decided who became wealthy and who became poor.
Never mind that most witch doctors and magicians have little or no money. African communities have a common saying: a doctor cannot be his own doctor.
Kenyans who believe in witchcraft use it to seek revenge, wealth and power and to keep their marriages alive. Many associate the practice with the impoverished masses who visit witch doctors in pursuit of an ever elusive change of fortune. But in Nigeria and Kenya, as with many African countries, the prosperous too look for fame and fortune through magic.
A local television station in Kenya recently ran a series on witch doctors. At a witch doctor’s shrine, on the outskirts of Nairobi, expensive cars drove in and out—politicians were looking to bewitch their electorate and contractors were looking for charms to win huge tenders. All over Africa, people battle remotely by using charms. The affluent, worried about losing their wealth or seeking to suppress rivals, will pay a fortune for protection from their enemies or to improve their luck.
This witch doctor was clearly not the kind found in the villages, who is paid in animals and food. So it’s little wonder that she owns a huge compound in an area that the middle class would need some magic to afford.
Politicians are some of the biggest consumers of black magic, some pay up to $10,000 per visit. With elections on the horizon in a good number of African countries, magicians and witch doctors are looking forward to an even bigger boom in their business. At Kenya’s last polls, presidential contenders were rumored to fly out to visit the most potent witch doctors south of the country.
In the fiercely competitive market, it’s a battle of the witches. Shopkeepers, hotel owners as well as livestock traders go to shocking lengths to attract customers. The success of Indian retailers is often attributed to charms—a cat jumping over an Indian shopkeeper’s counter at the close of business may mean more business the following day. For hotel owners who believe in the powers of magic, rinsing an undergarment in cooking water is a business strategy. Football teams are known to hire the services of expensive magicians to increase their chances of winning.
A Pew Research Center survey, conducted in 2010, showed that a quarter of Kenyans believe in witchcraft despite being deeply religious. Kenya was ranked as being the 11th most religious nation in Africa and 16th in the world—78% of Kenyans are Christian and 10% are Muslim. Close to nine out of 10 people stated that religion played an important role in their lives, but most of them forget the Bible or Koran soon after worship to seek solace in shrines and witch doctors’ dens.
Despite their belief in one God, heaven and hell, the survey found that sub-Saharan Africa leads the continent in the worship of witchcraft and evil spirits; sacrificial offerings to ancestors and religious healers as well as the belief in reincarnation.
The study ranked Kenyans 15th in Africa most likely to believe in witchcraft, a few points behind the Democratic Republic of Congo and way ahead of Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zambia and Rwanda.
According to the report, “A quarter of Kenyans, both Christians and Muslims, confessed they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets) and that they consult traditional healers”.
A number admitted to revering their ancestors and treasuring animal skins and skulls or knowing people who did. Tanzania leads the pack in believing in witches and superstitious objects, with six in every 10 Tanzanians confessing to making sacrifices to spirits and dead ancestors. Rwandans, according to the poll, are the least superstitious people in Africa, with only five out of 100 people interviewed saying they believed in juju.
These results from across the continent would make any televangelist or fast-moving consumer goods manufacturer drool, as witchdoctors are not taxed. Maybe the receiver of revenue has been bewitched too.