Historically, witchcraft in Africa has not comprised a stable or uniform set of beliefs. The idea of witchcraft, which might loosely be defined as the belief that people exist who use supernatural means to harm others, has existed in African societies from the precolonial, through the colonial, and into the postcolonial periods. But ideas about the kinds of powers that witches are alleged to use and the types of people often accused of using witchcraft have shifted in response to the changing political, economic, and social landscape. While witchcraft beliefs can sometimes be understood as metaphors for political forces and social ills, they must also be understood as separate systems of signs and meanings that have their own historical trajectories rooted in local cultures. Beliefs in witchcraft are beliefs in systems of power derived from unseen forces, and for those people who believe in supernatural powers those forces are quite real and are not merely metaphorical allusions to other phenomena. In the precolonial era, the political power that many chiefs and kings had was based in supernatural powers; these occult powers were potentially usable for either positive, socially accepted ends or for evil, selfish, and greedy ends. In the colonial and postcolonial eras, states and politicians have also been seen to have supernatural powers but are believed to have used them largely for self-enrichment or empowerment. Systems of global trade, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later colonial production of various commodities, both created wealth for a few and inflicted harm on many people. The perceived immorality of these economic and social networks was often captured in stories of witches ambushing people and selling them or consuming their life forces. The spiritual insecurity represented in these beliefs in witchcraft has continued into the postcolonial era.
Alice Lakwena’s transformation from a healer into a Christian prophetess occurred during a period of civil war and unrest in Uganda. In 1986, she founded the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) in northern Uganda and waged war against the government of Yoweri Museveni. Above all, her power was based on the practice of possession by gendered spirits, a ritual that fostered a unique form of holy war. Though her forces were defeated, and she later died in a refugee camp in northern Kenya, her fame continued to grow after her death.
Walter E.A. van Beek
There is not one African indigenous religion (AIR); rather, there are many, and they diverge widely. As a group, AIRs are quite different from the scriptural religions the world is more familiar with, since what is central to AIRs is neither belief nor faith, but ritual. Exemplifying an “imagistic” form of religiosity, these religions have no sacred books or writings and are learned by doing, by participation and experience, rather than by instruction and teaching. Belonging to specific local ethnic groups, they are deeply embedded in and informed by the various ecologies of foragers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists—as they are also by the social structures of these societies: they “dwell” in their cultures. These are religions of the living, not so much preparing for afterlife as geared toward meeting the challenges of everyday life, illness and misfortune, mourning and comforting—but also toward feasting, life, fertility, and togetherness, even in death. Quiet rituals of the family contrast with exuberant public celebrations when new adults re-enter the village after an arduous initiation; intricate ritual attention to the all-important crops may include tense rites to procure much needed rains. The range of rituals is wide and all-encompassing. In AIRs, the dead and the living are close, either as ancestors or as other representatives of the other world. Accompanied by spirits of all kinds, both good and bad, harmful and nurturing, existence is full of ambivalence. Various channels are open for communication with the invisible world, from prayer to trance, and from dreams to revelations, but throughout it is divination in its manifold forms that offers a window on the deeper layers of reality. Stories about the other world abound, and many myths and legends are never far removed from basic folktales. These stories do not so much explain the world as they entertainingly teach about the deep humanity that AIRs share and cherish.