Heart of Arts

A Singular Belief, A Collective Echo: Tracing Witchcraft from Personal Convictions to Public Rituals

Claire P. Ayelotan, PhD


The following is a brief WhatsApp conversation with Joshua (real name withheld): My Ugandan American friend and I met several years ago during one of my stopovers in Boston. He is working on a vast estate development project in his hometown that he hopes will turn into productive house rentals.

Claire: “Joshua, I have a question for you. Where you are building, your house project is like a semi-town where all other houses surrounding yours are very tiny. It’s like you have an Eiffel Tower in their midst. Don’t you think this might pose a problem where people talk and all that stuff?”

Joshua: “Ya. I pray so much. I go on my knees all the time. Hun. It’s Afrika, I expected all that. Trust me.”

“So you believe you might be attacked by witches because of this?” I asked him.

“Yah,” he replied. “But I don’t worry about it. I have been buying them out…for expansion.”

This response struck a chord, prompting me to query him. “You can buy witches?”

“Yes. I bought n° 1 who sells next to me,” he answered.

Readers must understand the significance of this conversation. What prompted me to kick-start the chat with Joshua came from seeing his proudly displayed photos and video updates of his ongoing building work in his African hometown. First, it is essential to show that Joshua lives in the US while maintaining his estate projects in Africa, which is typical of most Africans (including Nigerians) I have met. These updates gradually created many questions for a single reason: the villa’s geographical setting. His housing project is located in a modestly populated community. Those who view the videos of Joshua’s villa construction will note that it is analogous to the biblical Tower of Babel. A similar situation can be observed in Lagos with the construction of structures that do not fit into community patterns and seem to impose on them.

What was Joshua thinking starting this massive project in such a struggling environment?

The challenging part of the project was not to question whether such a large structure was necessary but rather to focus on Joshua and the people residing around the building project. Both sides may have developed beliefs in response to this incomplete building. While Joshua may believe that witches in the community will harm his dream project and force him to pray for divine protection regularly, those in the neighbourhood may hold different beliefs. There may be some individuals who are unhappy that the tall building obstructs their picturesque view of the early sunrise. There may also be others in that community who wonder who can afford a flat in that building.

What Joshua and the people in his community have in common is the construction of ideologies linked to the factual events of the housing project. In addition, Joshua has somehow developed the conviction of the existence of witches he must appease financially so they will not destroy his project dream.

Diverse encounters, collective or individual experiences, unexpected incidents, and interactions with others enhance belief formation. This formation may arise from different mindsets, which, for brevity, are not discussed here. Various mindsets contribute to forming beliefs shaped by an individual’s background, education, socialisation, and personal values. Based on an individual’s cultural and historical experiences, these mindsets can vary significantly, leading to the development of distinct knowledge systems. According to Professor of African Studies Toyin Falola in Religious Beliefs and Knowledge Systems in Africa, the one who holds witchcraft beliefs forms part of an elaborate system for historical and cultural justification of these practices, as American scientists have been taught to praise scientific methodology.

As a result of Falola’s comment, we are forced to question how belief and knowledge systems are constructed and sustained throughout human history, challenging any notion that one system can be considered superior to another. This suggests that both are valid within their respective contexts: witchcraft and scientific beliefs are products of their respective historical and cultural contexts. There is an argument for epistemic relativism, which implies that knowledge is contextualised and shaped by the cultural and historical context in which it emerges. An individual, like Joshua, who holds witchcraft beliefs, may accept and understand these beliefs as part of an established cultural and historical framework that legitimises witchcraft as a system of knowledge. At the same time, scientists in America are usually socialised within an educational and societal structure which promotes science as the premier path toward knowledge acquisition.

Two societies have conflicting ideologies, each with a knowledge system gleaned from cultural and historical experiences. In one society, witchcraft beliefs may be considered legitimate methods of understanding and engaging with the world, whereas scientific methods may be deemed superior to another. It thus applies that no universally “correct” system exists – each approach serves its society well. Therefore, efforts made by one society to alter the collective mindset of another society may face challenges. It may be difficult for anyone endeavouring to persuade Joshua that those he considers witches are merely people with mixed feelings regarding this immense construction project. Joshua’s world is populated by those who believe in witches, so it is unlikely that they will deviate from their beliefs.

Various sources, including religious practices, have long reinforced beliefs. These beliefs have long been legitimised within their specific sociocultural, historical, and legal structures; any attempts at change would likely be seen as cultural imperialism or an attack against cultural identity. Thus, it boils down to one’s faith; one’s belief system significantly shapes one’s experiences and understanding, with faith being placed into particular knowledge systems that reinforce and reinvigorate itself over time, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of infinity.

Trust in any system–religious or otherwise–can lead to experiences which reinforce existing principles and strengthen them further. One method for reinforcing witchcraft’s reality includes social-religious rituals, educational systems or public discourse supporting its existence. Nigerian megachurches with active anti-witchcraft doctrinal campaigns may increase the risk of adopting false beliefs to their detriment by encouraging prayers against witches, thus raising attendance rates at these churches and increasing exposure. Within these religious settings, sermons alone weren’t enough; hence, regular calls for deliverance sessions were made public to identify witches and dismantle any witchcraft powers they might wield – this practice closely tied faith-building with shared beliefs. Recurring attendance to these churches cements beliefs into people’s psyche over time. Church attendance strengthens and entrenches these beliefs about witchcraft through sermons, deliverance sessions, and other ceremonial practices, further embedding it into community consciousness and memories of members. Unfortunately for Nigerian families living under their jurisdictions, church attendance reinforces and deepens these misconceptions, setting false pathways which have devastating repercussions for some households.

Collective faith provides internal and external benefits: its effects are felt internally, shaping individual members’ worldviews and how they interpret events or phenomena. For instance, deliverance sessions have been publicly advertised to prove that witchcraft or supernatural power exists – further reinforcing faith within this belief system.

The negative ramifications, sadly, of such beliefs outweigh the positive ones. I remain dubious of its potential positive side effects since witchcraft beliefs don’t automatically translate to any form of harm or danger. However, it should be kept in mind that such beliefs can sometimes have dire repercussions. Conversely, beliefs which promote social cohesion act as unifying forces within communities and provide emotional support to particularly vulnerable groups; taking steps against perceived hostile forces often leads to emotional release or empowerment for these vulnerable individuals. Contrarily, negative beliefs that lead to stigmatisation, exclusion, resistance to alternative explanations, exploitation and ethical concerns should be approached carefully, as no free deliverance sessions are available. Psychological manipulation must, therefore, be handled carefully as there will likely not be free-of-charge deliverance services. Are There Incentives or Gifts Involved? Believers often give financially to churches or pastors as part of their response to deliverance or prayer services they have experienced first-hand. Even so, this only sometimes represents how closely these gifts reflect what was received back to them personally. Christian programs or religious belief systems often display manipulative tendencies; witchcraft-deliverance churches present additional risks in manipulation, especially leaders within these congregations who could exploit deeply held fears for personal gain, both financially and otherwise.

Victimised people tend to be exploited in situations like this one. A simple illustration would be when believers cannot read their Bible themselves and need someone else to read for them – especially pastors whose sole concern seems to be members’ weaknesses rather than providing Biblical insight and counsel. Reading alone doesn’t do it, so insights gained through profound reading are needed – which explains why different versions exist along with hundreds of commentaries, concordances and contextual experiences.

Have Nigerians noticed that most who attend churches tend to have lower educational levels and economic status? Regardless, educated individuals still frequent them – being academic does not guarantee wisdom – many professors still need to be taught life’s pearls of wisdom regarding beliefs and spiritual enlightenment. Exposing oneself to external environments from another perspective allows one to quickly identify any misinformed notions and disprove them.

My goal in exploring these points has always been to prevent beliefs from going too far; all individuals should express whatever opinions they wish, provided their ideas do not harm others. Educational awareness, community dialogue, monitoring and evaluation interventions, community mediation services, and legal regulation can help combat harmful beliefs; however, witchcraft practices are illegal under Nigerian law and cannot be practised freely. Laws publicly condemning those practising witchcraft present an immovable barrier to change, as these beliefs have become codified into law. Another aspect is human rights – there can be issues surrounding what defines fundamental human rights, such as what defines them when those establishing these rules also violate them.

As there is no one-size-fits-all solution, respecting sociocultural and religious beliefs and preventing harm to others requires a nuanced approach.

My next question to Joshua will be, “What will you do if the named witch selling next to you collects your money and still destroys your dream project?”

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