How To Eradicate Witchcraft In Uganda

On February 3rd 2009 I wrote an article that appeared in the Daily Monitor entitled “How To Eradicate Witchcraft In Uganda”. The link to the article is not working, so I’ve uploaded an image file of the article as it appeared in the online version of the Daily Monitor back when it was first published.

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The belief in witchcraft is pervasive across the continent, and is not restricted only to peasants and the uneducated. In fact, nearly all of the educated African elite believe in its efficacy. It is quite hard to believe that given all the advances in medicine and science in the last 500 years, most Africans today still attribute their misfortune and sickness to evil spirits and demons, courtesy of witchcraft.

In Uganda, where currently there is public outrage towards child sacrifice, there is a lot of discussion on what should be done to the perpetrators; but strangely, nowhere will you see any discussion of the ROOT CAUSE of the problem, which is the BELIEF itself.

The reason people go to witchdoctors is because they BELIEVE it works. They believe that if certain spells are cast, then their troubles will disappear. Some of these beliefs are harmless – or so they seem. For example, a young man might think wearing a simple voodoo charm will increase his chances of getting employed. No harm in that, you might think. But picture this young man, 20 years later, now an established businessman. His businesses are failing. In seeking solutions to the problem he consults a witchdoctor, who, this time, tells him that by sacrificing a child, his debts will disappear. Given his already ingrained belief that witchcraft works, is there any reason to think this man won’t go ahead with it, or at least consider it as an option? The answer is obvious. His formerly harmless superstition has now evolved into a dangerous belief system, which now is threatening to put the life of an innocent child in danger.

Therefore, the best way of ending this scourge is by eradicating the irrational belief itself – through education and sensitization. This way, whether someone is rich, or poor, he or she will more likely seek rational ways of solving their problems. This is already being done in some parts of India, from as early as primary school. People need to be taught to employ critical thinking when facing their challenges, and discouraged from pursuing options which have absolutely no evidential merit.

That’s correct. Witchcraft has no evidential merit. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that supports any of the claims of purported witchcraft or black magic. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary. This suggests that if anyone should be at the forefront of such an educational campaign, it should be the scientific community of Uganda, right? But where are our scientists? Why are they so silent on the matter? The answer is not that surprising.

My conversations with many Ugandan scientists and doctors have revealed that a large number of them actually believe that witchcraft ‘works’ (though they insist they would never partake in it). When I asked them, being scientists, about what empirical evidence they had encountered that justified this belief, they all said there was none. Many of them instead offered stories of someone they had heard of who had visited a shrine and experienced some sort of ’miracle’; in short, only rumours. Not very scientific of them, I must say. It also turned out that most of them were devoutly religious, and therefore accepted the efficacy of witchcraft on that basis alone. The common response was, "if God is there, that means the Devil is there too. So witchcraft has to be real!"

Indeed, many well-meaning Ugandans fear that asking them to concede that witchcraft doesn’t work is like asking them to declare that God doesn’t exist (which is not necessarily so). It is for this reason that even the most educated among us, depending on their particular religious affiliation, keep holding to the belief that there are such things as demons (or jinns) interacting with human beings, and imagine that these witchdoctors are in fact their earthly conduits.

So, what are we to do? Evidently, the actual cause of the scourge of witchcraft happens to be a ‘no go area’ for any kind of dialogue or discussion, because it is the belief itself. As a rule, we are told to respect people’s beliefs, and that these beliefs are not to be subjected to critical scrutiny. But it is this protection from scrutiny we accord our various beliefs that allows many of these dangerous superstitions, like child sacrifice, to flourish. Let’s face it, if people knew for a fact that witchcraft was bunk, and that juju did nothing to change one’s fortune, would anyone bother indulging in it? Probably not.

The problem is, that’s not what most of us think. It is therefore high time that the validity of some of these strange beliefs of ours gets publicly discussed.*

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*NOTE: The last sentence of this article was omitted in the version that was actually published, yet it was perhaps the most crucial point of the entire article!

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Comment by Daniel W on March 8, 2010 at 10:01pm
James,
Don't despair! I know that you are not the only one who is freethinking. It's just hard to find the others!
I'm dismayed that scientists would not be atheist, but there are theistic scientists in the US too. Also many theistic doctors. I don't understand how that can be true, but it is.
Comment by James Onen on March 8, 2010 at 3:17pm
Hi Daniel.

You are right. People in Africa have been practising witchcraft since time immemorial. The problem is, these irrational beliefs are proving difficult to shake off in the modern age because they are being reinforced by religions like Christianity and Islam. (This is addressed in some depth in my follow up article titled 'Does Christianity Reinforce the Belief that Witchcraft Works?')

Ordinarily, a scientist would be expected to find that there is no merit to the claims of witchcraft. But since many of them here are Christians, and are being told that such acts are the manifestation on Lucifer, the belief persists.

I have had long, tedious debates with Christian friends who just can't seem to shake off the belief in the efficacy of witchcraft - even when they admit there is no compelling evidence. So, if Uganda's (and Africa's) educated elite believe are open to the idea that witchcraft works, what are we to expect of the peasants?

The situation here is dire indeed!
Comment by Daniel W on March 7, 2010 at 7:09pm
Thank you for sharing your article. It is well reasoned and well written. It also appears that the beleif in witchcraft is linked to a beleif in the christian god, so eradicating the beleif will be challenging. I imagine that the beleif in witchcraft was prevalent long before christian missionaries spread their beleifs in Southern and Eastern Africa?

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