Thursday 21 March 2019

Let us not be bewitched by this cultural fanaticism

As we strive to accept other cultures we cannot ignore the prevalence of exorcism and witch-hunting in African congregations, writes Mary Leland

Mary Leland

IT was just another of those radio discussions heard with one ear while doing ordinary, household, unthreatening things. Then something is said which brings the other ear sharply into action.

In this case it was the revelation that the guest speaker was a man representing a church in Dublin which advertised among its services a protection against witchcraft.

The chat diverted into such issues as whether alternative therapies such as Reiki or yoga or hypnosis could be considered contrary to biblical strictures (it's a fine line, but it seems they might be tainted) before occasionally hitting on the immediacy of superstition among, in this case, largely African congregations.

Whatever else many of our African immigrants may have brought with them to Ireland, they have included a belief in witches, seen as an active threat to the well-being of families and communities.

It's not possible for any Christian to be too aloof or sophisticated about this issue, given that God-fearing European communities through the ages shared that belief and acted accordingly.

Christianity may have outgrown that horrible idea by now, but not before exporting it, with evangelistic missionaries, to Africa. It's not easy either for a woman to listen to any debate about witches and witchcraft without remembering that it was women who were accused, tortured and executed in their thousands over several centuries.

Obviously innocent women, for who could have been possessed by the devil, or enjoying sexual intercourse with him, or flying by night over troubled households, or casting spells of a wasting sickness or a failing farm, or using the skills of midwifery to ensure the death of an unwanted infant?

Yet such things were considered possible not merely by the common, illiterate and gullible people but by highly-educated bishops and anxious, erudite kings. Ireland killed its share of witches, even up to a hundred years ago. The insane, the infirm, the isolated or ugly -- so long as they were female, they were vulnerable to condemnation.

Somehow we have left all that behind us, although superstition lingers in many folk or rural customs. We have translated that hideous concept, and its hideous injustices, into a narrative source treated, as in Room on the Broom or The Worst Witch with humour and benign imagination for the amusement of our children.

In Africa, however, tribal influences are still strong enough to condemn old , unprotected, mad, or peculiarly gifted women for local failures. Gangs of witch-killers, in a gruesome replication of the witch-finders of Europe, work a steady route from village to village in some countries.Tribal influences themselves are partly to blame for what is seen as a dramatic increase in such killings, as the modernisation of several countries has fractured the cohesion by which populations governed themselves.

A belief in sorcery not so much as a source of evil but of power, with witch-doctors (always male) as the appeasing medium between mankind and spirit, has been violently corrupted. It seems bizarre that political development and widespread access to education should have such an effect; research suggests that selective prosperity, the imposition of new agricultural policies and the disruption of rural communities by collectivisation have all contributed to a kind of spiritual anarchy, by which something, or someone, must be blamed for job losses, disappointing crops or disastrous weather.

But here's the twist: while European families read Room on the Broom and indulge in the occult with Harry Potter, some African families see, and treat, the children themselves as witches. This phenomenon is now widely reported, with international agencies trying to shelter the helpless accused and alter the mind-set, and it has also featuring in criminal cases in England, for example. The African children I meet here are obviously treasured, nor is this practice common to all African states. But in Angola, Congo and Nigeria, among others, it is endorsed by revivalist churches who charge for their services of exorcism.

To hear that witchcraft is on the religious agenda of an African church in Dublin is to feel some alarm at the possibility that this tradition of evil-seeking has been re-introduced to Ireland. Of course we have to be racially and religiously sensitive to cultural differences, but the fanaticism of this particular cultural difference, and the brutality with which its victims are treated, must not be ignored, even on a radio chat show.

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