The History of Witchcraft: Witchcraft in Africa

September 15, 2022

       This is the second post in the history of witchcraft series I started last year. I included a link to the first post in the list below. Since I was more familiar with the history of witchcraft in Salem, Long Island, and the United Kingdom, I wanted to start my research in an area I am not familiar with on the history of witchcraft. The first places that people in general think of when witchcraft is discussed are Salem, Massachusetts, and Europe where the well-known witch trials took place. I decided to take a closer look at the history of witchcraft in Africa and find out what witchcraft was and is like on the continent. During my research, I decided to write about only a sample of witchcraft beliefs in African cultures for the sake of not making this post too long. I have included a list below of additional resources I have come across in my research.

To understand what witchcraft in Africa is it is important to learn what Africa itself is.  Africa is a continent with numerous countries encompassing the land mass. There are fifty-four countries altogether and four territories. Africa has over 3,000 protected areas, with 198 marine protected areas, 50 biosphere reserves, and 80 wetlands reserves. Since there are many countries and territories on the continent, governance varied per country, and a union was formed to provide the continent a unified representation for all of them. The African Union (AU) is a continental union consisting of 55 member states. The Union was formed on June 26, 2001, and was officially established on July 9, 2002. It was originally located in Addis Ababa until July 2004 when the African Union’s Pan-African Parliament (PAP) was relocated to Midrand, South Africa; the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights remained in Addis Ababa. People in Africa also recognize and practice various religious beliefs and rituals.

While Africans acknowledge a wide variety of religious beliefs, the majority of the people respect African religions or parts of them. However, in formal surveys or censuses, most people will identify with major religions that came from outside the continent, mainly through colonization. There are several reasons for this, the main one being the colonial idea that African religious beliefs and practices are not good enough. Religious beliefs and statistics on religious affiliation are difficult to come by since they are often a sensitive topic for governments with mixed religious populations. According to the World Book Encyclopedia, Islam and Christianity are the two largest religions in Africa. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, 45% of the population are Christians, 40% are Muslims, and 10% follow traditional religions. A small number of Africans are Hindu, Buddhist, Confucianist, Baháʼí, or Jewish. There is also a minority of people in Africa who are non-religious. By learning about Africa, what the lands are like, and what the religious beliefs are, we can start to learn what the many beliefs there were about witchcraft itself.

There are some publications that discuss witchcraft in Africa. For instance, the Transafrican Journal of History released an article back in 1995 called “The Evolution and Essence of Witchcraft in Pre-Colonial African Societies” that mentions the growth of interest in comparing and contrasting witchcraft within Africa itself and in Medieval Europe. This article articulates a number of historical accounts on the origins and distinctive features of witchcraft in pre-colonial Africa, and offers an appraisal of some poignant aspects such as magnitude, ramifications, and controlling witchcraft in traditional settings. It intends to place witchcraft in the proper perspective as a socially constructed system in many pre-scientific societies. Also, the article elaborates on the role of anti-witchcraft specialists (waganga) whose expertise and significance were deliberately misconstrued by over-zealous colonial administrators and pioneering Christian missionaries.  They describe how witches were viewed at least in some African cultures; some cultures believe witches willfully seek and do harm while other cultures believe witches are not aware of what they are doing.

According to the article, witches are believed in some African cultures to assemble in cannibal covens at graveyards or around a fire to feast on the blood they extract from their victims, like vampires. The article also shares that in many African cultures witches are believed to act unconsciously and are unaware of the harm they cause since witches are driven by irrepressible urges to act malevolently. It is thus easy for those accused of witchcraft, but who are not conscious of wishing anyone ill, to assume that they unknowingly did what is attributed to them. This, along with the effects of suggestion and torture, in a world where people take the reality of witchcraft for granted, goes far to explain the striking confessions of guilt that is so widely reported in Africa and elsewhere and that are otherwise hard to comprehend. While those identified as witches may believe they are unconscious agents, it is not the view of those who feel victimized by them.

In addition to the article, I also read “The legality of witchcraft allegations in colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe” written by Fortune Sibanda which is a chapter from the book called Religion, Law and Security in Africa edited by M. Christian Green, T. Jeremy Gunn, and Mark Hill. The chapter tackles questions such as How legal or illegal are the witchcraft accusations in the public and private domains in colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe? For some context, Zimbabwe is a country located in southern Africa, and was known as Rhodesia before the country gained independence in 1980 following a long period of colonial rule and a 15-year period of white-dominated minority rule. The chapter discusses a study that was conducted to examine witchcraft accusations, and it discusses what witchcraft means to the people in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole.

     Sibanda pointed out that African Traditional Religion (ATR) accepts the existence of witches in societies where some people practice uroyi (witchcraft) and is not a myth contrary to the stance adopted by Western missionaries and colonial administrators from Europe who questioned the reality and existence of witches. Also, Sibanda’s chapter discussed the two important aspects of witchcraft in the colonial and postcolonial contexts which were socio-religious and legal. She stated in the chapter that witchcraft is largely regarded as a reality in Zimbabwe and Africa at large by traditionalists and traditional courts, a position that was denied through colonial legislation; and the work of traditional healers and their medicines were also considered to be witchcraft at law. The legal flaws have persisted into the postcolonial times, in spite of the later amendments. Witchcraft accusations entail some cultural, social, political, and legal implications. Some cases of witchcraft accusations were highly gendered and manifested as political witch-hunts bent on humiliating and eliminating political rivals through hate speech, framing, and claims-making. The study concluded that the legality of witchcraft accusations in postcolonial times is marred by the legal flaws and selective application of the witchcraft law replicating the colonial legacy that sought to promote Christianity at the expense of African Indigenous Religion in Zimbabwe.

The publications previously discussed in this post are examples of how witchcraft is viewed in parts of Africa. While this post does not cover the entire continent’s views of witchcraft, I included links that refer to the history of witchcraft in Africa, witchcraft in general, and the resources I used to write this post. I also included a link to a previous post I wrote about the history of witchcraft as a start to taking a closer look at this history.

Check out the links below on witchcraft in Africa and more.


What is Witchcraft? Taking a Closer Look at the History of Witchcraft:

“The Evolution and Essence of Witchcraft in Pre-Colonial African Societies”, Transafrican Journal of History Vol. 24 (1995), pp. 162-177 (16 pages).

Sibanda, Fortune. “The legality of witchcraft allegations in colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe”, Religion, Law and Security in Africa, edited by M. Christian Green, T. Jeremy Gunn, Mark Hill, African Sun Media, SUN MeDIA. (2018) pp. 297-313.

South African History Online:


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