How to Understand and Dispel the Fear of Witchcraft
What is witchcraft, why does it persist in Africa, and how do we respond to it as Christians?
Written by Joseph Byamukama | Wednesday, February 2, 2022
Christ conquered witchcraft on the cross. Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). Jesus is greater than Moses, who defeated the Egyptian magicians and set God’s people free from fear and bondage. He defeated Satan, sin, and sorcery.
In 2016, the former Ugandan Parliament House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga raised eyebrows and caused controversy for her re-election thanksgiving to the ancestors in a shrine. Before her, the then Vice President, Professor Gilbert Bukenya, had done the same. Indeed many politically influential Africans appeal to the power of witchcraft. But what is witchcraft? Why does it persist in Africa? And how do we respond to it as Christians? Answering these questions I hope to show that Christians need not fear witchcraft.
What Is Witchcraft?
In A Biblical Study of Witchcraft, Festus K. Kavale notes a renewed boom in the interest and return to witchcraft. Ugandans, and I hear Kenyans too, love Nollywood’s witchcraft films starring the talented Patience Ozokwor. Most of us have encountered witchcraft, whether in word, life, or on a screen. And you or someone you know may be living in fear of witchcraft even now.
David Noel Freedman defines witchcraft as “the practice of sorcery or necromancy for divination or the manipulation of (generally evil) spirits.” Avraham Negev sees witchcraft as the use of occult or supernatural forces “to exert an influence over (one’s) fellow human beings or to change the course of events.” Witchcraft is when someone uses sorcery or divination to manipulate or use supernatural forces to prosper themselves or harm their enemies, or both. It is born out of our desire to control our destiny and future, do good or bad—our attempt to manipulate the gods.
The Fear of Witchcraft Pervades Time and Cultures
Witchcraft is universal. It existed in the Ancient Near Eastern world of the Old Testament. Greeks and Romans practiced it, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians assumes it (Ephesians 6:12, 16; Acts 19:19). Salem, where our son was born, is America’s witchcraft capital. And I can recall one of my distant grandmothers practising divination in her shrine near my childhood home.
Witchcraft is not restricted to those who don’t know God. Israel was so inclined to enchantments and sorcery that prohibitions against them were necessary (Exodus 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:10). Paul found it necessary to remind Christians that sorcery stems from the flesh (Galatians 5:19-20).
Gilbert Bukenya and Rebecca Kadaga would certainly consider themselves Christians—so did my grandmother, whose Bible and rosary never left her shrine. As such, witchcraft remains pervasive across time, cultures, and religious professions.
Why Does It Persist in Africa?
Julius K. Muthengi, in The Art of Divination, notes that recurrent family sickness that claims lives, unexplained and untimely deaths, barrenness, and pandemics are some reasons Africans visit witchdoctors. Linked to this, many fear witchcraft being used against them, so they turn to it for protection. A shrine hosts guests when a student seeks answers for her failed grades, a politician fears the next polls, and a businessman’s bank statement displeases him. In short, problems and pain tend to move people towards shrines.
Yet for Kavale (who, as we saw, noted a renewed interest in witchcraft) some Africans explore witchcraft out of curiosity through ‘simple experiments’ until they are trapped. Others heed the call by schools for “a return to traditional practices as a way of showing patriotism.” Such a call is audible in Ugandan academic and political circles. Indeed, there remains a considerable reaction among African elites against Christianity for its supposed colonial roots, and a rallying call exists to return to traditionalism and witchcraft.
Byamukama was born and raised in Ibanda District in Western Uganda.He received his undergraduate degree in Construction Management from Makerere University, Kampala and his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA.
Byamukama is pursuing his PhD in New Testament Studies at Ridley College, Australia, under Dr. Brian Rosner.
He is married to Daphne, and the two have one son, Abaho. He blogs at byamukama.com.