DR NJENGA: Simple minds rush to witchcraft claims

Health & Fitness

Simple minds rush to witchcraft claims


“An aunt of mine came visiting two weeks and got upset with me for hiring a house-help from a region known for witches. Is witchcraft real or some sort of psychological craze?”

I am not sure which region is known for witches, and therefore not sure how your aunt came to such an amazing conclusion. Lay people are in some ways privileged because in exercise of their responsibility as lay people, no effort is required to show any evidence for the “lay” position they hold. When one says that a certain part of the country is full of witches, while the other is full of highly educated people, no evidence is required to prove the point. It is enough to state that opinion.

When a lawyer stands before a judge to argue a case, he must be prepared to support his assertions. If for example, he tells the judge that Mr Juma is a witch and that he comes from a region full of witches, the judge will (rightly) ask the lawyer for the evidence. If no evidence is provided, then the judge will rule that such allegations about Mr Juma are merely hearsay and therefore not admissible as evidence.

In a similar vein, a doctor who claims that Mr Juma was not able to go to work because he had Malaria, will be asked to show the evidence he relied on to make the diagnosis of Malaria. If no such evidence is provided, then the doctor’s view is equivalent to that of your aunt and must (and will) be treated as lacking in substance!

Your aunt is not alone in finding it difficult to define matters to do with witchcraft. Wikipedia tells us that it “broadly means the practice and belief in magical skills and abilities exercised by solitary practitioners and groups”. It goes on to emphasise that it is a concept heavily embedded in cultural beliefs and customs. It is found in cultural frameworks that include a magical world view. These very vague definition begs for some magic to be understood. At the end of the day, the scientist will find it difficult to measure the activities of the witch.

Indeed, in modern day a dichotomy exists between those who are educated (and mostly Christian) and those, like your aunt who live in allegedly ignorant (rural) uneducated parts of the country, where the practice of magic and witchcraft rule the day! If only life was that simple! Not all rural people believe in witchcraft and equally, many educated people find much solace with witchcraft!

A few years ago, a doctor came to us and told us that his son had been bewitched. He wanted to take his son from our care because he was unable to understand how the boy (in his 20s) could behave in the way that he was.

Only witchcraft could explain why a brilliant boy could fail to complete a medical degree after having spent so much time and energy in the matter! The boy had passed Form Four exams with distinction, and found his way to a local medical school. The first year went well. According to his father, things went wrong when he met and fell in love with a girl from a community that practices witchcraft. The father told us the story with great anger and frustration.

After a few weeks together, the young couple had decided to take a few months off “to get to know each other better”. They headed south without being sure what the destination was. They did not inform their parents or teachers that they had left the country. His father was called by the police from a southern African country. The boy had been in a fight and was severely injured. He and the girl were brought back safely and we saw him at the request of the surgeon who had cleaned up the wounds and stitched him up. He did not seem remorseful for all the trouble he had caused and regretted that he had failed to reach the Kalahari Desert! He had promised the girl an adventure in a desert and thought the South was best.

Formal evaluation indicated that both the boy and the girl had features of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Both very bright but fell by the wayside under the weight of being in love and also being in medical school. What the father believed to be features of witchcraft were infact classical symptoms of the condition! The patient was restless, easily bored, impulsive and prone to unplanned activities and adventures! On medication both completed their studies. Neither believed they were ever bewitched! The doctor remains convinced that his son had been bewitched and the curse was removed by the witchdoctor he had visited!

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