The ideas of rationality and reasoning are key concepts in anthropology because they reveal a great deal about how certain cultures perceive and interpret the world. This is demonstrated in the use of witchcraft within the Azande. The homeland of the Azande lies primarily in three African states: Sudan, Zaire, and Central African Republic and constitutes a complex amalgam of different ethnic groups, who are largely united by their culture and spiritual practices. Azande witchcraft provides a social and behavioral blueprint for acting upon the world. It is methodically used to explain any unfortunate event which takes place and provides an explanation for the unusual and inexplicable. To the Azande, witchcraft and misfortune are synonymous, existing as two sides of the same coin. To speak of one without the other is to ignore a core Azande belief. As seen in the film, it is also used to get to the bottom of accusations such as adultery. E.E. Evans-Pritchard writes how “the concept of witchcraft nevertheless provides them with a natural philosophy by which the relations between men and unfortunate events are explained and with a ready and stereotyped means of reacting to such events” (363). The belief in witchcraft not only provides a way to make sense of events, but also guides a systematic way to respond to them. Witchcraft provides practicality and rationale to the lives of the Azande, which contradicts the usual perception of witchcraft as unfounded and elusive.
Witchcraft pervades into all aspects of Azande life – from agriculture to hunting to domestic affairs. The occurrence of witchcraft is commonplace. A witch is not seen as a taboo but more in terms of an obstacle that must simply be dealt with. A witch arises from possessing the inherited organ, mangu which can be passed on by people of the same sex. The witch is not necessarily seen as evil, because their mangu may be doing harm without them even knowing. Once a person accused of possessing mangu earnestly shows that they have no ill will and pacify the evil within them, they are able to return to their normal lives. In a way, this contradicts what is usually seen in Western culture, where people suspected of disrupting the peace in society are ostracized, and it becomes difficult for them to reintegrate back into society. Furthermore, the normalcy of witchcraft takes away any sense of miracle or dismay from its practice. In fact, the Azande anticipate having encounters with witchcraft as it provides an explanation for any undesirable events because “witchcraft participates in all misfortunes and is the idiom in which Azande speak about them and in which they explain them” (364). Any misfortune at any time can be linked to witchcraft and is rarely explained by factors such as incompetence or failure on the part of an individual. Witchcraft is therefore an unconscious activity for the Azande.
An aspect of the film which stood out to me was the interplay between Azande religious practices and Christianity. It seemed that Azande people followed a hybrid of the two, where they abided by the moral guidelines of Christianity but also relied on witchcraft for providing the practical solutions to their problems. In fact, the film describes how “at times of misfortune, an Azande doesn’t turn to his Priest for help, but a more traditional authority such as the local Chief” (Witchcraft among the Azande, 4:41). When issues such as adultery arose, the authority of local chiefs predominated and oracle practices such as Benge would provide the answers to their questions. This also shows the underlying conflict between the two belief systems. The priest was one of the few Azande Christians who did not believe in witchcraft and preached against it. However, the trust in magic was deep-rooted in the Azande people, causing them to only rely on traditional practices of oracles to deal with misfortune. The church services and priest were not able to offer the answer to their problems that way witchcraft did. Therefore, most Azande people, such as the witch doctor who “is a Christian and like most Azande Christians, he is happy to embrace the new but sees no need to reject the old practices like witchcraft, especially when they work” (Witchcraft among the Azande, 36:32). Moreover, there was an aspect of generational differences in upholding traditional Azande beliefs. The older generation viewed the morals of the younger generation as questionable due to the decline in Azande tradition. This was especially seen with notions of marriage and sex. The younger generation was more inclined to trust Catholic teachings instead of Azande traditional practices, showing that the two belief systems did not preside in harmony, and that there was tension between them.
Ultimately, the practice of witchcraft in Azande culture is a way to make sense of the world around them. Their spiritual practices provide them with a sense of reasoning and comfort. To them, there is no such thing as a coincidence or an inexplicable event. The belief and practice of witchcraft allows for control over such situations. When misfortune strikes, they are not baffled or frightened by some force beyond their control. Instead, they have a methodical system to approaching such events and reaching a practical solution. This reminded me of the Clifford Geertz reading from our first class, where religion can be seen as a response to suffering. The symbols and practices that a society attributes within its belief system are put in place to make suffering more “sufferable” and provide a sense of reassurance from the uncertainties of life. This is precisely what the practice of witchcraft achieves for the Azande people.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. “Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events.” Reader in Comparative Religion: an Anthropological Approach, by W. A. Lessa and E. Z. Vogt, Harper, 1979, pp. 362–366.
“Witchcraft among the Azande.” , directed by Andre Singer. , produced by Andre Singer. , Royal Anthropological Institute, 1981. Alexander Street, https://video-alexanderstreetcom.proxy.library.emory.edu/watch/witchcraft-among-the-azande-2.