As we saw in Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Azande, witchcraft can provide a means by which to explain the unfortunate and unexplainable. For the Azande, there is no such thing as mere coincidence, and by understanding events as the result of witchcraft, the Azande frame their worldview as not one guided by notions of fate but rather one in which they have a level of control over. Evans-Pritchard discussed that one can do witchcraft without intending to, but intention is not needed for the impact of witchcraft to be felt. Therefore, if witchcraft is suspected, the affected party has the ability to remedy it by accusing a suspect and demanding atonement for their acts. While one may not have control over another’s actions, or even their own at times, this framing of events as the direct results of certain actions, either intentional or not, allows for the affected to hold those causing harm accountable, which gives the afflicted party a sense of agency in a situation where they would otherwise not have much control. This similar sense of agency regarding witchcraft was addressed in Michael Jackson’s study of the Kuranko of Sierra Leone.
Like the Azande, the Kuranko believe that witchcraft can explain many unfortunate and otherwise unexplainable phenomena. However, Jackson points out a critical difference in how these societies experience witchcraft: Kuranko witchcraft is confession-oriented as opposed to the accusation-oriented witchcraft of the Azande. Confessions of witchcraft are often done by women, although not exclusively, who are severely ill and close to death. The shift in orientation from accusation to confession gives agency not to the affected party as with the Azande, but to the party suspected of witchcraft, as the women who confess do so in an attempt to claim power they otherwise lack in their day to day lives.
Jackson points out that among Kuranko, as is the case in other patriarchal societies, society is stratified in such a way that places women as inferior. As a result, they hold very limited power and rarely participate in social spheres outside the home. However, further stratification can occur within the home when more than one wife is taken. Junior wives are at the mercy of not just their husbands, but the primary wife as well. Kuranko women often experience what Jackson calls “kinship stress” which fuels “the resentments that nurture witchcraft[.]” This also explains why many of the victims of witchcraft are immediate and extended family members and family members of the husband or co-wife. The confession of witchcraft, thus, becomes one of the very few ways that many Kuranko women can exercise any sort of autonomy within their limited social position. As Jackson states, “…it is important to recognize that witchcraft confession is also a desperate stratagem for reclaiming autonomy in a hopeless situation” (100). Kuranko women use their confessions of witchcraft “to give voice to long-suppressed grievances and to cope with [their] suffering by declaring [themselves] the author of it.” For the shape-shifter Mohammed Fofona, the confession of shape-shifting, a form of witchcraft, also empowered him. His lack of power, which stemmed more from low socio-economic status and lack of wealth and not gender, was confronted and diminished by his claims of shifting into an elephant. “As an elephant he is in his element, empowered by a sense of amplitude and control” (112).
The Kuranko see practitioners of witchcraft as lacking the necessary qualities of humanity: straightforwardness, openness, and mindfulness of others. Witches are none of these and are therefore not deserving of respect. They are not even seen as being people as they do not deserve the respect that comes from being regarded a “person”. However, through Jackson’s work, we can see that Kuranko people who confess to witchcraft are motivated to do so by a very real, very human desire: to achieve a feeling of power, control, and agency not afforded to them by any other means.
Jackson, Michael. “The Witch as a Category and as a Person” and “The Man Who Could Turn into an Elephant.” Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry, University of Indiana Press, 1989, 88-118.