Witchdoctors in Zambian Culture

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(Tim: a series on beliefs about spirit beings in Zambian culture by David Wegener) 

** Editors Note: Readers in the US may not understand just how prevalent these beliefs are in African culture. Witchdoctors, or "Traditional Healers", are regularly consulted by Africans both inside and outside of the church. In other words, this report from David doesn't represent anything exotic where he lives. Rather, it's "business as usual". **

I’ve been teaching class on Spirit Beings this fall at our theological college. As one of their assignments, I asked the students to interview a witchdoctor and ask him a set of questions. They also interviewed a local pastor and asked him the same set of questions and then they were to evaluate the answers of both from Scripture and write things up in a paper.

I’ve summarized the views of the witchdoctor as represented by the students in their papers and in our class discussions. The students usually did their interviews in groups since most did not feel comfortable going to a Traditional Healer on their own. I think you’ll find the responses very interesting, very sad and very revealing of the traditional worldview in Zambian culture. Without Christ, people live in fear and bondage.

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  • What are spirits? Where do they come from?

Some spirits are eternal. Others have been made by sorcerers. Ancestral spirits are the spirits of dead relatives. Spirits are invisible and are all around us. Spirits can live in objects or in the forest.

Spirits can be transferred from one host to another. A spirit of sickness can be transferred from person A to person B. A spirit of sickness can be transferred from person A to a chicken. Then anyone who eats that chicken gets that spirit and that sickness.

  • What happens to our relatives when they die?

When people die they become a spirit. Our relatives who die become our ancestral spirits.

  • Do our ancestors play a part in our lives? If so, what role do they play?

They want to help us but they expect to be consulted and obeyed. An ancestral spirit will come to live in a baby named for the ancestor. If that ancestor was a drunkard or a witch, the baby will be a drunkard or a witch. Our ancestors will punish us if they are not buried well.

  • Are there good spirits and bad spirits? What makes a spirit good or bad?

There are good spirits and bad spirits. Good spirits help people. Bad spirits harm people. Good spirits come from God. Bad spirits come from the devil. Demons are a kind of bad spirit. Most Healers know nothing of angels.

The same spirit can be good to one person but bad to another. There is no rank amongst spirits but some spirits are stronger then others.

  • What can spirits do?

They can cause death and bring trouble when we do not obey or appease them. Spirits can haunt and harm us. They can cause us to commit suicide or to have a car accident. They cause poverty and sickness.

Spirits also help Traditional Healers diagnose illnesses and the causes of human suffering. They show the Healers which herbs to use to heal a certain illness. Spirits can help you have children, become wealthy, or fly in the sky. They bring rain and indicate if someone wants to kill you. They guide us, protect us and provide things for us. Spirits can foretell the future. They mediate between God and us. Good spirits cause people to do good things. Bad spirits cause people to do bad things.

Spirits are pleased when we obey and take care of our parents. They like to smoke. If you go fishing, throw some tobacco in the water for the spirits to smoke. If you do, you’ll catch more fish. If you don’t, you’ll hardly catch any. Spirits like us to sacrifice to them or make offerings. They get angry when they are disobeyed. Such disobedience can bring poverty and death. Spirits want us to relate with them and depend on them.

  • When someone dies, why do they die? Does someone or some spirit usually cause deaths? Do people die of solely natural causes without the influence of spirits?

Spirits can cause deaths but they are not responsible for all deaths. Some people die because they have disobeyed God. Some die from natural causes. Spirits are usually involved when someone dies young or suddenly or dies a strange death. Spirits may kill someone who was living a bad life. Sometimes people die because the spirits wanted to relieve their suffering.

Good spirits come from our relatives who died naturally (e.g. from malaria, from cholera, from old age, etc). These spirits are friendly. They only harm us if we displease them or live an immoral life.
Bad spirits come from our relatives who died unnaturally, because they were bewitched or murdered or poisoned or any other deliberate cause. They haunt living people because they’re unhappy with how they died. They will follow those who caused their deaths. After taking revenge, they go away.

Good spirits do kill sometimes, but “in a positive manner.” For example, if parents die and their children are not given enough food or are mistreated by their adoptive parents, the spirits of the parents will come to take their children. The children might die in a manner that normally doesn’t cause death (like from a headache). Sometimes spirits will take vengeance and kill adoptive parents who have mistreated these orphans.

  • Does anyone or anything control spirits? Can we gain control of the spirit world? If so, how?

Listening to the spirits can help us gain a little control of the spirit world, but no one can really control spirits.

  • Should people live in fear of the spirit world?

Some say, yes, you should fear spirits, since they can cause death. Others say there are some spirits you should fear and others you need not fear. Still other Traditional Healers say, if you appease the spirits and live with your relatives in a peaceable way, there is no need to fear the spirits.

  • Should people live in fear of death? Are you afraid to die?

Traditional Healers fear death.

  • Have you ever cast a spirit out of a person? If so, why and how do you do that?

Traditional Healers routinely cast spirits out of people. They have strong spirits and so they can cast out weaker spirits. If they come up against a spirit that is stronger then their spirit, they go to the spirits that help them and ask for more power. Traditional Healers use charms or herbs to cast out spirits. Sometimes the Healers smoke them out.

  • By what authority do you cast out a spirit? How did you get that authority?

Traditional Healers got the authority to cast out spirits because spirits inhabit them.

Some Healers inherited their spirits from a parent or grandparent. Some got them when they were taken to a Traditional Healer at a young age. Some received their spirits at initiation or marriage ceremonies. Some received them at birth when they were named for a deceased relative who had spirits.

  • For what purposes do most people come to see you? What is the most common issue?

People come to Healers because they are sick or infertile. They claim to be able to cure diseases that hospitals and churches cannot. Some people come to them for deliverance. Others want good luck or financial prosperity. Some come for marriage help or to recover lost property or to enhance their sexual virility. One Healer said, if you need something, say, a car, come to me and tell me your need. I will go through your lineage and one of your ancestors will come through for you. In two weeks, you will have your car.

  • How do you understand your role in Zambian society?

They are here to help people and to preserve our traditional culture. If we would obey the spirits, our country’s death rate would reduce. If we would obey the spirits, our country’s prosperity and health would abound.

  • What do you believe about Jesus Christ? How can someone come to have eternal life?

Some Traditional Healers know little of Christ and do not want to know him. Some believe he was a miracle-worker, but he is not the only way to God. A few (probably church members) believe he is the Son of God.

Most Traditional Healers believe in God. Some pray to him, while others do not. No evidence that any of them approach God through Christ. A few believe in eternal life; if you want it, then fear God or obey the spirits or receive baptism in the name of Christ.

Other Notes

Missionaries are not well regarded by Traditional Healers. They are here to pull people away from their traditional culture. They tell us we don’t know God when in fact we do. They dilute our beliefs.

One Traditional Healer noted the similarity between living with our ancestral spirits and the Roman Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints.

Students also interviewed a pastor and asked the same questions and were disturbed to find the answers given were very similar to those given by the Traditional Healer. The pastor may indeed be a Christian, but his worldview is still traditional.

A Few Observations

  1. Dualism is going to be a battle for those coming out of this traditional worldview. God is eternal and so are the spirits. But God created all things and rules His entire creation (Col 1:16-17). The doctrines of the Creation and Fall must be central to the Christian worldview.
  2. Taking responsibility for their sin is going to be tough for those coming out of this traditional worldview. If good spirits make you do good things and bad spirits make you do bad things, then men and women are really just pawns pushed here and there by spirits. But God holds us accountable for our sin, even when Satan or his demons are involved (see, e.g. Gen 3).
  3. Giving up a belief in ancestral spirits is going to be tough for those coming from this traditional worldview. They are everywhere and are involved in so many parts of life and so many of your relatives believe in them, that it is going to take courage to stand against the tide. Yet, “it is appointed unto men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). When a man dies, his body goes into the grave and his spirit goes to heaven or hell. It doesn’t hang around, waiting to be appeased or obeyed or consulted.
  4. Moving to a God-centered worldview is going to be difficult for those coming from this traditional worldview. Good spirits are those that do good to man. Bad spirits are those that do bad to man. Man is the center. Everything revolves around him. The idea that a spirit could come from God to torment a man is alien to this traditional worldview (see 1 Samuel 16,18,19). In Scripture, angels obey and worship God; demons are in rebellion again God. So we need to give basic Bible teaching on angels and demons to those coming out of this perspective.
  5. Though there are some inconsistencies in the answers given by the Traditional Healers, there is a certain logic to the traditional worldview, given the assumptions on which it is based.
  6. I’m struck by many of the similarities between this worldview and the one held by people in the west. In the west, we often talk in psychological terms about how my deceased father never gave me his approval or how my deceased mother didn’t protect me from my bad father, or how my grandfather molested my mother and this caused her to be unable to show deep affection for me and how all this has left scars on my life … isn’t this pretty similar to the African traditional worldview about the ongoing effects of the spirits of our ancestors on our lives?
  7. I’m struck also by the fear involved in this worldview. People are held in bondage to fear, mainly the fear of death. Only Christ can deliver us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:9-18).
  8. The prosperity gospel is tailored very well to fit the African context and is a textbook example of syncretism. Today’s pastor promises exactly what the Traditional Healer promises (healing, fertility, financial prosperity, protection, etc.). The Healer has learned to manipulate the spirit world to get what we want. The pastor has learned to manipulate Jesus. It’s all about us.
  9. The traditional worldview seems to show little hunger for God and little conviction of sin. Instead, we are concerned with the basics of survival: food, money to buy things, children, health, etc.