Witchcraft in Tanzania

Steve Rasmussen is Senior Lecturer in Intercultural Studies at NEGST-AIU. He writes in Conversation Magazine of his very personal interest in the intersection of suffering, witchcraft and Christian mission:

Before I moved with my family to Northwestern Tanzania 20 years ago, we were quite healthy. I had written research papers on demons and powers in the Bible, but I had no awareness of witches or witchcraft. Then, within the first year of our time in Africa, we were sick 40 times. I began having panic attacks. We gave birth to a
still-born child. We grieved, far from everyone we had previously known. We struggled to adjust to a new culture and operate in Swahili. Meanwhile, we frequently went to funerals of neighbors, friends, fellow church members, and their children. Like Job, we asked, “Why!?” Why were we and others suffering, sick, dying—even while following Jesus?

How should we respond to this? How could we fix it? Sometimes we got a diagnosis from a clinic, but finding a reliable lab was difficult. We wanted to know more than “pneumonia, malaria, typhoid.” We wanted a deeper reason and a more permanent solution. I asked people and I asked God. I read scripture and books. I preached and taught on Job, Psalm 22, John 11, and many other passages about suffering. I considered multiple causes like environment, parasites, demons, psychological effects, our own and others’ sins and mistakes, and so on. But I also slowly began to realize that while Tanzanians considered these options, they also considered possibilities that I did not. They expected that some interpersonal relationship was the ultimate cause of everything, especially if it was surprisingly good (like quick wealth) or surprisingly bad (like a sudden death
of a young man). A capsized ship that killed 900 sounded like multiplied negligence to me but locally was blamed on the country’s president sacrificing people.

Understanding through Listening

But it was not until a decade ago when I did my dissertation research on what people in North Western Tanzania say, do, and believe about sickness and death that I really began to understand. I spent three years listening to 150+ Tanzanians in individual and focus group interviews. I also participated in daily life: worshipping in church,
transporting dead bodies, praying with sick friends, and even exorcising demons. I wrote 100,000 words of field notes on what I observed. I asked insightful Tanzanian friends and church leaders to help me interpret what I was seeing and hearing.

You can continue reading this article in Conversation Magazine Issue 5.

And you can find more articles from Professor Steve and others on the Carl Henry Centre Witchcraft Accusation Project. There’s a video of a presentation by Steve there where he talks about his research, shows a great little clip of a former mganga showing the tricks of the trade, and asks some helpful questions including:
a) Is there any instance recorded in the Bible of a witch causing harm to someone else by invisible means?
b) Is mchawi the right word to use in translating the Hebrew words for magicians, diviners and mediums?

Also look out for the forthcoming ASET conference where there will be a good deal of engagement on these issues:

Call For Papers Aset Revised


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