British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by R E N Smith
Witchcraft is a most evocative word, conjuring up for European minds visions of naked ladies capering around a horned man, old women being burned for alleged use of the evil eye. Merlin muttering incantations, or, further back, druids doing mysterious things with mistletoe. In my very limited experience of it, witchcraft in Africa had little to do with any of these seductive images, but was far more concerned with the legitimate or illegitimate ways and byways of medicine. I am not at all sure that religion, Christian or pagan, had much to do with it either, though I remember and enjoyed CAW Monckton's story of a New Guinea missionary complaining to government about a native "white witch", who brought rain on demand, when the missionary's prayers had failed; Monckton's note to Government that he was too busy to worry about quarrels of rival rainmakers was considered "contemptuous levity in official correspondence".

In my sub-district of Mwanza in western Nyasaland in 1952 I do not think we had any rainmakers, but we did have an eminent practitioner of traditional medicine (and witchfinder), one Black Jiva, who caused me a certain amount of worry. He was tucked away in a far corner of the district on the edge of its junction with Chikwawa and close to the Mozambique border, and in this remote corner he seldom came to my attention.

What forced him into the limelight was the arrival at my office of the badly decomposed remains of a middle-aged Achikunda woman; she had been brought to Mwanza from the far side of Thambani mountain, a fine pinnacle that stood on the Portuguese border. The story had started in Chang'oima village in the territory of Native Authority Chapananga in the corner of Chikwawa district nearest to Mwanza. Here lived a middle-aged villager, Jasi, his wife Mwangalaine, their two daughters, Feria and Enelesi, the children of these two young women plus other members of the family. A child of each of the daughters had fallen sick, so the family decided to seek professional help. They crossed the district boundary, which of course meant nothing to them, and walked to Kanyani village, where there lived a famed "doctor" - Black Jiva. To reach Kanyani they had to pass by a Government Dispensary with its trained Government Medical Aide and free treatment, but it never crossed their minds to seek attention from him.

They had a consultation with Black; he examined the children, and treated them next morning by making small cuts on their ribs and giving them medicine. That night Feria's child died. Apparently no blame attached to Black, for he thereupon decided that the children had been bewitched and gave the family half a cup of kabanga each. During this ordeal (for such it surely was) Jasi fainted and died shortly afterwards and was hurriedly carried over the border into Mozambique and buried, so that he disappeared from my jurisdiction. The family started back for home, but had only gone a short way when Mwangalaine collapsed and died. This proved beyond doubt that she too was a witch, so the family just abandoned her there and carried on home. The poor woman's naked body was found later and its pathetic remains brought to me. As coroner (another of a district officer's many hats) I duly held an inquest.

Feria deposed "My mother (the deceased) suggested that we go to Black for treatment of the children. When we arrived he asked us for cloths and some coppers, which he would examine overnight. Next morning Black made a small cut on the children's ribs and gave them some medicine; during the night my child died. In the morning (1/I/I952) we told Black we were leaving, but he said 'do not leave'. He called all the family into his hut one by one. He gave me some medicine and also made three cuts on my chest, back and foot and put some medicine in the cuts. I went outside and started to vomit.

My parents and all the rest of us were vomiting. My father Jasi fell down and I said to Black 'You have made our father very ill'. He said Tf you want your father to stay alive, give me two pounds'. We had no money so Black got some men to carry Jasi back to our sleeping hut. Black told us to go home. We went off, leaving my father unconscious. After we had been walking a little time our mother lost all strength and looked very ill. Legio (uncle of Feria) said to go on. We went home and buried my child. Legio arrived and said our mother had died and that he was going back to where her body was lying".

I noted for the record that Feria was somewhat evasive and vague.

The next witness was Enelesi, sister of Feria, whose evidence was much the same. She was followed by Lasina, sister of Jasi, who corroborated the evidence of the two daughters. She added the extra detail that Black had "put some medicine on my brother's head" - after the unhappy Jasi had collapsed. She asked Black to bury Jasi, but was not present as "it is not the custom of my people for a woman to be present at a burial".

Black then chose to give evidence, and being a pagan was affirmed and not sworn as were all the witnesses. "I was licensed by Native Authority Ntache in 1948 to treat various simple diseases. I remember when the deceased, her husband and family came with two children who were sick. They asked me to treat the children. I made small cuts on the children and treated them, but did not give them medicine to drink. That night the child of Feria died. Before that the family had come to me and asked me to give them kabanga, because the children were sick and they wanted to find out who was causing this trouble. Kabanga. is a medicine which I give to people to find out who is exercising the power of witchcraft. If a person is a witch he or she will faint and die unless I give them another medicine which will revive them. I gave them all half a cup of kabanga and saw that Jasi had fainted, which proved that he was the witch. Feria, his daughter, told me not to give him the medicine to revive him, as I was about to do, because he had been troubling them for a long time. I had Jasi, who was unconscious, carried to the small hut, but he died shortly afterward ...".

Apart from a somewhat feeble attempt to shuffle off at least some of the responsibility onto the family. Black had been reasonably honest about it all, for he obviously believed in his powers both to cure the results of witchcraft and to uncover witches. All the same, I had no hesitation in entering a finding of murder against Black - which was not a conviction - a coroner's court having no such powers so that a finding is not a conviction. The proceedings were typed out and sent to the Attorney-General for his decision regarding charges and a trial.

Fremiunt montes, nascitur ridiculus mus. The legal opinion from on high was that since there was no trace of poison in Mwangalaine's body (which was hardly surprising as practically no soft tissue was left, and in any case a vegetable poison would rapidly pass out of the body), a charge of murder could not succeed in spite of what was almost a confession from Black. The Attorney-General therefore opined that Black should be charged with "pretending witchcraft"; since we mid-20th century moderns could not officially acknowledge the existence of witchcraft, we could only charge an offender with pretending it, which, since Black appeared to have been eminently successful at it, was not really a practical solution. I had also found in my verdict that there appeared to be a prima facie case against Black of demanding money with menaces - but nothing came of that either. So Black went free, having entirely successfully cheated justice - and he was probably utterly ignorant of the reasons!

Colonial Map
Central African Federation Map, 1960
Colony Profile
Nyasaland
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 90: October 2005


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