Witchcraft on the Small Screen

The STC bus that I caught from Accra to Tamale yesterday was equipped with a DVD player, and we were treated to four Nollywood productions, all of which were centrally concerned with witchcraft.  I didn’t catch the title of the first one, but highlights included a man getting up in the midst of the night to swat at a moth in his room, only to have the insect turn first into a bird and then into his wife.  Egg of Life portrayed a campfire story told by an older man to a group of children, about a chief’s son who was poisoned by the witches he had inadvisedly consorted with in his youth, and the group of female warriors who were sent to find the restorative Egg of Life.  (The traditional costumes were quite lovely.)  Brotherhood of Vipers was really beautifully lit, with deeply saturated colors lending interest to this story of business rivals using witchcraft to get ahead, whilst Super Warriors was a cheesy romp about a magician who cast down his enemies by shooting lightning from the Star of David painted on his forehead.

This put me in mind of an article I recently read by Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar.  In “Religion and Politics: Taking African Epistemologies Seriously,” they argue that many African approaches to religion* treat the material and the spirit worlds as constituting a single spectrum of reality.  They note as well that this historical mode of thought may go some way towards explaining the warm reception of charismatic Christian churches in Africa, whose messages of spiritual healing (and the prosperity gospel) have proven increasingly popular over the last decades.  In Ghana, charismatic churches such as the Lighthouse Chapel International have been growing at the expense of the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches at least since the 1970s.

Paul Gifford touches on these issues in his recent study of Ghana’s charismatic movement, which offers up some telling observations of pastors calling upon the holy spirit to counteract juju worked upon members of the congregation.  Traditional typologies of spiritual forces may thus co-exist with biblical descriptors of the same phenomena, such as demons.  It’s fascinating to see the ways in which a set of cultural practices and beliefs that were at the first utterly un-African (i.e. Christianity) have slowly adapted themselves to their local setting.

*This isn’t intended to over-generalize, however; there’s obviously a huge diversity of religous practice and belief (or unbelief, for that matter) within the continent!