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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!

War, growth, and political activism in Africa

Following up on my previous post about Chris Blattman’s work with ex-combatants in Northern Uganda, I came across another interesting piece [PDF] by him and a earlier article [PDF] by John Bellows and Edward Miguel about the effects of war on post-conflict political participation. Bellows & Miguel’s 2006 piece captures a variety of interesting findings about the medium-term effects of conflict on both consumption and local institutions in Sierra Leone.  Using data from 2005, three years after the end of the 1991-2002 civil war, they find that areas experiencing greater amounts of violence during the war did not have lower consumption levels than less-affected areas by 2004.  Whilst this result is consistent with the neoclassical assumption that destruction of capital may lead to faster growth converging back to steady state growth, they also supply helpfully specific hypotheses for this return to growth, including the continuing availability of diamond wealth in some of the regions which experienced the highest levels of conflict, the reconstruction work of NGOs, and the fact that soil was allowed to lie fallow in many areas during the war.

More interestingly, however, Bellows & Miguel also find that areas with greater levels of war-related victimization (and not simply greater numbers of battles) have higher attendance at community meetings and higher levels of voter registration in the post-conflict period.  These results hold after controlling for the number of NGOs doing reconstruction work in these regions.  Contrary to the popular expectation that war destroys the social fabric, these results indicate that in some cases, conflict may actually increase local-level political activism.

In a 2007 publication, Blattman uses his unique dataset from northern Uganda to investigate political activism among returning combatants in the post-conflict period, and finds a similar result: youth who were abducted by the LRA are more likely than non-abducted youth to become community leaders and to vote on national referenda.  He suggests that the act of witnessing violence may be the primary motivator behind this increasing political activity, as witnessing violence was significantly correlated with greater political involvement in ways that perpetrating or receiving violence, or carrying weapons, were not.  What’s best about this piece, however (and at least from the standpoint of mainstream development economics), is its inclusion of qualitative data.  A number of former abductees described their abductions as experiences that left them more mature and worldly, less willing to uncritically accept the political positions of local leaders, and increasingly interested in making something of their lives.  This obviously applied to a minority of abductees overall, just as political leadership is inherently a minority trait in any population, but still offers a fascinating bit of insight into a little-discussed aspect of post-conflict reintegration.

Viva Riva!

I slipped under the wire to see Viva Riva! [NYT review] during its limited run at E Street Cinema in DC last week, out of immense curiosity about the first film to come out of the DRC in several decades. It turned out to be both tightly plotted and disturbing – an eerie portrait of a society where the state monopoly on violence has almost completely broken down, and where the promise of money in sufficient amounts can induce almost anyone to betrayal.  The constellation of gangsters, army officials, sex workers, priests, street children and bystanders who are drawn into interaction with each other around the central character of Riva, an audacious gasoline smuggler, is well-drawn, and watching their various twisting plotlines slowly converge on the same place was one of the central pleasures of the film.  Along the way, there’s some ridiculous sex, quite a lot of alcohol, many reversals of fortune, and some apt commentary on the old “Kin la (pou)belle” saw.  The final scene is pitch perfect, as well.  Check out the trailer here.