Books

Eating a burning ice cream in Zimbabwe

IT IS A BONUS to have another book, The Anti-Witch, from Jeanne Favret-Saada on witchcraft in the Bocage. She brings, once more, her courage, insight and dramatic descriptive abilities to the ethnographic task. In this confined space I can only pick up two lines in her writing:  her description of the methods she used in coming to understand witchcraft and her depiction of those used by Anglo-American anthropologists in Africa drawn from writings published in the 1960s and 1970s. Both in relation to what she calls the oxymoron, that is, “participant observation”.

She describes the methods she used in studying witchcraft in the Bocage. She carried out fieldwork from 1969–1972 and lived part of the time in the area until 1975, then published two books (one with Josée Contreras) based on her work. In the second year of fieldwork she met Madame Flora with whom she worked closely and who became her dewitcher; it is Madame Flora’s therapeutic treatment that Favret-Saada intricately analyses. She acquired a vast amount of documents including notebooks; she attended two hundred séances, taped thirty of them and compiled a thousand pages of transcriptions; she kept a field journal that recorded her own bewitchment and her experience of therapy with Madame Flora. In 1981, Josée Contreras and Favret-Saada wrote a chronological account of the meetings and collective sessions and carried out a textual analysis of the material. The depth, coverage, minute detail and observation over time are impressive.

The most striking aspect of her field work is the nature of her participation in witchcraft. Her bravery in allowing herself to be “caught up” in chains of bewitchment is admirable (30). There is ambiguity in her references to having been caught. She says, “I, myself, wasn’t quite sure whether or not I was bewitched” although she experienced “uncontrollable reactions” that showed that she “had been affected by the real (and often devastating) effects of particular words or ritual acts” (101-102). Some people took her to be a dewitcher while others said she was bewitched. Being aware that “participation” can cause the intellectual project to disintegrate she undertook “to make ‘participation’ an instrument of knowledge” in discovering the positional system that constitutes witchcraft by “staking my own self in the process” (102). How she did so lies at the centre of the book.

It is a salutary experience to read her prescription for understanding a dewitcher’s craft: it can be described and understood only “if we are prepared to run the risk of ‘participating’, of being affected by it” (107).

Favret-Sadaa says, “French peasant witchcraft is, in fact, highly variable and adaptable” (98). And so is witchcraft on the African continent. Her depiction of the publications in the 1960s and 1970s produced by Anglo-American anthropologists who detoured through Africa is fierce. She states that “their analysis of witchcraft was reduced to that of accusations, because, they said, those were the only ‘facts’ an ethnographer could observe.” For these anthropologists accusation was “the principle form of behaviour present in witchcraft (its archetypal action), as it was the only one that could empirically be proven to exist. The rest was little more than native error and imagination… These anthropologists gave clear answers to one question and one question only, ‘In a given society, who accuses whom of witchcraft?’” They, she says, disregarded almost all other questions including ideas, experiences, and practices of the bewitched and of witches. The anthropologists quoted require no defense from me. It would be of great interest if the author brought to bear more recent examinations of witchcraft studied by people in Africa outside that ambit.

Her critique of that body of work leads Favret-Sadaa to dismiss the practice of participant observation as a fertile ethnographic method. As a practice it is “about as straightforward as eating a burning hot ice cream,” she says (98). She delineates concise lines within which ethnographers should operate in order to “understand” witchcraft. Her method was “neither participant observation, nor above all, empathy” (98). “When two people are affected, things pass between them that are inaccessible to the ethnographer; people speak of things that ethnographers do not address…” (104). The ethnographic literature on witchcraft, both French and Anglo-Saxon, did not allow her to figure the positional system that constitutes witchcraft. Instead, she discovered this system by staking her own self in the process (102). She found her experiences in the dewitching séances she attended as a bewitched woman “all but unintelligible” (103). There is, she says, a gulf between her findings and those in studies of rural French witchcraft and earlier folklorists and the reason, she believes, is because she allowed herself to be “caught up” (30) which opened up the possibility of a specific form of communication devoid of intentionality, and one that may not be verbal (104).

For two years, 1982 and 1983, I was in the “field” working with n’anga among the Zezuru people of Zimbabwe who play the role, or part of the role, that dewitchers perform in the Bocage. I had no particular interest in the “one question only” and neither did I accord accusations heard differently from other kinds of locutionary information, no doubt, because my work had as its focus the treatment by n’anga (the term used by Zezuru people in Zimbabwe for indigenous healers) of children as patients and as acolytes as well as their experiences learning to be n’anga. I lay no claim to deep understanding of witchcraft though many anthropologists in Africa can. I have worked, too, with healers among Tonga people in the Zambezi Valley and Xhosa people in South Africa. Favret-Saada might ask what do you mean by “work”? In each of these projects I participated only in as much as I lived among those with whom I worked in a tin shack in a squatter camp; in an abandoned servant’s room behind a bar in a village; and on a pole and daub house on stilts in a valley; but I did not do the work that my neighbours did. I observed for years on end. Observation entailed many dialogues; attendance at rituals; listening to accounts–unsolicited by me–of people’s encounters with witchcraft; creating a variety of formal methods of measurement, for example, of children’s knowledge of plants used in medicaments, and so on. I did not study witches, however I interacted with people named by others as witches. I was not “caught” although during a ritual to call out the spirits maddening his client, a n’anga warned her, when she tried to escape the rondavel, saying, “There is a white witch standing at the door.” Zezuru, Tonga and Xhosa healers informed me that I was possessed by healing spirits. I understood their diagnoses as saying that my interest in their work was acknowledged as serious and as an invitation to work with them on those interests. This sketch prefaces an outline of what I learned about healers (some of them, some of the time). I came to admire their penetrative insights into character; their reach for self-mastery; their cognizance of living on the knife edge of good and evil; their vulnerability to accusations of the use of evil force or malpractice; their training that often entailed immersion, risk and the need to confront the power of spirits; concern for clients; the handing on of knowledge to young acolytes; the acknowledgement of power/force even in some young children; the assumption of the burden of n’anga (in Zimbabwe) in dealing with the pain of people’s betrayal of one another during the liberation war and their search for recompense; and, in sum, their vast cultural undertaking. To some degree, I thought that I had come to understand the complexity of the healers’ role. I was not bewitched and I did not train as a n’anga. Was I qualified to “understand”?

Perhaps Favret-Saada is right. Anthropological use of participant observation leads to scant understanding. Perhaps the term is a cover story, a misnomer. Perhaps anthropologists do something different or many things differently. Perhaps they are historians of the moment and as liable as are historians to misrepresent matters. Perhaps it is only those with talents and insights similar to Favret-Saada’s who can be caught up in chains of bewitchment and arrive at an understanding that can be shared in print and contribute to anthropological theory of witchcraft.

Favret-Saada’s strictures on the labour of anthropologists serves to impress on us the challenges of the discipline.

 

Pamela Reynolds is Professor Emerita in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She is writing a book based on fieldwork undertaken from 1996 to 2000 on “An Ethnographic Study of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the Role of Youth”. She is involved in the SSRC and UNO Research Project on Children in Armed Conflict that has just secured two major grants. With Lori Leonard and Veena Das, Reynolds is working with adolescent girls who have HIV in a four city project. She continues to work with ex-activists in the Western Cape.


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