Science - February 7, 2013

More witchcraft where cultures clash

Traditionalists may be using old customs against pioneers.



When modern life clashes with tradition in Africa, the number of accusations of witchcraft increases, suggests research in Sierra Leone. A team of Wageningen development economists and anthropologists published their findings in the January edition of African Affairs.
The researchers worked in an area in which small villages have traditionally been the fiefdoms of polygamous 'big men' who also owned most of the land. Other men worked on the land - formerly as slaves and later as a punishment or as a service to be rewarded after about 10 years with marriage to one of the chief's daughters. The arrival of the market economy offers these 'marginal' men an escape route. They become wage labourers on plantations or they grow cash crops, which leaves the big men with less free labour at their disposal.
In villages where the market economy clashed with the old patriarchy, there were more accusations of witchcraft and witch doctors were consulted more often. In villages where one set of values was dominant - whether the traditional or the market-oriented one - these things happened less often.
The study does not offer an explanation of the phenomenon. In the literature the researchers encountered two hypotheses: traditionalists use old customs to discourage the pioneers, or these pioneers resort to accusations of witchcraft because they feel guilty towards the community.  
 

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