It was with a sense of tragic sorrow that I read the vacuous reactions of some Nigerians to an announcement by the B.I.C. Ijomah Center for Policy Studies and Research at the University of Nigeria Nsukka that the centre would host an international conference on witchcraft. Some Christian associations came up with fasting and prayer to prevent the conference.
My greatest disappointment was in the University’s decision that ‘the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Charles Igwe, has directed that the topic for the Interdisciplinary and International Seminar by the B.I.C Ijomah Center for Research scheduled for the 26th November be instantly dropped forthwith’.
The conference was aptly titled “Witchcraft: Meaning, Factors and Practices” to let people know that it was simply an inquiry into the phenomenon. It does not amount to endorsing witchcraft. In the minds of some, the conference would be attended by wizards and witches to plan how to wreak havoc on Nigeria. That academics had quietly investigated witchcraft as an academic exercise was of no relevance to the ‘crucify him’ mentality. Did it occur to opposers of the witchcraft conference that papers could be produced, which would make us understand how witchcraft operates and see how it can be deployed to developing the mind of citizens? If witches have so much power, would it be possible to ask them to direct their powers towards positive things just as the mystics did to our understanding of the solar system?
Once again, to my eternal chagrin, we encounter how ignorance and overzealousness can dominate the public space and drive a university into taking an irrational decision in the 21st Century. How does a study of how witchcraft operates in our imagination offend God? If a pastor had called a crusade on destroying the witches in the land, nobody would have raised an eyebrow. Perhaps I need to state that a conference on witchcraft is not a conference of witches and wizards. It is designed to study witchcraft, which is very popular in the imagination of our people, the Pentecostal pastors in particular. Indeed, without the fear of witches and wizards, the Pentecostal movement would not be as popular as it is now.
In the 1980s, one Chief Priest Ebohon announced that all witches in the world were going to hold a meeting in Benin City. There was hue and cry and the late Archbishop Benson Idahosa declared the meeting evil. The matter was debated on television and before long; Ebohon declared that the meeting was not going to be visible to human eyes. Whether or not the meeting held, only wizards and witches would know. Benin is still in existence, and as Gordons the comedian would always joke, the ‘first airport in Nigeria was built in Benin were only night flights took place!
In 2007, I attended a conference in Vienna where a German academic presented a paper on Ifa oracle, arising from his research findings in Cameroon where he had been an apprentice to an Ifa priest! I was glued to this foreigner who took time to explain the Ifa corpus to us, Christians from the highly religious Africa! I am sure that Ifa being studied in America or Vienna has not turned those cities into a haven of witches and wizards. Indeed, I won’t be surprised if an institution in Europe or America reacts to this misplaced zeal by hosting the conference on witchcraft.
There is something enchanting about the supernatural that has intrigued man from the earliest times and continues to fascinate mankind. It invokes fear, superstition, and awe because we lack a full understanding of how that level of reality operates. Witches or supernatural power are a part of the ritual imagination, which has informed the popularity of Nollywood. Pentecostal pastors believe that witches unleash terror at certain hours and Christians must pray against being overpowered by witches. Would it not have been instructive and opened the field of knowledge if these pastors attended the conference to give information about the occult world as they usually declare?
Ghosts, fairies, sorcery, spirit husbands and spirit wives, mammy water and spirits are part of this image. Some of Shakespeare’s plays employed ghosts and the supernatural mainly as a dramatic device. And so, we will never forget the chilling warning from the avenging ghost of Julius Caesar when he says “We shall meet at Philippi! Indeed, the whole tragedy of Macbeth is triggered off by three witches. One of the most popular songs by Sir Victor Uwaifo explores the ‘mammy water’ motif and how he received an instrument from her. ‘If you see mammy water, never never you run away’ was a hit song in the 70s! Some powerful people have depended on some witchcraft, either from Babalawo or from mystics. Some would also assure you that Babalawo or mysticism is not synonymous with witchcraft. I remember the witch of Endor and how King Saul contacted that witch after he fell from God’s favour!
Fittingly, the Director of the Ijomah Center, Professor Egodi Uchendu has done what the VC ought to have done by declaring thus: “Church pastors discuss witchcraft regularly and preach against it all the time, drawing from their experiences during their training and in their ministries”, and that “surprisingly, some people erroneously concluded that only witches can discuss witchcraft. We are not witches. We are professors and scholars who are intrigued by this phenomenon of witchcraft. Our conference is a mere academic discussion where we shall review journals, information gathered over the years on the subject matter. That is what scholars do and this should not cause alarm”.
Witchcraft is a reality of the Africa world from Nigeria to South Africa. It is exaggerated and ridiculed, sometimes with a tinge of acerbic wit. For example, some people refer to witches as ‘air force officers! It is also feared. A man dies at 70 years and the family believes that evil people through witchcraft have done their worst! A child has a resistant fever and our people claim that it is a spiritual attack from the pit of hell. A woman is unable to get pregnant and our people believe that evil people have blocked her womb. She goes through IVF and gets pregnant and they sing another song. If our people believe that witches can manufacture airplanes at night that can fly them from Nigeria to London, would it not be interesting, even innovative, to ask those witches to bring their aircraft design to the physical world and wow the aircraft industry with a peculiar African design?