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Reconsidering Witchcraft: Postcolonial Africa and Analytic (Un)Certainties Author(s): Todd Sanders Source: American
Reconsidering Witchcraft: Postcolonial Africa and Analytic (Un)Certainties Author(s): Todd Sanders Source: American

Reconsidering Witchcraft: Postcolonial Africa and Analytic (Un)Certainties Author(s): Todd Sanders Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 338-352 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association

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NewAnswersto OldQuestions





ReconsideringWitchcraft: PostcolonialAfricaand Analytic(Un)Certainties

ABSTRACT Africannotionsofwitchcraftareneitherarchaicnorstaticbutare highly flexibleand deeply attunedtotheconundrums ofour contemporary world. Manyanthropologists have recentlyargued thatnotionsoftheAfricanwitch provide commentarieson the meaning andmeritof modernity as experienced indifferenthistoricalandcultural settings.Byexploring one particulartype of witch- craft-that involvingrain-amongst theIhanzu of Tanzania,thisarticle suggests insteadthatsomeformsofwitchcraft may be more

pertinent to understanding localnotionsof"tradition"than "modernity." Itis argued thatthe process of identifying rainwitches pro-

videsIhanzumenandwomenwitha way to circumscribe,contemplate,and,ultimately,

reassertthe veracity and significance

ofa con-

ceptualcategorythey call"tradition."Thearticleconcludes bycritiquing the homogenizing effectsoftermsliketheAfricanwitchand

Africanwitchcraft,compelling ustothinkintermsof pluralities ratherthan singulars.[Keywords:witchcraft,modernity,tradition,rain- making,anthropologicaltheory]

"BUT YOU'RE THE VOICE OF TRADITION!," an exasper- atedmanbellowedat thedefiantdiviner."You understand


them!"Disconcertedand defeatedthediviner sat,staring vacantly intothehostilecrowd. It was another unseasonably and unreasonably hot and dryFebruaryday in Ihanzu, Tanzania.The rains, itis true, were long overdue.And this most unfortunatedi- viner-I shallcall him Kingu-had been publicly accused of ruining them through witchcraft. Kingu was no stranger to suchaccusations.Since1989 he has suffered through at leasttenheatedtrialsfor allegedlybewitching therain.On this occasion, like others,Kingu was eventually released witha stern warning: Ifhe did not allow the rainto fall,

and soon, he would be expelled fromthe village. Fortui- tously for Kingu, it rainedthe following week.He was al- lowedto remain, if precariously, in the village. Thisrainwitchcraft case,together with many othersI encountered duringmy timein Ihanzu,' prompted me to reflecton how manycontemporary scholarsviewAfrican

witchcraft today. Forthereis a strikingdegree of scholarly

consensusthatAfrican witchcraft-situated, as it is,soundly

withinthe project(s) of modernity-is and indeedmustbe about modernity. Witchesand peoples' beliefsaboutthem

are thought to providemoralizing metacommentarieson

things," he continued, "and then you go

and ruin

the project of modernityor, perhaps more accurately, modernitiesin the plural.2 Yet, somewhat unexpectedly, as Kingu's case alludes, Ihanzu rainwitchcrafthas very littleto do withlocal no- tionsof modernity(maendeleo). On the contrary, thiscase and otherslikeit seemto concernthemselvesmorewith local concepts oftradition (jadi). Theaimofthis article, most generallystated, is to suggest thatAfricanwitchcraft may well be partofmodernity, but by no means needs to be about modernity. NotionsofAfricanwitchcrafthave proved surprisingly flexibleand thussurvive-indeedthrive-in novel postcolonial contexts (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993b; Geschiere 1997; Shaw 2002). This conceptualflexibility implies thatwhiletheAfricanwitch may be aboutmoder- nity, it may also be aboutother things, too. In somecases Africanwitchcraftallows men and women to circum- scribe,contemplate, and reassertthe veracity ofa concep-


"tradition."Put differently,

argument about the causes and consequences, costsand benefitsof particular formsof modernity"(Comaroff 1994:

11), then it similarlyprovides men and women with a means to envisage and engagecreatively with particular formsoftradition. "Tradition," of course, isitself modernity's shadowy companion. One category has little meaning



meaningful, a categorythey


ifthe Africanwitch "permits




withoutthe other.Even so, by speaking to "tradition," Ihanzurainwitchcraft speaks to "modernity"onlyobliquely. Itdemarcates modernity'sconceptual boundariesbutdoes notfillthem.


Witchcrafthas long been centralto the anthropological

enterprise,especially to Britishsocial anthropologists work- ing in Africa.3It was in this contextthat E. E. Evans- Pritchard produced his landmark study on Azandewitch- craft (Evans-Pritchard1937),focusing on the sociology of knowledge, and wherelaterManchesterSchool anthro- pologistsexplored thesocial dynamics ofwitchcraft suspi- cions and accusations (Marwick1965; Middleton 1960, 1963; Mitchell 1956; Turner 1957). The explanationscontemporary scholarsofferof Afri- can witchcraftdifferin importantways fromthoseoftheir predecessors. Most notably,manytoday havebeen enthu- siastictodemonstratethe modernity ofwitchcraft (Geschiere

1997). No

longer, we are told, can we viewAfricanwitch-


political and economic transformation"

craftand similar ideologies as "archaicorexotic phenome-

non, somehowisolatedor disjointed[from] historical pro-

cesses of

(Auslander1993:168; Geschiere 1998a). Rather, African witchcraftbeliefsand practices are alive and awareofthe basic rhythms of our worldand engage in creative ways

withnovel postcolonial realities (Bastian1993; Comaroff and Comaroff1993b;Fisiy and Geschiere2001; Geschiere 1997; Parish 2000; Shaw 1997,2001). Thisis why,predic-

tions of modernizationand

withstanding, African witchcraft,sorcery, and other"occult


on the rise, not decline, across the continent (Bastian

1993:156; Colson2000:341; Rowlandsand Warnier 1988).4

globalization theoristsnot-

(Comaroff and Comaroff 1999) are reportedly

Whetherin state politics,legalinstitutions, the economy,

or simply as everyday"public

1194) that permeate all these arenas, witchcraftis all-per- vasivein Africa today.5Bycontextualizing witchcraftbe- liefsand practices, both spatially and historically, thisnew wave of studieshas endeavoredto show the myriad of ways thatwitchcraftformsan integralpart oftheAfrican

postcolonialexperience(seeMooreand Sanders2001). To thisend,a numberofcontemporary Africanistschol- arshave implied-and some have insisted-thatwitchcraft discoursesand practicesprovidemoralizing metacommen- tarieson the meaning of modernity as experienced in dif- ferentlocalities.In thissenseAfricanwitchcrafthas been seennot only as part ofmodernity butalso as a locally in- flectedcritique of it; as a local lexicon,in otherwords, thatpointsup and engages withmodernity's latentand blatantimmoralities. It wouldbe extremely difficultto overstatethe popu- larity ofthis position. Africanwitchesand witchcraft,an- thropologists have suggested, have "becomea symptom of theways in whichthevaluesattributedto capitalist accu- mulationand the possession of materialgoods generate


(Ashforth 1996:

Sanders * Reconsidering Witchcraft 339

frictionin the local moral economy"(Parish2000:488);


ing encroachmenton intimate spheres oflife" (Geschiere

1998a:813, n. 5); and thus suggest that "people do noteas-


globalization's threaten-

ily surrendercontroloverthe materialand symbolicpro-

ductionand reproduction oftheirlives" (Auslander 1993:

189). Furthermore, African witches,witchcraft, and the discoursesaboutthemhavebeen seenas "a critique ofthe capitalisteconomy whichmakes people exchange essen-

tial values of

gains"(Meyer1992:118,1995); "a critical commentary on inequality and on the violence that underlaypower"

(Smith2001:807); potentiallyprovoking "a self-critique of


totypical malcontents" (Comaroff and Comaroff1993a:

xxviii-xxix); a local discoursethat"has allowedthosewho

participate in its reproduction to see the goods and tech-

nologies of modernity as both desirableand

(West1997:693); and "a metacommentary on the deeply ambivalent project of modernity"(Sanders1999b:128). In short, inwhatever guises or disguises, theAfricanwitchto- day provides Africansand Africanistsalike with fertile

conceptual terrainfor constructing,considering, and con-


positively flourishat the crossroadsof local and global

worlds. Thereare a numberof reasonsthisAfrican-witch-as-

master-tropeapproach, albeitin varied forms, has gained such overwhelming favor amongstanthropologists. One is

the poststructuralist desireto rejectuncompromising tele-

ologies of progress, those stories, to paraphrase and par- tiallypervert CliffordGeertz (1973:448), thattheWesttells

itselfabout itself (see Ferguson1999:13ff). These are the metanarrativesof modernity(Englund and Leach 2000) that deftlyencompass and naturalize many Westernno- tions commonlyconceptualized with capital letters:the relentlesssearchfor Truth; theinevitable triumph ofRea- son over superstition; the riseofthe Modernand the de-

mise of Tradition.Yet no

pose-indeed we nevercould-that "the primitive" is one



tradition" (Giddens1994:91). Recentstudiesinsteadinsist thatwe findourselves-allofus-in perfectly modernset- tings, facedwith perfectly modernconundrums.Follow- ing anthropology's broaderintellectualmandate,then, these critiques aimto deotherize"theOther."6 Simultaneously,writings in this genreplay on a popu- lar liberal critiqueby celebrating the morality of "the Other"whilesimultaneouslyshowingup theinherentim- morality and invasivenessof the new world (dis)order.

contrary, can we

fertility, health and long


capitalist West" (Austen1993:105); "modernity'spro-


the multiple manifestationsof modernity that


can we


behind"themodern." Nor, in spite of claimsto the

rightly assumethat

Among anthropologists and othersocial scientists,this has longproved a popularpolitical and rhetoricalstrategy,

one that appeals

fillsourmanifestmoralobligations to those"Others"with whom we work. Peoples in farawayplaces thus offer uniqueinsightsinto,and caustic critiquesof,theworkings

to our liberalsensibilitiesas well as ful-

340 American Anthropologist * Vol. 105, No. 2 * June2003

of our contemporary world (West and Sandersin press). Such critiques remindus thatour own masternarratives

are deeplycultural, not natural products; that "our pre-


culturaldialect-that'we areone oftheothers'" (Sahlins 1993:12; see also Comaroffand Comaroff 1993a, 1999, 2000). Here,anthropologists aim to unsettleand proble- matizeWestern commonplaces. Recent anthropological concernswithAfricanwitch- craftalso drawattentionto local agency and creative po- tentialities. People arenot simply overrun byglobal struc-

turalinevitabilities: Theyresist,creativelyaccommodate,

and selectivelyappropriate new styles,symbols, and struc-

turesof meaning. Global-localintersticesbecome highly

creativesiteswhere "people 'make'themselves modern, as

pronounced in a particular

opposed to being 'made' modern by alienand impersonal

forces" (Gaonkar1999:16). In spite of these resonances-or,perhaps moreaccu- rately, becauseofthem-itisworthwhile ponderingwhether, in aiming to see anthropology's theoretical forest, we have not lost sight of her empirical trees.In this case, even though discoursesaboutwitchesand witchcrafthavewide

social currency in contemporary Africaand in certainal- covesofthe academe, thisdoes not necessarily meanthat such discourseshave something of interestto say about the (un)desirability ofAfricanmodernities. Theymay. Or

theymay not.For being within modernity and being about modernity are not, after all,logicallyequivalent(Englund

1996:259). It would,therefore, be unwiseto assume, as the collective weight ofthecurrentliteratureseemsto do, that

all Africanwitchcraftmust

today be "about" modernity;

thatall Africans'fearsand fantasies, trialsand tribulations

concerning witchesmust necessarily"personify the con- flictsof modernity, the ways in which foreign forcesin- vade local worlds,turningordinarypeople into monsters, and endangering established life-ways"(Comaroff1994:9). In some cases, of course,they do (Sanders2001a, in press). But given witchcraft's palpabledynamism, we shouldalso expect witchcraftdiscoursesto be polysemic,capable of making claimsabout manythings. One ofthose things is

a categorypeople ponder and

Green 1997; Sanders 1999b). To speak, once again, oftraditionis not a disingenu- ous returnto thenotionthat"non-Western" peoples live in an archaic,staticworld.Noris itto defenddefectiveso-

proffer as "tradition" (cf.

cial evolutionaryparadigms.Modernity'smasternarra- tives-at least amonganthropologists-havelostall theo- retical plausibility, to saynothing ofsocial respectability. While it may be truethatthe termtraditionis becoming banal and meaningless,as Achille Mbembe complains (Guyer1996:4), it is also true that it remainswith us (Guyer1996:4). The suggestionthatwe reconsidertradi- tionis thusa plea to recognizethattradition,likemoder- nity,todayfeatures prominently in the African popular imagination(Kratz1993).As a locallymeaningfulcategory

of thought and action,itdemandsour analyticattention.

Most scholarswould todayagree thattraditionis dy- namic,and highly attunedto theebb and flowof day-to- day life(Bernal1997; Errington and Gewertz1996; Guyer 1996; Schrauwers 1999). For yearsnow, social scientists haveknownthattraditionis "plucked,created,and shaped


ation" (Gusfield1967:358). Sometimestraditionsare out- right invented (Ranger1983). In others,long-standing tra- ditions are abolished by the verypeople who practice them.The Manjaco of Guinea-Bissau,for instance,hold periodic"congresses" in theformofinitiationceremonies

during which theyactivelyargue overand rewrite"tradi-


(Gable 1995, also 2000). While the negotiation of "tradition"is sometimesa

discursive matter, as amongst the Manjaco, itneednotbe.

The process of deciding whatis or is not "tradition" may

equally be one of practicalengagement, a processwhereby

the category of "things traditional"is

throughdoing ratherthan saying. As we shall see, the IhanzuofTanzaniause rainwitchcraftaccusationsin pre-

cisely this way: to circumscribe,contemplate, and occa-

sionallyrenegotiate the category of

envisaged. In so doing,theyconfidently reassertwhattra- dition is, and whatit ought to be. Atthesame time, this process evokesand demarcatestheboundariesofa parallel

conceptualcategory-modernity-but leaves its concep- tual terrain mostly uncharted.The factthatIhanzu rain witchcraftis implicated morein traditionthanin moder- nity is relatedto how people link rainmaking and ethnic identity.

present needsand aspirations in a given historicalsitu-

byeliminatingspecific customs they findoutmoded


"tradition"as locally


The Ihanzu live in north-centralTanzania and currently numberaround thirtythousand.7They are farmers, their principlecropsbeingsorghum,millet, and maize.Even so, farming has never provedeasy in this remote, semiaridre- gion. Soilsare generallypoor, and therainsfailaboutone year in five.The rain falls-when it does fall-between Novemberand April or May. The monthsbetween June and October typically see no rain at all. Even in good years,rainfall peaks at a meager 30 inches.Thisis oftener- ratic and unevenlydistributed:one village (sometimes evenone plot)mayreceivesufficientrainwhileone adja- centto itdries up. Thereareno year-roundriversand few operationalwater pumps that mightease the situation. For these reasons,farming in Ihanzu is and alwayshas been a precariousenterprise. It is small wonder,really, thatrainis of the utmost practical and symbolicimpor- tanceto all Ihanzu. MostIhanzubelievethattheirtwo royalleaders(akola ihI) bringthe raineach year, a feat theypurportedly ac- complishwiththe help of the ancestors,medicines,and certainrituals.Even thoughpeople sometimes say these leadersmakerain(anoniaImbula), no one means by this

that they create (k~lompwa) it fromthin air. Only God

(Itunda) can do this. Rather,royals



Ihanzu.Such sucking is only made possiblebygaining the approval oftheancestors (aliingii), and all rainritesaredi-


Ofthe royalrainmakers,9one is male, theotherfemale. Both are membersof the royalrainmakingmatrilineage (Anyampanda wa Kirumi); successionto their positions followsrulesof primogeniture withinthe matrilineage. It is these two reigningroyals who are thoughtjointly to hold theultimatesecretsof rainmaking. Other royals and membersof the Anyampanda clan are sometimessus- pected of possessing someesoteric knowledge ofrainmak- ing. Underno circumstancesare they able legitimately to use this knowledge to influencetheweather.

are said to "suck,"

"entice," or "attract" (kiluta) God's rainclouds-

with that, God's rain-from distantlocations to

Ritualleaders gain theirsanctionand legitimacy di-

rectly fromwhat people consider"traditional" sources, namely, the ancestral spirits. Partof this sanction they embody withintheir person, since they arethemselvesdi- rectmatrilinealdescendantsof previous Ihanzu rainmak-

ers.The other partrequiresthey observecertain practices. Royal leadersmustresidein whatis today the subvillage of Kirumi, the sacredcenterofIhanzu. Kirumiis also where

rainmakingroyals must be buried. Additionally, ritual leadersare responsible for performing or overseeing an ar- ray ofrainriteseach year in Kirumi-all ofwhich people insistare traditional (jadi or mila)-immediatelyprior to and during the wet season. Attemptingritually to bring

rainat any othertimeofthe

futileas itwouldbe foolish.God's rainwouldthenbe un-

availableto attract:The spirits wouldnotlisten. Just beforethe onsetofthe rains,usually in October,

the year's firstrain rite,"cutting the night sod" (kiikumpya lutinde), is heldin Kirumi.Thisannual initiatory riteis car- riedout privately, marksthe beginning of each new sea-

son, and is followed by several public ritesat the

rainshrine (mpilimo). Annualrainriteshave been carried out in Ihanzu sinceat leastthelate 1800s (Adam1963).10 Today it is primarily the male leaderwho conductsthese rites,aided by severalmale rainmaking assistants. Thereare currently 19 rainmaking assistants(ataata; sing.mitaata) who residein and represent ten of the 18 villages in Ihanzu. Each season these men collecttoken amountsof grain fromeach householdin their respective villages and bring itto Kirumifortheannualrainrites(see Sanders 1998). Following the nightcutting of the sod, these assistants prepare rain medicinesinside the rain- shrine,underthe directionof the male leader. Although the femaleleaderneverentersthe shrine,it is widely as- sumedthatthetwoleadersconsulteach otherto determine whichmedicinalmixturesaremosteffective. Throughout the season rainmaking assistantsvisitthe rainshrineto monitorand,if necessary, remixtherainmedicines. Whenthesepreliminary rainritesbringrain,no other rainritesare necessaryduring the year.Regrettably,however,

yearwould,people say, be as


Sanders * Reconsidering Witchcraft 341

the raindoes not always fall immediately, or at the right timeor place. Certainremedialmeasuresarethentakento avert drought. These remedialritesinclude royal rainof- ferings(mapolyo ka mbula),"11 whichare largegatherings, involvingmany morethan justroyals and rainmaking as-

sistants. Royal rain offeringsonly take place when they are deemed necessarythrough divination (Sanders2002). A second remedial measure is a women's rain dance (isimpidya) that sharesbroad similaritieswith women's rain ritesfound widely across Africa (see Moore et al. 1999). In these rites, women are granted extremelicense

and are expected to behave

keddownthe paths, makelewd gestures, and sing obscene


Alltheserainritesand thosewho perform themareof

outrageously-they dance na-

decided importance to the Ihanzu today, and have been


lages were largelyautonomous, each responsible forits own internal political,legal, and economicaffairs.There was little cooperation between villages and occasional fighting(Reche 1914:85). People did, however, share a common purpose in ritualmattersand warfare.In suchin- stancesall lookedto theKirumirainmakersfor leadership. As in other precolonial Africansocieties (Feierman1990; Packard 1981), these royalleaders, their medicines, and the rituals they conductedwereessentialto the flowof daily life:the farmingcycle,protection,hunting, and cir- cumcision.Ihanzu of different villages were united by

theircommon allegiance to the rainmakingspecialists at Kirumi (Adam1963:17).12More than this,rainmaking has provided theIhanzuwithan enduring focal point forcol- lective identity.

scholarshave shownhow "identity," like"tra-

dition," forms part ofthesocial imagination. Farfrombe- ing fixed,identity is actively moldedin particularsocial, culturaland historical settings(Greene 1996; Hodgson 2001; Sorenson 1993;Spear and Waller 1993). Forthemen

and womenof Ihanzu,rainmaking has long featuredcen- trally in thisconstructive project of self-making and still does today. Since my firstvisitto Ihanzu in the early 1990s, countlessmen and womenhave told me that, ifI

am to writea book about them, thenit must

book on "Ihanzu traditions"of rainmaking. In Ihanzu

eyes, their rainmaking beliefsand practices markoutboth an identifiableterrainof "tradition,"as well as provide a certaincollectivesenseof "Ihanzuness." One way Ihanzu ideas about the linkages between rainmaking and ethnic identity are made manifestis throughrainmaking rites. Anotheris throughtheir originmyth.

I have only heardone Ihanzu originmyth, theone all Ihanzu know,the one many have told overthe years to non-Ihanzuwith evidentzeal (Adam 1963:14-15; Kohl- Larsen 1943:194-195).13 Variationsaside,all versionstell ofan ancientmigration fromUkereweIslandin LakeVic- toria.As the storygoes, many differentclans made this journey, driven by famine and drought. Varied clans restedat differentlocations,whichare today remembered

overa century. In precolonialtimes, Ihanzu vil-

Of late,

surely be a

342 American Anthropologist * Vol. 105, No. 2 * June2003

byname, and someofthesiteswithinIhanzuareusedfor rainmaking rites. Moreover, each clan supposedly came with particularthings. Some came with seeds, whileoth- erscamewithcattle.Not everyone knowsall the clans, or what theybrought withthem.However people neverfail to mentionthat the firstIhanzu rainmakersalso came from Ukerewe,together withtheir rainmakingknowledge

and ritual paraphernalia.And, for many, thisseemsto be

the point of telling the story in thefirst place-to say,


makersand rainmedicines." Everyone I askedaboutwhat makes an Ihanzu an Ihanzu explicitly noted as much, often pointingproudly in the northerly directionof Uk- ereweforadded emphasis. Thus, iftheNuersee themselvesas "people of cattle," itwouldnotbe inaccurateto say thattheIhanzu imagine themselvesa "rainmakingpeople." Ihanzu men and women express this throughritual,myth, and in theireve- rydayexplanations ofwho theyimagine themselvestobe. Byproviding the Ihanzu witha sense of historicalconti- nuity with bygonegenerations, ancestral spirits, and the landson which theylive,rainmaking ritesand beliefs pro- vide themwitha symbolic resourcewithwhichto gener- ate a meaningful collective identity in the present. That rainmaking features centrally in the Ihanzu popular imagination-and is a defining featureofwhatitmeansto be "Ihanzu" today-is hardlysurprising in a locale where climate is, quite literally, a matterof lifeor death. The conceptualcentrality of rainmaking institutionsand be- liefs also helps explain the attitudesIhanzu men and womenholdaboutrainwitchcraft. Witchcraft (iilogi) in Ihanzu is an all-pervasive, if somewhat mundane,part of people'sday-to-day lives.14 It can be inheritedor learnt, butthereis littleconcernover which type ofwitchcraft any particular witch might use. Thisis becausethose thought to have inheritedwitchcraft neednot practiceit; and anyone can purportedlypurchase witchcraftmedicines.Ihanzuwitchcraftof any sortis con- sideredevil (abi tai) and destructive.Sometimeswitches are said to gain fromtheir diabolical deeds. Othertimes theyapparentlygainnothing. Ihanzu witchcraftcomes in manyforms, and people stressthatdifferentwitches (alogi;sing. miilogi) excel at different types of destruction.Some, forinstance,alleg- edly specialize at killingpeople-frequently one's own clanmates but also governmentofficials,shopkeepers, businesspersons, and others.Others reputedly excelat the wantondestructionofbuses,radios,and other"modern"


is more menacing thantherainwitch:To attacktherainis to attackall Ihanzu-willfully,shamelessly, and without remorse. Ifrainmakersattractrainclouds and rainsto Ihanzu fromelsewhere,rainwitches(alogia mbula)do precisely the oppositeby summoning windsto destroythem.How they do this,fewcan detail. People's understandings of theritualmechanismofrainwitchcraft relyheavily on the



"We came fromUkerewewithour rain-

testimony ofaccusedrainwitches who, under duress, fire the collective imagination. I have heardof witches stop- ping therain bytossing redmedicineto thefourcardinal points(a symbolic colorinversionofotherrain offerings); forcing a young, naked boy to pack down medicines aroundthe village withhis buttocks (an inversionof the naked, fertilewomen fromotherrain rites); and a man wanderingabout, without pants, witha feather protrud- ingconspicuously fromhis posterior(no immediate expla- nation). Although I have neverwitnessed any of these thingsmyself, a numberofreliableinformantsassureme that they have.


would anyone bewitchthe rain? What's the

point? Rain witches, local theory has it, areable to entice

the rainclouds fromother villagers'plots to theirown. This allows them, in theory, to reap a large harvestand consumeinordinateamountsof grain whilefellow villag- ers suffer.5s HereI stress"in theory" sincethisis the ra- tionale people often produce when asked, in generalterms, aboutrainwitchcraft.In practicethings aredifferent. When consideringspecific cases ofrain witchcraft, it is farfromobviousthatthose accused have in any way benefitedfromtheir alleged nefariousactivities.Some havelotsof grain;many othersdo not. Villagersrecognize

thisand explainaway this discrepancy in varied ways but

commonlysuggest thatrainwitches'desiresformassde- structionoverridetheircommonsense. Theydestroy all

rain-including rain theymightsteal-and,

cally,destroy themselvesin the bargain. "Rainwitchesare

juststupid!,"snapped one woman. Thus, whilein theory rainwitcheshave muchto gain, in practicepeople imply

these witchesare whollyincompetent. Rain witchesare simply reckless.Andnottoo bright. To bewitchthe rain, orthe royal leaderswho bringit, is to destroy thesourceofall villagers' livelihood.Further- more, because rainmaking institutionsand ritualoffici- antsfeatureso conspicuously in Ihanzu identity, to attack them through witchcraftis to strikeatthe very foundation


is to attack"tradition."Rain witchcraft-likeno other witchcraft-thusthreatensto undo all that is done, to turn people's conceptual and practical life-worlds upside

down. Forthisreason,ifthe men and womenof Ihanzu possess a "standardized nightmare"(Wilson 1970:285), then rain witchcraftis surely it. Before turning to that nightmare'sspecifics, we must unpack Ihanzu notionsof "tradition"and "modernity."

thus, ironi-


in theworld.To attacktherain


The Ihanzu

todaydistinguish betweentwo conceptual cate-

gories:"modernity"(maendeleo)and "tradition"(jadi or mila).Aselsewhereon thecontinent,these categories and theircontentsare not of theirown making(Mudimbe 1991; Pels 1996). Jadi,mila,and maendeleoare all Swahili

terms. They come fromelsewhere.This "elsewhere"has takenvariedforms through time.

Sanders * Reconsidering Witchcraft 343

Colonials-firstthe Germans, thenthe British-were

introduce,reify, and give meaning to

administrators continually con-

Ihanzu "primitive,""backward," and "tradi-

dependence, the postcolonial Tanzanian stateabolished


lated itself"modern."18Thus tradition, while actively

imagined, is perhapsimagined more negatively and less creativelyby thestate today thanin the past.

postcolonial churchand state, the

chiefships acrossthe land. In an instant, Tanzania

likely the firstto

these categories. Colonial


tional," all termsthatfeature repeatedly in colonialwrit-

ings on Ihanzu. Although thiscolonial imagining of the

Ihanzuwas multifaceted,archetypal ofitwas

making, a seeminglydoggedvestige of traditionand the

tradition-boundtribesman.Such thinking made

cial evolutionary) sense in its day, especially when con-

trasted, as it was, with Europeanimages ofhomeand with "modern" (or"modernizing") Africancities. "Traditional" though it may have been, Britishad- ministratorsneverdemonizedor

prohibitedrainmaking. They were quick to realizethat"the question ofrainmak- ing in thisareais one whichmustbe approached withthe greatest caution."16 Thisis because, in theIhanzu popular imagination,rainmaking and reignmaking had long been linked. Locallyunderstood, forcolonialchiefsto reign le-

gitimately,they hadto bring rain. Byturning Ihanzurain- makersinto colonial chiefs,then, the administrationim- plied that tradition, orat leastcertain traditions, couldbe positive. Missionarieswereless accommodating. The Augustana Lutheranmissionfirst opened itsdoors in Ihanzu in 1931. Early and later missionaries, likecolo- nial administrators, saw the Ihanzu and their rainmaking beliefsand institutionsas "traditional."Unlikecolonial administrators,however, these "Messengers of Love" (Ward1999) positively loathedsuch things and aimedex- plicitly at "breaking downoftheir primitive tribal religion

beforethe advance of civilization"

Fromthis piousperspective, not only was rainmaking seen as "superstitious,""primitive," and "traditional," but it was also seenas irrevocablyevil,something thathad tobe eradicatedat all cost. Today's Tanzanian postcolonial landscape bearsthe impress of theseearlierunderstand- ings oftraditionand modernity. Ihanzu Lutheranchurchviews have changed little fromearliertimes.The local reverend, himselfan Ihanzu man, continuesto preach on the perils of traditionand the salvation Jesus offersin the formof moraland mate-

rialbetterment. Today, some seventyyears aftermission- aries'arrival,this missionarymessage falls mostly on deaf ears:80 percent ofIhanzumenand women classify them-

selvesas pagans(wapagani) and do so unabashedly."17 Few,

it seems,have any enthusiasmfor hearing The Wordofa distant demigod if this means the wholesale abandon-

mentof rainmakingrites,beliefs,and


Ihanzurain- Ihanzucontinueto find"tradition"and "modernity"good

good (so-

to thinkwith. But,

maintainthat"tradition"is a

good thing,somethingthey actually want.But why is this?Whatis at stake? Claims about "tradition,""culture," and "identity,"

anthropologists have frequentlyshown, can serve particu-

lar class or clan, generation, or gender

commonly the case, as in the example ofMountKiliman- jaro, where struggling forresourcessuchas land,livestock,

and labor is worthwhile (Moore 1986). In such places,

whatcountsas "tradition"is

one's livelihood successfully. Thisis muchlessthecase in

Ihanzu, wheresuch termsare not implicated in identity

politics in the same way, or to the same extent: Being

more"traditional"ormore"lhanzu"thanone's neighbor provides no obviousmaterial benefits, no privileged access to scarceresources. Indeed, in Ihanzu thereare no "tradi-

tional" resourcesforwhichit is worth struggling: matri-


clan landsare largelyexhausted; thereareno

corporate herd holdings intowhich peoplemighttap. Nor


Ihanzunessto the government, which ignores such"tribal" markersand suggeststhey are counterproductive to theas- pirations of the Tanzanian nation-state. Rather, what is principally at stake regarding Ihanzu desiresto linkrain- making,"tradition," and Ihanzu-nessis the forging of a solid conceptualmooring in an ever changing world.Rain- makingprovides Ihanzumenand womenwitha meansto

assert meaningful historicalcontinuitieswiththeir past, as wellas a way to say who they areas a people in the present

vis-a-vis the stateand church.

"Rainmaking," Ihanzu fre-

quently told me, "isourtradition" (jadiyetu). When discussingtradition, Ihanzu men and women

often imply it is about particularways of doing things,



rainmaking activities including rain witchcraft, divina- tion,building mud and stickhouses,cultivatingsorghum

and millet,hunting withbows and arrows,and herding,

among other things.Following fromthis,certain things are routinelyimplicated in the category oftradition: royal rain stones and rainmakingmedicines,diviners'medi- cines,graincrops,livestock,and mudand stickhomes. Certain people and social groupings,too, are explic- itly associatedwithtradition.The two royal leadersand the lineage fromwhich they come standout as the living embodimentsoftradition. Byextension,people also claim

are "tra-


ditional."Itwas,according to many, thefirst groupto en-

ter Ihanzu following their long trekfromtheir original (perhapsmythical) homelandon UkereweIsland.Forthis

contrary to both, most Ihanzu still

interests.This is

crucially linkedto managing


benefit materially from asserting a sense of

normally those passed


are explicit about what countsas "tradition"-all





postcolonial church'sand

state'sviews,at leastin

Ihanzu,today coincidemorethanever. Representatives of the postcolonial Tanzanianstatecontrast"tradition"and "modernity" as colonialadministrationsdid beforethem. However,in myexperience,todaymanyplace a premium on modernityand itsattainmentwhile paintingtradition as modernity's starkantithesis.Thereis little,if any,space for creativeaccommodation.For the Ihanzu, this was made distressingly clearwhen,immediatelyfollowing in-

344 American Anthropologist * Vol. 105, No. 2 * June2003

reason, membersofthe Anyampanda clan are considered moretraditional than, say, membersof clans thathave

more recent origins in neighboring Iramba. Rainmaking assistantsareassociatedwith tradition, as aremembersof thelocal vigilantegroup (Nkili), and diviners. Commonto all things and persons traditionalis their

connectionto the

tional" peoplecarry outtheir jobs successfullybydrawing on the spirits'powers, whilethe very act of carrying out their jobs convincesthe spirits to continueto makesuch otherworldlypowers available to them. Furthermore, given the presumed historical longevity ofancestral pow- ers, locals often present traditionas if it had a certain atemporality to it,harkingback, some would say, to the verybeginnings oftime. Here,ironically, theIhanzu con- tinueto wanttradition-as people theworldoverdo-in

precisely those ways anthropologists insist they cannot

have it: as a

"Tradition is what

quently remark.Aswe shall see,practices sometimesbelie this position. In Ihanzu eyes,modernity is opposed to tradition. Ihanzu see modern things, whether institutions, material artifacts, or types of persons, as relatively recentarrivals.

On these grounds, both Christianity and the government

are classifiedas "modern." So, too, are the people

cated in these institutions-preachers,government em-

ployees,Europeans, and anthropologists-and,likewise,

the"modern" goods and In discussionsabout

ofthe ancestral spirits. "Tradi-



we have always done," people fre-


goodiestheybring withthem. modernity and tradition, men

and womenstressthe mutually exclusivenatureof these

categories, and the need to keep them separate. In

tice,however, this dichotomy betweenthetraditionaland

themodernis notas unproblematic as Ihanzuwomenand men routinelyimply.



During a 1986 battleover cattle, the

ple of Ihanzu,Iramba, and Sukumaland used, to great ef-

fect, a certainSukuma vigilanteorganization knownas

Sungusunguagainst the invadingpastoralistBarabaig and

Maasai.19 Immediately afterthe

theirown versionof this organization, which they call "Nkili." Thelocal government soon recognizedNkili as an appropriateway for villagers to deal with cattle theft.

Sinceitsadvent, Nkili has expanded its purviewconsider-

ably, and is now involvedin almost


"traditional"that goes on withinIhanzu: theftof cattle, grain,and othervaluables;diviningthe country forrain; and rainwitchcraft. Interestingly for presentpurposes,people todayclass- ify Nkill as "traditional,"even thoughitsrecent origin is a secretto no one. "Tradition,"in thiscase,has littleto do with havingsurvivedoverthe long run.It turnsout that ancestral approval,aboveall,makes thingstraditional. In sum,people separatetraditionfrom modernity in starkterms.Yet in practicesuch unyieldingdistinctions are impossibleto maintain. People'sbehaviorsadmitto a myriadof possibilitiesof combining,recombining,and re-

war, the Ihanzu


formulating the realmsof traditionand modernity.This suggeststhat,farfrom being a bounded,unchangingen- tity, the categories oftraditionand modernity are open to continual renegotiation.By selectivelymergingpast and present, the Ihanzu negotiate a category oftraditionthat is constantlyopen to change butwhichis presented as be- ing outsideof time.As we shall now see, rainwitchcraft cases provide a forumforsuch negotiation: a publicspace in which people activelydebate, througheveryday ac- tions,the meaning and meritoftradition.Rainwitchcraft cases bring about a resounding, if fleeting, reassertionof what ultimately counts as tradition. Importantly,they sometimesdo so withnoveladditions.In the process, but onlybydefault,such casesalso hintat thelocal meaning of modernity.



Just as theIhanzuhaveconductedrainritesforwellovera century, so too have theyidentified,accused, and expelled rainwitchesfor manyyears.20 Whenrainriteshavefailed utterly to bringrain, or whenthereis a drought ofa few weeksor more,villagewide rain meetings(shalo ka mbula) take place. Itis atthese meetings, whichall claimare"tra- ditional," thatrainwitchesareidentified. Ordinaryvillagers,rainmakingassistants, ritual leaders, and the local vigilantegroup (Nkili)may call such meet- ings. Governmentadministrators cannot; theymay and do organize theirown villagemeetings(shalo ka hathara) forotherreasonslike discussing tax collection,education,

and sanitation.Because rainmaking, rain

rainwitchcraftareseenas "traditional" matters,they have

meetings, and

no part in "modern" governmental affairs. Rain meetings are public, well organized, wellattend- ed, and always raiseconsiderableexcitementand heated discussion. Villagers who do not attend are oftendis-

cussed, and sometimes fined, for disregarding suchconse- quential communalmatters. During these meetings,any-

one who feelshe has something to saymaystand, in turn, and speak. Otherslisten silently untilthe speaker has fin- ished and reseatedhimself.This process sometimeslasts days,weeks,or even years.Duringdroughts, the same is- sue may be raised repeatedlythroughoutthe season. Whilerain meetingsostensibly aim "todiscussthereasons for drought,"theynearlyalways lead to accusationsof rainwitchcraft. Some alleged rain witches,it transpires,have been previouslyvaguelyidentified throughdivination."AnAn- yampandaclan memberfromthe east is responsiblefor the drought,"went one such oracular pronouncement. Othersare accusedof engaging in questionableactivities. Someone may standand note,for example,thatsome per- son was seen wanderingthroughpeople's fieldsat night. Suchobservanceswillstrikesomeas odd,plausible,orim- plausible,and mightor mightnotmeritfurthercomment.

The goal is to reachconsensuson who is responsible forthe drought and how they willbe handledso therain will return.It is rarely obviousbeforehandwho might be accused of rain witchcraft. Moreover, in my experience, rain meetings do not so much polarize communities but, in trueDurkheimian fashion, consolidatethem.This is not so surprising whenone considerswhatis at stake:re- turning the rain,expungingevil,and, with that,regener- ating theIhanzumoral community. The formatofrain meetings-usuallylengthy,always heated-ensures accusationsare guided more by public concerns than personal animosities.Accusationsresult

not fromstructuralor underlyinginterpersonaltensions, but,rather, froma generalizedfear; a fear that, facedwith

no rain, there is

Ihanzu society.Naturally, someaccusationsin thesemeet-

ings aremotivated bypersonaldisputes, but peoplegener- allyrecognize thisand act accordingly. Ascases drag on in the public eye week after week, monthafter month, or even year after year, accusationscome to followmore neatlyexpectedstereotypes ofwho mightconceivably be- witchthe rain.Accusationsthatdo not fitthe mold are eventually dismissed.Aswith witch-cleansing rites report- ed elsewhere,"stereotypes aremore likely to informactual

behaviorwhen a

feels threatened" (Abrahams1994:21). Under such cir-

cumstances, men and womenhave ampleopportunity to

reflecton who is capable of bewitching the rain, and to considertheir possible motives.Aswe shallnow see, accu-

sations of rain witchcraftthat hold

sway which the accused are heavilyimplicated in "tradition" and its trappings.

an all-pervasive evil at work within

community, ratherthan an individual,

are those in

Case I

This case involvesa middle-aged woman by the name of

Mwajuma, a memberof the

She is

and is

such, she reputedlypossesses someoftheritual knowledge of rainmaking. Underno circumstancescan she currently

use this knowledge, not legitimatelyanyway. Mwajumagrewup in Kirumi.She movedto herhus-

band's village on marrying.When,in the 1980s,she di- vorced, Mwajuma, now with two young children,re- turnedto Kirumito live and farmwith her mother.In

1992 hermotherdied. Mwajuma remainedin Kirumi.She

is relativelypoor,though not any worseoffthanscoresof other villagers; she has no livestockand, in the years I knewher,a virtuallyemptygrain store.Thereis nothing particularly unusualin Ihanzu about poor, female-headed households like hers; many women findthemselvesin thissituation. Mwajuma is wellliked.However,sheis rumoredto be lazy: People say her farmingskills,in particular, leave much to be desired.It thus surprised fewwhen,in early January1994,shewas mentionedat a village rain meeting


the reigning femalerainmaker'ssister's daughter next in line of successionto this royal office.As

Sanders * Reconsidering Witchcraft 345

as a potential rain witch.An elderly man claimed

ratherthan farming,Mwajuma had been wandering the village tellingpeople secretly that should she be given beerand grain, becauseshe could bring rain.Othersstood

and publicly confirmedthe allegations. She reputedly be-

witchedthe rain

bring it. Makingpatently falseclaimsaboutone's abilities to controlthe weather,people say,angers the royalspirits who maysubsequentlystop therain. Mwajuma, who was present, remainedsilent. The reigning femalerainmaker spokeprivately with Mwajuma for nearly an hour. Mwajuma latertoldme she had prom- ised no longer to claimshe could bring the rain.Butthe story does notendthere.


by pretending she had the powers to

The following season

Mwajuma did not farmat all-a

of others'

factthat escaped no one's attention. Villagers worried.

Mwajuma, therumors began, wouldbe jealous

harvests, or their potential harvests.She might thusbe-

witchthe rain,people said. Villagers scheduledanother rain meeting. Two days beforethe meeting,Mwajuma

hastily moved withher childrento

District,onlyreturning to Ihanzuthe followingyear. It is important to note thatwhile Mwajuma's accusa- tions were brought about by her lack of enthusiasmfor farming, thisfactalone does not explain theaccusations.

The same season, in the same village, a not-so-well-off

elderly man of the Anyisungu

traditional"Iramba origin-similarly failed to farmhis small parcel of land. Everyone remarkedon this.Butno one muchcared.He was neveraccusedas a potential rain witch. People feltthatthis man,jealous or not,posed no threatto theweather. Mwajuma's case shows that membersof the royal lineage are accused of rainwitchcraft.This is as truefor reigningroyals as itis forthoselike Mwajuma, who stand in the requiredgenealogicalpositioneventually to take ritualoffice.It is also trueforothermembersofthe royal lineage who are guilty, at least potentially,by association. Asthenextcase shows, thenetis castwider still, as certain nonroyals arealso regularly accused.

neighboring Mbulu

clan-a clan of "less-

Case 2

In late January and earlyFebruary1995,severalrainmeet- ings took place in Kirumito deal with an alleged rain witchnamedLtketo.An elderly, marriedman oftheAn- yambiluclan,Lfketois of average wealth.Priorto his ac- cusation,he ownedfivecows,some goats, and farmedtwo

small plots. He generallygets on well with people. Cru- cially,having been a rainmaking assistantforover 25 years, he is one ofthethreemostsenior rainmaking assis- tantsin Ihanzu. People therefore expect he knowsa great

deal about rainmaking.


problemsbegan when other rainmaking as-

sistants thou