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  • The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa
  • Ralph A. Austen
The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. By Peter Geschiere (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997. xii plus 311pp.).

In the last decade or so, studies of witchcraft in Africa have moved from the rather restricted (and dated) realm of classical ethnography into the broader venue of what were once known as “modernization studies.” The title of this book quire explicitly indicates such a shift and its subtitle suggests one of the principal motivations: contemporary Africa is a prime site of the “postcolonial,” a world which has not come close to realizing the nationalist aspirations of its emergence from colonialism and is simultaneously enveloped and marginalized in the current economy and culture of globalism. A generation of anthropologists, exemplified by Peter Geschiere, has moved beyond the traditional boundaries of their discipline to confront very active forms of witchcraft belief and anti-witchcraft practice deployed by Africans to confront the traumas of their engagement with a “modernity” whose meaning has become, even for outside observers, highly problematic.

Geschiere’s present book should serve for some time as an authoritative guide to the new discourse of witchcraft—as both an African reality and an object of scholarly contemplations. The Modernity of Witchcraft is not a continental survey of its subject matter, although it cites studies from many parts of Africa for the formulation of its own analysis. Instead, Geschiere has drawn heavily (and from both an analytic and literary perspective, very effectively) upon his field experience in one community, the Maka of southern Cameroon. He has expanded his case studies only to cover the rest of Cameroon, although this allows him to consider a significant variety of situations, from poor to prosperous rural regions and equally varied urban contexts. Since the present reviewer has himself worked in Cameroon, this range may seem more interesting to me than to more general readers, but at least one colleague, whose own African field is very remote from that of Geschiere, has used the book to great effect as an undergraduate classroom text.

The Maka provide an excellent base for such a work, since they have only relatively recently been drawn into the mainstream of Cameroon history. Geschiere can thus use them to show how witchcraft beliefs have shifted during the present century. The common denominator remains a sense that all concentrations of power are simultaneously attractive and dangerous and traceable to an occult force known locally as djambe (but always translated into French or English by the terms sorcellerie or witchcraft). In its purely local setting witchcraft is seen to serve both powerful individuals and the communities who seek, for one reason or another, to restrain them. Moreover, anyone threatened by such forces can turn to other individuals, nkong, who openly profess the ability to counter the effects of witchcraft. The problems in maintaining a balance between the various concerns surrounding witchcraft arise when local power begins to depend on remote sources. Geschiere points out how even an isolated community like the Maka experienced such “global” intrusions well before the advent of colonialism, through raids and demands for tribute from neighboring, more centrally organized African polities. The Maka themselves, because of their fierce resistance to such incursions as well as to the earliest German efforts as colonization, [End Page 198] developed a reputation for witchcraft and the discursively related practice of cannibalism (whose reality Geschiere does not entirely deny).

In this earlier world, however, witchcraft beliefs could be used either to control the local exercise of power or to express the remoteness of uncontrollable forces. The modernity of witchcraft, for Geschiere, occurs when individuals from societies such as the Maka have the opportunity to involves themselves in politics at the center of Cameroon, thus risking the possibility of bringing forces which are still beyond effective local control into communal life. The analogy in witchcraft discourse is that of “eating” one’s own kin, always the most frightening version of power abuse but one which, in its original form, remained subject to some kind of effective sanctions. In the present Maka context, elites who tap into...

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