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  • Moral Power: the magic of witchcraft by Koen Stroeken
  • Jane Parish
KOEN STROEKEN, Moral Power: the magic of witchcraft. Epistemologies of Healing, Volume 9. New York NY: Berghahn Books (hb $99 – 978 1 84545 735 8; pb $29.95 – 978 0 85745 659 5). 2012, 284 pp.

Perhaps I should note at the very start of this review that the monograph subtitle The magic of witchcraft is a little misleading. This fascinating read is not really about witchcraft at all but about magic and divination in Sukuma culture in Tanzania. Indeed, the discussion of witchcraft in relation to modernity is perhaps the weakest thread of the book. Is really a ‘large chunk of the African witchcraft literature’ arguing, as Stroeken suggests, that ‘witchcraft is enchantment and modernity enchants: hence the modernity of witchcraft’ (p. 22)? Putting this aside, the centre of this monograph about magic is a magnificent and poignant tale about the gift of a yellow plastic raincoat. Given by Stroeken to Butale, one of his friends and first hosts in the field, the raincoat emphasizes the moral power unleashed by a gift given without thought and the moral consequences of this act. Upon his return to Tanzania in 2009, Stroeken hoped to continue where he had left off. Yet the house of Butale, whom he sought, was deserted. He had become [End Page 345] the victim of witchcraft. Stroeken remembered giving him the gift of the plastic raincoat. Had this, he asked himself, sealed his fate? Did the yellow plastic coat symbolize a gift that had isolated his friend and bought forth jealousy? Was it a gift that could not be reciprocated and had sealed a misunderstanding of the gift exchange process? In this instant, Stroeken brings together the central themes of social exchange and witchcraft in the moral of misfortune. Gift and sacrifice become part of the same social process of exchange as one can never be sure of the return for what one has given.

It is these relations of exchange and sacrifice that allow Stroeken to make a most comprehensive social analysis of power and magic. Focusing on relations of exchange allows us, argues Stroeken, to search for a basic logic or structure of experience recognizable to humans at large: or, more to the point, to not readily rely on only local narratives or people’s subjective experiences, but rather to uncover the non-subjective structures in which the anthropologist is interested. This, he states, is the reality of representation and the relations between Sukuma and academic culture that allow meaning. It is also what Stroeken calls the mediatory ‘third’ culture of anthropological analysis: where the author’s cultural terms can meet the other culture’s terms.

Witchcraft, Stroeken argues, stems from the dark side of social exchange, a dynamic process that witchcraft makes static (p. 148). It is the grudge that gives witchcraft an invisible moral power at moments of crisis and allows the witch to kill. ‘This is the witchcraft in magic . . . the grudge gives the witch access’ (p. 30). But witchcraft accusations and rumours are also about power shifts and a powerlessness that represents a distinct experience of the world that cannot be separated from the wider Sukuma culture. The witch is the absolute outsider yet she lives within the same social and normative system as her victims, subjecting them to her hyper-social moralizing gaze.

Magic, on the other hand, is of a different order of access than witchcraft. It empowers the user and is associated with knowledge and membership of a society. Stroeken’s fieldwork really comes alive at this juncture. The principle of Sukuma magic, he states, is that meaning heals the body. Stroeken illustrates how shingila – access – is added to plants as a magic component in order to ensure that the power of the medicine matches the subject’s intention. This is the epistemology or cosmology of healing: the continuity of the social and the subjective, of shingila and experience tied together in order to live with contingency.

Trying not to confuse magic with witchcraft, Stroeken berates those anthropologists who do. For example, Stroeken examines how recent global studies of witchcraft have broadened the concept of...


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pp. 345-346
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