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Dr. Leo Igwe 1 on Albinism and Witchcraft in Africa

2023-01-03

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/01/04

Dr. Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, now Humanists International. He is among the most prominent African non-religious people from the African continent. When he speaks, many people listen in a serious way. He holds a Ph.D. from the Bayreuth International School of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, having earned a graduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria.

Here we talk about albinism and witchcraft in Africa.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Once again, my friend, we cross paths in word. Let’s touch on a sensitive subject matter in Nigeria, but Africa as a whole. That is to say, the notions of albinism and witchcraft in the African region.

Let’s define terms, first: What is albinism? What is witchcraft? Both defined in an African context with a range to provide an idea of the possible spectrum depending on the African nation-state in question.

Dr. Leo Igwe: Albinism and witchcraft belong to two conceptual categories that western anthropologists and their NGO counterparts often conflate, and yes misrepresent. The misrepresentation has led to confusion and inadequate situation of the two issues. Albinism is a skin disorder due to the absence of melanin. People with albinism have white skin. Their skin is seen as a deviation from the ‘normal’ black skin. While witchcraft stands for the belief that some persons (alleged witches) can harm others through spiritual or occult means. In some parts of Africa, people with albinism, like alleged witches, are often victims of murder and attack. Unlike imputed witches, people with albinism are hunted down, and killed because their body parts are believed to have a magical potency. Ritualists target people with albinism to harvest their body parts not to neutralize their supposed harmful magic. While in both cases, superstition motivates the attackers and killers, strictly speaking, albinism is not witchcraft and people with albinism are not witches. Killings of people with albinism are ritual killings, or muti-related killings, not witchcraft murders.

Jacobsen: What is the foundational epistemological (supernatural) claim about ‘witches’ and albinos in Africa?

Igwe: The foundational epistemology is that ‘witches’ have magical powers and use these powers to cause misfortune while the body of persons with albinism is believed to have magical potency that people could harness to enhance their fortune and luck. ‘Witches’ evoke fear and individuals who identify them try to eliminate them or neutralize their powers. Whilst people with albinism fear for their lives because people could attack, kill and harvest their body parts for ritual sacrifice.

For a better understanding of the epistemological distinction, I would like to draw from my Nigerian background. Locally, people with albinism are linked to what is known as Ogwu-ego (Igbo) or Ogun owo (yoruba) which literally translates as medicine money or ritual money. But this is not the case with ‘witches’, they are designated as ‘amusu’ (Igbo) or aje (yoruba), as destroyers and as enemies within the family. Both ‘witches’ and albinos rest on different epistemological foundations.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Igwe.

Igwe: It’s always my pleasure!

License

In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at www.in-sightpublishing.com.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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