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Dr. Leo Igwe 3 on Field Work and Research on Witchcraft Allegations


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/01/22

Dr. Leo Igwe is the Founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement/Humanist Association of Nigeria and former Western and Southern African Representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, now Humanists International, and the Founder & CEO of Advocacy for Alleged Witches. 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 witchcraft in Nigeria and Ghana, and the misrepresentations and inaccuracies, and falsehoods, provided to the Western world through Western anthropologists with negative impacts on the image of Africa and Africans.

Scott Jacobsen: You have been doing some research into the dynamics of witchcraft in Nigeria and Ghana. This includes fieldwork in these places. Could you share some of your experiences?

Igwe: I worked for local and international NGOs, intervening in cases of witchcraft accusations in Nigeria, Malawi and Gambia, before undertaking my doctoral studies on the same topic. However, I did my doctoral fieldwork in Ghana and I am still trying to document some of my experiences as a researcher on witchcraft because it is still ongoing. Apart from this, I monitor cases of witchcraft allegations in other African countries and regions including South Asia and Oceania. In the course of my intervention work, I had the chance to raise the issues of witch persecution before the African Commission as well as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. I am keen to understand why witch persecution persists in some parts of the world, and what can be done to eradicate this dark and destructive phenomenon.

It was during my doctoral programme that I learnt about the extensive research and study that had been conducted on African witchcraft. As most of the study was done by western anthropologists, there was a lot of misrepresentation of Africa and Africans in these studies. Texts on witchcraft in Africa mainly portrayed Africans as people with a child-like mentality. Having lived in Africa and being an African I was compelled to challenge these thoughts and texts through relatable research on issues of witchcraft in Africa. There was an underlying prejudice in these studies. A constant comparison of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which created an impression of two worlds: one with witchcraft belief and the other without. The ‘us’ referred to the rational, scientific and ‘civilized’ westerners, and the ‘them’ to magical, occult, native, witchcraft-minded Africans. These ‘scientific’ texts on African witchcraft sounded like stories about the behaviours of children meant to entertain adults. The accounts were biased, mainly narrations of gossips and hearsay, superficial fairy tales, permeated with prejudices and misconceptions. These accounts were based on one incident or one encounter on the streets or village squares in Sudan, Tanzania, Soweto, Nigeria or Cameroon.

Most Western anthropologists have used particular incidents to explain a whole ethnic group, a country, a continent making generalizations with far reaching racial implications other than providing solid arguments based on intensive research. These generalizations have ended up misinforming the readers about these peoples and their cultures.

Some years ago, a German colleague who visited Ghana for his fieldwork told me that based on what he read about witchcraft in Ghana he had expected to see witchcraft everywhere on arrival. He didn’t. This was a clear case of misinformation through the texts that he had hoped would guide him on what to expect of African people and their cultures. The misrepresentation of African cultures by Western anthropologists has shaped the way that westerners perceive Africans and their cultures. A trend that has continued by subsequent scholars due to lack of academic will on the part of African scholars to engage ‘established western scholarship’.

Meanwhile, western anthropologists have further represented the west as a bastion of science, civilization, and enlightenment even at a time that western missionaries were busy propagating Christian myths and superstitions across the region. They have otherized Africa to the point that strains comprehension especially for one who comes from the culture being explained.

Unfortunately, these are the studies that have been used to introduce generations of European and other westerners to African cultures. These are studies that many claim or acclaim as embodying contemporary knowledge. It is absurd that African researchers are expected to engage these texts as documented evidence of the African culture from which they can learn and understand their own culture. What western anthropologists and their African counterparts have done over the years is to expand and perpetuate a debate that thrives on exoticizing Africans, a research trend that presents Africans as the prototype of primitive savage humans. This narrative only serves the interests of racists, colonizers and exploiters.

As a doctoral research fellow, I found it difficult to engage and make sense of this corpus of literature. The studies lacked the rigors and depth that I had expected at that level. The witchcraft debate is inclined to inform the west, not necessarily the world, about ‘me’, about Africa. I kept wondering how I could get into this debate. I wondered how I could meaningfully engage in this ethnography of the self. For instance, going through the literature on African witchcraft, I noticed a predominantly pattern of writing by western scholars. They usually say: “As a westerner I have never seen such thing (referring to a manifestation of witch belief) like this before blah blah blah….”. Then they go on to explain this strange African phenomenon. Having grown and lived within this African culture it was obvious that I would take a different dimension in explaining the same phenomenon. Due to the choice of words and angle of research done by the western anthropologists, it was clear who the audience was. Anthropologists write for the west. They tell the west about Africa. In my own case, it was difficult to position and participate in this ‘writing culture’. Who would be my audience? Africans? So mine would be a story of Africa to Africans?

May be this predominant culture of anthropological writing made sense centuries ago when western humans had to travel thousands of miles on boats or ships to remote African villages and forests and send back stories of their experiences with these ‘strange’ humans. Does such as a discipline have any academic value today that we have the internet and more especially we have Africans traveling to the west and telling their own stories? Probably as a form of archival studies.

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


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


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