MEMOIRS - 12 - Witchcraft and Spells

The various Governments in Africa all take a serious view of Witchcraft, and if they can in anyway discredit the powers of the Witch Doctors, in the minds of the Natives, they always do so.

The ‘smelling-out’ of Witches by the medicine Man or Witch Doctor in the village is a serious and solemn matter, and usually terminates in dire disaster for the Witch, when he is located.

If there happens to be a series of children’s deaths in the village, or any other such misfortune, then it is attributed to the evil influence of a witch, who is living in the village; and the Medicine man is called in, to smell him or her out.

The Medicine Man’s methods vary considerably, but taking them all in all, the result is the same, the finding of the witch. Of course, the witch is usually a perfectly innocent person, who has unfortunately incurred the enmity of some influential villager, who has bribed the Witch Doctor to "Smell him out." The punishment for the witch is expulsion – or worse – from his village, his goods are confiscated and his wife and family are rendered homeless by the burning down of his hut.

While in Central Africa, I was once asked to accompany the police to a village where it had been reported there was going to be a very extensive Witch Hunt, or Smelling out; but unfortunately, my engagements would not enable me to go with them; and then my advice was asked as to the best way to discredit the Medicine man, or, trip-him-up’, as the Police Inspector put it. I said I would like to be informed of the antics and procedure of this particular Witch Doctor, so one of the native Police spies, who had seen this particular medicine man doing his stuff, was called in, and described very fully to me, what usually happened. It would appear that, after doing the usual palaver of throwing the bones, bowing and scraping, chanting, etc., etc., the Medicine Man stripped naked, and, after dashing up to various huts and smelling round generally, he would suddenly climb up to the roof of a hut and plunge his hand into the grass roof and produce a handful of "Dowa" or "Muti’. The owner of the hut where the ‘Dowa’ was found was condemned as the witch. On cross questioning the Native Police boy, he was emphatic in his assertions, that the ‘Dowa’ could not have been placed in the roof of the hut beforehand, and he was quite certain that the ‘Dowa’ was not in his hand when he climbed on to the roof of the hut. Where was the ‘Dowa’ or ‘Muti’ hidden, to enable the medicine man to find it in the hut he had selected? If I could tell them that, then the problem would be solved. The natives in that part of the country were very fond of smearing themselves over, with red ochre, and it was very evident to me that the ‘Dowa’, which usually consisted of cow dung mixed with mud, was covered over with ochre and stuck on to some part of his body, and the most likely place that suggested itself to me, was under the arm pit. You can well imagine that a small quantity of this sticky substance, covered over with the same coloured red ochre that the body was smeared with, and stuck under the armpit, would be a very good hiding place, and almost invisible, even at close quarters, and could easily be produced when required, without any fumbling.

I suggested this to the Inspector, and he eventually acted on my suggestion and got his Police Boys to arrange a little trap for the Medicine man; and it proved to be as I had surmised. The ‘Dowa’ was found hidden under his armpit, and he was discredited in the eyes of the tribe, lost faith, and was hounded out of the village.

The native has a simple mind, and his appreciation of magic is limited to the direct effects only, such as productions and vanishes, also the defiance of natural laws, as he knows them, such as the levitation of a wand or stick. To make a success of a Magical Entertainment for Natives, the Magician must put on a well thought out programme, based on the simple, direct effects. Government Authorities are very keen to-day to let Natives see a magical performance given by a European, as they talk about it for weeks afterwards, in their villages, and the wonders performed by the Conjurer compared with the doings of their own Medicine Men, and they begin to realize that their own ‘Magicians’ are not so clever after all. It is this psychological effect that the Government try to produce amongst the Natives. The Witch Doctors must be discredited.

One of the most successful demonstrations I have given at the request of the Authorities was to the ‘Souks’ in Central Africa. Under a large spreading tree, with hundreds of Natives and their Chiefs, from surrounding districts and villages, I gave my performance, and as I proceeded, it was explained by the Interpreter that this was the ‘White Man’s magic’ and it was only done by trickery, and not by supernatural powers of Witchcraft. There were grunts and laughs of appreciation as my show proceeded, and as a finale, I threw out a challenge to their Witch Doctors.

I stood on the grass with nothing in my hands, and my sleeves turned up to my elbows, and then said, "I am now going to do a trick that none of your Medicine Men can do, and when you go back to your villages, you must ask them to try and do it." "This is the White man’s Magic, and it is done by trickery."

I then got one of the natives to cut me a twig from a branch of a tree, trim it up a bit, and hand it to me. This was done, the twig being about four feet in length, and very pliable, I was still empty handed, with my sleeves turned back, and I drew their attention to this fact. I then took the twig in my hands, one hand at each end, and called for dead silence, and said, "I am thirsty, can your Medicine man produce water from a stick? For I can; watch;" and with that I bent the twig over, and from one end of it I squeezed out a small cupful of water; I then turned the twig round and from the other end I squeezed out a small cupful of milk; I then wiped the twig clean and made a present of it to the Paramount Chief.

This last trick had an outstanding effect on the minds of the Natives, for, as I pointed out, it was a trick with a direct effect.

Most Conjurers, I think, will guess how I did this trick. As the Native is very superstitious, it was not a difficult matter to cast a spell on him, his mind is very susceptible to autosuggestion. I will give you two instances, to illustrate what I mean.

A considerable number of years ago, a Frenchman, who had settled in Kenya, built himself a very large house some little way outside Nairobi, and when it was nearly completed, it caught fire in some mysterious way, and, although arson was suspected, it could not be brought home to any of the natives who had been working on the building, and the Police gave up the investigation.

The Frenchman was convinced, in his own mind, that one of the Natives was responsible for the starting of the fire; so he took the law into his own hands and arranged for a Witch Doctor to investigate. One Sunday morning, the Witch Doctor got all the boys together from the Compound; and, after the usual palaver, he announced that he knew that the boy who was responsible for the fire, was one of those present, and to prove his powers, he would put a spell on the culprit, and that, in about an hours time, when that shadow of the large tree reached a certain spot, the boy concerned, would start crying, and he would continue to cry till he had confessed to his crime.

The boys were then told to go away, and come back in about half an hour, and then to stand near the tree and watch the shadow till it reached the spot indicated. Sure enough, as the time approached, all the boys filtered back to the tree, and stood silent and absorbed, watching the shadow creeping closer and closer, when suddenly one of the boys started to laugh, for, he said, this was a good joke; he stopped; then laughed again, and then again; in fact, he could not stop himself; he got hysterical, and in the meantime, slowly but surely, the shadow crept on and on.

Then, as suddenly, just as the shadow reached the spot, the boy’s hysterical laughter turned into a dismal cry, and he cried and cried, and could not stop, and staggering up to the Head Boy, made his confession. He said that he had a grudge against the Frenchman, who had punished him for some minor offence by cutting his pay, and so, one night, he had crept out of his hut and set fire to the grass roof of the Frenchman’s house.

The again, I myself, quite innocently, cast a spell on a pool little native Pigmy from the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains.

I was in Uganda at the time and had been staying at the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ Hotel at Toro, where I had given quite a number of entertainments and was known to the Natives for miles around the ‘White Shatani’ – White Satan or Miracle Man, and one morning, while standing on the verandah, admiring the beautiful view of the snow topped mountains in the distance, one of the little black men, from the slopes of the Ruwenzori, came along with a basket of fruit, which he was trying to sell. I asked him the price of the fruit, and when he told me what he wanted for it, I knew he was asking far above the market price, so I refused to buy, but offered him a smaller price; this he would not accept, so I told him to clear off and he would have to walk until he died, before he sold his fruit at that price; meaning, of course, that he would have to walk a very long way, before anybody would pay the price he was asking. So the little man picked up his basket and left. In the afternoon the headwaiter came to me and asked me if I wouldn’t remove the spell I had cast on the Pigmy from the hills. I said that I didn’t know what he meant; then he explained that the little man had been walking round and round the Hotel, without stopping, and when questioned, had told the boys that the White Shatani had cast a spell on him, and ordered him to walk till he fell dead, as a punishment for trying to overcharge for his fruit. It was now up to me to remove the spell, and, at the same time, uphold the prestige of the White Shatani; so I had him brought before me, and gave him a lecture, and told him that if he wanted the spell removed, he must agree to sell me the fruit at the market price, and then he could go free. This, of course, he willingly did; so I bought all his fruit, and told the waiter to take him to the kitchen and give him a good feed, and a bed for the night, so that he could return to his home early next morning.