Madumo, a Man Bewitched
Adam Ashforth University of Chicago Press, 2000 Library of Congress BF1584.S6Z7 2000 | Dewey Decimal 299.64
No one answered when I tapped at the back door of Madumo's home on Mphahlele Street a few days after my return to Soweto, so I pushed the buckling red door in a screeching grind of metal over concrete and entered calling, "Hallo?"
So begins this true story of witchcraft and friendship set against the turbulent backdrop of contemporary Soweto. Adam Ashforth, an Australian who has spent many years in the black township, finds his longtime friend Madumo in dire circumstances: his family has accused him of using witchcraft to kill his mother and has thrown him out on the street. Convinced that his life is cursed, Madumo seeks help among Soweto's bewildering array of healers and prophets. An inyanga, or traditional healer, confirms that he has indeed been bewitched. With Ashforth by his side, skeptical yet supportive, Madumo embarks upon a physically grueling treatment regimen that he follows religiously-almost to the point of death-despite his suspicion that it may be better to "Westernize my mind and not think about witchcraft."
Ashforth's beautifully written, at times poignant account of Madumo's struggle shows that the problem of witchcraft is not simply superstition, but a complex response to spiritual insecurity in a troubling time of political and economic upheaval. Post-apartheid Soweto, he discovers, is suffering from a deluge of witchcraft. Through Madumo's story, Ashforth opens up a world that few have seen, a deeply unsettling place where the question "Do you believe in witchcraft?" is not a simple one at all. The insights that emerge as Ashforth accompanies his friend on an odyssey through Soweto's supernatural perils have profound implications even for those of us who live in worlds without witches.
In March 2009, in a small town in Malawi, a nurse at the local hospital was accused of teaching witchcraft to children. Amid swirling rumors, “Mrs. K.” tried to defend her reputation, but the community nevertheless grew increasingly hostile. The legal, social, and psychological trials that she endured in the struggle to clear her name left her life in shambles, and she died a few years later.
In The Trials of Mrs. K., Adam Ashforth studies this and similar stories of witchcraft that continue to circulate in Malawi. At the heart of the book is Ashforth’s desire to understand how claims to truth, the pursuit of justice, and demands for security work in contemporary Africa, where stories of witchcraft can be terrifying. Guiding us through the history of legal customs and their interactions with the court of public opinion, Ashforth asks challenging questions about responsibility, occult forces, and the imperfect but vital mechanisms of law. A beautifully written and provocative book, The Trials of Mrs. K. will be an essential text for understanding what justice means in a fragile and dangerous world.
How does democracy fare when the people governed insist they live in a world with witches? If the government of a people afflicted by witchcraft refuses to punish witches, how does it avoid becoming alienated from the perceived needs of its people or, worse, seen as being in league with witches? In Soweto, South Africa, the constant threat of violent crime, the increase in black socio-economic inequality, the AIDS pandemic, and a widespread fear of witchcraft have converged to create a pervasive sense of insecurity among citizens and a unique public policy problem for government.
In Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa, Adam Ashforth examines how people in Soweto and other parts of post-apartheid South Africa manage their fear of 'evil forces' such as witchcraft. Ashforth examines the dynamics of insecurity in the everyday life of Soweto at the turn of the twenty-first century. He develops a new framework for understanding occult violence as a form of spiritual insecurity and documents new patterns of interpretation attributing agency to evil forces. Finally, he analyzes the response of post-apartheid governments to issues of spiritual insecurity and suggests how these matters pose severe long-term challenges to the legitimacy of the democratic state.