Flying witches and Africans

Leo Igwe has an op-ed on an African problem.

Some months ago, the aviation authorities in Swaziland issued a statement which surprised many people around the globe. They warned that high-flying witches would be penalised. High-flying witches? Be penalised?

Swaziland Corporate Affairs Director Sabelo Dlamini actually said, “A witch on a broomstick should not fly above the [150-metre] limit.” Wow!

Of course, on hearing this directive one may think it was something made up by someone bent on discrediting Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Far from it, it was a policy statement from the aviation authorities in Swaziland to regulate ‘witch-flights’ in this 21st century.

He concludes by setting a goal for Africans.

We must break the spell of ignorance that hangs over Africa. Fearful ignorant minds wasting precious resources fighting imaginary witches in winnowing baskets must be replaced with educated, honest people administering the forward progress of an emerging continent with real needs.

Are the authorities in Swaziland and Zimbabwe listening to the future calling?

I hesitated to post this, because it’s all too easy to turn this into a vindication of racist bigotry. But let me remind you that here in mighty America, we have white people claiming to have fought demons, legislators denying global climate change because a god promised not to ever flood us again, and of course, the perennial insistence that we must swear an oath to an invisible boogey man to take public office.

So I have to revise Igwe’s suggestion a little bit: We must break the spell of ignorance that hangs over humanity.


  1. Great American Satan says

    I had a supervisor at my last job who believed UFOs were piloted by demons. Her pastor said, yo.

  2. Al Dente says

    Typical First Worlder, doesn’t care about aircraft in Swaziland running into witches. Do you think a jet engine can ingest a witch and keep running?

  3. Sastra says

    Sometimes the problem with dispelling superstitions is that they become mixed up with national pride. If modern Europeans scorn the idea that there are witches in Africa then by golly we’re not going to let our beliefs and our convictions and our special knowledge of our own circumstances and experiences be influenced by their foreign ways of thinking. This staking-our-specialness attitude can also slop over onto people concerned with imperialism.

    In my weekly discussion group I once brought up the problems in Africa with “witch children” who were being grossly abused because they were accused of casting spells through the Evil Eye — which was, of course, nonsense. Unfortunately, my friends’ liberal principles were apparently trumped by their deep need to believe in the “spiritual” superiority of non-western cultures and what I assumed was going to be a consensus discussion on human rights turned into my being schooled on the truth of the Evil Eye and the need to respect African knowledge. It was wrong to harm the ‘witch children,’ of course — but it was just as wrong to say there were no witches. The Evil Eye exists.

    They didn’t really have an answer to my obvious question as to how we can convince people to stop burning witches if we can’t argue that there are no witches. Somehow we’re supposed to let them figure out who is and who is not a real witch — and it will work out. Spiritually evolved consciousness saves the day. Or something like that.

    In Better Angels of Our Nature Pinker argues that one of the most significant changes necessary for cultures to become more compassionate is that they lose the primitive, ancient belief that bad things always happen for a reason: curses. Find the neighbor who made the hurricane come with their bad thoughts, punish them, and everything will be lovely.

    Not only does that stymie scientific progress: it causes and escalates violence.

    So I have to revise Igwe’s suggestion a little bit: We must break the spell of ignorance that hangs over humanity.

    Exactly. And in that spirit I want to toss the entire “Western” and “Eastern” divide when it comes to things like science, reason, medicine, and ways of thinking. People who despise US jingoism and exceptionalism have no business endorsing something like “African ways of knowing.”

    We are all Africans.

  4. mnb0 says

    “We must break the spell of ignorance that hangs over humanity.”
    Some good news: it is very possible by means of education.
    Not so long ago a pupil of mine (neither black nor white; something in between) was afraid because of either the Harold Camping prediction or the end of the Maya calendar (I have forgotten). At tertiary education he got thoroughly amazed how well natural sciences work, deconverted and lost his superstition.

  5. says

    …a god promised not to ever flood us again…

    Common misunderstanding. A close reading will tell you that god only promised never to flood the entire planet again. Genesis 9:11

    I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.

    My emphasis.
    So, we can conclude that any flood that doesn’t destroy all life is still possible. Smaller scale floods are fine and other means of destruction (even if global) are also still on the table. That leaves quite a few options for your friendly neighborhood vengeful deity.

  6. mnb0 says

    “I want to toss the entire “Western” and “Eastern” divide when it comes to things like science, reason, medicine, and ways of thinking.”
    That’s pretty easy. Laws of science and mathematical algorithms are exactly the same wherever you formulate them. They are no western privilege. Examples enough of non-westerner scholars who have grasped them to a high level if you care to look.

  7. says

    The problem can be summed up in two words: Magic thinking.

    There is nothing unusual about witches. They are pretty much universal. That they were replaced by saints and sundry all-knowing beings (not least jeebus and sky-daddy) adds, or distracts, nothing from a deep-seated psychological need in many people to have an omniscient judge to (finally) tell everyone else that they’re OK. Along with a whole bevy to blame for the vicissitudes of fate.

    Religion is not the problem – not even the untruth of it all- it is the disease of magical thinking that poisons everything.

  8. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Riffing of the incomparable Sastra and theophontes – the problem is a lot more generalized if we step away from the clearly unreal witchcraft and more obvious forms of magical thinking. For example, some crimes have been committed and, without evidence, people as a crowd decide that they know who it was (that Black Guy, that schizophrenic, the slightly different, weird, or quiet neighbor, that person on the sex-offender registry).

    We do this crap all the time, in far less critical circumstances, and it is a bad habit as well as a failure of critical thinking or cultural training. And sometimes it’s hard to get this across to people who are otherwise skeptical or critical thinkers because they only tend to evaluate unusual, wild, or more “significant” claims.

    I hope that made sense.

  9. poxyhowzes says

    Sastra @3

    Somehow “Ich Bin Ein Afrikaner” has a certain off note to it, even (I suspect) when rendered in the Boer dialect or Afrikaans.

    Just messin’ with you — of course even those amongst us who are Neandertals or Denisovians are African. — pH

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the spell of ignorance that hangs over Africa.

    Above or below the 150-meter limit?

  11. Rich Woods says

    I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one having trouble with low-flying witches. Around here it’s those pesky kids from Hogwarts. VFR, my arse!

  12. tfkreference says

    After this story came out last spring, I heard that it it was actually an offhand response by the official to a reporter who asked if a ban on small aircraft like remote control planes applied to witches. It’s not written into the regulation.

    Given the real problems with attitudes towards (perceived) witches in Africa, and the bigotry that PZ mentions, it’s easy to see how it could be taken out of context.

  13. unclefrogy says

    the greater issue of magical thinking which underlies all religious thinking is a real concern.
    It is not just about witches and other obvious things. It permeates all areas even in the modern west.
    We do things over and over again in economics and politics from some belief or other without really looking at it objectively to see if it is true all. In sports! and in many personal habits we all have little pieces of it hidden away without thinking more influenced by chance than reason though we may have some “because” to justify or explain it. I know I am not entirely free of it
    uncle frogy

  14. Sastra says


    True. The difference though is that the vast majority of people at least recognize that “magical thinking” in economics, politics, sports, or personal habits is supposed to be a bad thing. If someone accuses you of it you deny it and probably try to explain why that’s not what you’re doing. The common goal, at least, is to think soundly and reasonably — whether we follow through or not.

    Not so in religion or spirituality. Magical thinking IS the goal — it’s the special method which will allow you to perceive the magic. Science is limited because it demands that an objective case be made which is capable of persuading the unpersuaded. But magical thinking sees correspondences, seeks causes, receives insights, experiences dramas, and connects events which work below the surface of the natural world … and is only done by those who are “open” to their other ways of knowing. You’re ready and eager to be persuaded, so it won’t take much. Hints will do.

    When you get right down to it there’s no way to do magical thinking wrong because there’s no way for everyone to tell when it’s being done right. Which leads to the problem of people who believe in witches trying to stop other people who believe in witches from going ‘too far’ and becoming dangerous or just getting silly. What’s the argument? And won’t it be arbitrary?

  15. says

    Wait a minute — broomsticks? That’s a very European witch trope. Surely African witches have their own favoured transport; after all, Russian witches use mortars and pestles, I understand, and Polynesians their preserved umbilicals, I seem to remember. Maybe African witches ride gourds or boats made of acacia leaves or something?

  16. Francisco Bacopa says

    As a mostly all white guy I am reluctant to tell Africans what they should do, but maybe some person should explain that elements of scientific reasoning are universal to all human cultures. They could maybe do a survey of Bantu folklore and technology and show how they applied sound hypothesis formation and testing to achieve useful results. Maybe some story about rains and seasons shows accurate reasoning about the hydrologic cycle? How did they figure out metal smelting?

    Maybe with some cultural pride about their own scientific achievements science wouldn’t seem so “Western”. Of course, you’d have to be careful not to come up with the African equivalent of Creation Science or Islamist apolegetic science.

    I used the hydrologic cycle because some apologists claim the Bible got that right, when it didn’t. But Aristotle did get it right with not a lot to go on. Maybe some African in charge of collecting millet and beer for the chief was thinking about why yields were so different between years. Maybe he saw fog above ponds and mists in the hills and started thinking about clouds and rain. Maybe he composed a song or a story about rainfall and seasons that got it right.

  17. says

    Umm… Excuse me? You think this could be “construed” as racist?

    No… just no.

    This is not to be “construed” as racist.. not at all. Nope. This entire line of thought is racist. You do not have to add an extra syllogism on top of what was said to make it look racist, that that writer was saying was in fact racist all on its on… in fact it is one of the most blatant racist sentiments around.

    That sentiment and that form of writing has a long history in imperialism and part of the racist reasoning that was used to colonize African Nations and is used by western powers to constrict African Nations. I have no idea how you can see it any different. I have no idea how someone can say “this might be racist” when.. in reality it is very very racist to begin with.

    The very idea that Africa as a whole is the den of this sort of irrational spirituality that requires western saviors is a racist sentiment. Period.

    The idea that whoever wrote this that he has to concentrate on this one common superstition in Africa as symbolic of Africa as a whole – while implying that western rationality is superior and “we must help them” because they are too stupid to help themselves ….. is age old racist imperialistic reasoning. How can anyone see any different?

    The very fact that this writer chose to emphasize this one aspect of the culture in a way that painted the entire continent as brutes or animals that can not help themselves.. while ignoring, as you point out, all of the various irrational superstitions that are ingrained within western culture.. is an indication of a racist way of thinking. The fact that someone thinks they can single out something as a “great wrong” when POC’s engage in it…. but ignores that “great wrong” when white people engage in the same behavior is a direct indication that this person is a racist.

    To emphasize identical behavior when it comes from POC’s in Africa but not from whites in western nations is racist.. I do not know how to be more clear than that. I mean, let me give you an analogy… Miley Cirus is all the craze right now, this is some white spoiled pop singer, and she is out posting pictures of her smoking weed. What is America’s reaction to that? Oh.. she is just young and “finding herself”…that this is all just a phase. Yet if a black teenager engages in the same behavior and posts pictures of smoking weed.. you know that happens? That give America a free pass to call him a thug.. and fcking kill him. See when Trayvon does it.. it is introduced into a trial, for no other reason than to use racist frameworks to let a murderer go.. because this black teen is now a “thug” and thus deserves to get fcking shot. Yet for the same behavior, where black and brown folk get murdered, white people remain unscathed.

    Now.. I sht you not, this is the same type of thinking that just went into this African comment…. for identical behaviors, one side, the black and brown side, is all of a sudden viewed as brutes incapable of helping themselves… yet the Western and European side… remains unscathed. This is fcking racism.. straight up. This is not “construed” as racism, you can not “misread” it as racism, you do not have to add extra lines of reasoning to get to a racist world view.. that writing as you present it, PZ, is fcking racist, absurdly so, all on its god damn own. So no… that sht is racist as fck, no ifs ands of buts about it.

    Then I hear someone mention that lame ass Stephen Pinker and his pile of propaganda work called “the better angels of our nature”?.. Are you people fcking serious with this? Look up the International Socialist Review of the book and understand that his book is the most worthless pile of crap that came out of western institutions for a while. his book is filled with nothing but distortions and western imperialistic propaganda.. why the fck would anyone take what that fool says seriously? I love how Americans eat that historical revisionism up. Jesus fcking christ. Here is a small taste of what that fool was up to in that worthless book..

    How does Pinker get around the seemingly large numbers of wars and militarization process that bother so many ordinary people and specialist observers such as Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, and Winslow Wheeler? One Pinker method is to confine his focus to post-1945 wars among the great democracies, which have not fought one another in this sixty-seven-year interim, and to ignore or downplay the numerous wars that the great democracies have fought in the Third World. He calls this the “Long Peace,” while the other wars have no name. Pinker contends not only that the “democracies avoid disputes with each other,” but that they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” an idea he refers to as the “Democratic Peace.” This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of US assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings, and invasions since 1945. For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the “Democratic Peace,” no matter how many people die.

    You guys need to look up that review and realize that Pinkers work is just another pack of lies propagates by rich western nations in an attempt to write history and ignore all the wrongs western imperialism has damaged other countries and continues to damage in other countries.. I mean for gods sake the US just took out a democratically elected president of Honduras in 2009 using a military coup. They did the same thing In Chile, in DR, in Haiti recently as 2004… etc.. the list goes on and on and this has been the M.O. of the US in the middle east and in latin america for the past like 80 years… any why is this not a fcking issue? It is like Americans live in this fantasy world where they are closed off to the happenings of the world.. and Pinkers book works to keep Americans ignorant of the various atrocities committed by their own fcking government. God.. this just pisses me off.

  18. anuran says

    dezn_98, Africa is no more or less a sinkhole of irrationality and magical thinking than Mississippi or Alaska. To say so would not be true, and it would be racist. But it is not racist to recognize that extreme religious beliefs and superstitions represent challenges in various parts of the world including parts of Africa. And the really horrible economic and political conditions in Swaziland promote magical thinking and superstition which is an extra anchor around the neck of that poor country.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Unfortunately, my friends’ liberal principles were apparently trumped by their deep need to believe in the “spiritual” superiority of non-western cultures and what I assumed was going to be a consensus discussion on human rights turned into my being schooled on the truth of the Evil Eye and the need to respect African knowledge.


    We are all Africans.

    So true.

  20. OptimalCynic says

    If it helps, remember that Africa was denied the advances in rationalist philosphy we take for granted by colonialism. It’s natural that the African people would be behind the West in their attitudes towards magic – we deliberately held them back! It’s not because of their race, it’s because of their historical experience with paternalistic colonialism.

  21. brucegorton says


    Witch hunting is a definite and real widespread African problem – we get them in South Africa. And it is a very definite good example of how superstition is fucking over our continent.

    The bulk of the cause of the problem is not actually within histoical African culture, it is mostly caused by American evangelical churches and their missionaries, it is caused by very first world groups like the Discovery Channel selling series like The Exorcist Files, it is much like African homophobia largely linked to Western ideas of what an African should be, rather than African ideas of what we want to be.

    African cultures pre-Christianity and Islam mostly actually had no real problem with gay people or even gay marriage, it is largely a Western and Eastern influence on our people.

    We in Africa want to be influenced, because we want the things that America, Japan and Western Europe have got. We want those same luxuries, we want that great future, we want to be the ones eventually doing the influencing. We don’t want to be separate, some of our so-called leaders pump their chests about how much they love African culture, but those same leaders send their wives shopping in London.

    And we get missionaries coming out and offering it in a poisoned chalice. We have schools of business and computers being started by American churches, offering what they claim to be the keys to success. Instead we get superstition, we get a culture rising that involves ‘corrective’ rape, we get prayer when we need police, we get faith healing where we need medicine, we get witches where we need solutions.

    There is a lot of money pumped into religious evangelism – both Islamic and Christian, and this money means that the worst excesses come to Africa as well. This issue is exactly what would be happening in America if the leash was let off their Christian right, because it is the American Christian right at the root of most of it.

  22. unclefrogy says

    well said!
    while witches are not real the belief in them is real but the extreme negative reaction to perceived witches is the christian way to protect itself from other beliefs same with homophobia

    uncle frogy

  23. says


    I am aware of the witch problem in Africa, and I am aware of the negative impact Christian Missionaries have had in Africa.. My point is not that “witches” are not a problem. My point is that the asymmetrical way we treat superstitious beliefs across the racial barrier. In that a superstitious belief is often used to symbolize a great and significant problem within the black and brown communities to an extent that they can not solve it themselves because they are “too primitive” and “need to be civilized”… yet none of that rhetoric is every used when white European communities are analyzed for similar irrational superstitions. White European communities always remain unscathed by their various superstitions no matter their impact, while black and brown ones regardless of their impact are always marked as “uncivilized” by superstitious beliefs. That asymmetry is the racism and colonialism I am talking about.

    You never see white civilization characterized as “uncivil” and “in need of enlightenment” from an outside cultural thinkers when they behave in the same irrational ways. You never see any of that.. but as soon as any black or brown civilization engages in the same type of behavior.. all of a sudden they lack enlightenment and need to be lead by.. surprise surprise European thinkers. This kind of ideology is something I am not fond of… and it is especially insidious when there is a real problem that has big impacts in a certain culture.. because then, then people seem to think that former line of racist and imperialistic logic, where it was not valid before, somehow has now become a valid way to analyze the world.

    When the reality is that much of what America has gotten and what Europeans have gotten… that long lasting “peace” and “technology” they love to flaunt around.. was made through violent means. Americans enjoy luxuries because the American Government is going highly immoral criminal activity in the international scene…. they colonized Latin America and have stolen its resources, put many Latin American nations in palmist endless poverty while American Corporations bring the riches back home that Americans enjoy but seem to never understand that it is basically blood money. The amount of violence commuted to having a stranglehold on resources negatively impact the world while keeping Americans rich. I do not think any impoverished nation that seeks to have what America has, those capitalistic luxuries, are going to be able to attain it – not mater how much European Philosophy you teach – because the way the current powers operate ensures that most countries stay poor. They only become “better” when they cooperate with American interests and align themselves with globalization… the only way to get those luxuriates is to go the route of Chile (a country that was built by an America sponsored Coup).. in which they caved to corporate interests and now have a highly divided country where there are exceedingly rich rest that enjoy American luxuriates while the resat of the country is extremely poor. All the rest of the nations that want to remain independent will be treated like Nicaragua and Cuba… forever facing American pressure through agencies like the IMF and world bank and staying impoverished because of it.

    I do not believe Africa, if I have learned anything from Latin American history – one which many American operators are proud of because they are using methods they developed dominating Latin American countries on countries like Iraq – that any amount of “enlightenment” is going to help other nations around the world to develop. Not when there are so much machinery working in the other direction. You do not get rid of superstitions by promoting the “great words” of these “enlightened European thinkers”.. I think that is nonsense.. you get rid of it by bringing people out of poverty. When you give them economic mobility and offer them routes out of poverty, there is a high correlation that such superstitions decline. It is not ending superstition that will free nations, although I do not object to skeptics making efforts, it is ending poverty and and unjust economic system that will end mitigate superstitious beliefs. Countries that have high levels of Atheism correlate with countries that are economically stable. think about that.. if superstitious beliefs and religious beliefs feed off of people who are in a weak state than it makes sense that once you offer them a gateway out of poverty beliefs like that start to decline.

  24. says


    You never see white civilization characterized as “uncivil” and “in need of enlightenment” from an outside cultural thinkers when they behave in the same irrational ways. You never see any of that.. but as soon as any black or brown civilization engages in the same type of behavior.. all of a sudden they lack enlightenment and need to be lead by.. surprise surprise European thinkers.

    You’re under the impression that the writer of the article is criticising “from the outside” as a “European thinker”?

    I suggest you follow chigau’s link @#24

    You might also note that the very blog you’re commenting on spends a lot of time criticising European and European-derived culture. Often, in fact, very specifically criticising the white part of that culture.

    Are you claiming that superstition and such should be free from criticism if it occurs in places where POCs are in the majority, because they are places where POC’s are in the majority? That would seem somewhat patronising to me.