Breaking the Spell

"Amandla!"—Power!—was the shout that erupted from South African protest rallies in the days of minority white rule. A decade after the crumbling of apartheid, many black South Africans are still plagued by powerlessness, as Adam Ashforth demonstrates in his extraordinary book Madumo: A Man Bewitched. An American social scientist who spent extensive time living and working in Soweto, Ashforth has penned a fascinating page-turner that recounts one man's battle with an eerie symptom of powerlessness: obsession with witchcraft.

His first-person chronicle launches itself as dramatically as any novel. Returning to South Africa after a two-year absence, Ashforth finds that his longtime friend Madumo, once an ambitious student, has become a depressed social dropout, accused by his own family of practicing witchcraft, and convinced that he is the victim of the same. With Ashforth as a witness and frequent financial backer, Madumo embarks on a tortuous campaign to regain psychic health, putting himself in the hands of traditional healers and religious "prophets" while spiraling ever downward through defeatism and paranoia.

Ashforth enfolds his readers in this distressing story, conjuring up people and places with razor-sharp detail: the smell of a grass fire, the hiss of a welder's tools on a homemade burglar grate, the newspaper wrapping of chicken innards requisitioned for a magical cure. Characterizations are equally vibrant. For example, even at Madumo's direst moments—when he's hawking stolen firecrackers or vomiting up the quarts of purgatives prescribed by his inyanga (traditional healer)—his personality still glimmers with the cynical charm that won him Ashforth's friendship in the first place.

Madumo consults with traditional healer Mr. Zondi.
photo: Adam Ashforth
Madumo consults with traditional healer Mr. Zondi.

But the book's atmospheric description never swamps the outlines of sociological and political reality. While bowling his story briskly along, Ashforth also offers a persuasive analysis of the broader sociological phenomenon that, he argues, Madumo's tribulations exemplify. Since the downfall of apartheid, Sowetans have turned with renewed interest to traditional beliefs about witchcraft; the practice of hexing in the township has ballooned. Disappointed that their lives are not measurably improved under the new regime, people accustomed to laying poverty, crime, unemployment, and other troubles at the feet of apartheid blame witchcraft. At the same time, the new prosperity of some individuals causes the kind of jealousy and bitterness that turn neighbor against neighbor, leading to Crucible-like denunciations.

Whereas in the old days the prosperous could be branded as "sellouts"—for no one prospered without the consent of the authorities—in the new South Africa everyone was supposed to be "progressing." . . . Institutions of government slowly took the form of ordinary black men and women struggling, and mostly failing, to do good things against overwhelming odds. . . . The sense of the enormous evil potential of government gradually withered away. If there was no longer a monumental force of evil named Apartheid in the new South Africa, there was no massive countervailing force of the good, either. In such a field, the lesser agents of misfortune, the witches, could flourish.

The customs that might have kept this anarchy in check, Ashforth notes, are casualties of South African history: "The impositions of apartheid and the turmoil of political struggle have meant that if there ever were ancient authorities and old traditions in these matters, they have not been handed down intact." So without any definitive expert to appeal to, a sufferer like Madumo must decide whether he is under a spell, or is merely suffering the wrath of ignored ancestors. If the former, he must consult an inyanga like the book's Mr. Zondi (whose treatments include sweat baths and skin incisions with a razor blade) or a religious authority (such as an elder from the Zion Christian Church), and the two paths are mutually exclusive. To make the situation more confusing, sorcerers' spells can take many forms—like an isidliso, a demonic creature that lodges in your throat and consumes you from the inside—each requiring a different cure.

As if these baroque metaphysics weren't enough to deal with, sufferers must cope with the practical hazards of South Africa today. Describing the services an inyanga can provide, Madumo matter-of-factly explains what it's like to live in a country that has one of the highest crime rates in the world. A traditional healer, he says, can offer protection against random violence: "Like when someone comes to you in the street and says, 'Hey you! Come here! Where's the money?' and if you don't have money he just stabs you to pieces."

While arguing that anxiety about crime and economics fuels the witchcraft epidemic, Ashforth is careful not to oversimplify or to patronize his subjects. It is too easy, he asserts, to dismiss Madumo's talk of witchcraft as merely "an idiom for expressing the meaning of his misfortune as an unemployed black man missing the gravy train in the new South Africa." In fact, the scholar concludes, witchcraft is real in a way that he, as an outsider, can probably never understand:

I cannot fully subscribe to the folk wisdom of Western modernity that exults in the triumph of enlightenment over superstition. . . . Whatever else he is doing as he vomits Mr. Zondi's herbs, [Madumo] is working with something meaningful in relation to this connection between what a Westerner would call body and soul. . . . That I cannot follow him into this domain results, I have no doubt, from a lack of imagination rather than from superior intelligence or enlightenment.

The Western reader who embarks on Ashforth's gripping book may be similarly inclined to suspend disbelief. Reading Madumo is like walking through an uncanny landscape whose political vistas open, without warning, onto the heaths of Macbeth.

 
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