One of the foundational principles of modern anthropology is that cultural phenomena are not to be judged through the prism of cultural bias. In Madumo, A Man Bewitched, Adam Ashforth blurs the line between observer and participant but preserves the sanctity of cultural context. His book is a hybrid of sorts, a melding of fiction and ethnography, a story and an observation, but it does not seek to make the subject matter more palatable or comfortable for a Western reader. Ashforth lays the story before his audience and tells us that when it comes to spiritual matters, he is unquestionably a man of science, a confirmed skeptic who feels no need to seek answers or justification in the religious or the metaphysical. But, as a social scientist and professor of anthropology, he scrupulously avoids interpreting the spiritual world in which he becomes immersed. As something that defies explanation, it can only be presented on its own terms. In modern Western colloquial parlance, the realm of the spiritual in post-Apartheid Soweto “is what it is.”
In that spirit, the anthropology of witchcraft in Madumo, A Man Bewitched, is dealt with in an appropriately subjective vein. Ashforth refers to the supernatural – for example, the practice of seeking healing through the supernatural power of ancestors – as something that approximates a religious mystery, an experience that cannot be understood or intellectualized by
reading about it in a book (127). Madumo, accused of using witchcraft to bring about his mother’s death, seeks the healing of an inyanga, a kind of shaman to rid him of the curse that he thinks may be causing his persecution and ill fortune. For his friend Ashforth, Madumo’s search has to do with individual perspective, not with a leap-of-faith acceptance or knee-jerk denunciation of witchcraft as a practical solution to one’s problems. As he ponders Madumo’s plight, Ashforth realizes that he is not in a position to convince his friend that he is pursuing a futile course, or that there’s nothing spiritual or supernatural about his troubles. Instead, he concludes that it can be boiled down to one’s philosophy of life, his being that there is no higher power to prevail upon for help, “but I know of no one in Soweto who dwells in such emptiness,” he concludes (Ashforth 250).
Ashforth writes in a straightforward narrative, and an almost journalistic style but he manages to keep one foot firmly rooted in scientific objectivity. He follows Madumo from Mr. Zondi, to Zion Church and to Johannesburg, recounting for us as he goes the details of Madumo’s desperate quest. Where he interjects commentary, it is personal and self-reflective. He does not impose judgment directly upon Madumo, however, his personal bias is apparent, though “he makes no appeals to anthropological theory” (Publishers Weekly 2000). As such, Madumo, A Man Bewitched, stands as an ethnographic account that, while ostensibly adhering to anthropological tenets of non-interference, offers a close, first-hand perspective, almost as if Madumo were the subject of a personal biographer. Ashforth addresses the reader in a straightforward manner, using language and examples to which a Westerner can understand and relate to, such as the expulsion Madumo endures at the hands of his own family. Ashforth
describes it as a scene in which “Madumo returned from a day of study to find his blankets burnt and his clothes, books, and belongings dumped in a heap in the yard behind the house” (Ashforth 28).
The narrator as observer describes to us extensive details about Madumo, right down to the kind of food he eats. Ashforth straddles the line between anthropologist and author, telling us about his subject in a manner that brings us closer to him as a character, while at the same time providing us, as scientific observers, with the kind of minutiae that the anthropologist uses to construct a useful and practical cultural model. This is no academic exercise in which a subject’s mating rituals or agrarian practices are studied and laid out according to scientific methodology. Ashforth is telling us a story as an anthropologist and as an active participant, in one instance helping Madumo pay for the spiritual services of Mr. Zondi. Ashforth’s “novelistic interaction with Madumo is at once part of the story and a particular way to characterize the protagonist” (Latera 2007).
As previously discussed, the author makes clear his feelings on the subject of witchcraft and yet, in obedience to the subjective nature of his story and of anthropology itself, is willing to help his friend arrange for supernatural aid because Madumo believes in its efficacy. Rather than forcing Madumo to “westernize” and see witchcraft as the vestige of a pre-modern superstitious conceit, he goes along, in part because of his friend’s belief in the efficacy of witchcraft and, in part, because he comes to believe that, in Soweto, witchcraft is a complex socio-cultural phenomenon that cannot, and should not, be summarily dismissed. In this he is the anthropologist, a trained observer of phenomena unfolding within a specific cultural context, the
product of a society still straining against the normative pressures of modernity and striving to come to terms with its past.
In Chapter Eight, entitled “A Deluge of Witchcraft,” Ashforth and Madumo share an exchange that reveals the author in his dual role as participant and observer and sheds light on the role witchcraft plays in Soweto. In seeking to understand what spiritual influences mean to Madumo, Ashforth pursues a line of inquiry aimed at gathering information. Significantly, this is not a results-oriented discussion in which Ashforth blithely ignores the strictures of scientific discipline. Upon asking Madumo to expand the role witchcraft plays and its prevalence in Soweto, he tells the author that, “It’s all about jobs. It’s the lack of jobs that’s contributed to the high volume of witchcraft” (Ashforth 102). Ashforth’s response is to comment that witchcraft is like “a vicious circle,” in which jealousy of those who have jobs encourages witchcraft to be used against them, causing them to lose their jobs, and so on in turn (Ibid).
So witchcraft becomes part of a belief system that helps the victim make sense of the inexplicable. In his 2005 work on the function of witchcraft in contemporary South Africa, Ashforth makes reference to the work of E. E. Evans-Prichard, who wrote that “witchcraft provides a framework of moral agency that can make sense of seemingly random coincidences in space and time” (Ashforth 2001). Ashforth goes on to explain that this witchcraft offers an answer to the inscrutable question, “Why me?” (Ibid). In seeking a remedy to the curse he lies under, Madumo is participating in a mass psychological amelioration. In Western nations plagued by high rates of unemployment, an individual unable to find work may feel oppressed by
outside sources that lie beyond his control. Such an individual may be inclined to blame former employers or co-workers as a means of displacing or shedding frustration and feelings of helplessness.
In Soweto, ridding oneself of bad fortune by exorcising spirits is an extensive process, the product of multiple cultural influences. One’s ancestors must be courted and appeased according to time-honored rituals that only a practiced healer can conduct. Pleasing ancestors, however, can be a costly and time-consuming business. Worse, cutting corners can mean disaster for the subject. Madumo asks MaMfete to brew beer for his ancestors, an important part of the ceremony, but she refuses, fearing that her own ancestors will be made angry if she brews beer that is not for them (Ashforth, 197-98). The consequences for Madumo and MaMfete, though different, are significant given the social import of healing witchcraft. “The psychological effects of upsetting this cultural order are no less devastating than those caused by the more familiar experiences of homelessness and loneliness” (Latera 2007).
One of the most compelling aspects of Ashforth’s book is how successfully he communicates Madumo’s sense of desperation, while maintaining an element of detachment. In his treatise, “The Ethnographic Novel: Another Literary Skeleton in the Anthropological Closet,” Latera points out that Ashforth’s book falls within the tradition of ethnography “in that the author’s intention is to make sense of the story’s ‘data’ in a theoretical fashion” (Latera 2007). However, he goes on to explain that Madumo, A Man Bewitched, is very much a novel that uses familiar literary techniques, such as a recognizable plot, a narrator’s point of view, an introduction and a conclusion (Ibid). It is an anecdotal account of people responding to feelings
of fear, frustration, helplessness and other stimuli, though anthropologists have for years, dabbled with less academic ways of communicating their findings. It is as if Ashforth, recalling the importance of storytelling in the cultures he has studied, thought to approach Madumo’s odyssey as a storyteller, a first-hand observer and participant in a deeply interesting tale.
Ethnography and literature are not the only disparate elements Ashforth seeks to wed in his book. A key question for consideration is the problem witchcraft poses for reconciling the old and new in South Africa. Anthropology may ultimately hold the key to a workable compromise through which the government can come to some accommodation, one which recognizes that witches are a fact of life while finding a practical way to enforce the government’s Suppression of Witchcraft Act. This law, which dates to colonial times, empowers a citizen accused of witchcraft to take their accuser to court. This presents the government with a combined image and enforcement problem: prosecution under this law makes it seem as though the government is actually protecting witches.
As Ashforth explains, officials find themselves divided between the legal requirements of a modern system of government and jurisprudence, and the impression that it is protecting agents of social chaos. According to one healer, “People, they know that there is witchcraft. So if the government says, ‘There is no witch,’ this means that they are protecting this witchcraft so that it must grow, grow, grow…” (Ashforth 132). The implied danger, of course, is the threat of a true “witch hunt,” meaning that unilateral government action in the matter may unleash a scenario in which accusations could be made indiscriminately, causing overwhelming social tension and
placing tremendous pressure on the country’s legal system. Thus, Ashforth’s story reveals that witchcraft is rife with contradictions and complexities of meaning in South Africa. It is pervasive enough that the consequences of a too heavy-handed policy are ominous for a government that must walk a fine line between compromising its credibility and facilitating social unrest.
Over the past two decades, the ANC government has sought to dilute the prevalence of witchcraft and the nefarious influence of witches throughout South Africa. This program has taken the form of modernization, a conscious effort to interject traditional healers into the population via the country’s health care systems (Ashforth 286). Ashforth refers to these healers, who were legally prohibited by state law in 1957, as “one of the first lines of defense against witchcraft,” as a contextually apt and thus, logical, response to the thorny issue of how best to suppress witchcraft (Ibid). From an anthropological standpoint, emphasizing traditional healers seems a sensible cultural measure. From a strictly political aspect (particularly a Western one), it can easily seem a kind of devil’s bargain, a too-incremental attempt to bring about lasting change. Interestingly (and not surprisingly), the healers have expressed resent over being consigned to an inferior status in the medical community.
Ashforth devotes considerable space to describing the healer Mr. Zondi, his practices and how he and Madumo anticipated his skill would work against the power of witchcraft. Again, the author steers clear of pronouncing a value judgment as to Madumo’s belief in witchcraft, or about the relative meaning of the term among the people of South Africa. Ashforth again acknowledges his personal misgivings, wondering whether Madumo is experiencing some sort of
spiritual distemper or psychological imbalance, though this remains a strictly internal monologue (Ashforth 95). However, he makes it clear that he harbors no doubt as to Mr. Zondi’s genuineness: Ashforth truly believes the healer is confident in his ability to help Madumo. “I had no doubt that Mr. Zondi was sincere and skilled in whatever work it is that someone such as he does” (Ibid). Noting that Madumo is visibly eased by the healer’s presence and demeanor, Ashforth concedes that the notion of spiritual healing has a palpably helpful psychological effect on his friend regardless of whether one chooses to regard it as superstition or solution. Again, we see the tangible effect of perspective manifesting itself in the presence of Zondi and the reaction of Madumo.
Ashforth, while explaining that he does not believe in spiritual forces, does not seek to win over Madumo, choosing instead to seek a better grasp of the context within which his friend understands witchcraft and the role his ancestors and spiritual agents play in his life. As an anthropologist, Ashforth understands that it is not important whether or not he believes; Madumo’s belief is strong enough to govern his thoughts and actions and the observation of these physical manifestations are what chiefly involve the anthropologist. It is also what makes Madumo, A Man Bewitched, such a taut, illuminating and entertaining read.
Ashforth, Adam. “AIDS, Witchcraft, and the Practice of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”
Pennsylvania State University, No. 10, May 2001. Print.
Ashforth, Adam. Madumo, A Man Bewitched. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press,
Ashforth, Adam. Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa. Chicago, IL: The
University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.
Latera, Vito. “The Ethnographic Novel: Another Literary Skeleton in the Anthropological
Closet?” Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 32(2), 124-34, 2007. Print.
Madumo, A Man Bewitched, Nonfiction Review. Publishers Weekly. Web. 29 May 2000.