Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “African Traditional Religion”

The Burning Times

Burning things (and people) you don’t like seems to be a popular way of getting rid of them. It’s also a great way of getting publicity for a cause. And as people in show business know, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

One of the examples that always springs to my mind is the group of anti-war protesters in California who publicly burnt a dog.

It was during the Vietnam War, and they burnt the dog in protest against the war. The public outrage was enormous, and newspapers editorialised about how they were harming their cause, and their action was counter-productive because it made people who might be sympathetic to their cause more likely to be hostile towards it.

But in fact the negative reaction, the outrage itself, was the whole point. They demonstrated that American society was far more concerned and far more outraged about a dog being burnt in California than it was about hundreds of human children being burnt in Vietnam by American napalm bombs.

And the latest in a long line of such protests is that of Terry Jones, minister of a small church in the backwoods of Florida, USA, who threatened to burn copies of the Qur’an. It caused tweets of outrage to flow through Twitter, and huge protests throughout the world. It certainly put his church on the map.

Terry Jones won’t be the last Qur’an burning publicity hound | Richard Adams | World news |

Jones’s threats will be subject to the law of diminishing returns. Next time he threatens to do burn a Qur’an – and I fear there will be a next time – he’ll be handled with much more caution by the US media, which has made itself look ridiculous in being outfoxed by the crackpot pastor of a miniscule [sic] church in the swamps of Florida.

US President Barack Obama, in a memorable soundbite, said that it would be a recruiting bonanza for Al-Qaeda.

President Obama was probably right, but he has done little to stop the even more powerful recruiting bonanzas for Al-Qaeda caused by burning children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Those outraged by the burning of the Qu’ran may demonstrate in the streets, wave a few placards, burn an American flag or two, and go home feeling self-righteous, just like the Revd Terry Jones.

It is the ones whose cousins and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts who were killed when the US forces bombed wedding celebrations, or went on their killing sprees in places like Fallujah who are more likely to join Al-Qaeda.

In the 1960s there was also the phenomenon of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in protest against the Vietnam War. Instead of burning other people or things, they burnt themselves.

This had a spin-off in South Africa, when staff and students at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg were protesting against some government atrocity — I think it was the banning of student leader Ian Robertson.

I was overseas at the time, but a friend wrote to me in a letter about the protest, which took the form of a torchlight procession into the centre of the town. As they were crossing the bridge over the Umsinduzi River the procession was attacked by National Party-supporters. One of the protesters was an English lecturer and atheist, Cake Manson (who was thought by the English Department to be the greatest playwright since Shakespeare). He retaliated by sticking his lighted torch in the faces of the attackers, shouting the war-cry, “Burn you Buddhist bastard, burn!”

And that takes us back to California.

Burn, Baby! Burn!:

When rioters in Watts, California, began shouting ‘Burn, Baby! BURN!’ in the turmoil of 1965, they were echoing the most popular cry on rhythm-and-blues radio: The trademark of Magnificent Montague, the most exciting R&B disc jockey ever to stroll through Soulsville.

In Los Angeles on KGFJ, and earlier in New York on WWRL, Montague yelled ‘Burn!’ whenever he was playing a record that moved him. His listeners followed suit, calling Montague and shouting ‘Burn!’ on the air. The emotion in that exchange reverberated with as much excitement as the music of Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.

There’s something about the Burning Times…

Traditional healers, Western medicine and HIV/Aids

About 8 months ago I attended a conference on HIV/Aids (see Notes from underground: HIV, Aids etc). It was organised by the South African HIV Clinicians Society for religious leaders, and there were people from various religious backgrounds there — Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, neopagan, paleopagan (the last also represented by a bloke who was trained in both traditional and Western medicine).

One of the problems mentioned by the speakers at the conference was that people with HIV/Aids sometimes consult religious healers who tell them that they have been cured. They do feel better, so they stop taking antiretroviral drugs, and then they begin to feel worse again. The speakers emphasised the point that doing this diminishes the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs, not only for that patient, but for others as well, as the HI virus builds up resistance to the drugs.

But now other things amanzi: madness has posted on another aspect of the relationship between HIV and religious healers that was not mentioned at the conference — the belief, propagated by some sangomas (witchdoctors) that sexual intercourse with a virgin will cure Aids, and notes that there seems to be a conspiracy of silence about this belief.

Witchdoctor – a cultural stereotype?

A recent issue of The pagan activist has some interesting articles on Western neopaganism in Africa, and some contrasts with African paleopaganism. I do take issue with the articles on one point in particular — the use and misuse of the term “witchdoctor”. I suppose my time in the Editorial Department of the University of South Africa has made me a bit of a pedant about such matters.

I think the term originally was a clear and reasonably precise description of a specialist, found in many different African societies, whose job, or part of it, was to protect against malign witchcraft. In different African societies these specialists were given different names in local languages, but the English term was clear, and covered them all. In Zulu such a specialist is called an isangoma, and that term has been universalised in the form of “sangoma” to apply to other societies too. Another way of translating “sangoma” into English (though it is well on its way to becoming an English word in its own right) is “diviner”. The diviner is not only a witchdoctor, but rather determines the cause of evils and misfortunes, such as disease, quarrels, accidents, crop failures and the like. The cause, as determined by the diviner, may be witchcraft, but it may also be that the ancestral shades (amadlozi in Zulu) are annoyed because they have been neglected. Witchcraft is not the only possible explanation for misfortune.

If witchcraft is determined as the cause, then the sangoma may put on his (or her) witchdoctor hat, and prescribe treatment. This may include the use of umuthi (Anglicised as “muti”), in which case the sangoma is functioning as a herbalist or medicine man (inyanga in Zulu).

A witchdoctor, therefore, is one who protects against the harmful activities of witches. One of the articles in The Pagan Activist, however, implies that “witchdoctors” are the ones who perform harmful activities uxsually attributed to witches, which implies that witchdoctors actually cause harm, rather than preventing it.

I suggest that there are two possible sources for this misunderstanding.

  1. Hollywood movies, especially those of the mid-20th century, which portrayed “witchdoctors” as a force of evil, tyrants in African societies, and especially likely to turn a tribe against white visitors. Some of this may be based on historical incidents. When the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief visited the Zulu king Dingane in 1838 to negotiate a treaty, the king ordered his soldiers to “kill the witches” (bulala abathakathi). It is possible that a diviner told him that Retief and his companions were witches; it is also possible that he reached that conclusion on his own.
  2. A witchdoctor who “changes sides” and practices as a witch. A parallel can be found in Western medicine with a medical doctor who misuses his knowledge to poison and kill patients. Such cases are not unknown. Also, a corrupt police officer might moonlight as a member of a criminal gang. This does not, however, mean that “doctor” means “poisoner” or that “policeman” means thief”; so it also does not mean that “witchdoctor” means “witch”. And sometimes sangomas may use their specialist knowledge in activities that are beneficvial to some, but harmful to others. In a recent case a four-year-old child was murdered on the advice of a sangoma, and parts of the child’s body built into the wall of a hairdressing saloon, as muti to make the client’s business prosper. Ritual murder, however, is not witchcraft.

I won’t go into the different meaning applied to the word “witch” by many neopagans. That is another discussion, and one that I have dealt with in an article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery.

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