By Fred Mbogo
Published December 8, 2008
Is it true that albinos are at the risk of being wiped out in East Africa? Is it true that these attacks are linked to the belief peddled by people variously known as witchdoctors, fortune-tellers, astrologers, medicine-men and soothsayers that possessing some body parts of an albino brings success in business, politics, school-work, or love life? Is it true these beliefs are linked to Nollywood movies? Is it true then, FRED MBOGO poses, that if these Nigerian films are banned from East Africa no one would be harmed?
How is it that a people can be so attracted to witchcraft to the point that their curiosity sustains an industry; the Nollywood one? How is it that a people can fail to appreciate the trappings of modern technology and instead seek answers to their problems in the unscientific, the illogical and the mysterious? How is it that a people can be converted to other religions but still want to draw spiritual nourishment from “traditions” that they are vaguely familiar with? How is it that with formal education and its attendant instruction that often leads to an appreciation of Western rather than African culture people still pay homage to entrepreneurs within the superstition and witchcraft sector?
A typical Nigerian movie, crafted in the fashion of mass-produced artworks, is made to be part of a conversation of the ordinary man or woman in the African street or village. Such a man, the movies suggest, desires to be free to the point that he can determine his own way of life. Unfortunately, for him to be significantly free of hunger, fear of the landlord, or courage to woo or sustain a marriage partner, he has to have the means. This reality pressures the man to the point that he seeks intervention. One can choose to be escapist and douse himself in alcohol. Another can choose to rush to religion in search of God’s hand. Still others opt to visit a diviner. There are those who do combine both the diviner and the church or mosque in a quest to be freed.
Success comes to those who seek either of two forces; God or Satan. Pastors are part of the agents of God, though they often are enticed into serving Satan. Good always wins but only after a battle that takes the evil arc through a series of humiliating scenes. The story-lines are played out like football matches where spectators cheer on forces of good against those of evil. Special effects make scenes where these forces are engaged in “warfare”.
In one of these movies titled “Signs of the End Time”, whose credits place Pastor Kenneth Okonkwo as its producer, the “warfare” pits the good forces of a God-fearing pastor versus the evil forces led by the devil whose major agent is presented as a tycoon of sorts. Interestingly, some of the devil’s assistants are beautiful women. They are projected as capable of seducing people to the devil’s side through their beauty. The devil has supplied his major agent, the tycoon, with material wealth. He is driven in a flashy limousine and lives in a tastefully-furnished “palace”. The movie lasts no more than 45 minutes and is replete with scenes where the Pastor’s prayers provide him protection and literally make the devil and his agents “disappear”. When the Pastor is attacked by gun-wielding goons, he prays and God immediately intervenes by electrocuting them. Nothing is complicated in the story-line; it is simply made up of a number of attacks on the Pastor who repulses the evil attackers through prayer. Special effects are used to show the disappearance and therefore the apparent defeat of the evil forces.
Another movie produced in 2007 by Kingsley Okereke and titled “My Life Story” presents the story of a woman who is seeking political office but whose marriage is in tatters. She variously cheats on her husband and looks down upon him. But he physically assaults and mistreats her when he discovers her cheating ways. The woman, after being advised by a friend, seeks out a witch-doctor in order to deal with her husband’s troubling behaviour. This, however, does not work since the man has been forewarned of the chances of being bewitched by the woman. He proceeds in his quest to acquire a second wife. The woman’s problems are only solved when her daughter, in an attempt to help her mother, madly drives a knife into the man who subsequently dies. The woman seeks God’s intervention, although this seems to help her only for a while; she ends up killing her daughter in self-defense. It seems her daughter’s “madness” is uncontrollable to the point of wanting to kill her mother, too.
Okereke’s story is a good example of how witchcraft and God’s intervention are taken seriously by characters seeking their way out of problems. In “My Life Story” the woman’s attempt to use witchcraft does not work because her husband refuses to eat the food she has prepared as instructed by the witchdoctor. The movie suggests that the woman’s daughter may have eaten the food. This makes her mad to the point that she kills her father. But it seems too that the witchdoctor’s concoction would have worked were the husband to have taken it. On the other hand the woman’s attempt at reaching out to God does not work. She kills her daughter just after rising from the floor where she had been kneeling in prayer. Could this be a suggestion that the witchdoctor’s concoction would have been preferable were it to have been taken by the “right” person, the husband?
East Africans buy these movies because they have a religious bent. There is God’s side and the devil’s. Both of these forces are seen to bring riches or a good life to characters. But riches acquired through God’s interventions are preferable. They are seen to be lasting. Riches acquired through the devil’s interventions are seen not to be lasting. But they are still preferred to a life of misery or poverty. The devil therefore seduces people to his line of work through “gifts”. He is always depicted as demanding something in return. That seems to be the catch for the seekers of the devil’s riches.
Witchcraft is not wholesomely condemned. It is only seen sometimes to have been wrongly used as is in the case of “My Life Story”. Scenes with witchdoctors are always interesting as they sometimes capture smoky rooms, candle-lit spaces, calabashes being shaken, shells being thrown up and down where drawings are read from the floor. Palms are also read as are foreheads marked. The voices and speech patterns of witchdoctors are also entertaining as they are on many occasions delivered in staccato or huskily. The costumes of the witchdoctors are colorful as are the markings on their skins. The witchdoctors also engage in rituals that are entertaining in themselves. This makes for very good viewing.
Witchcraft is not however watched, or in fact preferred for its own sake. It is seen as one of the vehicles out of the troubles affecting people. While it may never directly be advocated for in these Nigerian movies, especially where there seems to be a “preachy” agenda, it is given some room for exploration. People disillusioned by the power of their religion, which sometimes they perceive as an extended version of foreign influence, are readily convinced to seek “traditional” methods of solving their life issues. The mushrooming of “alternative” churches that are often said to be conduits of “prosperity gospel” is a sign that people may be disillusioned by the powers of “mainstream” religion in making sense of their lives. Witchcraft as one of the many alternatives from “mainstream” religion may be perceived as a way of coming to terms with the harshness of modern life. After all, the witchdoctor, through these movies, is presented as “African” enough. His or her attire suggests a man or woman in touch with eons of traditional “wisdom”.
The problem is that the practice of witchcraft may present problems in the modern era as it may lead its practitioners and consumers into acts of abuse against others. As is the case with the practice that advocates for the attacking other individuals, it does infringe on the rights of others. Perhaps there is a humane way of practicing witchcraft. Perhaps there is a way of making it work without affecting others. Anecdotes that emerged during and after the December 27, 2007 post-election violence pointed to the use of diviners by businessmen in tracking down looted property. Television stations documented images of looters returning goods to the sites from which they had looted them. Many may have been left wondering whether security matters shouldn’t be moved from the police to diviners?
Wouldn’t it be better if the Nigerian movie-makers gave a humane face to the practice of witchcraft in these modern days? Since these movies will continue being bought shouldn’t the makers be fair in presenting witchcraft as a “clean” alternative? And shouldn’t these movies be adding to the greater conversation about which kind of witchcraft is good for society and which ought to be condemned?