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Zimbabwe has lifted a ban on the practice of witchcraft, repealing legislation dating back to colonial rule.
From July the government acknowledges that supernatural powers exist — but prohibits the use of magic to cause someone harm.
In 1899, colonial settlers made it a crime to accuse someone of being a witch or wizard — wary of the witch hunts in Europe a few centuries earlier which saw many people burned at the stake after such accusations.
But to most Zimbabweans, especially those who grew up in the rural areas, it has been absurd to say that the supernatural does not exist.
In fact, it is not hard to find vivid stories about the use of magic.
Alfred, for example, believes that he was bewitched at work some years ago, making him partly bald.
He described how after supper one evening as he and his wife were retiring to bed his hair disappeared.
“When my wife came into the bedroom she look at me and said, ‘What happened to your hair? Where’s it gone?’
“She saw a bald patch from the forehead going back on the side of the head. There was no trace of it,” he says.
He spent seven months visiting traditional healers to make it grow back.
“She made some incisions round the bald patch, put some powdery muti (medicine) and lo and behold within a few day the hair had grown.”
There are many other accounts of the use of magic, and the new law effectively legitimises many practices of traditional healers.
These include rolling bones to foretell the future, divination, attempts to communicate with the dead, using muti — traditional powders and fetishes — to ensure the desired sex of a child.
But there will be some legal grey areas, like whether it is legal for a husband to place some charms in his bedroom — charms that may injure his wife if she is unfaithful.
Professor Claude Mararikei — a sociologist and the chairman of Zimbabwe’s Traditional Medical Practitioner’s Council — argues that witchcraft has some positive benefits in the modern world.
He cites the example of a man who stole some bewitched cement that became stuck to the thief’s shoulders so he could not remove the bag.
“So if you have that knowledge to capture a thief in a cattle kraal when he comes for the cows, well and good. It’s like electrifying the fence round your house,” he says.
‘Waste of time’
Others believe that the country would be better off without elevating the supernatural.
“I think it’s a waste of time and energy. The urban areas are not really caught up in these supernatural issues,” says social commentator Thomas Deve.
“Claims of witchcraft need to be investigated instead of putting down every disorder in society that is taking in our society to witchcraft or modern magic,” he adds.
The church in Zimbabwe has always believed that witchcraft exists, but it has been careful to establish the source of such supernatural powers.
“As Christians we’ve got to recognise that supernatural forces are good if they originate from God — now witchcraft is one of the things that originates from the Satanic world,” says Reverend Roy Musasiwa who runs a theological college in the capital, Harare.
The Witchcraft Suppression Act was used fairly frequently, but prosecuting someone under the new legislation may prove difficult.
The new Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act will demand proof that a person has supernatural powers and that they are using them to harm others.
“It’s not going to be easy task,” says Custom Kachambwa, a judge with years of experience in the legal field.
He says witnesses will often be traditional healers, who could be accused of practising harmful magic in the future.
But whatever the problems, the repealing of the witchcraft laws is another sign that Zimbabwe’s government is continuing to move away from Western values and placing more emphasis on the country’s own traditions.
(Posted on July 5, 2006)