Department Of Anthropology, Sociology, Anthropology, And Social Work
Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506
SUMMARY Traditionally, the ethical stance on witchcraft beliefs and practices by ethnographers has been to promote tolerance for such beliefs by showing how they function within a relatively static and closed social system. However, as we reframe our analyses in terms of dynamic and open social fields with multiple cultural logics and social processes that sometimes contradict one another, this approach is no longer viable. Our paradigmatic shifts lead to new ethical dilemmas. In this article I will recount the ethical dilemmas arising from my own engagement with witchcraft beliefs in New Guinea where local government officials initiated a plan to eradicate witchcraft through a series of sometimes brutal trials. Ultimately, I trace the roots of these ethical dilemmas to the ways holism, cultural relativism, and participant-observation have been reshaped to serve new theoretical interests but have not yet been reformulated into a consistent ethical stance for fieldwork practice. [Keywords: ethics, fieldwork, witchcraft, sorcery, relativism]
Recently, it has become increasingly common for anthropologists to note that witchcraft, often thought of as something “traditional,” has not faded with the effects of modernization throughout the world. Contrary to some expectations, witchcraft has become an active conceptual field for locals to interpret and act in emerging fields of modernity (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1993; Moore and Sanders 2001). While ethnographers the world over seek to understand how different local modernities are forming, locals themselves are using the paradigm of witchcraft to explain their own experiences of modernity, such as why they are poor, subservient, corrupt, dying of AIDS, or losing World Cup soccer matches. Witchcraft imageries are employed to explain why a development project did not work or why it did work for the neighboring town or district but not one’s own. They commonly provide a framework to understand new inequalities of wealth and political power (e.g., Geschiere 1997; Niehaus 2001). Unfortunately, witchcraft imageries are matched in pervasiveness by the persecution of accused witches. The World Health Organization (2002) recently estimated that 500 elderly women accused of witchcraft are killed each year in Tanzania alone. News reports from parts of India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and other areas in Africa tell of similar scenarios. By way of comparison, most historians now estimate that approximately 40,000 accused witches were killed during the so-called witch craze in Europe from the 15th to the 17th centuries, at a rate of approximately 133 killings per year (Levack 1995). We look back on that era with a sense of horror. Yet we seem to look on our current era, in which the numbers I have presented suggest that the rate of persecution may be many times higher, with a sense of ambivalence. To what can we attribute this ambivalence? Why have there been no widespread calls to action? Commenting on this problem over 35 years ago, Mary Douglas noted this ironic double standard: “Dangerous in Europe, the same beliefs in Melanesia or Africa appeared to be tame, even domesticated; they served useful functions and were not expected to run amuck” (1970:xiii). Now enter the anthropologist into fieldwork situations where witchcraft-related violence does indeed seem to be running amok, and the quandaries of engagement I will be discussing in this article become readily apparent.
I was an unfortunate witness to the horrors of a witch hunt in central New Guinea.1 Many of the dilemmas I faced were born from the situation itself. But in this article I would like to point out that these dilemmas were only magnified by my role as an anthropologist, in particular the paradoxes and dilemmas implicit in anthropological practice itself. They are dilemmas born within the roots of anthropology that seemed to grow around me as the witch hunt continued, until I felt trapped within a thick infestation of twisted vines of paradox and self-doubt. I locate the roots of my dilemmas within a classic trio of anthropology: cultural relativism, holism, and participant-observation. I locate the growing complexities of my dilemmas within the growing complexities of these terms: cultural relativism’s transformation into what Michael Carrithers has recently labeled “radical cultural relativism … constant processes of cultural creation, destruction, hybridization, and diversification” (2005:441); the attendant transformation of holism from its association with “whole” (distinct) cultures to the imagined whole of vast and intricate global interconnections; as well as the transformation from Malinowski’s relatively scientistic participantobservation to an increasingly morally engaged observant participation (e.g., Scheper-Hughes 1995).
The Classic Trio of Anthropology: Holism, Cultural Relativism, and Participant-Observation
Despite their recent transformations, cultural relativism, holism, and participant-observation remain key fundamental principles of cultural anthropology. Later in this article, I will argue that in its classic textbook form the trio inhibits moral action in fieldwork situations by promoting a value of scientific detachment. But while moral action in the field is inhibited, the three contribute to a classic story line promoting open-mindedness toward other ways of life and can show even the most exotic beliefs and practices as functional and meaningful within the local culture.
The best-selling introductory textbook in cultural anthropology defines holism as “a fundamental principle of anthropology, that the various parts of culture must be viewed in the broadest possible context in order to understand their interconnections and interdependence” (Haviland et al. 2005:14). Prior to the “crisis” in anthropology (Tyler 1987), holism often went hand in hand with varieties of functionalism and placed an emphasis on understanding cultures as distinct wholes. To understand one aspect of “a” culture, one needed to understand all of the other aspects of that particular culture as well. This fundamental principle of anthropology is deeply wedded to another fundamental principle, cultural relativism. The textbook definition is “the thesis that one must suspend judgment of other peoples’ practices in order to understand them in their own cultural terms” (Haviland et al. 2005:49). In other words, such practices should be approached holistically, “viewed in the broadest possible context in order to understand their interconnections and interdependence” with other aspects of the culture and that culture’s particular web of meanings (Haviland et al. 2005:49). We are all well versed in the limitations of these two fundamental principles and the many transformations they have undertaken in recent decades. We no longer approach our fieldwork sites as if they contain within them an isolated and distinct “whole” culture. Nonetheless I would like to start with them in their “textbook definition” form in order to examine the implications for the third fundamental principle in our classic trio: participant-observation.
We owe the name of this third foundational principle to Bronislaw Malinowski. For Malinowski, participation was primarily a way to improve observation by stepping off the veranda to gain a better perspective, as he describes in the following:
Soon after I had established myself I began to take part, in a way, in the village life . . . I had to learn how to behave, and to a certain extent, I acquired “the feeling” for native good and bad manners. With this, and with the capacity of enjoying their company and sharing some of their games and amusements, I began to feel that I was indeed in touch with the natives, and this is certainly the preliminary condition of being able to carry on successful field work. [1953:7–8]
Analyzing this mode of fieldwork in 1963, John Barnes noted that it was built on a model of the field as a scientific laboratory. People were studied as if “under the microscope” (Barnes 1963:123). The effects of the researcher on the field were ignored, and fieldworkers were expected to act in such a way as to minimize their effects on the local culture. The influences of outside groups such as missionaries, administrators, schools, and markets were seen as contaminants to be disregarded in the final analysis. Turning to questions of moral judgment in the field, Barnes notes that “under the microscope there could be no moral judgments. They had their code and we had ours, and the two never met” (1963:123).
In its classic form, the key trio rests on the notion of cultures as wholes that can be bracketed off from the rest of the world. Importantly, this notion entails another: the fieldworkers bracket themselves from the culture. Cultural relativism’s call to “suspend judgment” asks the fieldworker to leave some part of the self behind when entering the field, to tread lightly and respect cultural practices rather than alter them, regardless of how they might work against the fieldworker’s own personal or cultural values.
As such, personal accounts of fieldwork dilemmas were rare, even where there were intense social dramas including actual or alleged physical and mystical violence such as witchcraft. In Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) classic work on the Azande we find only a few hints of the moral dilemmas he may have faced.
We know from a relatively harmless example of a boy stubbing his toe and blaming witchcraft that Evans-Pritchard (1937:66) challenged their statements, but this is stated as a method for obtaining more information rather than a moral action.
Even the intimately personal account of Bowen’s Return to Laughter echoes this sentiment. Caught up in dramas and trials of witchcraft accusations she relents, “I had come from one world to live in another. These two worlds judged by standards so greatly different that translation was often impossible” (1964:231). Her work transcends other studies of witchcraft by her contemporaries in many respects, yet maintains the sense of otherworldliness. The unnamed group she is studying is somewhere out there, and although they may reflect and refract elements of us here, they remain other through and through. Although such notions of otherworldliness may have precluded moral interventions in the field, this same otherworldliness was foundational to the moral agenda implicit within the classic trio of holism, cultural relativism, and participant-observation. Mary Douglas notes that this perspective, which views the culture as an isolated whole, allowed colonial fieldworkers like Evans-Pritchard to argue that seemingly strange practices and beliefs such as those involving witchcraft actually functioned within a particular social and cultural system. “The responsibility to protect and to preach tolerance was widely echoed,” she notes:
“To show witchcraft beliefs as performing a constructive role in a functioning social system has been one way of carrying out this responsibility” (1970:xxiii). The moral of the story that these three fundamental principles tell is one that is still worth telling, not least of all because it still informs anthropological practice. It tells us that if we are willing to suspend our judgments (cultural relativism), explore the issue firsthand (participant-observation), and try to understand a phenomenon’s rich contexts and interconnections (holism), we can build our capacity for empathy, tolerance, and an appreciation of otherness. The following is the story as I tell it to my introductory students. It is entirely true, except for one looming asterisk, which makes up the remainder of this article. Being there (in “another world”) is where our story begins. When I first arrived in Papua New Guinea a large dance was planned to welcome my arrival. I could not wait to see the body paint, feathers, cassowary quills, and lizard-skin drums dancing before me in a rich display of visual symbolic play. As the dancers appeared wearing elaborate headdresses and body decorations, they did not disappoint me. But the dance itself was entirely incomprehensible. It was in constant motion, moving from place to place, circling in on itself, dissolving, moving again, denying me any chance at a good perspective. It was only much later in my fieldwork, when I actually participated in the dance, that I learned what was going on. Had I not participated in their dance I would never have known the little things that make the dance what it is—that one slides up and down rather than bounces; that one must keep the shoulders square and eyes focused forward; that it requires a perfectly cupped hand and a strong but not too strong wrist to make the drum really sing; and that all of this must be done among constant sexual innuendo, flirtation, and playfulness as women flock like birds to the men, holding their feathers and pulling their penis gourds. The only worthwhile perspective on this dance is from the inside, participating, and this I took as the metaphor for my fieldwork.
Many anthropologists tell a similar story. We tend to accentuate the story with tales of exotic foods or funny faux pas, all of which serve to further illustrate the sense of really being there. But beyond these surface elements, the story goes, we find ourselves becoming increasingly enmeshed in rich personal relationships. Oftentimes we are adopted into families and refer to our so-called key informants with terms like brother, sister, mother, and father. As this is another cultural world, a more intensely challenging tale of cultural difference inevitably ensues. In my case, the challenges began when my good friend Kodenim became ill, his stomach swollen and distended. I remember sitting with him one day while he explained again that his stomach did not hurt all over but only in two places, as if an arrow had hit him near the center of the stomach and exited through his side. In fact, that was precisely what he suspected—that he had been shot with an invisible witchcraft arrow. I offered to take him to a hospital, but he insisted that he needed to stay in the village to deal with the witchcraft that he viewed as the root cause of his illness. If he could not find the perpetrator soon and ask him to retract the witchcraft, the witch would soon come to finish him off. In fact, Kodenim sometimes wondered if he had not already been killed and eaten and that the disfunctional body he now occupied was nothing but a poor imitation created by cannibal witches to disguise their nefarious activities.
The intro anthropology student inevitably thinks of this as bizarre and perhaps irrational at first, but it is nothing for which a little cultural relativism does not already have a reasonable answer. Invoking Evans-Pritchard’s famous Azande rice barn example, it is not that Kodenim and other locals did not understand that there was something physically wrong with his body. It is that these (often biomedical) explanations do not address the socially relevant cause of why these particular physical problems had afflicted his body at that particular time.
As we follow the story of how Kodenim sought out this socially relevant cause, we find that beliefs in witchcraft may serve an important sociological function. To discover the witch, Kodenim and others in the community engaged in a careful analysis of Kodenim’s past words and actions, revealing virtually all of his past wrongs and grievances. Aclose friend of Kodenim’s (my “brother”) made a mental list of all Kodenim’s social problems and called for a community meeting. Over 100 people gathered around as my brother went through his list. One by one each social problem was revealed, discussed, and then healed through an exchange of gifts or kind words of repentance. Though there were many such social problems, the most convincing cause of witchcraft for virtually everybody present was the fact that Kodenim had stolen a pig from my “father.” Kodenim had already paid compensation to my father, but there was concern that perhaps the compensation had not been enough. My father stood and gave a long, powerful speech about his multiple relationship ties to Kodenim and the support he had given Kodenim throughout his life in school and other endeavors. He ended with a simple, yet profound expression of solidarity, referring to Kodenim as one of his own, his son whom he could never harm. The meeting concluded with a group prayer and a mass washing of Kodenim. Everybody in the community that had ever had any form of conflict with Kodenim touched a bar of soap and prayed for his health. Kodenim sat in the middle of the village while one by one each member of the community came forward, scooped up a handful of water, and sprinkled it onto his body while stating words of hope and healing.
Unfortunately, Kodenim died soon after the washing. Though I was deeply saddened, I took comfort in the social healing that he inspired in his final days. Through his suffering, many of the hidden tensions from past wrongs and grievances that had been lurking just under the surface of village life had been brought before us all to be dealt with and reconciled. If ever there was a ritual that functioned in a classic Durkheimian way to build social solidarity, this was it. Kodenim was perhaps the greatest beneficiary. The ritual allowed him to make amends for all of his wrongs and accept the beautiful outpouring of love and reconciliation symbolized in the water flowing from the hands of those with whom he had lived his entire life.
After Kodenim died, his family came to my father asking for compensation. They claimed that even if my father had not been the witch, he should have been there to protect Kodenim from the witchcraft of others. Besides, people who had exchange relations with Kodenim would soon be arriving in the village asking for compensation themselves, and the family had none to give. My father once again denied any accusation of witchcraft but offered compensation for their loss nonetheless. Like all compensation payments, it was much larger than any one person could ever afford. It required massive coordination among a large network of people with whom my father had strong relations. As a member of my father’s family, I also contributed. The large pile of gifts we gave to Kodenim’s family would be shared widely, and those who shared in this bounty would one day make a return gift. The returned gift would be returned, and so on, reconnecting those strands of the intricate web of relations that had been torn when Kodenim passed away.
The value of holism and cultural relativism to find function and meaning in these events is clear. As for my participation in these events, it only further enveloped me in the local culture, holding the promise for better future insights while providing a nice little story that I might use later to establish my ethnographic authority of “being there.” The story nicely illustrates the functional role of witchcraft beliefs and how those beliefs are grounded within a local worldview that is complete and coherent. It is a shining example of the power of holism, cultural relativism, and participant-observation that I can share with my students through a familiar formula: Start with something exotic, suspend our judgments with cultural relativism, invoke the holistic approach to show how it works and makes sense within the local cultural system, and finish it off with a touching vision of a village reunited.
The culture is not an isolated whole that can be artificially set apart. The prayers are Christian, the soap is store-bought, and the community meeting was called a “safety meeting” and modeled after “safety meetings” held at a nearby multinational copper mine. More important, in the version of the story presented above, I have bracketed out and excluded a very
important ambiguous figure: the komiti (Tok Pisin). The komiti is both a local man and an appointed government officer. He is one of many ambiguous symbols reminding me that “here” and “there” are intimately connected so as to bring the distinction itself into question. It was the komiti who acted as mediator throughout the ordeal. He led the prayer and dutifully recorded the number and value of each object exchanged. As the exchanges took place, he shouted anxiously about the importance of “community” and “population.” He reminded those involved that government services only come to villages with large populations and finished by threatening that if they moved into separate villages he would stage an operation to burn their houses. He was referring to “Operation Clean and Sweep,” a plan developed by local government officers, such as himself, designed to force people out of small seminomadic hamlets and into large permanent government-recognized villages. By the time Kodenim passed away, they had already begun the operation by burning several small hamlets—just the type of messiness that does not fit so nicely into an otherwise textbook example of the virtues of cultural relativism, holism, and participant-observation.
This kind of ambiguous and challenging situation is not new. Tucked away in Evans-Pritchard’s classic on the Azande is a note that witchcraft accusations seemed to be on the rise since locals were asked to abandon their hamlets and move to larger roadside villages. Evans-Pritchard simply bracketed these effects in his overall analysis. As Mary Douglas pointed out in 1970, in order to support his analysis of the overall logic and functionality of Azande witchcraft beliefs, Evans-Pritchard “had to proceed as if the Azande study had no relevance to ourselves and our history” (1970:xxiii). To invoke Barnes’s metaphor once again, he was looking down a one-way microscope into a different, disconnected world. But in that same article, published in 1963, Barnes notes that “the division between those under the microscope and those looking scientifically down the eye-piece has broken down. . . . [T]he group or institution being studied is now seen to be embedded in a network of social relations of which the observer is an integral if reluctant part” (1963:124). Since this statement by Barnes, the classic trio of holism, cultural relativism, and participant-observation has been through a continual process of reinvention. In a recent discussion in the pages of Current Anthropology, Michael Carrithers builds on a comment by Marilyn Strathern to note that the new holism “refers not to some imagined societal whole but to the imagined whole (and actual infinity) of connections between one matter under scrutiny with another” (2005:455). In the same article, Carrithers writes about a “more radical cultural relativism,” which is not dependent on a notion of static whole cultures but, instead, recognizes “constant processes of cultural creation, destruction, hybridization, and diversification at work” (2005:441). Where we do not enter a new world, we also do not necessarily bracket ourselves. If we no longer draw a strict line between here and there, our moral responsibilities also expand. Recombining the classic trio in their new forms we find that we have a new sense of moral responsibility but must find a way to exercise this responsibility within complex cultural fields where multiple beliefs, values, and practices compete, conflate, and contradict one another. How do we participate in these complex situations? And more specifically, how do we deal with complex moral dilemmas such as those that often come about through both physical and mystical violence associated with witchcraft?
Witchcraft itself creates a unique dilemma, for it is an invisible realm populated by multiple imaginations working together to construct an inter subjective understanding of mystical interpersonal violence and conflict. Oftentimes, these multiple imaginations are not in agreement. Certainly, the imagination of the anthropologist is often the least in agreement, commonly not subscribing to witchcraft beliefs at all. All of this makes for an even more complex fieldwork situation. If the story I told before is a closed book with a clear moral, the following is a story still being written, sending me deeper and deeper into the paradoxes and contradictions at the core of anthropological practice. The week before the safety meeting regarding Kodenim’s family, operation teams had already been sent to distant hamlets to burn them and move the people into one of the main government villages. On the same day that Kodenim passed away, people in small hamlets launched virulent complaints that they could not move to the large villages because their enemies who lived there would work witchcraft on them and kill them.
The officers reasoned that if they were to make large and stable villages, they would need to eliminate witchcraft. Kodenim’s death contributed to the sense of urgency. Within a week officials called for another “safety meeting” and announced their plan. They decided to gather up weak old women they suspected of witchcraft, charge them under the law, and then hold them as key witnesses, forcing them to list the names of the stronger and more covert witches in the area. The first woman to face trial was a woman I called “auntie,” my “mother’s” sister. She was apprehended and charged under Village Courts Act 1988 Section 41 Subsection P, which prohibits “practicing or pretending to practice sorcery.” A small boy had been ill, and, because of a complicated series of relational tensions extending back to her first failed marriage, she was the primary suspect. I arrived to the trial late, and she had already confessed. I cannot be certain what inspired her to confess, but it was apparent that she felt threatened by the officers around her. I hoped that whatever violence might have occurred before I arrived would not continue now that I was in the room with my video camera recording their every move. I was disappointed to find that some of my best friends had been involved in whatever had been transpiring. After her confession, the officers asked her for the names of other witches with whom she was conspiring. Over and over again she tried to reclaim her innocence, but she only aggravated the officers, who were already certain of her guilt. To have empathy with the officers on this point is to recognize that they truly believed that their own lives and the lives of everybody in the community were under assault by cannibalistic witches like this woman sitting before them. They desperately wanted to know the names of other witches so they could protect themselves from this horrific threat, and they interpreted her pleas as nothing more than evasions and trickery. In frustration, one of the officers hit her with an open fist, slamming her head into the wall behind her. And there I was viewing the whole thing through a recording “microscope,” not knowing if this was really happening in my world or if it were another world altogether. Frozen in contradictions, fear, and confusion, I did nothing.
Eventually she named names. From her list more were brought in. The convicted were forced to run two miles carrying a 30 lb stone over their heads while others gathered around to shame them. They were then put to work digging the standardized government road, wide with drainage ditches and, most importantly, straight. Straightness, orderliness, cleanliness—these were the rallying cries of Operation Clean and Sweep. Within three weeks, four had been convicted, and there were over 40 names on the list. Throughout this time, I did nothing but hide behind my recording microscope. But I was not hiding because I felt that they were in a world apart from me. I was hiding because I felt trapped within a whole new set of contradictions born from the emerging revisions to our classic trio and the contradictions between these revisions and their more classic forms.
I spent most of my time pacing, feeling crushed at the nexus of the paradoxes I was only then beginning to discover in the heart of anthropological practice. On one side pressed my respect for their local cultural beliefs inspired by my sense of cultural relativism; on the other pressed my desire to uphold basic individual human rights. Both were problematic in this multifaceted social field. The idea of one single set of “local cultural beliefs” was undermined by the multiple sets of beliefs and practices that coexisted and sometimes contradicted one another (such as those in the government, school, clinic, different churches, and others less formalized). The idea of “individual” human rights was undermined by local notions of self and personhood grounded primarily in a relational ontology that has little space for the Western judicial “individual.”
The position of the government officers also perplexed me. These government officers were at the same time local people, themselves born into small hamlets in the area. Much has been written about how to negotiate the relationship between the culture and the administration. There is less guidance for understanding what to do when the culture is the administration. I found it telling that this seemingly small fact would have an impact on my action. If they were purely government officers from outside, I would have readily stood up to them—”speaking truth to power.” If they had not been government officers at all, I would likely not have considered interfering at all—afraid I was simply “power” undermining a local “truth.” Their ambiguous cultural and political position left me in an ambiguous moral and ethical position. Of key importance to my dilemma was what Peter Geschiere (2002) has recently referred to as “the reality question.” My moral decisions depended greatly on my own opinions about the possibilities of witchcraft. I had come to the field thinking I would be open to all local beliefs, including witchcraft. I was partially inspired by Rodney Needham’s argument in which he calls attention to what to him seemed the strange fact of an “almost universal premise subscribed to by anthropologists, that witches do not really exist” (1978:27).
There is in fact no way of knowing for sure whether or not some human beings have mystical powers allowing them to inflict harm on others from a distance or even to shoot them with invisible arrows, eat their flesh, and then stuff their skin with twigs and leaves to make the victim appear as if alive only to die soon thereafter, as witches are said to do in central New Guinea. Needham and many others after him sidestep the question by claiming that notions of witchcraft
are simply social facts and there is no need to claim them to be true or false. Although this may be true for abstract theorizing and analysis, it is not true when making moral judgments in the field. If one truly believes that a person has shot, killed, and eaten another human being, one’s moral response to that person will obviously be different than if one feels that the person could
not possibly have done the deeds of which he or she is accused. Perhaps I was feeling the postmodernist guilt of imposing my Western power/knowledge, but in the early stages of the hunt I stalled on coming to any final conclusions on this matter.
My silence ultimately rested within my own culturally constructed notions of self. Anthropology—and the trio of cultural relativism, holism, and participantobservation—had transformed me into something resembling what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1970) has called “Protean man.” Based on the Greek mythology of Proteus, Protean man is at home embracing multiple perspectives at once, modifying them at will, and then letting them all go only to reembrace them again in a playful (and sometimes seriously playful) manner. In slightly different terms, Richard Rorty refers to the Protean man as an “ironist,” someone who is “always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves” (1989:101). If there is one thing Protean man or the ironist finds difficult, it is committing to a single perspective among a plethora of options and then acting on it (Lifton 1970). As I remained silently behind my recording microscope, the trials proceeded.
The list grew, and so did the government officers’ collective imagination. As in other witchcraft imageries throughout the world, the witches took shape as a perfect inversion of those hunting them (Jackson 1989). As such, former government leaders (tultuls and luluais from the days of the Australian colonial administration) were most suspect, as they were thought to be the heads of an “antigovernment” scheme to undermine the real government’s every move by subverting all attempts of community development. As a former tultul, my father was emerging as the “king” of all witches. My father had personally experienced and been an active participant in some of the most remarkable cultural transformations in the region. Over time he had developed a remarkable sense of humor about these changes, accompanied by an endless supply of self-deprecating one-liners about the new developments: the soap he mistook for the fat of a pig and tried to eat; the rice he was given to eat, which he did, uncooked. My arrival had supplied him with endless material. He often joked about my camera and the powers it must have. He knew better but enjoyed playing the role of the naive “primitive.” As the trials continued and the fact that my father was destined to face trial seemed more imminent, one such joke seemed to shatter through my own naïveté. “My son,” he said, “take my picture and show them all that I am not a witch.” His effortless signature laugh let me know that he was joking, but I heard the subtext. As much as I might try to hide myself behind my recording microscope, this was my world too, and I was always involved. I suddenly realized that participation is not a choice. Our only choice is how we participate. Silence is itself participation, and sometimes it speaks volumes we do not intend.
I turned red with the guilty realization that I may have in some ways been complicit in the events of the trials I so abhorred. If the list of witches was seen as a technology of revelation, might not my camera also be seen in a similar light? Did my presence and that of my camera help to legitimize what was taking place?
I became determined to transform myself and my camera. This would mean stepping out from behind the recording microscope and engaging the situation. The plethora of voices in the fragmented community had left me confused and silent. Now I found my voice through these same fragmentations. Instead of silence, I simply chose to support and work to magnify those voices and perspectives I found most advantageous to my goal of ending the hunt before the community completely disintegrated or somebody was seriously hurt or perhaps even killed. Ironically, the first voice I chose to support was the government officers’ voice of the law. I went to every suspect on the list and briefed them on the law, reading to them sections of the national constitution that protect basic human rights and prohibit the use of threats or violence to force a confession. I had decided that if the law was to be used to prosecute suspected witches, the suspects should know a bit about the law before being put on trial. Word of my visits to these suspects traveled throughout the area, and it was made clear to the government officers that I and my camera were not in the courtroom to legitimize the trial but, rather, to ensure that it took place without improper incident.
Previously I had found the web of relations constraining. When somebody I referred to as a good friend or even “brother” interrogated or flogged somebody I called “auntie” I felt trapped between the competing demands of two important relationships. I now found this same web of relations liberating. I discovered a freedom to express myself beyond my constrained scientific observer status precisely because I was related. My vigilance and anger could be read relationally. If I protested the idea of witchcraft beliefs or challenged the legitimacy of a court ruling, it was because I was concerned for my auntie or my father; I was not acting outside the boundaries of what was locally acceptable. On the contrary, as I stepped out from behind my recording microscope and made such protests, I may have become acceptable for the first time since the witch hunt began. After all, what kind of son would I be if I did not protest? Always the ironist, I found myself in a remarkably ironic position. Once dedicated to respecting an equality of worldviews and perspectives, I now found myself approaching government officers armed with a laptop computer that I used to show them the story of Salem and other witch hunts. I showed them articles from the Internet of witch killings throughout the world, proving that it is the witch hunters, not the witches, who face widespread disapproval by the media and authorities outside the local situation. I even showed them pictures of viruses and bacteria, to back up the recent talks given by clinic workers trying to promote biomedical explanations of sickness over witchcraft explanations. Even as I became increasingly more public with my protests, I eventually came to recognize the limits of my power in changing the situation. There are well-founded concerns that as anthropologists we are often “studying down” and therefore hold a certain amount of power in our fieldwork situations. Such concerns had contributed to my original silence, and even as I started to engage I remained troubled by this. I soon discovered, though, that any power I may have thought I had was illusory. Though I was highly respected and considered knowledgeable about a great many subjects, witchcraft was not one of them. My protests that the acts of witchcraft under investigation were impossible were often met with laughter and almost complete disregard. After one of my protests, one man asked me if we had witchcraft like theirs in the United States. When I replied that we do not, a knowing look came upon his face as he turned to the others, who laughed as he explained, “That’s why the white man is confused.” Through it all, my attempts to impose my logic never made any changes in behavior, even when it was framed in support of other local voices.
The hunt had its own dynamics in which I played a remarkably minor role.
Key to the dynamics was the simple fact that the list made its own enemies. The person listed invariably denied the accusation, and relatives came to his or her side to support the denial. As the list grew to over 70 names, nearly everybody had somebody on the list to defend, and the credibility of the list itself was called into question. On the morning of the last trial, there was a growing sense of outrage that the officers were continuing to hold such trials despite widespread public disapproval. As in previous trials, when the suspects inevitably confessed they were forced to run up and down the airstrip carrying heavy stones on their heads. But this time nobody was watching. Support for the witch hunt had subsided.
I sat on my veranda with friends as the convicted slowly made their way up and down the airstrip. The most elderly of them moved ever so slowly, aggravating the officers assigned to monitor her punishment. In frustration, one of the officers kicked her in the back to make her speed up. The force of his foot on her back combined with the weight of the stone on her head forced her back to buckle, and she collapsed to the ground. To this day, I only vaguely remember running from my veranda to her side. By the time I arrived a large crowd had gathered. I checked to see if she was okay. She was exhausted but otherwise fine. Seeing the stone beside her, I grew angry. I picked up the stone, marched it over to the edge of the airstrip, and launched it into a deep ravine—the moment so surreal that the yells of the officers seemed muffled, muted, and unreal. Before I could defend myself, I could hear the swell of voices from others rising up to defend me and protest the witch hunt. Some called for a broader recognition of human rights. Seventh Day Adventist leaders restated their claim for biomedical awareness. But the broadest, most widely held complaint about the witch hunt—one that I could never support or share and yet the one that ultimately ended the hunt altogether—was that the officers had failed in bringing in the “real” witches who were terrorizing their communities. The government consistently picked on weak old women, while the real witches (like my father) remained free and continued to kill and consume them. Protestors claimed that the government was ineffective at finding and bringing to justice the “real” witches because members of the government were themselves the most powerful witches and used the witch hunt as a ploy to divert attention away from their nefarious activities.
The witch hunt began as an effort to rid the area of witches so that people would feel safe moving to the large government villages. But the hunt only increased fears and fissions. It had an opposite effect to the one intended. People further divided into small hamlets, and the government villages nearly became ghost towns. In these villages, the people not only faced the tensions of living with more people than they were used to but, like me, also faced the tensions of competing and contradictory sets of beliefs and practices variously embodied in the government, clinic, and the different churches. The tensions among these contradictory beliefs and practices only exacerbated tensions throughout the community.
Perhaps my deep desire to participate encouraged me to identify with all of these different and contradictory beliefs and practices. As they turned on each other, I turned on myself. In the end, I wish I could offer a happy ending, but I remain fragmented—just like the community—and not unlike anthropology. The only solace I can offer is that it is a productive position to be in. Fragmentation is in another guise flexibility and openness. It is the proud claim of being incomplete and unfinished, accepting unresolved tensions and learning from them rather than explaining them away. In reconciling myself to the revised form of that fundamental trio of holism, cultural relativism, and participantobservation, I find myself embracing my ironist self and attempting to refashion it to create a Protean man flexible enough to have empathy for numerous competing and constantly changing perspectives, patient enough to pause long enough to see a broad range of implications, strong enough to act on what I believe to be right after I make these careful considerations, and finally, humble enough to accept that even this statement is perhaps too strong of a conclusion for what remains an open-ended unfinished story.
Acknowledgments. I would like to extend a special thank you to all those who have listened to this story and helped me disentangle the multiple ethical dilemmas I have begun to describe here. In particular, I would like to thank Robert Welsch, Roy Wagner, Edie Turner, Ira Bashkow, Eve Danziger, Peter Metcalf, and Eric Midelfort for providing priceless support and feedback. This article was first presented as a paper at the 2005 American Anthropological Association meetings in the session “Witnessing Witchcraft:
Quandaries of Engagement” and benefited greatly from the comments and general camaraderie that the session created among all participants. Funding for fieldwork was provided by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Fulbright-Hayes International Dissertation Research Fellowship, and the University of Virginia, with special thanks also going to James Robins and the National Research Institute, with which I was affiliated during my fieldwork.
1. Locations and names in this article have been altered or left ambiguous in an effort to maintain confidentiality.
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