You would think witchcraft would have stopped being a thing in modern society years ago. But as seen in Nigerian pop culture, such as Nollywood films like Mr. Ibu and Keziah and poems and literature by Ben Okri, magic is still a consistent element in social and cultural interactions. And, according to essays in Magical Interpretations, Material Realities: Modernity, Witchcraft and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa, edited by Henrietta L. Moore and Todd Sanders, the belief in and practice of witchcraft is present throughout the continent. This isn’t simply a Nigerian phenomenon—it is also present in nations such as Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and South Africa, with witchcraft and magic being tied to common themes such as money, religion and the supernatural.
In the essay “Vulture men, campus cultists and teenaged witches: Modern magic in Nigerian popular media” by Misty L. Bastian, Bastian focuses specifically on witchcraft in Nigeria, discussing how the belief in the occult is a “Nigerian metanarrative of forces that are both inside and outside of nature and persons, that break down carefully constructed, external rubrics of modernity and make them recognizable and palatable to local people” (89-90). Bastian focuses on bodily transformation, university cults and teenage witches to analyze how newspapers and local accounts of these magical occurrences reflect Nigerian notions of the traditional and the modern, spending a few pages on each.
Bastian begins with the concept of bodily transformation, which she says speaks “to the sense of many urban Nigerians that the anonymity of city life and the rapid change inherent to city relationships have destabilized people’s understandings of space, place and even of personhood” (71). As seen in the poetry of Okri and the novel GraceLand by Chris Abani, the challenge of the urban landscape is a common one, which can sometimes manifest in a return to traditional concepts (like that of the totem animal, which appears to Sunday in GraceLand). But Bastian gives us a creepier side of bodily transformation with a discussion of “uncanny fauna” and the “hybrid, human-bestial behavior” of “trickster animals” that come out of the forest and into urban spaces (73). This “displacement of forest magic” (73) into urban centers reflects the movement of the nation’s citizens, as well as their continuing fears and heightened mistrust of their neighbors. As Bastian notes, citizens feels that “Intimate connections have to be made. They cannot be taken for granted. … Strangers do not, as in the rural areas, come from outside. They live next door or even in the next room” (75).
Bastian next moves on to the “pervasive fear of ‘cultism’ in Nigeria’s university system” (72), mentioning the violence present in academic settings that encourage bonds between male members. According to the men involved in these “cults,” which were born out of fraternity life after a “climate of scholarly and national deprivation” (78), they possess “a supernatural immunity to gunshot wounds, to possess a superhuman sexual potency and appetite and to have a magical ability to influence the minds of others. … In the latter case, members are supposedly able to use what appear to be ordinary, everyday objects like handkerchiefs or cigarettes to bewitch people and force them to do the cults’ bidding” (80). The bonds created between these cult members in the university setting continue afterward, Bastian notes, so “young men are moving into what we might call postgraduate violence” (81), based on the “violent, masculinist rituals” (77) they took part in at university.
Bastian spends the last section of her chapter on teenage witches, called ogbaanje and supposedly “nubile, bored and rapacious” (86), with an “inordinate amount of leisure as well as an insatiable desire for the trappings of material success” (72). After European colonizers created a female adolescent experience for Nigerian youth, complete with emphasis on hygiene, fashion and consumption, young women began to move to the city to experience life on their own, moving into sexual behavior that commodified them, according to Bastian. But their attempts at both economic and sexual independence threaten the “the control of their elders and the misogynist attitude of their male peers” (72), leading to social rejection and an eventual acquiescence into the born-again Christian community. Although these women believe they have powers in their vagina that can destroy men, they eventually end up bending to men offering them a Christian confession, an interesting glimpse into the country’s prevailing patriarchal power structure.
Bastian covers a lot of ground about Nigeria in her chapter, and her writing is clear, straightforward and concise. She discusses Nigerian citizens’ belief in witchcraft and the occult without judgment, but provides information about how these concepts are treated within various aspects of the community, from news media to folklore to urban legends. But her work sometimes seems lacking: For example, more details in the university cults section about the organization and structure of these groups and what kind of ceremonies the members take part in, or specific evidence about their behavior post-graduation, would be helpful to make the “cults” seem more dangerous and pervasive (if they actually are). Similarly question-raising is her portion about teenage witches; Bastian lays out how older witches keep young men as a kind of familiar by providing them with money and beauty, but in her discussion of younger witches, it is only their sexual activity and belief that they can harm men that is discussed. Perhaps a direct interview with a teenage witch about what gave her those powers, what caused her to renounce them, and how her life is going on within Christianity would be more helpful in tracing the journey of these girls.
Overall, however, Magical Interpretations, Material Realities is a helpful text that provides intriguing, well researched information about the belief in the occult in modern Africa, and Bastian’s chapter offers up a variety of information about those phenomenon specific to Nigeria. To better understand the magical elements in Nigerian films and literature, Magical Interpretations, Material Realities is a must-read.
(NOTE: And here’s my review on Amazon’s page itself!)