Taking ownership for our actions and reactions can feel very awkward, especially from negative experiences. When we take a step back to ask ourselves the question ‘what am I learning from this?’ and hold ourselves accountable for the perspectives and emotions which we carry, this can aid the process of managing and understanding our thought processes better. Looking to the Azande people, the presence of witchcraft essentially took the form of bad luck and was used to explain some of the negative events within an individual’s life. Its presence throughout daily life, provided regular opportunities for an individual to take ownership of the negative thoughts or energy which they harboured so as to not allow for it to spread and effect the lives of others in a community.
The Azande (also referred to as Zande or Asande) are a people that have occupied parts of present day Sudan, Congo as well as the Central African Republic from around the period of the 19th century. The work of Anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard gives an insight on the presence of witchcraft as well as accounts from various members of Azande communities on how its presence relayed in society. Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande is regarded as a key piece of anthropological work, some aspects from this body of work that help to understand the concept of witchcraft include:
Origins: Witchcraft can be seen to be the product of negative thoughts towards a person or situation which then manifest and remain within a person’s subconscious, so much so that it influences the lives of others. Negative thoughts relate to feelings of envy, jealousy, judgement as well as holding grudges. The manifestation of witchcraft points to the consequences of holding bad energy towards a person or situation, as it will often be relayed somehow, in the case of the Azande through what they deemed as witchcraft (bad luck). Evans-Pritchard noted that “the older a witch the more potent his witchcraft and the more unscrupulous its use”, which indicates that the longer negative thoughts were internalised the stronger its impact could be on others. The impact this had on the social structure can be seen through the belief that witchcraft could be passed down through lineage, and thus influence a person’s kinship. This has close similarities to the concept of epigenetics, the idea that the impact of internalised emotions can be inherited and relayed in the body from generation to generation. In the case of the Azande, the negative feelings which a person internalised were passed down through his or her lineage, which in turn affected the experiences of future generations and manifested through encounters with witchcraft i.e. bad luck.
Power of an individual: Despite the ancestral link of witchcraft, Evans-Pritchard pointed out that “the Azande generally regard witchcraft as an individual trait and it is treated as such”. This draws attention to the power of the individual to determine their mindset in response to situations whilst recognising the impact of their thought processes on the wider community. He goes on to state that the “belief in witchcraft is quite consistent with human responsibility and a rational appreciation of nature”. From this perception, one can see that the presence of witchcraft was, in part, a result of a failure to address emotions. Here one can see the importance of taking responsibility for actions and reactions – by taking proactive steps to manage emotions instead of attaching to them, this can help to reduce the impact of holding onto negative energy.
Distance: The importance of space among the Azande can be explained, in part, as a result of the presence of witchcraft. It was stated that “witchcraft does not strike a man at a great distance, but only injures people in the vicinity” which in turn influenced the desire to cultivate distance so as to not be susceptible to its impact. In Mission work among the Azande part of J.W Johnston’s observations pointed out that “these people do not build large villages. Instead they’re scattered over the country in separate, isolated dwellings, family by family”. Creating physical distance likely assisted in the process of not succumbing to the impact of enacted witchcraft. This is particularly telling given that upon the introduction of British colonialism, many Azande dwellings were forced to adopt a housing arrangement which required a closer proximity to one another. It resulted in many fleeing to Congo to avoid this ruling.
The Domino effect: A popular belief documented by Evans-Pritchard from members of communities was that “witchcraft is like a fire, it lights a light”, and could therefore spread very easily. It helps to understand how quickly negative energy could easily spread from person to person and acted as an unseen force that influenced the conscious realm, both on a small and large scale. It could exist in all aspects of life which promoted a strong awareness of the impact of harbouring on to ill-feelings towards others. For the Azande, emphasis was placed not on how witchcraft could manifest but why it did. Therefore, in order to prevent its emergence and spread, steps needed to be taken at an individual level to address negative attitudes as opposed to clinging on to them and allowing them to impact one’s own life as well as the lives of others.
The points noted above draw attention to the many lesson’s that one can learn from the Azande social structure. Namely, to take responsibility and address why we hold negative thoughts to particular people or situations. This is not to imply that the solution is to pretend and allude a sense of positivity which we may not even feel, but instead to allow ourselves the opportunity to understand why we harbour negative emotions and take the steps to let these feelings go and not allow them to consume our thought process and dictate how we move forward. The Azande experience points to the human connection, whether we realise it or not, our emotions and thoughts impact those around us. May we allow ourselves the space to take responsibility for our actions as well as reactions and remain open in this process.
Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande – E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1937)
Mission work among the Azande – J.W. Johnston (1921)
Do Your Grandmother’s Experiences Really Make It Into Your Genes? – Michael White
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) – Dr Joy Degruy
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