The Witchcraft exhibit at the Moto Moto Museum in Mbala.
Reading this week:
- Return to Laughter by Elenore Smith Bowen
One of the topics I run across pretty frequently is the subject of witches and flying. As far as I can tell the belief that witches can use “airplanes” to fly is pretty widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, at least among those that belief in witchcraft. Two different specimens of aircraft (labelled “helicopters”) are on display at the Moto Moto Museum, and in books like Congo Journey the topic of flying on a magic airplane is casually mentioned like you’re supposed to realize what they’re talking about. If you google something along the lines of witchcraft, flying, and Africa, the most common hits are articles about a Swaziland law prohibiting witches from flying above 150 meters (for the record, the law prohibits any unlicensed aircraft from flying above 150 meters, and the witches thing comes from a government spokesman mentioning that even witches would be subject to the law; the way I read it, he was either joking or making a point about the all-encompassing nature of the law).
Nevertheless, the ability of witches to fly is accepted as fact among the circles that believe in witchcraft (here’s a story about Zambia’s Minister of Higher Education asking the nation’s scientists to study witchcraft). Stories of witches flying and crashlanding regularly make the news:
- Zambians Traumatised By Crash-landing Flying Wizards
- ‘How I became a cruel witch’ (Includes some details of the initiation and a story of falling off a flying puku horn)
- Kalabo Witch-Lady Crashes in Livingstone
Among all the different stories of flying witches, there are some common components. One, the witch has to be naked to fly. Witches are usually “caught” when there is a naked person wandering around where they shouldn’t be wandering around. Two, flying requires an airplane of some sort. These come in a variety of forms. There is the puku horn mentioned in the article above. The Moto Moto Museum, like I said, has two examples. The first a little bit more abstract:
“Ndeke” is just the local word for “airplane.”
The other example looks a little bit more like an airplane, and features a small figurine actually piloting the thing:
A video on YouTube purports to show a witch’s aircraft that crash-landed when it ran out of fuel. It most strongly resembles a small model airplane:
I’m not entirely sure it is directly related flying witches, but the Moto Moto Museum also features a “charm to kill people who pass over it.” I figured it might be a witchcraft defense:
Although the thought that there are witches flying around sub-Saharan Africa on small model airplanes while naked is kinda funny, it hides a larger problem with the belief in witchcraft in general in Africa. Witchcraft is far too often an excuse to abuse the disabled or elderly. Like I said, “witches” are often identified when a dazed, naked person is found wandering around where they shouldn’t be. Instead of potentially getting mental help or other care, they’re accused of being witches and ostracized by the community. The Human Rights Commission has expressed concern about the influence of beliefs in witchcraft and “witch-hunters,” and although Zambia has made many aspects of witchcraft illegal, including claiming to be a witch, accusing others of witchcraft, or claiming to be a witch-hunter, the beliefs and their effects remain widespread. The recent film “I Am Not a Witch” tries to tackle some of the issues surrounding witchcraft (it does have its critics, however).
The subject of witchcraft is a pretty hard one to fully tackle, given the differences you find in each region, and how easy it is to get accused of witchcraft yourself if you start asking too many questions. Flying witches is a pretty common subject to run across though, so I hope this info is enlightening.