Witches, Tribes and Country Devils


“Spirit possession,” “devil worship,” “demonic,” “secret society,” and “witchcraft.” Many of the words used specifically to describe black people reflect the Western worldview of the 1600s, when Europeans first encountered Africans on a large scale.

Traditional religion is the aspect of African culture most demeaned by early non-African visitors, both Arab and European.

The use of words like “witch,” “tribe,” “country devil” and countless others keep African culture trapped in a language web that portrays it as “weird,” “primitive,” “inferior.”

“Witch,” and others words like it, were used to describe non-Christians in Europe, when Westerns first met Africans. Between 150 A.D. and 1750 A. D., for example, some 100,000 to 200,000 people in Europe were tried as “witches” and between 50,000 and 100,000 were executed. Western writers now rarely use such terms to describe non-Christians in their midst, but that discourse continues to be applied to Africa. As a result, the West has projected its dark side onto Africans, producing an “othering” of Africa and its people.

One such word, “tribe,” was originally a system of organization among the Romans. Europeans of the Middle Ages applied the word to people they perceived as “backward,” as if those people were stuck in a time wrap from 1400 years before.

Over time, the term came to be applied to a wide-range of people with diverse systems of organization whose only similarity was being at the periphery of a large empire. On the other hand, those at the core of empires are labeled “nations.” “Tribe” is now applied uncritically by Africans to describe themselves.

Another example, the term “fetish,” is regularly applied to African ritual objects, especially statues. It was apparently derived from the Portuguese word fetiçao (meaning “false”). As used by early Portuguese visitors to West Africa, it implied that these objects were “false gods,” but Africans never considered their carvings to be gods.

Instead of challenging this negative discourse, some Western-educated Africans argue for their continued use of those demeaning words because they are widely used by uneducated Africans.

In truth, uneducated Africans copied those pejorative words from their educated brethren of an earlier era who copied them from Western missionaries and “scholars.” It is past time that we begin using more neutral words to describe African culture: ethnic group (not “tribe”), energy or power (not “spirit”), ruler (not “chief” or “king”).

In the United States, the power of the Eurocentric discourse is evident in the use of “nigger” by black youths to describe each other. Instead of “blaming the victims,” elite Africans must accept responsibility for fixing the problem, since we helped to legitimize this language of racial inferiority.

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