By Leo Igwe
The first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland in late 16th century when the ship of King James VI ran into some terrible storms on its way from Denmark. The wife of a Danish official, who had insulted a member of the escorting team, was accused of trying to sink the King’s ship through witchcraft. The King believed that the storm was not natural but an act of malevolent magic by those who wanted to kill him. The necessary machinery was put in place to fish out the criminals. Several people were arrested, implicated, tortured, and made to confess in the massive witch-hunts that ensued. Agnes Sampson, John Fian and others were convicted of using witchcraft to send the storm against the ship.
Fast forward to 21st century Africa. In 2009, the aunt of the President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, died and he suspected that she was killed through witchcraft. The President hired some witch doctors who went into villages accompanied by the police and state security agents. They flushed out those suspected of perpetrating the crime, arresting all those identified as witches. The suspects were detained, tried, and forced to drink some concoctions. Amnesty International brought attention to the witch hunt in the Gambia which caused pressure on the Gambian authorities. All those detained were later released, though a few died in detention and some suffered some health damage. Most of the people arrested where poor rural dwellers who were not in any position to resist arrests and maltreatment.
In the case of early modern Scotland and in 21st century Gambia, there is a toxic mix of politics and interpretations of misfortune. There is a magical predatory mechanism that targets mostly women, and others in weak, less privileged, vulnerable, socio-cultural positions. Beliefs, conceptions and misconception require social power to give them force and effect. When superstition and politics mix, that can have devastating effects on those at the receiving end of the insinuations.