HIV in Africa: Distinguishing disease from witchcraft

Eunice Kimutai doesn’t believe in witches. The trouble is some in her community do.

A retired school teacher near Tanzania’s western border, Kimutai now leads the charge in her village to have people tested for HIV. It’s a daunting task, as the elders in her community have taken to telling people who fall ill with the disease that they are possessed by evil spirits.

“When you believe (in) witches, you don’t go for a test,” says the elderly grandmother. “People say you have to go to a witch doctor instead of going to the hospital.”

To counter their claims, Kimutai provides community members with pamphlets on AIDS and encourages those with symptoms of HIV to see a doctor, even though witch doctors are much cheaper than hospitals and have become ingrained in local beliefs.

“When you tell them they have signs of HIV, they say. `No,'” Kimutai adds. “It is very difficult.”

Her struggle is the kind that often makes headlines out of central and southern Africa. That’s where a mixture of folklore and evangelical Christianity in some communities has spawned a fundamentalist belief in witchcraft and possession by evil spirits, one that blurs the line between traditional medicine and extreme religion through the entire continent.

Much of what Westerners call witchcraft are local remedies, often plant-based, made by traditional community healers, whose help Africans have sought for centuries.

To North Americans, the word “witchcraft” conjures up stereotypical images of broom-riding women with green faces, but in Africa it often involves herbs and rituals that can be beneficial.

After the civil war in Sierra Leone, for example, many former child soldiers were welcomed back into their communities only after an elaborate cleansing ceremony that included fasting, repentance, and bathing in local rivers. This was an essential form of social acceptance and forgiveness for the children, whose role in the war initially left them outcast.

In some extreme cases, evil spirits are blamed for everything from HIV symptoms — as in Kimutai’s village — to the death of a community member. These can lead to those suspected of possession being banished by their community or, in some cases, calls for an exorcism.

Despite the attention these incidences can attract, they are not the norm and not a reflection of traditional healing on the continent, warns a York University professor and expert on African culture.


Witchcraft, or Wicca, is a form of neo-Paganism. It is officially recognized as a religion by the U.S. government.

This is a diverse movement that knows no central authority. Practitioners do not all have the same views, beliefs and practices.

While all witches are pagans, not all pagans are witches. Likewise, while all Wiccans are witches, not all witches are Wiccans.

Note: The Witchcraft news tracker includes news items about a wide variety of diverse movements reported in the media as ‘witchcraft.’ It also includes news articles on the plight of alleged witches.

“There are particular groups in particular regions that practice exorcism,” says Pablo Idahosa, director of York University’s African studies program. “You can’t generalize. It’s like saying Canadians practise exorcism when it’s actually just a community in Montreal.”

Idahosa points to the rise of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity as a driving force behind extreme forms of witchcraft. He notes some Africans have no choice but to visit witch doctors. Hospitals are too expensive. “A lot of this has to do with poverty.”

In these extreme cases, well-funded affordable education and health care programs would help dispel myths about evil spirits and deter use of witch doctors and exorcism. At the same time, they could empower community healers to join the fight against diseases like AIDS by creating localized approaches that combine traditional and modern medicine — exactly what Kimutai wants to see.

Not all African traditional beliefs are a threat. Local healers there have been enriching communities for generations and can play a very important role in both modern medicine and social cohesion. Understanding this can go a long way in better appreciating an often-misunderstood continent.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children’s rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Online: They discuss global issues every Monday in the World & Comment section. Join the discussion online at

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 18, 2008.
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