One morning, I was sitting with a friend who works in medical care, drinking hot tea and chatting about nothing in particular. With one hand she held a steaming mug close to her face, blowing on it to hasten its cooling, and with the other she supported a baby balanced in her lap. The child’s mother had dropped him with my friend while she left to run some errand. This seemed to happen more-or-less constantly, but never once did I hear my friend complain.

“I love babies more than anything,” she said wistfully as she bounced her knees slightly to keep the little boy cooing. “I work with mamas all the time; they think I have all the secrets because I went to university and do health care.” She laughed, lifted the child, burped it expertly, then set it facedown across her thighs. “They sleep best this way. Something to do with their stomachs.” She sipped her tea. “Do they sleep like this in America?”

Sometimes, I explained to her, although most pediatricians in America recommend children sleep on their backs to reduce the likelihood of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She listened attentively, then bit her lip and shook her head.

“No,” she replied. “Babies, generally healthy ones with all their immunizations, don’t die unless they’re sick. In the absence of some other illness or disorder, the only explanation for – what did you call it? ‘Crib death?’ – is witchcraft.” She gazed out the window, speaking in a low voice. “I knew a lady. A cousin of a friend. Her first baby died that way. So she gathered up her neighbors, found the oldest woman in the village, and told her she was a witch and must go. The old woman refused, so they burned down her house. I do not believe she escaped.” At this, my friend turned back towards me and offered a sheepish smile. “But the woman had five more children, and none of them died. So I think it worked.”

Oh. Well … huh.

I can’t speak for everyone in my district (let alone everyone in Kenya), but from the people I’ve spoken with, the vaaaaast majority of them believe witchcraft is real, and witches are real, and sorcery is practiced right under our noses on a frequent basis. I know university-educated Kenyan doctors who speak out at public meetings against the infinite danger of relying on waganga, or traditional spirit healers, for medical care, then grumble loudly about “witch rain” when their water tanks start to go dry. (“Witch rain” refers to the seemingly common phenomenon of unpredictable precipitation; as an example, if you’ve ever been driving through thunderstorms and found a town or stretch of highway that’s dry, as though the clouds skipped over it entirely, this is “witch rain.” I am told it requires blood sacrifices of some variety.) I’ve heard elaborate tales, with multiple external verifications, about women whose mothers-in-law were witches (spare me the jokes, for the moment) and demanded their daughter-in-laws’ first-born sons as zombie slaves. I’ve been sternly warned NOT to look out my window on nights when the moon is black and all the neighborhood dogs start barking wildly. I’ve been cautioned to be ever chary in the presence of someone who is unrepentantly left-handed. And as bad as the witches are here, at least they don’t control the crocodiles like they do out West.

Coming from a radically different culture, it can be a bit of a shock to the system when it comes to practices like bewitchment. When I think “witches,” my mind conjures things like summerstock theater productions of “Macbeth”, or that hilarible film Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler did in the 1990s. Generally speaking, I’m an empirically-minded kinda gal. If you know me at all, you can probably predict what I think of witchcraft and the likelihood that magic can influence our world. But as someone who has immersed myself wholly in the field of counseling psychology (not to mentioned waded up to the hips in anthropology), I can’t just roll my eyes and say, “Oh, you!” Even if I could drag my entire village into a laboratory and “prove” (things can never be proven, only disproven) that witchcraft is bunk, it wouldn’t matter. Why should it? The phenomenological is incredibly powerful.

Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise has never seen it in action. Our beliefs about our own outcomes, and the rituals we build around them, can have a direct impact on our wellbeing. Look at the placebo effect, for example: in virtually every well-designed study, it must be accounted for, or the resultant data is all but worthless. It’s very, very real. Or, for a less science-y example, take this anecdote: at an Amnesty International conference, I once ended up having a conversation with a social worker who specialized in assisting Native American women access needed social services. She had recently written a manual about gold-standard responses to domestic violence in Native communities, and included a lengthy section about allowing traditional cleansing/purification circles to be performed in group homes for survivors of sexual assault. She said the difference it could make was rather dramatic. Sometimes, the belief is the outcome.

For further examples, you could always examine your own life: have you ever prayed before an exam or job interview? How do you feel on Friday the 13th? Have you ever held your breath driving through a tunnel? Do you have some kind of talisman you take with you when you travel, perhaps a rabbit’s foot or lucky pair of underbritches? Do you wish on shooting stars? How do you feel about these things, and how would you feel if I kicked in your door and told you that you’re being irrational?

If you’re going to do work in a community, you must first understand and have respect for the way that community operates. Not just where the water table is and who’s in charge of whatever department, but also how they view the world, and who or what influences it.

So despite being more colorful than other explanations (“malaria is caused by bad air” vs. “malaria is caused by my evil neighbor John ensorcelling my children”), it really differs very little from the rest of my job. I educate people to the absolute best of my ability, give them as much relevant knowledge as I can about the topics that concern them. What they do with that information is up to them. I can’t control that. As an outsider (which I will probably always be, no matter how long I live here or how well I speak the language), I can take two approaches to resistance: the first is to find receptive Kenyans and have them be the ones to pass the message. It’s more likely to become part of the local informational canon if it comes from someone who has lived within culture long enough to understand it kabisa. This has been particularly helpful in addressing the myth that HIV is caused by witchcraft and can be cured by waganga.

The other is to try to supplement their existing beliefs with additional information – not unlike the “education through listening” technique that’s all the rage in development circles these days. It’s the same basic practice as I saw one local community health worker employ when he spoke to a group of mothers who were dubious of immunizations: by all means, pray for your children to stay healthy. Pray every day. But if God gave us vaccines, why not do that also? Provide double the protection? Or, if we go back to our malaria example – medicine tells us malaria comes from XYZ, so just to be safe, can’t we follow ABC precautions as well? Give your children these drugs when they get sick? If your congregation wants to come over to lay on hands and pray over your house to protect it from witches, that’s wonderful. But if we have other tools that might help, what’s the harm in using them? It’s clear you care about the health of your children and are willing to take action to prevent illness, so that’s an excellent first step. If you’re fastidious in your efforts, you’re going to see a difference with these “modern” methods of malaria prevention, too.

My health class students put this up, along with several others addressing these specific, pervasive beliefs.

As for the most dangerous situations wherein witchcraft accusations are made – where someone is tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion, then burned or murdered in some other grisly fashion – the relief is that these occasions are becoming increasingly unusual. Some people I have spoken to describe “the days before Christ came to Africa” (i.e. before missionaries showed up and did their thing) as being when witchcraft was really the law of the land, and it’s been in steady decline ever since. The most powerful witches are “very old grandmothers” now. Furthermore, unlike our neighbor-nation, Tanzania, where albinos frequently are kidnapped and murdered so their body parts can be used in witchcraft rituals, Kenyans don’t go out of their way to target any particular group. Witches can be men or women, rich or poor, from any region or tribe (although certain tribes seem to have more well-known reputations for skilled sorcery than others.)

This is small consolation for those who are set on fire by a howling mob, of course. I think even the most hand-wringing cultural relativist – and I’m right there among them – would say that’s a horrifically terrible situation. I’ve spoken at some length about this topic to some friends and colleagues, conversations that sometimes included explaining the Salem witch trials – and the political ramifications thereof. Many would argue that scripture is on their side, and I certainly can’t represent any higher authority than that. Like child marriage, witchcraft is a complex and deeply-ingrained aspect of the culture in my little corner of Kenya. For all my honest cultural exchange and education, changing it, quite frankly, isn’t my task here. I don’t know what I’d do if it were.

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