In 1997 John Zorn took his recording equipment to Ghana, where he would witness one of the darkest rituals ever captured on audio: a voodoo funeral. The album Drums of Death: Field Recordings in Ghana is a collection of these sounds. Through the seven tracks we can hear the complexity of traditional drumming in an attempt to summon the ancient spirits and help the body cross over to the other side or, if possible, bring the dead back to life as a zombie.
Witchcraft is a highly feared and respected element in the African continent, so it’s no surprise how in the country of Togo there’s a particular market full of all the ingredients necessary for rituals and spells. One can acquire any imaginable product there: from the typical graveyard dirt to monkey paws and lion skulls. There are those who claim one can also purchase human body parts and fluids required for the dark arts.
But not everything related to sorcery is revered by the population. In some poverty stricken villages any act considered out of the ordinary can be assumed as witchcraft. The lack of education allows for misinterpretations surrounding phenomena that cannot be easily explained.
When an accusation of sorcery is linked to a grave consequence, such as death or some sort of epidemic, it can cost someone their life. However, the most common charges have to do with drought or a bad harvest season. Given the dependence these communities have on farming, it’s common for villagers to try to find a reason behind what might actually be caused by climate change and insufficient land production.
But how does one distinguish a common person from a witch? In reality, there’s not one kind of proof that’s necessary to accuse someone of sorcery. The community only requires an outstanding trait that sets someone apart from the rest to turn them into the main suspect of having supernatural abilities.
“Those who get good grades and outshine the others. Those who do not study, who steal, who are more aggressive or deceptive than the rest…”
There are several shelters of Salesian Missionaries dedicated to protect children accused of witchcraft. These group homes are made to keep them from undergoing ritualistic tests to prove whether or not they are sorcerers. These can include drinking poison to see if the accused’s powers will help them survive or even being burned with boiling water, given that their dark magic will instantly heal them. These practices and testimonies are shown in the documentary I Am Not a Witch by Raul de la Fuente.
Children in Togo who are accused of witchcraft are not the only ones who suffer because of beliefs and traditions of their communities. In Tanzania, people born with albinism are chased with machetes because there’s an ancient myth that their bones have mystical properties. This leads to their body parts being coveted items in the black market. Someone could be willing to pay up to three thousand euros for an arm or a leg, while the whole body is valued at roughly 60 thousand. Poverty plays a fundamental role in this situation, given that people who hunt albinos in Tanzania don’t necessarily do this based on a belief but on how much they can profit out of selling their limbs.
Several international organizations have denounced these practices, while others argue that to interfere goes against anthropological study and cultural heritage. The true question is how long can we remain blinded to this injustice? Regardless of protecting and respecting faiths and traditions, no human life should be allowed to fall prey to these beliefs.
Witchcraft is deeply rooted in human mind and history. You can read about the 15 medieval demons that were thought to ruin people's lives or the trials that inspired one of Goya's most macabre paintings.