It is well documented by historians that monks and clerics of the Middle Ages did not simply perform benedictions. They also performed what are referred to as maledictions, wherein they harnessed the divine power bestowed upon them by an almighty God to curse those irreverent few who were foolish enough to cross them or steal church property – or so they would have the surrounding townspeople believe.
Of course, with the advent of modern science, historians and theologians alike now know that these monks weren’t exactly being honest when promulgating their claims of supernatural power. But, while the morality of these bogus maledictions was questionable, the service that they provided was actually quite practical and, indeed, necessary – with no government or armed infantry in place, maledictions filled a security vacuum and protected church property from theft.
The economist Peter Leeson analyzed the conditions that were needed in order for these maledictions to be effective in protecting property rights. These conditions formed what he called his “theory of cursing.” Leeson claimed that three criteria must be met: curses must be part of a target’s belief system, monopolized by the cursors, and, unfalsifiable.
Alas, the scientific method functioned as a one-two punch for all three of these requirements. It was not long before maledictions were quickly dropped as a clerical practice and the church ceased to sanction their use. As if by magic, cursing disappeared from the face of the earth…or did it?
Currently, I live in rural Kenya in a small town called Kianyaga, which is about a two to four hour drive from Nairobi, depending on road conditions. Crime, particularly theft, is rampant. Just the other day, I allowed a twelve year old boy and his younger brother of two or three into the house to play computer games. The kids come to my house often, mostly because they’re fascinated by caucasian people (the locals call caucasian people mzungus), and I indulge their curiosity by welcoming them inside. During this particular visit I had to go get an item from the other room and, so, the children were left alone for a moment. When I returned they were gone – and so was a cell phone that had been lying on the table (the cell phone was broken, but the children didn’t know this).
A few hours later, on that very same day, a local Kenyan friend of mine – let’s call him John – was at my house and got a call from his mother. She told him that a neighborhood boy, about fourteen years old, had broken in and stolen approximately one thousand shillings (about $10, which is not a negligible sum here) from his homestead. John quickly dashed off, hailed a piki-piki driver (a motorcycle taxi), and went searching for the boy for four hours, to no avail.
After these incidences, I decided to sit down with some local friends, John included, and ask them about the prevalence of crime in these areas, how justice is administered, and the different systems that one can use to enforce one’s property rights.
“Poverty and corruption are the greatest factors causing theft cases in Kenya,” Sally told me, rather matter-of-factly. I was surprised at her candid answer because most locals are reluctant to mention their hometowns in a negative light to a visitor. But, we had known each other for months at this point, and, so I assumed this familiarity made her comfortable enough to assert such brazen opinions.
John added, “People keep stealing because…there are no punishments. For example, in the past, we had a sub-chief who was so corrupt, and, if someone would steal, they could just bribe the sub-chief and the case would be resolved informally.”
With corruption so pervasive, affecting even the formal justice system, I wondered whether locals had any informal means by which to enforce property rights and the rule of law. Both John and Sally mentioned, quite hesitantly, that some locals resort to employing witchcraft. I was intrigued.
It turns out that the Kamba peoples of Kenya’s Eastern Province are notorious for their practice of witchcraft. Michela Wrong, in her book It’s Our Turn to Eat, warns that Kambas are known for brewing potions, being the masterminds behind freak accidents, and placing charms underneath the beds of unsuspecting victims: “these are the spell-casters of Kenya,” she says.
And the Kamba peoples’ curses are not conjured randomly: on the contrary, their services are sought out by those seeking to punish thieves who have stolen from their land. Sally told me that the price of their services, especially in the case of the most infamous wizards, is steep. “It’s a business,” she explained, “and you have to pay an attractive sum of money…probably 10,000 shilling [just over $100] and above. So, maybe more people would like to use [wizards], but they don’t have the money.”
John wished that the services of wizards were more affordable because, then, he’d be able to punish the boy who had stolen from his homestead: “[If] I made somebody insane by going to a wizard, nobody would ever steal from my house.”
They even told me stories about certain locals who had gone insane at the hands of a wizard’s curse. Like the crazy “street boy” in Kianyaga who was cursed because he stole a sewing machine from his dad who then, not knowing that the thief was his son, employed the services of a wizard. The curse, my friends tell me, drove the man’s son mad. Moreover, as John pointed out, “witchcraft is so feared because it is not reversible.” And, so, to this day, the Kianyaga “street boy” still wanders lamely while mumbling nonsensical sounds. It is stories like this that make the threat of witchcraft more feared, and more effective in deterring theft, than the corrupt court systems.
The Deputy District Commissioner (DDC) of Kiriniyaga East District confirms these assertions: “the court system is feared, but not as much as a curse… They have the potential of wiping out an entire family, [the family] can die from unexplainable reasons.”
The DDC told me a story about a Kamba man in Mombasa who used witchcraft against a thief during the post-election violence in 2007. “People broke into a Kamba man’s house and one stole a television set and carried it on his shoulder. Then the TV could not come out of his shoulder… It was stuck there. That effectively reduced cases of theft in that area. Nobody wanted to steal anymore.”
In fact, everyone I consulted – everyone – affirmed that rates of crime and theft were lower in areas where witchcraft is known to be practiced, particularly in the Eastern Province where the Kamba are most populous. Enforcing property rights by employing witchcraft seems not only to be more effective than the court system, but moreover, hiring a wizard is also likely to be more affordable than shelling out a bribe. What’s more is that the DDC asserted that, unlike some judges and police officers, wizards are seen as “incorruptible,” and, thus, a fair rendering of justice is more likely to be administered under their tutelage.
Therefore, far from being irrational, using witchcraft in rural Kenya, where the nascent justice system suffers from grotesque amounts of graft, is sensible given the circumstances.
Leeson would point out that the efficacy of these curses in deterring theft is due to the satisfaction of his three aforementioned conditions: curses must be part of a target’s belief system, monopolized by the cursors, and unfalsifiable. The fulfillment of Leeson’s requirements was summed up in one sentence by the DDC: “of course there’s no proof…but it’s what we believe.”
Too often the West is overly quick to write-off Africa as primitive and backwards. Witchcraft is a perfect example of this Western proclivity. We simply assume that the use of witchcraft is irrational and archaic – but it’s not. Kenya may be better off if it had a functioning judiciary, and didn’t have to resort to witchcraft when dealing with those who commit crimes, but, sadly, this is not the case.
I’m reminded of a quote from Abraham Lincoln, uttered when friends of his were bashing the peoples of the South for their attitudes towards slavery: he said, “Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”