Tauya Chinama on Witchcraft Allegations in Zimbabwe

by | June 29, 2024

Tauya Chinama is a Zimbabwean born philosopher, Humanist, apatheist, academic researcher and educator. He is also into human rights struggles as the founding leader of a Social Democrats Association (SODA) a youth civic movement which lobbies and advocates for the inclusion and recognition of the young people into decision making processes and boards throughout the country anchored on Sustainable Development Goal 16 (Peace, Justice, Strong Institutions).

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the current state of witch accusations in Zimbabwe?

Tauya Chinama: In Zimbabwe, witchcraft accusations seem to be an integral part of the culture because phenomena like death, sickness, and bad luck are often viewed through a cultural lens. People typically seek explanations for bad luck, sickness, or a funeral. Despite sometimes knowing that a person died from a certain ailment, people often believe that the person was bewitched. It’s embedded in the culture. I remember two days ago. I showed my secondary school students an article on witchcraft accusations, which we had worked on together before. My students asked, “Sir, you think witchcraft doesn’t exist?” I replied that if it exists, it exists only as a myth. They all laughed and insisted it existed. It’s something deeply ingrained in people’s minds.

Jacobsen: Do you often encounter mockery and laughter in response to your disbelief in common superstitions like that?

Chinama: Yes, they laugh it off because it’s funny to them that some people don’t believe in the existence of witchcraft. It is something they have been told about while growing up. For your information, this is common in urban areas where students laugh off the idea. It is even more prevalent in rural areas. In rural areas where I grew up, belief in witchcraft is very serious. At some point, I believed that witchcraft existed before I became skeptical about it. I grew up thinking it existed, though without evidence.

Jacobsen: As you noted in the last interview, you were very religious. How did you overcome this common belief in witchcraft and witchcraft allegations?

Chinama: When you start thinking critically and freely, initiating an epistemological revolution, you change how you acquire knowledge. You don’t need to receive information and treat it as knowledge. When I was extremely religious, I could easily believe stories of witchcraft because my mind was wired to accept such things without questioning them. My mind accepted certain things merely because the majority believed them or tradition said so. When I started to question religion, I became agnostic and later a militant atheist. Now, I identify as an apatheist because I respect people’s religious views, though I don’t agree with them. Nowadays, accepting any form of information requires interrogation. I have to test every piece of information I get. Is it authentic? Does it make sense? Is it logical? It’s now natural for me to challenge or establish any information’s authenticity and logic.

Jacobsen: Ironically, this love of logic came from your theological training.

Chinama: Yes. When I was training to be a Catholic priest, the training had two main phases: philosophy and theology. When I started studying philosophy, I began to question many things. Interestingly, priesthood formation can create non-religious people. I still wonder how my colleagues, who were my classmates, went on without questioning religion. It may be about how we invest ourselves in the study of philosophy. When I invested myself in philosophy, I started to see many religious doctrines and cultural beliefs, like the belief in witchcraft, as archaic and nonsensical.

Jacobsen: A prominent atheist minister in the United Church of Canada, Rev. Gretta Vosper, went through a long national controversy in the public media about being defrocked. Initially, she identified as a non-theist, and over several years, this changed to outright atheism. She wrote about her experiences, noting that she lost some of her congregation but kept others. She and others have noted that individuals who are bright and go to train as priests or go to seminary or get theological training if they believe in God tend to believe in a pantheist, panentheist, or deist God. That’s very distant from the interventionist and personal God most people believe in, whether in Zimbabwe or Canada. Others, like yourself, based on the training and strict logic, disbelieve altogether. Is that a common theme in seminaries and theological training in Zimbabwe?

Chinama: Yes, it’s somehow true. Although I wasn’t training in Zimbabwe, I was training in a neighbouring country, Zambia, with people from 16 different nations of Africa. It’s true; I started to be part of this trend eventually. Even to this day, for example, when I don’t want to offend religious people, and they ask me if I believe God exists, I often avoid answering directly. You can usually sense the tone of the person asking. So, I might say, “I believe in the God of Baruch Spinoza.” This response usually satisfies them because many people are too lazy to read or find that Spinoza’s concept of God makes sense. Spinoza was concerned with religious tolerance, suggesting that one shouldn’t think like a religiousperson to hold valuable beliefs. Just accept everyone as they are. Baruch Spinoza was against the notion of a personal God as presented in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community at some point.

Jacobsen: When people ask that question — do you believe — how are they typically asking it, and what do they mean by that question? It’s not always obvious what they intend with that question.

Chinama: That question is often asked not because they genuinely want to know but to remove all doubt so that, if needed, they can later say, “He said he doesn’t believe.” They seek such affirmation to find ways to segregate or persecute you. In some countries, like mine, about 10% of the population claim to be non-believers, but you can still lose economic opportunities or friends based on your religious beliefs. People ask to clear their doubts and confirm their suspicions. This allows them to marginalize or make your life difficult more easily. Unfortunately, we’re in such a situation.

Jacobsen: How do Zimbabweans with that superstition view witches and witchcraft? What is their perception of this phenomenon?

Chinama: As I mentioned earlier, they believe in it. They think it’s real, and if someone says it’s not real, they might accuse them of being a joker. If they see you are serious, they might think you are losing your mind. People often associate problems like miscarriage with witchcraft. For example, my students once asked me what I wanted to be growing up. I told them I had evolved but aimed to be a public intellectual. Then they said, “But now you are a teacher. Why are you a teacher here? Witchcraft is real; someone bewitched you not to be a public intellectual but to be a teacher.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no, everyone. I am building my profile. Why do you think someone bewitched me?” Here, teachers don’t get much remuneration, so people think that if you became an engineer and ended up being a vendor selling tomatoes, it must be because of witchcraft. But sometimes, it’s due to mismanagement or misgovernance. They don’t want to face reality. The thinking needs to be more mythological and culturally based rather than scientific.

Jacobsen: How does the history around this belief system impact people’s life outcomes? For instance, if they are facing a bad political context, a corrupt leader, or poor economic conditions with much poverty, how do witchcraft allegations prevent people from thinking correctly about their problems so they can improve their situation in life?

Chinama: This practice has existed since immemorial, especially in pre-scientific eras. If anything happened — like rain not falling — they would go to diviners or n’gangas who would tell them there was a witch in the village. Sometimes, a person would be harmed or even killed because of such beliefs. In pre-scientific societies, people believed in traditional medicine men because witchcraft was the only explanation they had for any problem. Even if a newborn baby cried excessively, people might say it was because someone was a witch. Indigenous knowledge systems have their merits but are sometimes flawed and based on mythological beliefs. This belief system has developed over time, brick by brick, making it difficult to dismantle. Dismantling it should start within the education system. However, even if we teach students one thing at school, they might learn something completely different at home.

Jacobsen: What else is preventing the effectiveness of educational efforts?

Chinama: Another problem is that parents generally do not widely accept humanistic values. Starting in 2015, the government of Zimbabwe adopted a new curriculum based on recommendations from a commission set up in 1999 led by Professor Caiphas Nziramasanga. This commission produced the Nziramasanga Commission findings. As a result, in 2015, Zimbabwe adopted a new curriculum that included subjects like Heritage Studies, family, religious, and moral education. Teachers are now asked to teach about religion without favouring any particular religion. However, parents are upset, saying, “Our children should be taught Christianity. Why are you teaching them about Judaism, Islam, and other religions?” Some parents naively don’t realize that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all Abrahamic religions. They want everyone to be Christian. This mindset is a significant stumbling block to critical thinking.

Jacobsen: What forms of education work?

Chinama: It depends sometimes, but here in Zimbabwe, the people who introduced formal education were missionaries, and they established several schools. The best schools in Zimbabwe are religious schools, particularly those in Catholic institutions. You see how religion and religious thinking are instilled into young minds from five, six, or seven when they go to grade one, up to grade seven, then secondary school, from form one to form six.

Jacobsen: Are there particular areas of Zimbabwe that have been more effective in their scientific and critical thinking educational efforts?

Chinama: In Zimbabwe, we don’t have many non-religious schools or schools that aren’t influenced by religion. As Humanist Zimbabwe, we should consider establishing schools that teach critical thinking and inquiry. Even those studying science in our schools still find it easier to be religious.

Jacobsen: On a personal level, what do you find are the biggest difficulties in actually combating these kinds of allegations around witchcraft? What are the biggest struggles you have faced?

Chinama: The biggest struggle is that Zimbabwe is predominantly and demographically a Christian nation. That’s a huge barrier.

Image Credit: Tauya Chinama.

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