Whiteman Magic and Deceptive Europeans

Just before we left for home assignment, I had an interesting conversation with one of our most trusted language helpers, we will call him Pierre (not his name). Pierre is very well educated and one of the only Bakoum people I know that enjoys reading (in French). I was driving him back to his village and recounting a story that I found to be humorous. I told him that fairly often people will come to my door and we will have this conversation:

Them: “I have some chameleon eggs for you to buy.”
Me: “Oh yeah, and why would I want to buy them.”
Them: “You know…”
Me: “Honestly I don’t. What would I use chameleon eggs for?”
Them: “Well…we don’t know what you use them for. We just know that whitemen use them in their magic…”

I told Pierre that I thought this was funny, but he did not see the humor. He went on to explain that the reason that all whitemen are successful in life (apparently a common perspective in Cameroon) is because the magic of whitemen is more powerful than the magic of the Africans. To this I replied that there were very few “whitemen” (he is referring to non-Africans) in America that practice magic. Pierre responded: “But what about airplanes?!”

We talked for a while and I assured him that there was no magic involved in airplanes (and I think he believed me). But I walked away wondering why there is such a common misconception that Westerners also practice magic. You have to understand that nearly every Cameroonian I have met believes that one can talk to and manipulate spirits. They believe that there are certain spells, potions, incantations, dances, drumbeats, and even sacrifices that can enable the performer to succeed in life, find a lover, or kill someone else. The Bakoum have a ritual performed at funerals in which they seek to figure out who used magic to kill the deceased. I even observed this ritual at a funeral of a man that was driving his motorcycle drunk and then crashed. Magic is a big part of their lives and is usually dark and used for evil means. I have been told that the difference between a Christian Bakoum man and a non-Christian is not that the Christian refrains from practicing magic, but that he does not use magic to harm.

So, I concluded that the reason that Pierre believes that whitemen have magic is because he is Bakoum, and the Bakoum see magic in everything. And I still believe that there is truth to that.

However, just yesterday I was reading a book called King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which describes the horrendous and violent reign of King Leopold II of Belgium over a large part of Africa (much of which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Shockingly, while hundreds of Europeans and Americans visited “the Congo” at the time, none of them did much to report Leopold’s abuses.

Believing Leopold’s work to be humanitarian, in 1890, an African American named George Washington Williams went to the Congo with a desire to see if other African Americans could participate in what was going on there. However, he was immediately devastated by the rampant abuse at the hands of Leopold’s men, led by Henry Morton Stanley. He thus wrote an open letter to the king, revealing what was really going on. Among his accusations, he claimed that the white men tricked the Africans into turning over their land and resources. Hochschild summarizes this complaint here (with the quotes coming directly from Williams’s Open Letter):

Stanley and his white assistants had used a variety of tricks, such as fooling Africans into thinking that whites had supernatural powers, to get Congo chiefs to sign their land over to Leopold. For example: “A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother’s hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet…When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull up trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength.” Another trick was to use a magnifying glass to light a cigar, after which “the white man explained his intimate relation to the sun, and declared that if he were to request him to burn up his black brother’s village it would be done.” In another ruse, a white man would ostentatiously load a gun but covertly slip the bullet up his sleeve. He would then hand the gun to a black chief, step off a distance, and ask the chief to take aim and shoot; the white man, unharmed, would bend over and retrieve the bullet from his shoe. “By such means . . . and a few boxes of gin, whole villages have been signed away to your Majesty.” (Hochschild 1999: 109-110)

Though Leopold never had any claim in Cameroon, the Germans, French, and British did. I have seen how these colonial governments have taken much from Cameroon (and some still do!). And I have come to the conclusion that, while the spiritual beliefs of the Bakoum play a role in the way that they view Stacey and me, it seems likely that we are also dealing with the consequences of deception of white men in the past.

When we first arrived in Cameroon, I found that the attitude of many was: “What are you here to take from us?” More and more I am coming to understand what they meant by that. Hochschild (1999: 125) quotes a Swedish missionary who said: “It is strange that people who claim to be civilized think they can treat their fellow man – even though he is of a different color – any which way.” It breaks my heart to realize that when some people look at me in Cameroon, they see my skin, and they think of men like Henry Morton Stanley. They see someone who may claim to be working for Christ, but they assume is working only for his own benefit. And when children run away from me in fear, it may be that they have heard that historically white men have brought deceit and violence.

And I have to be honest with you, when I think about trying to overcome such a terrible history, I am tempted to despair. Is it not enough that we have to overcome the spiritual bondage, economic oppression, and our own weakness? The task already seemed impossible! Of course, I am then reminded of what Jesus taught about the impossible in Matthew 19. Having just had an encounter with the rich young ruler, who turned from Christ rather than give up his wealth, Jesus said to his disciples,

“Truly I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt 19:23-26)

In reality, the God that we worship is the God of the impossible. He delights in doing what seems impossible. Talking with his disciples, Jesus claims that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved! That caused his disciples to despair. But then, Jesus saved me. And if Christ has overcome my sins, my weaknesses, my love of comfort and wealth, and saved me, then I believe that he can and will do the same for the Bakoum.

In fact, I think that it is a good thing that we are seeing salvation as impossible. I believe that was the point of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples. He wanted them to see that salvation was not a work of man at all. I am sure the rich young ruler seemed like a good candidate for salvation: he was young, he knew much about the law, he seemed willing, and he was influential. But Jesus knew that none of those advantages would lead to God. Instead, this ruler needed to be fully dependent upon Christ. And what I see in Scripture is a God who loves to have the odds stacked against him so that when he accomplishes the impossible, there will be no doubt whom we should praise.

I am just seeing more and more how much we need Christ. For every Bakoum man, woman, or child the obstacles are enormous: cultural pressures, religious baggage, personal sins, and on top of all of that the historical sins of colonialism. But I know that in Christ, all things are possible. So, my most recent revelation, about the deceptions of Europeans and whiteman’s magic, should not lead me to hopelessness. It ought to lead me to greater thankfulness for my salvation and a greater dependence upon the only One who is able to change anyone’s heart. And then, when he does save Bakoum men and women, everyone will know that the glory belongs to him alone.

Hochschild, Adam. 1999. King Leopold’s ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
*Image is from Getty Images.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.