For the most part, Westerners tend to live materialistic lives, focusing almost exclusively on the physical realm. However, in our time in Cameroon, we have come to realize that the Kwakum worldview is dominated by the spiritual. One area in which this spiritualized worldview is particularly evident is in their suffering. Kwakum people believe that sickness and other suffering almost always originate from witchcraft. In general, when experiencing sickness (or really any misfortune), the Kwakum go to a witch doctor. In the case of many problems, the witch doctor prescribes a ritual washing. After such a washing, the bath water would then be discarded onto the public street. The goal of this process is to rid oneself of a curse or some form of bad luck. They are told that the first person to step in the discarded water will take this misfortune upon themselves, thus completing the ritual.
Not long ago, a young man named Jean (pseudonym) was walking through the dusty streets of our neighborhood. Suddenly, he felt shooting pain crawling up his right leg making it almost impossible for him to walk. In panic, he inspected his leg and found…nothing. There was neither bug nor snake bite. There was no blood nor any break in his skin. Because there was nothing physical to explain the pain, Jean concluded that there must be a spiritual cause for this misfortune. Operating out of the above described worldview, Jean concluded that he must have walked through discarded cursed water. Based on the spiritual nature of this problem he was facing, he knew that he needed a spiritual remedy. In his mind, there was no one to turn to but the witch doctor.
Jean is not a Christian, but more and more Kwakum people are coming to Christ. How should such believers think about witchcraft, witch doctors, and medical mysteries?
For the Kwakum, witchcraft is a system in which one manipulates spiritual forces in order to create solutions to problems or felt needs. When the Kwakum experience a problem, whether it be physical or spiritual, they attempt to cure it with a ceti [tʃeti]. Ceti can refer to herbal medicine, a charm containing magical powers, or even Tylenol. To treat a known physical problem (like a cut), a Kwakum person will often consult a medical clinic, or perhaps nearly as often, he will use forest medicine (composed of bark, leaves, or roots). On the other hand, if the problem is diagnosed as spiritual (i.e. bad luck), then he will seek a spiritual solution–either through white or black magic. The difference between these two kinds of magic is mainly that white magic is used for positive acts (i.e. protection) and black magic is used for negative acts (i.e. cursing someone).
The Kwakum believe that white magic brings about good. Oftentimes charms and amulets contain or are imbued with a magical power designed to keep people from harm. For example, mothers tie cords around their babies’ waists to protect them and people wear these cords into adulthood. One Kwakum pastor claims that God spoke to him and compelled him to rip off his protective cord as a demonstration of his full allegiance to Christ. This pastor believes that his obedience to that call was the moment that God saved him. This example demonstrates that even though white magic does not “harm others”, the consciences of some believers will not allow them to use it.
On the other hand, objects imbued with black magic are designed to hurt people. For example, people hang charms in their fields to ward off thieves. These objects carry the threat of injury or death to anyone who sets foot in the field in which they protect. These types of charms can also carry a threat to thieves in Kwakum homes. One time, a young girl in our village stole money from her neighbor’s house. When the neighbors realized their money was missing, they looked for it and asked their children if they had taken it. Finally, the father started to suspect that someone in a neighboring house had taken it. He therefore loudly announced that he would make a ceti (in this case a charm imbued with black magic), to find and inflict harm upon the thief. When the neighbor girl heard this threat, she returned the money immediately. This example demonstrates that people greatly fear these black magic charms. People also fear curses because they believe that they are responsible for all premature death. In other words, when a young person dies from any cause, the Kwakum automatically assume that an enemy of the deceased used witchcraft to kill him or her.
Four biblical responses to witchcraft
If then a Kwakum believer walks through water imbued with bad luck or feels cursed in some other way, what should he do?
1. God is sovereign over witchcraft. A Kwakum Christian should believe that trials, even those provoked by witchcraft, are designed by God to grow his faith. James 1:2-4 goes so far as to say that believers should rejoice when they encounter trials because it is through these trials that they learn perseverance: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” In other words, when Kwakum believers experience misfortune, they should see it as a God-given opportunity to persevere in the faith so that they might mature. It is also noteworthy to add that James does not limit the kinds of trials that can test and grow a believer’s faith. Instead, he says, “trials of many kinds” can ultimately bring maturity. Witchcraft should be included in the “trials of many kinds.” Whether suffering comes from raising children or walking through cursed water, all this suffering is designed by God to mature the believer. Kwakum believers can find rest in this truth.
2. Sin causes misfortune. Kwakum believers should be encouraged to examine themselves rather than their neighbors when they experience misfortune. Specifically, they should ask themselves if the suffering they experience is a direct result of their own choices. Some examples of questions they could ask are: Do I have a sexually transmitted infection due to promiscuity? Do I have physical problems due to substance abuse? Is this person upset with me because of something I did when I was drunk? Is my husband or wife angry with me because I am cruel towards them? Am I hungry because I chose not to work my field? Do people not trust me with money because I am dishonest with it? Do I have hidden sin in my life that God wants me to acknowledge? After examining oneself, James 5:14-16 gives specific instructions for what to do when someone experiences physical misfortune due to their own sin. Specifically, they are to invite the elders to come anoint them with oil:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
James’ point is that when someone is sick because of their own choices, they can be forgiven and healed. Instead of entrusting oneself to the witch doctor, the Kwakum person would do well to entrust themselves to the local church in a time of need.
3. There are other causes of misfortune. Kwakum believers should be open to the idea that the misfortune in their lives could be caused by something other than witchcraft. One example among many is found in the story of Job. What I mean is that the suffering in Job’s life was because Satan asked God’s permission to kill his family and make him sick. There were no witch doctors involved in Job’s suffering, nor bitter neighbors. It was purely Satan’s doing. Kwakum people loudly express their certainty that their neighbors are at the heart of their misfortune, but they should not. Their suffering could come from their own choices, or a direct act of Satan, or simply because they live in a fallen world.
4. Pray for their enemies. Kwakum believers should pray for and do good to their enemies. When they suspect that someone has brought harm on them through witchcraft, they should then target this person–not for harm, but for good. In other words, if they are certain that one of those close to them is responsible for their suffering, then this is the very person for whom they should do good. It goes without saying that everyone wants to retaliate when they are wronged, but Jesus provides another way. Contrary to the human inclination, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27b-28). Kwakum Christians should pray for one another to be empowered to love those they suspect have cursed them through witchcraft. In doing this, they will be salt and light in a dark culture.
God’s way is better
Christians all over the world cling to Romans 8:28 in times of suffering: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It is not uncommon to hear this verse applied to diagnoses of cancer, loss of a job, or familial strife. Coming alongside Kwakum believers doesn’t mean that we force them to accept a materialistic worldview. It doesn’t mean we tell them that sicknesses always have a physical and not a spiritual cause. Rather, we ought to come alongside them and help them to understand that God works together ALL THINGS for their good, even witchcraft.
When the believer relies on the teachings of the Bible rather than running to the local witch doctor, he is showing that the Bible is sufficient for the problems of their daily lives. In the same way, when they refuse to take revenge through witchcraft, they are removing the power of this system. And when they admit that their sin caused their misfortune rather than witchcraft, then God will receive the glory in forgiving them rather than witchcraft receiving glory for causing harm. While it is true that witchcraft is an enemy of the Gospel, I am persuaded that the Lord is ready to harness this evil for the sanctification of his church.
Above, I recounted a true story of a young man named Jean who thought he had walked through some cursed bath water. Despite the pleading of his believing sister to not go to the witch doctor, Jean went. He paid the witch doctor for a ceti. This mystic cure consisted of the witch doctor spitting kerosene all over Jean’s leg. After that, he took a match, and lit Jean’s leg on fire. Days later, Jean hobbled over to my house with his head hung low and blisters so big, they were nearly dragging on the ground. He made up a story about the fire and sheepishly asked for money to go to the doctor. Later, his sister told me the real story and her and I reflected on the destruction that witchcraft brings to our small village. It is time for the small Kwakum church to hold up a better way.