Thursday, 9 February 2012

#18 She put a spell on me

FACT OF THE DAY: Spells and sorcery are common explanations for infertility in some African cultures. Women unable to have children are often accused of being witches themselves.

Today, I am staying on the witchcraft theme – shame it’s not Hallowe’en.

Last post I shared a 2009 Gallop poll which shows the amazingly high number of people who believe in witchcraft in various African countries. Of the 18,000 people polled in 18 countries, on average 55% said they believed in witchcraft.

Given the high prevalence of these beliefs, I guess it’s not surprising that witchcraft comes to mind for women who are having difficulty getting pregnant. Maybe it’s only one step further from us saying we feel so unlucky, or even ‘cursed’ in the same situation.

Nearly always, the spells and curses stopping a woman from getting pregnant are believed to be cast (or paid for if a 'professional' witch is used) by jealous women; jealous wives, jealous mothers, jealous lovers. It’s interesting how the finger of suspicion is so often pointed at another woman - it doesn't quite live up to the ideal of a supportive sisterhood.

I find it amazing that these beliefs about witchcraft and infertility are often held by educated, urban and wealthy people. For example, a recent piece of research (done in 2002) in Cape Town, South Africa with 150 infertile women, found that nearly half of the black women in the study considered evil spirits or witchcraft to be a possible cause of childlessness, and 24% of them had consulted a traditional or spiritual healer for help.

South African traditional healer

Women from a small ethnic group called the Aowin, straddling Ghana and the Ivory Coast, West Africa, are enthusiastic users of spirit mediums in their quest for children. (This area of Africa is high up there in the witchcraft beliefs according to the Gallop poll, with 95% believers in Ivory Coast, and 77% believers in Ghana).

Hand-painted sign advertising a
traditional healer in Ghana
Children are incredibly important to Aowins. People who are unable to have children are ostracised, and infertile women may even be suspected of being witches themselves. To give a picture of just how badly they are treated, at the funeral of anyone who has not had children, their corpse is abused and the mourners instruct the spirit of the dead person never to return again.
In one small Aowin town in Ghana there was enough demand to keep 13 mediums in business (double the number of family doctors found in a town of the equivalent size in the UK). The spirit mediums’ approach to infertility is to find out what the woman has done to make the gods or ancestors angry. A researcher working among the Aowin interviewed 25 infertile women who had visited a spirit medium and recorded their diagnoses (some were given multiple diagnoses);

  • 9 were told they wouldn’t conceive until they had reconciled their personal relationships with neighbours or husband
  • 7 were told they had offended the gods by not observing ritual practices
  • 5 were told they were guilty of causing tension within their family group
  • 4 were told that witches had caused their infertility, and 
  • 1 was given the unfortunate news that she was herself a witch.
The spirit mediums treatments included personal purification rituals and encouraging the woman to reconcile her social relations.

In neighbouring Nigeria among an ethic group called the Yoruba they believe in the powers of a diviner, called a Babalawo, who can put juju spells on a woman that prevent her conceiving. He prepares special charms over a padlock, pendant or feather, or for the most powerful juju he uses a soaked menstrual pad from the targeted woman.

A woman may call on the Babalawo’s services to prevent her co-wife from having more children than her, or anyone jealous of another woman’s fortune may try to cause her unhappiness in this way. If a woman thinks she is infertile she also goes to the Babalawo to find out why, and he consults the oracle using cowry shells or kola nuts. If he hears that witches or other Babalawo have put a curse on her, then in return for a substantial fee and all the props needed (kola nuts, gin, a cockerel, and a goat...) he can use all his power to lift the spell.

Just like the Aowin, infertile Yoruban women may be accused of being witches themselves. In a survey of 236 infertile Yoruba women in Ile-Ife in Nigeria, 92 had been divorced because of their infertility (primary and secondary), and in 36 cases this was because they were accused by their husband of being a witch. This research was done during THIS CENTURY!

In all three cultures mentioned in this post (South Africa, Aowin and Yoruba) the researchers found that women often consulted their spiritual healer as well as consulting a more conventional doctor, if they could afford to do both.

It gets me wondering, is a belief in witchcraft that different to the conventional religions? And is this behaviour so very different from a woman in our culture praying, as well as going to the doctor to treat her infertility problems?

*  *  *

If you would like to read more, take a look at;

Ed. MacCormack, Carol P (1982) Ethnography of Fertility and Birth Academic Press : New York 

SJ Dyer et al (2002) Infertility in South Africa: women’s reproductive health knowledge and treatment-seeking behaviour for involuntary childlessness Human Reproduction Vol 17 No. 6 1657-1662

Winny Koster-Oyekan (1999) Infertility among Yoruba Women: Perception on causes, treatments and consequences Journal of Reproductive Health 3 [1]:13-26

Orji, E. O., Kuti, O. and Fasubaa, O. B. (2002). Impact of infertility on marital life in Nigeria International Journal of Gynecology and Obtetrics, 79, 61-62.


  1. If you have been diagnosed as having a high risk pregnancy, you may not have the option to decide which level of care you would prefer.
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  2. Unfortunately people who doubt the existence of witchcraft in any aspect of man's life in the name of having been 'educated' or dewll in the urban areas are only parochially ignorant of the fact that witchcraft is even at the top end of education. Witches must be laughing themselves sore at such doctors of the flesh who may only cure wounds inflicted by the witches.'Civilized' and 'educated'fool!