Contemporary Witch-Hunting in Gusii, Southwestern Kenya

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This book is about a spate of witch-killings that has been underway in Gusii, southwestern Kenya, since 1992. It integrates the testimony of participants of and witnesses to the incidents of witch-killing with other ethnographic and socioeconomic information in order to understand what led to the sudden rise of this violence in November 1992 and its rapid decline in July 1994.

The book brings into the literature on witchcraft an analysis of the interface between the global and the local that is at the crux of individual experience. The significance of this book lies in its contribution to our understanding of how, in this era of globalization, the forces of the free market that are set into motion in one part of the world are experienced and interpreted in another as the workings of the supernatural.

By focusing on collective violence, the book sheds light on our understanding of human aggression and is therefore of interest to many fields including sociology, anthropology, political science, social psychology, philosophy, and religion.


“Many volumes have been written on witchcraft accusations and executions in African societies during the 20th century and in Western countries during the 16th and 17th centuries. This book by Dr. Justus Ogembo – about the witch-killings of 1992 in Kisii District, Kenya, reported in newspapers as far afield as the Los Angeles Times – is different in several respects. It is, first of all, the work of an observer who grew up as a Gusii in a Kenya community where stories of witches and their activities abounded and belief in them was the norm. It is in this sense an insider account, rare in the annals of witchcraft studies ... Dr. Ogembo sets the Gusii witch-killings in their historical contexts, material and ideological; he does not claim to have fully explained them. Above all, he gives us a vivid picture of a terrible moment in the history of his people, a moment that many would like to forget but which may reflect a pathological condition threatening the peace of many African communities. One day, with additional evidence from other parts of Africa, perhaps we shall understand more fully what happened in Kisii District in 1992 – and why it happened. Meanwhile, this book contributes a unique record to the annals of African witchcraft, and it points the way toward further research seeking to understand witch-killings in contexts of social change.” – (from the Foreword) Professor Robert A. LeVine, Harvard University

“ ... Based on intimate insider knowledge and detailed and ethnographic research, this book offers an as illuminating as unsettling account of how and why old women are being accused of witchcraft and lynched by their co-villagers and family members, who are mainly younger men. The most stunning part of the book are the chapters in which Dr. Ogembo presents a number of cases of witch killings, in which he carefully reconstructs and contextualizes the why and how of these terrible acts ...” – Professor Dr. Birgit Meyer, University of Amsterdam

“ ... I am particularly impressed by the author’s creative synthesis of methods and concepts borrowed from philosophy, political economy, religious studies, and cultural anthropology. He argues very convincingly that the violence was a result of the breakdown of local kinship arrangements produced by the rapid repositioning of Kenya in the world capitalist system via a neoliberal structural adjustment ... This book is an important contribution to our understanding of the ways in which religion is interacting with globalization in its various economic, social, political and cultural dimensions ...” – Professor Manuel Vasquez, University of Florida

“ ... This book makes a major contribution to the literature on Gusii and Kenya. It treats its fascinating topic from not just social and historical, but also political, economic, and psychological perspectives. The spate of persecutions of which Dr. Ogembo writes has complex causes, and it would not surprise me if discussions and debates about these continue as long as they have continued for Salem and its witch trials ... This is a thoughtfully-conceived and well-executed book, informing us about the place and region, the period, and the topic in a way that is fair, balanced, interesting and painless to read ...” – Professor Parker Shipton, Boston University

“This account describes the rash of terrible killings of persons, mainly old women, who were suspected of witchcraft that took place in western Kenya since 1992. Dr. Ogembo belongs to the people among whom these events took place, but he has written a remarkably dispassionate, neutral account whose sole motive is to explain, not to blame ... This book provides an excellent case history that will valuable to historians as well as anthropologists.” – Professor Jean La Fontaine, London School of Economics and Political Science

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface by Robert A. LeVine
Foreword; Acknowledgements

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Gusii: Sociocultural Context
Chapter 3: Forms of Mystical Disclosure

Chapter 4: Strange illnesses and the Witch-Hunts
Chapter 5: Strange illnesses and the Witch-Hunts (continued)
Chapter 6: Abductions and the Witch-Hunts
Chapter 7: Notebooks and the Witch-Hunts
Chapter 8: Summary: Essential Features of the Witch-Hunts

Chapter 9: Economic Shifts
Chapter 10: The ‘Invisible Hand’ of God and of Mammon
Chapter 11: Political Realignments

Chapter 12: Making the ‘Invisible Hand’ Visible

I: The Witchcraft Act
II: Court Proceedings on Witchcraft Case
Bibliography; Index

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