Evil in Africa

Encounters with the Everyday

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William C. Olsen, Walter E. A. van Beek
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , August
     404 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Evil in Africa is a timely volume in Africana academia. The book attempts a description of how Africans have conceived the problem of evil and how they have confronted evil in varied social contexts. The introduction describes the aims and goals of the book as follows: 1) depict how diverse social contexts in Africa define evil in everyday life; 2) demonstrate how evil is seen as a threatening and disruptive force that inverts social expectations; 3) explain how deeper contexts of culture shape moral precepts of evil.

One claim in the book is that the theodicy problem has little bearing in Africa since African mythology is based on a paradigm that is human, immediate, and practical.  Two concepts that characterize the African concept of evil—witchcraft and sorcery—are discussed extensively in the book. Their relation to the mystical world in Africa is experienced both as ambivalent and ambiguous. The essays in the book are informed by anthropological and ethnographic approaches and they take on local, national histories and identities in an effort to illuminate the diverse ways that Africans conceive morality and, specifically, evil.

Three broad themes emerge from the book: the state and war; evil and religious practices; and evil and modernity. Like other cultures, it is argued, Africans depict the reality of evil through terrifying images that project social values including social conflict. Essays under the theme “evil and the state of war” examine evil as depicted in politics and through other social identities. For instance, in the essay “Political Evil: Witchcraft from the Perspective of the Bewitched,” Sónia Silva describes evil as a visible and invisible experience that is also personal and political. Drawing from the Zambian experience, she discusses how witchcraft as a social construct depicts how social predators feed on the innocent. In “Untying Wrongs in Northern Uganda,” Susan Reynolds Whyte, Lotte Meinert, and Juliana Obiko examine how people pardon wrongs in the aftermath of maleficence. The film Kony 2012, which depicts the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader Joseph Kony is used to illustrate how evil can incarnate as brutality in the Acholiland nation in Northern Uganda. The Acholi rituals of forgiveness provide a collective political purpose necessary for forging a common Acholi identity that humanizes transgressions such as genocide, making new beginnings possible.

In “The Evil of Insecurity in South Sudan: Violence and Impunity in Africa’s Newest State,” Jok Madut Jok describes how the rampant violence, abuse, and corrupt justice system show evil as expressed in politics. The solution, says Jok, lies in the reformation of the military, the reconciliation of ethnic groups, and the restoration of the justice.  In “Genocide, Evil and Human Agency: The Concept of Evil in Rwandan Explanations of the 1994 Genocide,” Jennie E. Burnet takes on the Rwandan violence experienced during the 1990-1994 civil war and climaxing in the in the April-June 1994 genocide. Drawing from this experience, she contrast indigenous and Christian notions of evil. In “Politics and Cosmographic Anxiety: Kongo and Dagbon Compared” Wyatt MacGaffey describes the inverse relationship between political stability and a religious world view. Drawing from the Kongo experience of 1964-1980, he discusses how rituals are used to deal with evil, including political instability.

Essays under the theme of “evil and religion” examine the relationship between witchcraft and religion. In “Ambivalence and the Work of the Negative among the Yaka,” René Devisch draws from the experience of the Yiyakaphone slum dwellers in Masina Congo to demonstrate how dreaming and dream sharing disclose frustration and insatiable desire and how divination practices help address this. In “Azé and the Incommensurable,” Léocadie Ekoué, with Judy Rosenthal, examines how Aze witchcraft in Ghana, Togo, and Benin influence lives in these communities. In “Evil and the Art of Revenge in the Mandara Mountains,” Walter E.A. van Beek describes how witchcraft is used for revenge. This is followed by Diane Ciekawy’s discussion of Mijikenda conceptualizations of harmful magic, therapeutic practices, and how spirits—majini—depict existing social conflict.” A similar argument is developed by Ulrika Trovalla in “Haunted by Absent Others: Movements of Evil in a Nigerian City.” Trovalla discusses how evil as an ambiguous force reflects existing tension between the presence and the absence of companions.

In “Attributions of Evil among Haalpulaaren, Senegal,” Rel Dilley argues for the need to discuss good and evil in lived experiences of practitioners. In “Reflections Regarding Good and Evil: The Complexity of Words in Zanzibar,” Kjersti Larsen describes evil as a reflection of the ambivalence of the human condition, giving Zanzibar as a case in point. In “Contrasting Moral Personhood: The Moral Test in Tuareg Sociability as a Commentary on Honor and Dishonor,” Susan J. Rasmussen argues that local cosmologies and concepts of evil reveal subjective cultural experience of evil and danger. She argues that local concepts are powerful forms of communication in the Tamajaq–speaking Muslim experience.  In “The Gender of Evil: Maasai Experiences and Expressions,” Dorothy L.  Hodgson discusses gender as a factor in experiences and expressions of evil, as depicted among the Maasai of Tanzania. It is necessary that gender analysis is a factor in the theorization of evil.

Under the “evil and modernity” theme, the book examines modern depictions and interpretations of evil. In “Neo-Cannibalism, Military Bio-Politics and the Problem of Human Evil,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes engages the moral question surrounding the scientific justification of organ harvesting in modern society, a practice she condemns. In “Theft and Evil in Asante,” William C. Olsen examines the culture of evil in the Asante community. He examines acts of theft to highlight Asante’s ethos of fairness, justice, and retribution. In “Sorcery after Socialism: Liberalization and Anti Witchcraft Practices in Southern Tanzania,” Maia Green discusses the relationship between human agency and action as depicted in actions against witches in the Ulanga district of South Tanzania. She argues that evil is defined by social orderings. In “Transatlantic Pentecostal Demons in Maputo,” Linda van de Kamp examines the Afro–Brazilian Pentecostal view of evil as expressed in Maputo, Mozambique. This essay demonstrates in an excellent way the transnational connections and shared history between African religions in Africa and in the diaspora. The last essay, “The Meaning of ‘Apartheid’ and the Epistemology of Evil,” features various ways that evil is interpreted in South Africa. Adam Ashforth notes how effective labels are in the politics of apartheid.  

In summary, the book presents essays that discuss the evolution and expression of evil in various aspects of life as understood in African communities. It highlights, among other things, the influence of African values beyond Africa. This timely book adds to knowledge in the area of African religions. It would, however, be helpful to have a concluding chapter to weave together the analytical findings and aims of the book. Otherwise, the book is valuable in highlighting how complex evil is as expressed and experienced in Africa.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Nyangweso is Associate Professor & J. Woolard and Helen Peel Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at East Carolina University.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William C. Olsen lectures in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University.

Walter E. A. van Beek is Professor of Anthropology of Religion at Tilburg University.


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