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April 2004
Our Man in Zambia : Superstitious minds
Traditional healer's sign

Traditional healer's sign

Witchcraft, curses and schools training people to become wizards may sound like the next installment of Harry Potter, but here in Zambia such things are no fantasy.

Jamie Baldwin.
Our Man in Zambia

Our Man in Zambia : Part Two

Our Man in Zambia : Part Three

Our Man in Zambia : Part Four

Our Man in Zambia : Part Five

Our Man in Zambia : Part Six

Our Man in Zambia : Part Seven

Our Man in Zambia : Part Eight

Jamie Baldwin
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Population: 10.8 million (UN, 2003)
Capital: Lusaka
Major language: English (official), Bemba, Lozi, Nyanja, Tonga
Major religions: Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Hinduism, Islam
Life expectancy: 33 years (men), 32 years (women) (UN)
Leader: Levy Mwanawasa
Monetary unit: 1 Kwacha = 100 ngwee
Main exports: Copper, minerals, tobacco Average annual income: US $320 (World Bank, 2001) Internet domain: .zm
International dialling code: +260

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A very real six-foot cobra hangs dangling from the witchdoctor's neck as he parades in front the gathering crowd. In front of him lie vials of noxious-looking liquid next to sculptures of serpents, birds and giant pumpkins placed on a huge chalked out map.

I ask the guy next to me what this charade is in aid of. He has the audacity to look at me in disbelief at asking such a question, before explaining that the scene in front of us is a display used by witchdoctors to drive out evil spirits, or juju.

Witchdoctor with a cobra
Witchdoctor with a cobra

More than a hundred people are standing here patiently and it suddenly dawns upon me that the crowd is actually a queue. They are all queuing besides a makeshift hut made of nothing but wood and black polythene bags. A white sheet flaps beside it, announcing that the "internationally renowned Malawian witchdoctor" is now gracing us with his presence.

There are roughly 40,000 witchdoctors and traditional healers in Zambia, compared with 850 "orthodox" doctors, 4,000 nurses and 4,000 clinical officers and paramedic staff. They include herbalists, spiritualists, bone-setters, counselors and traditional birth attendants.

Throughout Zambia, especially in the rural areas, witchdoctors are seen as pillars of society sought for advice on topics as diverse as estranged wives, crop failure and spiritual guidance. They have also been used to drive out juju or to exact revenge upon opponents and outsiders taking advantage of the people's goodwill.

Memorably, witchdoctors were used nearly 50 years ago, when the British Government, who at that time ruled Zambia, decided to build the Kariba Dam. The local Tonga people were outraged that the new lake would flood their river god's residence and called on witchdoctors to call on Nyaminyami to curse the white man's interference.

Kariba dam
Kariba dam

In July 1957, a year into the project, a torrential storm breached the temporary dam setting back the project months. The following year an even bigger flood - the sort expected every thousand years and never two years running - completely destroyed the dam.

Hundreds of workers died during these catastrophes yet the building continued regardless. In 1960 the dam was officially opened but Nyaminyami had one last trick to play. No sooner had the lake begun to fill up than a destructive floating weed began choking the lake's surface. At one stage it covered nearly half of the 255km long lake, severely affecting the dam's outflow and making boating virtually impossible.

The curse of Kariba may also have a final, devastating twist - two years ago cracks apparently started appearing in the concrete of the dam's walls.

However much one believes in the weird and wonderful intrigue of such superstition, and Zambians are firm believers, a sense of foreboding can be useful to society. Noone worries that their maize will be stolen from their fields, for it is fervently believed that someone who eats stolen maize will have terrible stomachache.

Similarly, bags of charcoal are left in markets overnight unguarded as someone who steals charcoal can not drop it until the owner takes it back from them. If only this was the case for the hundreds of mobile phones and cars that go missing every night in the UK.

Perhaps a superstitious mind does make sense after all.

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