History scholar studies the role of witchcraft in global humanitarian policy
February 21, 2013
by Leslie Casey
Centuries after the Salem witch trials wrote their way into U.S. history books, alleged witches still face persecution in some parts of the world. In fact, violence against this group of individuals is quickly becoming a human rights issue on a global level, according to Assistant Professor of History Katherine Luongo.
“In a sense, the ‘waves’ of witch-killings that have swept various regions of the continent [of Africa] since the late colonial era, most recently in East and South Africa, are similar to the Salem witch trials in that they are driven by community-wide fears,” says Luongo, whose research interests include modern Africa, and the fields of anthropology and law. She has recently turned her attention to African asylum-seekers using protection from witchcraft-driven violence as the basis for their claims, a topic which has not yet been studied by scholars.
Luongo, who has gone through intensive language training in Kiswahili and has lived in East Africa, has found that the accusations of witchcraft happening in contemporary African countries such as Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, and Tanzania are happening on a much more personal level than they were in colonial Salem. According to her research, victims of such violence even include children.
“For the most part, violence against alleged witches is carried out on a much more quotidian, intimate scale, typically among family members or close associates. Indeed I’ve argued that witchcraft-driven violence is a form of domestic violence.”
The fact that this violence has often happened at a domestic level is a challenge in Luongo’s research. While the number of asylum claims based on witchcraft-driven violence according to the United Nations has increased sharply over the last 10 years, a number of claims are not indexed under witchcraft or still do not list witchcraft-driven violence as a primary reason for mobilizing. The challenge comes when, for example, a claim is officially filed under a category such as domestic violence, making a case actually based on witchcraft much harder to find and track.
Luongo says her interest in African witchcraft first piqued in her first year as a PhD student when she was researching the British House of Commons questions on Kenya in the 1930s. She came across a particular dispute between a Labour MP and the Secretary of State for the Colonies about a murder of a Kenyan woman accused of being a witch by a group of neighborhood men. That led her to further research on the case in the Kenya National Microfilm collections at Michigan State University, and then on to fieldwork in Great Britain and Kenya.
Luongo, the author of the book “Witchcraft and Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1900-1955” as well as the article, “Border-Crossing Beliefs: Witchcraft in the Global Arena of Asylum,” has already explored in great detail the legal and mortal threats that Africans accused of witchcraft face in their home countries. It is the other side of the asylum-seeking process into which she is hoping to expand her research.
“I aim to learn more about what informs the legal reasoning of immigration authorities in the Global North.”
Luongo was recently awarded a spring 2014 fellowship from the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University where she will continue her research on the relationship between violence against alleged witches and the global arena of asylum. The theme of the fellowship is “Belief and Unbelief.”