Review of Encounters with Witchcraft: Field Notes from Africa by Norman N. Miller State University of New York Press
Encounters with Witchcraft: Field Notes from Africa. Norman N. Miller. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781438443584
The death of European geologist William Hanning intrigued African specialist Norman H. Miller. In 1960, as Miller arrived in East Africa, he read an article about the geologist Hanning, who had mistakenly disturbed the peace of the dead in a remote part of Tanzania. Over the years, this and many other tragic concurrences with witchcraft became the key focus of Miller’s publication titled Encounters with Witchcraft: Field Notes from Africa. In this volume Miller takes the reader along a journey through Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and other East African nations. Intermittently experiencing and researching various aspects of life in Africa, his volume is filled with anecdotes and adventures connected to witchcraft. With his investigative and accessible approach, Miller easily captures his readers by shedding light onto the power and importance of witchcraft in East Africa throughout four decades.
Miller’s ability to complicate a widely simplified theme is defined by his high level of inquiry. Instead of merely summarizing his findings, the author takes the reader by the hand to relive numerous encounters together with him. That way Miller introduces art and objects as one way to approach the larger discourse of witchcraft (80) before discussing the power of witchcraft as portrayed in “power items” (96) like knives, clay figures, and traditional Kiligozi guns. Miller adds layers of depth as he shows the reader how witchcraft is also a business (99), fosters violence (117), and remains useful within political processes (131). Excellent juxtapositions in regard to the religious beliefs of Christianity and Islam help contextualize and disrupt preexisting misunderstandings of witchcraft. A profile of victims emerges, defined more closely by researcher Ted Miguel, who is quoted noting, “They were usually women, an average of fifty-seven, […] very poor in terms of land, savings, livestock and material goods” (171). Miller concludes that the exclusion of certain individuals from society due to witchcraft seemed to be a societal mechanism that ensured the survival of the group in times of hardship (171).
Yet Miller does not end with this assessment. In the last chapters he connects his journey to more current discussions. He touches on political corruption, civil war, and larger western misconceptions regarding East Africa. His awareness of his own background remains remarkable and requires readers to repeatedly question their own perspectives and bias. Miller eventually summarizes “lessons learned,” which leaves the reader with a nuanced understanding of witchcraft. His reference to “senicide” (201) underlines the problems with witchcraft, although Miller rightfully abstains from simply condemning a traditional, complex, and repeatedly misunderstood practice.
Overall, Miller’s ability to share personal learning experiences makes this more than an academic monograph on witchcraft. Organized along chronological, autobiographical, and thematic lines, the author includes stories on gorillas, politics, corruption, and religion. His use of witchcraft as a vessel to talk about East Africa and its colonial legacy, its misunderstood traditions and culture, current political instability, AIDS/ HIV, as well as a recent interest in its resources ultimately makes this volume an exceptional resource on all of these topics. With his entertaining, academic, and accessible style, Miller thus paints a complicated picture of witchcraft as discourse, myth, business, and tool. At times, and given his knowledge of the field, he could contextualize more. For example, more connections to scholarship beyond an excellent readings list might provide the reader with some more theoretical, methodological, and historical background. Miller’s ability to abstain from academic jargon, on the other hand, trumps such limits. These aspects, plus a coherent structure accompanied with numerous images, gives those in need of accessible reading materials for teaching African, or even world history, yet another wonderful book choice.
Reviewed by Martin Kalb, Bridgewater College
Edited by Tanya S. Maus
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]