Former Vice Chancellor, Benue State University and Veritas University, Prof. David Ker, who was billed as the keynote speaker at the First International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Witchcraft, which held at the University of Nigeria, UNN, Nsukka, between November 26 and 27, has said that those profiting on the gullibility of people over the concept of witchcraft were the ones who opposed the conference. In this interview with VINCENT KALU, the former vice chancellor noted that witchcraft is an aspect of human culture.
What is the concept of witchcraft?
It is a practice that is known to all cultures all over the world. If you go back to the English Literature, which I teach, and a book like Macbeth and so on, you would find out that witchcraft has been part and parcel of man for a long time.
A lot of people just thought that as scholars, we shouldn’t be asking questions about it; we can’t say we have not asked questions on witchcraft, which has been studied by scholars everywhere. The conference was supposed to be an academic exercise, and not fight with any Christian group or groups of people.
It is the practice of so many things including, sorcery, and all kinds of supernatural things. A lot of us can only glean what we know about it from the literature that we read. It is not as if we practice it, we have read a lot about it and it is from what we have read about it that we want to discuss.
I was invited to give a keynote address, not because I’m a chief wizard. In fact, I’m not a wizard, I’m a well-known Catholic, they know that my interest in humanities covers a lot of things. There is a book for instance by a Ugandan Anglican priest, John Mbiti, called, African Religion and Tradition, he has studied extensively and tried to show that what we sometimes say is witchcraft is people’s culture.
Why was the opposition to the conference so much; was it because everybody is afraid of witchcraft, as churches have made it a dominant prayer point to bind and destroy witchcraft?
It is a business, so a lot of them don’t want people who are educated to talk about it. It is something like this; binding witches that some churches become popular because we are so gullible that a lot of us believe that even when our stomach is paining us it is not because we took something, but because somebody in the village has done it. So, if somebody tells you that he can cure it and you don’t need to go to a doctor to get diagnosis, is it not better? So, it is a business.
What was the conference supposed to achieve?
Every scholar’s inquiry is about the inquisitive nature of man. There is nothing that a man does that cannot be inquired into. The whole idea of a university is research.
For instance, in the Catholic Church where I belong, in the seminary, the fathers are taught witchcraft. You can’t pretend that this thing doesn’t exist and even if you are going to bind it, won’t you know what you are binding.
It is very interesting thing; it is not a secret thing; it is something that has been known over time, if you have read literature you keep coming across it even before the time of Shakespeare right to where we are now, as researcher digging into it, it cannot be anything new, it is not that we are looking for the devil, but we are digging into an area of human behaviour.
If you watch African Magic, don’t you see these people try to portray this on a daily basis, why can’t these people who are opposed to the conference go and stop these movies from being shown. Even to research into the practice of the thing becoming popular in the movie industry is also an area of research.
In Africa setting, we see witchcraft as evil, and some associate masquerades with witchcraft, what is its equivalent in the western world?
Have you heard of Halloween? These are all the same practices, the white men are smarter than us, so they usually do their own and register it properly, and once a year, they wear their dress, they dance around streets and do all sort of things. There are some people even in Africa who believe that wizardry can be used for positive thing. In some culture, it is actually a form of governance; when we didn’t have all these structures, the elders were in charge and if an elder usually believed to be possessing such powers, told a young person, ‘don’t do this or that’, they didn’t need any laws beyond what the elders say.
So, there are many positive aspects of it that are in our culture. Like I said, even the Oyibo people have it, the only good thing for them is that if you are a witch in Spain, in England or wherever, you would register as a witch.
The type you have in these western countries, is it the same we have here that you wake up from sleep and see all sorts of marks or scarification on your body?
It depends on what you want to believe. The title of my keynote address was “ I do not believe in witches, but I fear them”, thought of equivocation and witchcraft are the kind of things involved in this thing.
In fact, I borrowed that title from a Catholic priest who was around in the early 70s. We can’t run away from this thing, there is no point to show that the African practice of it is different from the English practice of it. Witchcraft is witchcraft.
Why do you fear them when you don’t believe?
Yes, they exit, but you don’t have to worry, you don’t have to fear because you know you are worshipping a power that is more than them. You have a God that is superior, but to pretend that that aspect of life doesn’t exist is also running away from the truth.
There is only one power and that is God, but also, what I’m saying is that it is a researchable area, and nobody should come and intimidate you not to talk about it because you are a good Christian. A good Christian should have a sufficient faith to take care of these things.
Why are you afraid to talk about something when you know that your God is there to protect you? You cannot pretend that aspect of culture doesn’t exist, or since you want to pretend that it doesn’t exist then you are okay, or we should leave it to these people who will gather people around a camera and say, ‘yes, there is one tree in your house that is causing you not to have children and so on.’ We need to do something about those aspects; a researcher must ask questions into every aspect of life.
In the Holy Bible, there is this Witch of Endor, a woman Saul consulted to summon the spirit of Prophet Samuel in the 28th chapter of the First Book of Samuel in order to receive advice against the Philistines in battle after his prior attempts to consult God through sacred lots and prophets had failed. So, it is not new.
Every culture has it. Let us not pretend. When we talk about it in our culture, we always feel it is something inferior, that is our problem. I have been teaching ‘Macbeth’ for the past 45 years, to my students.
The whole of that play is based on witchcraft. It is the witches in that play that made life more and more difficult for the great General. They told him that he would become a king, and unfortunately for him he thought that the only way he could become a king was to kill the king, and from then on his life was no longer the same.
When his life was becoming more difficult he went back to them, the same witches and asked them, ‘how come, you told me that I would be this, but I’m not sleeping again’ they told him don’t worry; they started telling him new things. Every culture has this thing.
What message do you have for people who were opposed to the conference?
They should realise the fact that we, who do this business of inquiry into knowledge, we believe in knowledge, more knowledge and better knowledge everyday.
They should let us explore knowledge, we are not going to kill anybody, we are just trying to find out why things happen the way they do. We are not challenging God; most of us are ardent believers of God. We are not challenging God and we are not glorying witchery. We are saying, what is this thing about, as scholars we are bound to ask more questions.
Don’t let anybody deceive you, there are many books on that; they don’t want anybody to study this thing because of the manipulations that some of them do on people, which is making life easier for them. It is a big business for these people who try to fight witches on your behalf. Are they not practising the same thing? How can you fight something you don’t believe?
University of Venda offers course in witchcraft?
Yes, a university in South Africa is also doing a BA programme in witchcraft.
What will a graduate from that department suppose to be doing?
He is a scholar. He can talk more about an area, which some people are afraid of. It is knowledge; it is not evil knowledge. He is just trying to understand the concept, which is part and parcel of his or her culture
Why did you pull out from the conference?
It wasn’t called off actually, they kept on playing around until it turned out that they had changed the theme to satisfy people who were opposed to it, but those who had written papers were poised to deliver them. It took place on Tuesday and ended on Wednesday.
I’m not participating, I met the vice chancellor and the pro chancellor at Abuja, and I told them that if a university could not stick to something they said they should do that I would not be part of it; I’m not looking for promotion again, I’m just trying to advance research.
If I chose a topic as a keynote speaker and then you go and change the theme to satisfy other people, I’m not going to be part of it.
But somehow, it seems they kept along with the idea and it has taken place; the opening ceremony took place yesterday (Tuesday), and it is ending today. It’s a two-day conference.
I’m only the one that pulled out because they changed the topic; I have even sent them my title, and then they said the theme has changed because CAN and other people were going to eat them up.