Witchcraft Among the Azande (Singer & Ryle, 1981)

Evans-Pritchard’s book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande has become a classic of both ethnography and theories of witchcraft. Now, anthropologist John Ryle and film-maker Andr√© Singer, who was himself one of Evans-Pritchard’s students and has published on the Azande, have teamed together to produce the film Witchcraft among the Azande for Granada Television’s Disappearing World series. Singer wanted to learn for himself the accuracy of Evans-Pritchard’s analysis and to note the changes since the original fieldwork carried out between 1926 and 1930.

Among the Azande, witchcraft is considered to be a major danger. They believe that witchcraft can be inherited and that a person can be a witch, causing others harm, without realising her or his influence. Because of this danger, effective means of diagnosing witchcraft are, for them, vital. One method is through the use of an oracle. Several kinds of oracles are explored in the film, the most important being benge, a poison which is fed to baby chickens. The chick’s death or survival provides the oracle’s answer. Azande also use benge to judge other evidence in a court before a chief.

Anthropologists have long argued about the nature and significance of beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery and, more generally, about the similarities and differences between `traditional’ thought and Western science. This film treads a delicate path, exploring an explanation of reality incomprehensible to a majority of Westerners and, at the same time, trying to portray the Azande as a clear-thinking, and almost familiar group of people. In this aim the film succeeds by creating a tension whereby the oracle’s answers are important to the viewers because they have become involved and are forming their own opinions about the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

Zande is not a static society and much has changed since Evans-Pritchard’s original fieldwork. The area filmed is influenced by Catholicism; people are Christian, but the church cannot give answers to many of the questions of the Azande people. The older people see their children abandoning traditional moral and other values. For this schism, the older people seem to blame the government more than the church as the church teaches a value system consonant with the traditional one. Yet, alongside the Christian influence and changes among the younger generation, the power of beliefs in witchcraft and oracles remains. If Singer wanted to give support to Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography, he has done so with Witchcraft among the Azande.

Another documentary which centres on the work of Evans-Pritchard below.