5 Myths about Africa: ‘African religion is all about witchdoctors and voodoo’

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series 5 Myths about Africa
Famadihana or Turning of the Bones exhumation ceremony in Arivonimamo Madagascar photo credit Eric Rahman

These women in Madagascar have removed the body of a loved one, years after the death, to rewrap the bones in a new silk shroud. It’s a tradition called “turning the bones.” (Photo by Eric Rahman.)

FROM DR. BAKER—This week, please welcome returned Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Fowlkes. Her columns are sure to get friends talking about the vast continent of Africa. You are free to republish or reprint this column to spark discussion.


“OK, Fy. It’s time for you to go home,” I told the 2-year-old in Madagascar who had wandered into my home one afternoon. “Your mother is looking for you and it’s time for dinner.”

“I can’t!” she protested. “There are witches outside. I’m afraid.”

“It’s only 6 o’clock and I can see your cousins playing out there. Look! The witches aren’t out yet.”

“No! There are witches! I can’t! They will take me away!”

Of course, that conversation could have happened with a 2-year-old in America whose imagination had been fueled by the latest Disney movie. And, like most American adults, I responded compassionately: I pulled the little girl into my arms as she began to cry. I walked her the 15 feet to her mother’s house just as the last orange glow of the sun was disappearing behind the mountains.

But this was Africa and, as I tell you that true story today, you may be thinking about one of the biggest myths involving Africa: Religion. For decades, movies and TV shows have shown us tribal religious leaders in Africa dressed in bizarre costumes (often dreamed up by Hollywood art directors). Here’s a common scene in one of those “African” movies: Poor white captives await their fate at the hands of a demonic witch doctor. Will the mad sorcerer torture them before killing them? Or, will a hero arrive just in time?

That’s ridiculous, of course. It’s not an accurate picture of faith in Africa. Even worse, it perpetuates bigotry.

So here’s a question: What do typical African religious leaders look like, today?

Answer: Imams and Christian clergy. That’s right, Africa today is mostly Muslim and Christian.

What’s more: The American myth that missionaries carried Christianity into Africa couldn’t be further from the truth, argues historian Philip Jenkins in his book with the very long title, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. It’s a mind-opening book. For many centuries, some of the world’s most important Christian leaders were African, Jenkins points out. Imagine it! Going to Africa to rediscover the ancient history of our “American” faith?

Jenkins writes: “For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa and Asia, and this was true into the 14th century,” when African and Asian Christianity began to fade for a time. Why is this history important to re-discover? Jenkins says, “Above all, rediscovering the lost Christian worlds of Africa and Asia raises sobering questions about the nature of historical memory. How can we possibly have forgotten such a vast story?”

Pew study of global Christian distribution

Click this Pew graphic to see it in a larger format.

Today, there are twice as many Christians in the southern half of Africa than in all of North America. Researchers for Pew looked into the religious makeup of every country on the planet. Pew wound up painting Africa’s northern half as mainly Muslim and it’s southern half as mainly Christian (see the second chart, below).

Of course, there are still rituals and traditions in Africa that date back beyond recorded history. While Americans have heard mainly about Caribbean Voodoo, there also is a West African tradition usually spelled Vodun, but sometimes spelled Voodoo. It’s often called “folk religion” and is deeply connected with spirits from the Earth. There also are colorfully dressed figures that once were referred to as “witch doctor” but today are more likely to be called “traditional healer.”


Famadihana 2 or Turning of the Bones exhumation ceremony in Arivonimamo Madagascar photo credit Eric Rahman

Everybody turns out to help turn the bones. Photo by Eric Rahman.

So, here’s another picture: In Madagascar, where I lived and worked for two years, most people are Christian or Muslim but a large portion of the population still follows traditional spiritual practices. One of those practices is Famadihana, or “turning the bones.” My friend Eric Rahman took the two photographs with today’s column during such a ceremony, which is both solemn and quite festive.

In the ritual, which takes place some years after a loved one has died, friends and relatives go out and retrieve the body. They bring it out in its original shroud and then they re-wrap the remains. Over time, the body deteriorates. Eventually, only bones remain.

How bizarre is that? Are you shaking your head?

Did you know that for many centuries, Christians tended the bodies of loved ones as they decomposed, until only the bones were left? The bones finally were placed in ossuaries, beautiful “bone boxes.” In some centuries-old Christian churches, the bones were put on display near shrines or altars. Madagascar bone turning isn’t exactly a Christian ritual—it’s more of a matter of syncretism, or the blending of cultures. The roots of bone turning are ancient and the festivities associated with the practice draw from traditions that span Africa and Asia.

But the spirituality should be familiar to us in America: The families doing this in Madagascar believe that their loved ones remain somehow in relationship to them, even after death. They’re saying “goodbye” to their loved ones over a period of years as their bodies actually leave their bones. And that’s not too far from the Christian belief in a communion of saints that Christians believe encircles the world long after the flesh is gone.

So, bone turning: Exotic? Far from our American idea of faith?

It all depends on your perspective and your awareness of our history.

It helps to talk about these issues …

Pew study of majority religion by country

Here is another Pew map of world religion. Click the thumbnail to see it in a larger format.


Think about your own religious tradition. How differently do members of your faith practice your spiritual traditions around the world?

Are you interested in exploring other religious practices?

SARAH FOWLKES is a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer who worked in Madagascar. She now is working on a dual masters in business administration and public service at the University of Arkansas and the Clinton School of Public Service.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Series Navigation<< 5 Myths about Africa: ‘Everyone in Africa looks the same’5 Myths about Africa: ‘In Africa, they’ll make me eat bugs!’ >>