Encountering Different Beliefs: Nigeria and Witchcraft

Question mark on a chalkboard with a piece of chalk next to it

When you travel somewhere new, you can expect to encounter cultures and people who may think differently than you do, or act in ways you aren’t used to. Maybe people greet each other differently, or believe in concepts that you don’t. This goes for domestic or international travel, short or long term, business or vacation. No matter what, it can be jarring and you may feel unsure about how to respond.

Take, for example, the case of Nigeria. Nigeria is a country with over 200 million people, more than 10 ethnic groups, and over 500 indigenous languages. Northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim, southern Nigeria predominantly Christian, along with a mix of other religious beliefs. One of these widespread beliefs is that of witchcraft.

Recently, Al Jazeera published a piece on the impact of the belief in witchcraft on Nigerian children. Though the concept of witchcraft has been around for centuries, the current ideology “exploded across the region in the 1990s, fuelled partly by popular films and self-professed prophets looking to manipulate people's fears to make a quick buck.” According to the article, it has left a lasting and devastating impact on the lives of children who are cast out from their families because of accusations of witchcraft. In the southwestern states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River, “report in 2008 estimated that 15,000 children in these two states had been accused.”

This concept of witchcraft spread due to the confluence of religious belief and popular culture: it is a common theme in Nollywood, or Nigerian cinema, movies. According to the Pulitzer Center, “The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) submitted a report to the panel highlighting how Nollywood films often blur the line between fact and fiction, with many viewers mistaking the films as fact-based documentaries. ” Because of this, the prevalence of the themes of witchcraft among children, women, and the elderly in these films has led to an increase in accusations against these groups in communities as well.

This is a belief that can be baffling. When we hear “witch” we might think of the Salem witch trials, or the TV show Charmed—things we read about in our history books or see in pop culture, not in day-to-day life. And certainly not every Nigerian believes in witchcraft. But for many, both in Nigeria and many other countries and cultures around the world, it is a very real belief, not just a superstition or a fear. In a question posed on Quora in 2016, multiple Nigerians chimed in to answer the question “Are witches real in Nigeria?” Abel Gaiya answered, “Do these witches actually have supernatural powers? They believe so, and I would say a majority of Nigerians believe so.” And Abioye Bankole said, “As a Nigerian, I would say no. But sadly the vast majority of Nigerians would answer in the affirmative. Their belief is probably buttressed by alleged public confessions by so-called witches and proclamations by so-called religious leaders.”

Even in Nigeria, the opinions are mixed, and a single person can hold multiple conflicting views on the topic. Oyajuma Seun wrote on Quora, “This is a tricky question. As an admittedly logical person, I should be quick to say witches don't exist. However, we live in a part of the world that has practices that would seem strange to most people who are not from Sub-Saharan Africa. I believe there are people with abilities not easily explained by science as it is today.”

If you started talking to someone who did believe in witches, or in another concept that seems silly or unusual to you, how would you respond? Would you brush it off and convince yourself that they can’t be taken seriously? Or would you try to understand their perspective and learn to respect that they have different beliefs than you do? It’s easy to chuckle and shake your head when you read about it in a book or see a video on YouTube, or to tell someone that they’re wrong and try to prove it to them. But if you travel to Nigeria, or any other country where people may have beliefs, fears, superstitions, or ideas that are foreign or novel to you, it might be better to listen and accept that these are concepts that are an everyday part of people’s lives.

The University of Kansas’ Community Tool Box offers a good starting point for how to build relationships with people of other cultures, including people who hold different—and sometimes clashing—beliefs than you. Here are some of the basic cross-cultural competence tips that they list:

  1. “Start by becoming aware of your own culture” and “examine your biases about people from other cultures.”
  2. Work to understand other cultures: “Ask people questions about their cultures, customs, and views,” and “read about other people's cultures and histories.“
  3. “Don’t forget to care and show caring,” and “listen to people tell their stories.”

Finally, when in doubt, know that it’s okay to change the subject, especially if it is a controversial or polarizing topic. It's more likely these topics will come up in a casual setting rather than a business setting, which can make the interaction even more difficult to navigate. If you feel uncomfortable discussing something, or you are afraid that you may offend someone, see if there is other common ground you can discuss instead. Be aware of the group dynamic, and don’t be afraid to find something else to talk about.

If you are in another country for either business or vacation and your goal is to make connections, build rapport, and establish relationships, telling someone that what they believe is wrong is probably not the best course of action. What’s important is not necessarily changing someone else’s mind, but broadening your own worldview, and learning how to understand the perspective of others. Reflect on what makes you skeptical, and ask questions to find out why people believe in something you don’t. You don't need to come away from the situation believing in it yourself, but the exercise will hopefully give you a new perspective on the culture and the community, and you might gain respect from your new colleagues and friends in the process.