Facts or Fables: The blurring lines of supernaturalism in the city

By Gemma Todd

When looking at urbanisation within the global south focus quickly shifts to the future. We continue to ask what the city of Johannesburg will envision by 2050; how will Lagos adapt to rising sea levels; and what new urban plans are being made in Dar es Salaam to resolve problems x, y, and z. We frequently assume urbanisation is associated with a shift towards modernisation, and fundamental change. However, progression remains far from linear and the binary distinguishing the 'modern' and 'traditional' has long received criticism. We often forget how the city, like a brain, is formed over time, interconnected through complex paths and senses. The past doesn't simply disappear but forms the core of what cities represent, form, and become. 'Tradition' remains integrated into the life and soul of cities today. One such articulation is reflected through the power of witchcraft in the developing world.

Although witchcraft is often perceived as a pre-modern culture, rooted historically in cultures and customs, the acts are changing and have adapted to modern dynamics. But how, one may wonder, does witchcraft permeate the urban environment?

In the case of Tanzania witchcraft has become a profitable business and belief system. Although beliefs are changing with education, witchcraft remains both a source of fear, protection, and means to fulfill desires. Witchcraft has long been interconnected to both rural and urban land – how land is acquired, the deals made over land, and whether one pursues legal rights. I wish to introduce two examples whereby inhabitants living in Mwanza explained how witchcraft was used to control land tactics. Firstly, 'Simon' works as a fisherman in one of Mwanza's suburbs, and the occupation has descended for generations. Over the past ten years Mwanza's suburbs have become hot-spots in the property market – with the middle-class desiring a plot overlooking Lake Victoria and the lower-class recognising the political and economic value of one holds from being integrated into land markets. Simon explains that the changing land markets are causing tension. When a neighbouring plot was sold to a local businesswoman, Simon, his family, and neighbours, utilised witchcraft to potentially remove the unwanted occupant. Various techniques were used and stories spread within the community that the land had evil spirits. (In order to legitimate land rights in Tanzania the buyer frequently builds a squatter house in the location. Arrangements are then made for house to be occupied by a chosen squatter.) The techniques used were a method to controlling whom your neighbours are. Secondly, witchcraft is utilised as a means to counteract the emerging formal, and legal, system of land rights. The right to occupy land in Tanzania goes beyond formality, with informality routine. In 'Juliette's' case, it was reported how the threat of witchcraft resulted in her agreeing to give up her land title, and deed, through fear. After formally buying her plot of land a group of local community members arose to claim she had entered into their land; they demanded financial compensation or the physical reimbursement of their plots. Refusing to meet demands Josephine rose the case in court, entering into the long process of formality – changing timetables to fit court dates, making numerous arrangements with solicitors, and using money to access her right. However, as threats were made to use witchcraft Josephine ended the case, and subsequently lost her plot.

We often ask how a formal city will emerge in the developing world, with responses advocating the need for a new paradigm of urban planners or 'good governance', but what about the role of novel traditions and fear? Further we often try to envision how mental maps of the cities geography emerge, witchcraft – the location of 'witches', 'witchdoctors', and their markets – often influence how and where people move in the city. Whether one believes in witchcraft or not its presence in city life is undeniable.

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