Among the Zulu and other Bantu tribes of equatorial and
southern Africa, witchcraft or malevolent sorcery was traditionally
practiced—in secret, for the results of detection were terrible.
Tribes instituted a caste of witchfinders assigned the task
of tracking down witches.
The nineteenth-century writer Lady Mary Anne Barker observed,
‘‘It is not difficult to understand, bearing in mind the superstition
and cruelty which existed in remote parts of England
not so very long ago; how powerful such women become among
a savage people, or how tempting an opportunity they could
furnish of getting rid of an enemy. Of course they are exceptional
individuals; more observant, more shrewd, and more
dauntless than the average fat, hard-working Kaffir women, besides
possessing the contradictory mixture of great physical
powers and strong hysterical tendencies. They work themselves
up to a pitch of frenzy, and get to believe as firmly in their own
supernatural discernment as any individual among the trembling
circle of Zulus to whom a touch from the whisk they carry
is a sentence of instant death.’’
The Zulu witchfinders were attended by a circle of girls and
women who, like a Greek chorus, clapped their hands and repeated
a low chant, the measure and rhythm of which changed
at times with a stomp and a swing of the arm. Ceremonial dress
was also an important part of the witch doctor’s role, for such
things appealed directly to the imagination of the crowd and
prepared onlookers to be readily swayed by the necromancer’s
devices. One of the witchfinders, Nozinyanga, was especially
impressive. Her fierce face, spotted with gouts of red paint on
cheek and brow, was partly overshadowed by a helmetlike
plume of the tall feathers of the sakabula bird. In her right
hand she carried a light sheaf of assegais (spears), and on her
left arm was slung a small and pretty shield of dappled oxhide.
Her petticoat, made of a couple of large handkerchiefs, was
worn kiltwise. From neck to waist she was covered with beadnecklaces,
goat’s-hair fringes, and the scarlet tassels. Her chest
rose and fell beneath the baldric of leopard skin, fastened
across with huge brazen knobs, while down her back hung a
beautifully dried and flattened skin of an enormous boa constrictor.
When the community had resolved that a certain misfortune
was caused by witches, the next step was to find and punish
them. For this purpose the king summoned a great meeting,
his subjects sitting on the ground in a ring or circle for four or
five days. The witchfinders took their places in the center, and
as they gradually worked themselves up to an ecstatic state, resembling
possession, they lightly switched with their quaggatail
one of the trembling spectators, who was immediately
dragged away and butchered, along with all of his or her relatives
and livestock. Sometimes a whole kraal was exterminated
in this way, so reminiscent of European witch-hunts.
Barker also described a sorceress named Nozilwane, whose
wistful glance, she noticed, had in it something uncanny and
uncomfortable. She was dressed beautifully in lynx skins folded
over and over from waist to knee, the upper part of her body
covered by strings of wild beasts’ teeth and fangs, beads, skeins
of gaily colored yarn, strips of snakeskin, and fringes of Angora
goat fleece. Lynx tails hung like lappets on each side of her
face, which was overshadowed and almost hidden by a profusion
of sakabula feathers. ‘‘This bird,’’ Barker commented, ‘‘has
a very beautiful plumage, and is sufficiently rare for the natives
to attach a peculiar value and charm to the tail-feathers; they
are like those of a young cock, curved and slender, and of a
dark chestnut color, with a white eye at the extreme tip of each
feather.’’ Among all this thick, floating plumage were interspersed
small bladders and skewers or pins wrought out of
tusks. Like the other witchfinders, she wore her hair highly
greased and twisted up with twine until it ceased to have the appearance
of hair and hung around the face like a thick fringe,
dyed deep red.
Bent double and with a catlike gait, Nozilwane came forward.
Every movement of her undulating body kept time to the
beat of the girls’ hands and their low crooning chant. Soon she
pretended to find the thing she sought, and with a series of wild
pirouettes leaped into the air, shaking her spears and brandishing
her shield like a bacchante. Nowamso, another of the
party, was determined that her companion should not get all
the applause, and she too, with a yell and a leap, sprang into
the dance to the sound of louder grunts and harder handclaps.
Nowamso was anxious to display her back, where a magnificent
snakeskin, studded in a regular pattern with brass-headed
nails, floated like a stream. She was attired also in a splendid
kilt of leopard skins, decorated with red rosettes, and her dress
was considered more careful and artistic than any of the others’.
Nozilwane, however, had youth and stamina on her side.
The others, although they all joined in and hunted out an
imaginary enemy, and in turn exulted over his discovery, soon
became breathless and spent and were glad when their attendants
led them away to be anointed and to drink water.

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