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Photo Credit: Schaffer, Matthew. _Djinns, Stars and Warriors: Mandinka Legends from Pakao, Senegal._ (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2003)
The idea of witches terrorizing villagers at night went out of vogue in Europe hundreds of years ago, but witchcraft beliefs among rural people in Senegal remained prevalent through much of the 20th century, despite the spread of Islam and the integration of the countryside into the global market economy. There have been documented witch hunts in the Senegambian region as recently as 2009. The beliefs in witchcraft are fairly consistent among several ethnic groups in the region, as is the way these beliefs have responded to the arrival of Islam and foreign systems of justice.
To the Diola people of the Casamance region of southern Senegal, as well as other groups throughout the Senegambian region, witches were a major part of everyday life. Before World War II most Diola were adherents of the Awasena religion, one in which spirits abounded throughout the world and “dreams represent partial recollections of the soul’s journey into a spiritual world that is as real as the one experienced while one is awake.”  Witches as conceived by the Diola share many traits with witches around the world and throughout history: they can see into the spiritual world, they travel around at night, and they can assume the shape of an animal. They way witches harmed people in West Africa, however, was not through creation of bad weather, or destruction of crops, or other acts of maleficium as in Early Modern England, but by eating the souls of their victims while both inhabited the dream world. Once the victim’s soul was consumed, they would lose all will to live and usually die. It is important to stress that witches among the Diola usually committed their crimes while both their bodies and their victims’ bodies were apparently asleep.
For some groups, like the Wolof, the witch is not a practitioner of black magic as in Europe, but rather a person who attacks and eats others because of a supernatural power inherited matrilineally. This power is often not under the control of the witch (doma), but rather compels him or her to commit their supernatural crimes. One Wolof interviewed by David Ames stated: “Even your best friend cannot teach you how to be a doma unless you inherit the power. Something inside of them makes them eat people against their own will . . . no one wants to be one and they sometimes die when attacking people. They inherit it. They sometimes regret what they do, just as if I hit you in a temper, then regretted what I did. Aside from attacks on people, they do all of the good things that other people do.”  The Wolof, who in the mid 20th century were overwhelmingly Muslim, still consider doma a serious threat and spend much time and many resources protecting themselves from attack. “Of the numerous taboos and magical precautions steadfastly employed in daily life, by far the greatest number are designed to ward off doma, and a Gambian Wolof often spends a large part of his income on them.” 
The witches among the Wolof are not said to eat the souls of their victims, but rather the liver, fat, and heart, and to drink blood. According to one of Ames’s interviewees: “They kill a person without marking his skin. It is not like slaughtering a sheep or a goat, God gave them power to do it.”  They usually attack their victim while in animal form: hyenas, owls, monkeys, vultures, or snakes most commonly. For this reason, the Wolof greatly fear seeing these animals at night, when most attacks occur. After an attack by a witch the victim quickly deteriorates and dies, as they do for the Diola. Indeed, most illnesses are blamed on doma, even when a natural explanation is present: “a snakebite may be ‘natural’ but a fatal one is thought to be caused by a doma.”  In instances where a person’s illness is believed to be from a natural cause, they are believed to be especially vulnerable to attacks. “This view is allied to the belief that doma visit sick persons and make them worse, and explains why a sick Wolof will rarely admit to feeling worse but usually says that he is feeling better, for his visitor might be a doma and try to finish him off in his weakened condition.” 
The Origin of Witches
Several Senegambian ethnic groups have creation stories for witches. These usually center around the drinking of blood. The Wolof legend of the origin of doma, as told by David Ames, is this: “God informed the first people on earth, before they set out on a long journey, that they would meet two lakes, the first filled with blood and the second with water. God warned them that they would be very thirsty but that they should not drink from the first lake. Some disregarded God’s warning and drank from the first lake and thereafter their descendants were doma.” 
In a tale told by a Mandinka marabout in 1974, the first cannibal witch was created because he drank the blood of the Prophet Mohammed during a bloodletting treatment for an illness. “The prophet said to him: ‘Why did you drink my blood?’
“The young man replied: ‘I believe that if a person succeeds to drink the blood of Mohammed, perhaps Allah the all-powerful will spare him from the terrible fires of hell.’
“Mohammed told him: ‘No! Your wish will not be granted; your flesh will not be spared from hell because you bought my blood. Allah knows you drank my blood, but I curse this maliciousness. Allah’s grace has been rmoved from you.’
“On this fateful day Mohammed cursed all the cannibal-witches. … From now until the end of the world, their descendants will always be among men, and they will never abandon their fondness for eating human flesh.” 
The way witches are accused among the Diola is quite different from the way criminals are accused in European courts at the time. One way is through the testimony of an ahoonk, who “had the same power as witches, but … refused to take the lives of others.” These people have dreams where they witness a witch eating someone’s soul, and then testify to this in front of other villagers. Other times, a victim goes to see a priest or holy man, who subjects them to a poison ordeal during which the name of their supernatural attacker is revealed.  Other times a group of suspects went to a holy shrine where they all drank consecrated palm wine. “In each case, group consumption of the wine would bring illness or even death to the guilty party.” Another way witches were discovered was through confessions. Unlike the confessions exacted under torture in early modern European witch trials, these were voluntary. “When people fell gravely ill or during a dangerous event, such as childbirth, they would confess any wrongdoing that could place them at risk. In the case of witchcraft, confessions were frequently based on dreams in which the person killed someone, usually a relative or neighbor, or wished them harm.”
For the Wolof, in order to cure a witchcraft-induced illness, the witch must be identified and persuaded to give up their victim. “As soon as the victim identified his attacker his kin went to the doma and attempted to force him to give up his victim, … most often by beating him in a unique manner. A short bamboo stick was split on one end to make a number of prongs. The prongs were then stretched over the head of the doma, and bound securely with the staff of the stick standing straight up. The victim’s kinsmen then violently struck the projecting stick, shaking the head of the doma from side to side until he agreed to release his victim.” 
In 2009 the Gambian government partnered with witch doctors to hunt down suspected witches after President Yahya Jammeh’s aunt died. Around 1000 people were subjected to poisoning ordeals similar to those performed by the Diola.
The Amnesty International press release relating to the 2009 witch hunt in Gambia.
- Baum, Robert M. “Crimes of the Dream World: French Trials of Diola Witches in Colonial Senegal.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 37, no. 2 (2004): 201-228.
- Ames, David. “Belief in ‘Witches’ among the Rural Wolof of the Gambia.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 29, no. 3 (1959): 265.
- Ames 1959, 264.
- Ames 1959, 266
- Ames, 1959, 267
- Ames, 1959
- Ames, 1959 264-65
- Schaffer, Matthew. Djinns, Stars and Warriors: Mandinka Legends from Pakao, Senegal. (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2003), 187.
- Ames, David. “Belief in ‘Witches’ among the Rural Wolof of the Gambia.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 29, no. 3 (1959): 263-273.
- Ames 1959, 298.