What do Witch Doctors actually do? I interviewed one to find out – their job description may surprise you

Guest post from Robin Oryem (@oryem_robin ), a researcher for LSE’s CPAID programme in Northern Uganda. As part of trying to understand how Public Authority operates in such messy places, Robin has been interviewing local witch doctors.

One of the things that any Acholi person wants to avoid is to be associated with a witch doctor, but I took courage and informed the bodaboda (motorbike taxi) man that I was heading to the witch doctor’s place. He bombarded me with questions: what is your problem? Are you looking for riches? Has someone bewitched you? And his last word was that these people (witch doctors) are bad.

People certainly associate witch doctors with bad acts. They don’t associate witch doctors with, for example, deciding whether Widows, with or without children, can stay on the land of their dead husbands, return to their maiden home or have the choice to reject or accept a protector (male relative of their late husband)?

Yet that’s just one of the roles I discovered when I interviewed some witch doctors in Northern Uganda as part of my research for CPAID. Let’s hear from Akumu Christen (a female witch doctor):

‘It was in 2009 when I became a witch doctor, even though I never wanted to be one. In 2005 I was attacked by a ‘jok’ for the first time’.

Robin: ‘She was trying to show me what she uses in her daily work, Each one of those things has got different roles to play. The spear represents a god call Jok Kalawinya. Kalawinya is summoned when someone is possessed by evil spirits. The Bible represents a god called Mary, Mary is a white and she loves peace, so for anything concerning bringing peace, they summon her. The beer bottle represents a god call Jok Kirikitiny. Kirikitiny is a god from the Karomonjong ethnic groups – he is concerned with protection. The small syrup bottles contain a liquid substance which she takes before starting her work, it makes her see and hear from the gods.’

A jok is a class of spirit within the traditional Acholi belief system that is viewed as the cause of illness. Traditional healers (known as ajwaka) first identify the Jok in question and then make an appropriate sacrifice and ceremony to counter them. Alternatively if such an approach is unsuccessful the person possessed by the jok can go through a series of rituals to gain some level of control over the jok and then themselves become ajwaka.

‘This jok wanted me to become a witch doctor. When I resisted, I became mad for three months, but in the fourth month I was taken from the forest and became a born-again Christian and the jok left me alone But that liberty only lasted for two years and then I suffered the hardest attack yet from the jok. I became mad for the second time and lived in trees like a monkey for three months without eating food or drinking water and without coming down to the ground. Then my sister brought another witch doctor to initiate me into being a witch doctor, which was what the jok wanted all along, and that’s how I became a witch doctor.

I was scared because of what people would say but I now have realised that this jok–known as jokajula- does not support wrong-doing like killing people. I don’t do rituals to kill people but to help them’.

Akumu Christen now helps the people in her neighbourhood town. Paico, in different ways, including:

Mental Health Worker: Helping victims or Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) returnees by trying to stop or prevent spirits from attacking them. Or stop them from being haunted  or  rerunning in their minds the bad things that they did in the bush, preventing nightmares and helping them cope in their community.

Peace Maker: Participating in the reconciliation of two clans, where one killed a person from the other clan. Beside that she is also involved in summoning the spirit of the dead to ask him who should receive the ‘kwo money’(blood money paid to the victim’s family/clan).

Family Therapist: End barrenness in both men and women, which is hugely important because children are very significant to an Acholi:  for a home to be call a home it should have children around.

Repair broken marriages or relationships.

Livelihoods Promotion: Remove bad luck and make people rich, especially those who have been put into bondage by bad people who want them to remain poor

Disaster Prevention: She is summoned by the community elders to perform rituals to prevent natural calamities like drought or floods.

These are some of the things she does, but she is also a mother of two children with a very loving husband.

So now let me ask you again, do you still think witch doctors are bad people?



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8 Responses to “What do Witch Doctors actually do? I interviewed one to find out – their job description may surprise you”
  1. I did come across a witch but not a witch doctor in my work in the northern mountain regions of Pakistan. It was the end of the year and one of the donors wanted some surplus funds disbursed to communities for setting up a mini power station. The criteria was that it was must be a poor, remote, isolated community but with water running all year round. The last point is difficult to decide towards the end of the year when the water has not reached the lowest levels yet from the glaciers that supply them. One village was selected and by spring they had a mini hydel. By chance by mid year we had a large funding available from another donor for endless numbers of mini hydels in the region. The same village suddenly came up with a problem. A witch had appeared at the small power house and instances of rock throwing had become common. We sent our staff over too and they came back frightened there were rocks hitting the power house at night. After no respite for two months and repeated appeals of the community we agreed to fund a big power house far away from the village where a large water source was available and we had the funding to bring the electricity to the village. Years later I found that everyone in the village knew there was no witch hurling rocks.It was a noble lie manufactured to get the larger power house. No one had known when the village got its smaller power house that in a few months time there would be more resources to build a larger one at a better site but much more expensive so they went with the smaller one. But once they heard that the larger one was possible with new funding the witch was manufactured and they got the power house. A case of what I call the noble live and a secret which the community collectively shared.

  2. Their self-defined job description does not surprise me at all. Almost every “witch doctor” and every “traditional healer” I have come across (and they are many) defends their practice with some variation on the argument cited here that they use their skills to help people rather than for harm. But there are some major problems with this.

    First, even if we assume both that the intention is truly to help rather than harm and that they really believe in the power of what they claim to be able to do (two big assumptions), it’s easy to see how they may still cause great harm unintentionally. They may encourage people to take ineffective actions to address the challenges they face (a witch doctor’s treatment for HIV, for example) rather than to take steps that would truly alleviate the problems (ARVs, in this case). Or they may encourage people to believe that success in love, in business or in politics comes only through the supernatural rather than through a combination of luck and effort.

    Second, it’s easy to say one thing publicly and act very differently in reality in private. The witch doctors / traditional healers I have seen operating up close in Tanzania show little reluctance to over under-the-counter services, in addition to the more publicly advertised menu of healing ailments, success in love, etc. They also display impressive business acumen, for example pitting two people against each other, creating fear by telling each that the other is trying to curse them and that the best way to find protection is to engage the witch doctor’s services (at a price, of course.) And at the extreme end, the kind of practices that some “traditional healers” engage in are unarguably bad. Look at the recent murders of children in Njombe, Tanzania.

    “So now let me ask you again, do you still think witch doctors are bad people?”

    Let’s see. On the one hand, they claim to offer a form of therapy and other support to people experiencing difficulties. On the other, they take advantage of vulnerable people for personal gain, they perpetuate damaging myths about how success can be achieved, and in some cases, they kill. It seems pretty clear to me.

    • Oryem

      But we should also appreciate what they do good…after a long war in northern Uganda many people were left traumatized and one of the common mental health problem was spiritual pollution which can not be worked on biomedically

  3. Regenia D Evans

    My Mother and daughters and a coven of whitches have put horrific cursing on me. They have put in infirmities on me they have attacked my beauty aging me also poverty Isolation they are asteoprogeting themselves