The term witch doctor, a common translation for the Zulu inyanga, has been misconstrued to mean "a healer who uses witchcraft" rather than its original meaning of "one who diagnoses and cures maladies caused by witches".
In Southern African traditions, there are three classifications of somebody who uses magic. The thakathi is usually improperly translated into English as "witch", and is a spiteful person who operates in secret to harm others. The sangoma is a diviner, somewhere on a par with a fortune teller, and is employed in detecting illness, predicting a person's future (or advising them on which path to take), or identifying the guilty party in a crime. She also practices some degree of medicine. The inyanga is often translated as "witch doctor" (though many Southern Africans resent this implication, as it perpetuates the mistaken belief that a "witch doctor" is in some sense a practitioner of malicious magic). The inyanga's job is to heal illness and injury and provide customers with magical items for everyday use. Of these three categories the thakatha is almost exclusively female, the sangoma is usually female, and the inyanga is almost exclusively male.
Much of what witchcraft represents in Africa has been susceptible to misunderstandings and confusion, thanks in no small part to a tendency among western scholars since the time of the now largely discredited Margaret Murray to approach the subject through a comparative lens vis-a-vis European witchcraft. Okeja argues that witchcraft in Africa today plays a very different social role than in Europe of the past—or present—and should be understood through an African rather than post-colonial Western lens.
In some Central African areas, malicious magic users are believed by locals to be the source of terminal illness such as AIDS and cancer. In such cases, various methods are used to rid the person from the bewitching spirit, occasionally physical and psychological abuse. Children may be accused of being witches, for example a young niece may be blamed for the illness of a relative. Most of these cases of abuse go unreported since the members of the society that witness such abuse are too afraid of being accused of being accomplices. It is also believed that witchcraft can be transmitted to children by feeding. Parents discourage their children from interacting with people believed to be witches.
As of 2006, between 25,000 and 50,000 children in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been accused of witchcraft and thrown out of their homes. These children have been subjected to often-violent abuse during exorcisms, sometimes supervised by self-styled religious pastors. Other pastors and Christian activist strongly oppose such accusations and try to rescue children from their unscrupulous colleagues. The usual term for these children is enfants sorciers (child witches) or enfants dits sorciers (children accused of witchcraft). In 2002, USAID funded the production of two short films on the subject, made in Kinshasa by journalists Angela Nicoara and Mike Ormsby.
In Ghana, women are often accused of witchcraft and attacked by neighbours. Because of this, there exist six witch camps in the country where women suspected of being witches can flee for safety. The witch camps, which exist solely in Ghana, are thought to house a total of around 1000 women. Some of the camps are thought to have been set up over 100 years ago. The Ghanaian government has announced that it intends to close the camps and educate the population regarding the fact that witches do not exist.
In April 2008, in Kinshasa, the police arrested 14 suspected victims (of penis snatching) and sorcerers accused of using black magic or witchcraft to steal (make disappear) or shrink men's penises to extort cash for cure, amid a wave of panic. Arrests were made in an effort to avoid bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 alleged penis snatchers were beaten to death by mobs. While it is easy for modern people to dismiss such reports, Uchenna Okeja argues that a belief system in which such magical practices are deemed possible offer many benefits to Africans who hold them. For example, the belief that a sorcerer has "stolen" a man's penis functions as an anxiety-reduction mechanism for men suffering from impotence while simultaneously providing an explanation that is consistent with African cultural beliefs rather than appealing to Western scientific notions that are tainted by the history of colonialism (at least for many Africans).
It was reported on May 21, 2008 that in Kenya, a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft. In Tanzania in 2008, President Kikwete publicly condemned witchdoctors for killing albinos for their body parts, which are thought to bring good luck. 25 albinos have been murdered since March 2007. In the Meatu district of Tanzania, half of all murders are “witch-killings”., while particularly albinos are often murdered for their body parts on the advice of witch doctors in order to produce powerful amulets that are believed to protect against witchcraft and make the owner prosper in life.
In the Nigerian states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River about 15,000 children branded as witches and most of them end up abandoned and abused on the streets. In Gambia, about 1,000 people accused of being witches were locked in detention centers in March 2009 and forced to drink a dangerous hallucinogenic potion, human rights organization Amnesty International said. Every year, hundreds of people in the Central African Republic are convicted of witchcraft.
Complementary remarks about witchcraft by a native Congolese initiate: "From witchcraft ... may be developed the remedy (kimbuki) that will do most to raise up our country." "Witchcraft ... deserves respect ... it can embellish or redeem (ketula evo vuukisa)." "The ancestors were equipped with the protective witchcraft of the clan (kindoki kiandundila kanda). ... They could also gather the power of animals into their hands ... whenever they needed. ... If we could make use of these kinds of witchcraft, our country would rapidly progress in knowledge of every kind." "You witches (zindoki) too, bring your science into the light to be written down so that ... the benefits in it ... endow our race."
Among the Mende (of Sierra Leone), trial and conviction for witchcraft has a beneficial effect for those convicted. "The witchfinder had warned the whole village to ensure the relative prosperity of the accused and sentenced ... old people. ... Six months later all of the people ... accused, were secure, well-fed and arguably happier than at any time; they had hardly to beckon and people would come with food or whatever was needful. ... Instead of such old and widowed people being left helpless or (as in Western society) institutionalized in old people's homes, these were reintegrated into society and left secure in their old age ... . ... Old people are 'suitable' candidates for this kind of accusation in the sense that they are isolated and vulnerable, and they are 'suitable' candidates for 'social security' for precisely the same reasons."
In Nigeria, several Pentecostal pastors have mixed their evangelical brand of Christianity with African beliefs in witchcraft to benefit from the lucrative witch finding and exorcism business—which in the past was the exclusive domain of the so-called witch doctor or traditional healers. These pastors have been involved in the torturing and even killing of children accused of witchcraft. Over the past decade, around 15,000 children have been accused, and around 1,000 murdered. Churches are very numerous in Nigeria, and competition for congregations is hard. Some pastors attempt to establish a reputation for spiritual power by "detecting" child witches, usually following a death or loss of a job within a family, or an accusation of financial fraud against the pastor. In the course of "exorcisms", accused children may be starved, beaten, mutilated, set on fire, forced to consume acid or cement, or buried alive. While some church leaders and Christian activists have spoken out strongly against these abuses, many Nigerian churches are involved in the abuse, although church administrations deny knowledge of it.
In Malawi it is also common practice to accuse children of witchcraft and many children have been abandoned, abused and even killed as a result. As in other African countries both African traditional healers and their Christian counterparts are trying to make a living out of exorcising children and are actively involved in pointing out children as witches. Various secular and Christian organizations are combining their efforts to address this problem.
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