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The Law of PossessionRitual, Healing, and the Secular State$
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William S. Sax and Helene Basu

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190275747

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190275747.001.0001

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Between Shrine and Courtroom

Between Shrine and Courtroom

Legal Pluralism, Witchcraft, and Spirit Agency in Southeastern Africa

Chapter:
(p.55) 3 Between Shrine and Courtroom
Source:
The Law of Possession
Author(s):

Arne S. Steinforth

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190275747.003.0003

This chapter investigates local conceptualizations of spirit agency and spirit possession in the context of diverging strategies to legally address the alleged crime of witchcraft. Focussing on the intersection of (and interaction between) governmental and nongovernmental perspectives on witchcraft in Malawi, it argues that recent African debates on how to deal with witchcraft accusations on a national level echo the dichotomy between classical modernization theory and notions of a pluralized modernity—with witchcraft legislation being increasingly recognized as a feature of the latter. By means of a tripartite case study, the chapter demonstrates how local judges may deliberately exploit inconsistencies between the different tiers of a pluralistic legal system—national versus customary—in order to enforce a de facto culpability of an invisible, spiritual crime, thereby marking issues of witchcraft as a focal point in the postcolonial redefinition of the modern African state.

Keywords:   witchcraft legislation, legal pluralism, spirit agency, modernity, Malawi, Africa

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