A witchdoctor in Uganda. Late in January Alice Lakwena died in exile in the obscurity of a Kenyan refugee camp. Alice was the soul of the deceptively named Holy Spirit Movement, an offshoot of the troubled recent history of Uganda. One of her last acts was to refuse to take the modern medicine that might have saved her life. In death, as in life, she testified to the resurgence of anarchic and occult religious sentiments that mark sectors of contemporary African society.

In the late 1980s Alice led the resistance against the bush campaign of Yoweri Museveni, who was trying to restore order and peace to Uganda after the chaotic years of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Alice made the headlines because, claiming to be inspired, she told her soldiers that enemy bullets would bounce off them like droplets of water, and if they threw stones at their adversaries they would explode like grenades. After a few months she had to flee to Kenya; the resistance was taken over by her cousin, Joseph Kony, and continues to this day. Alice was also a spirit medium, according to local community leaders.

The thickly wooded slopes of central Africa that lead down to the Great Lakes, shrouded with early morning mist before the sun climbs to chase it away, and the densely matted primeval forest with its profusion of snakes, bird cries and moths provides a suitably mysterious environment for belief in spirits. Despite the fervour of Christianity in this region comprising Congo, southern Sudan and Uganda, the majority of the population still cling also to their traditional beliefs in the ancestral spirits, and many have recourse to witchdoctors. Nor does it seem that these beliefs are on the way to extinction soon.

In Uganda, however, the Catholic Church has recently commissioned Brother Anatoli Wasswa, an expert in herbal medicine and an exorcist, to find out whatever he can about the practice of witchcraft, and publish it in a book. Wasswa is a nationally known figure and has been studying this phenomenon for the last 30 years. The book, Unveiling Witchcraft, co-authored by a veteran local journalist, Henry Mirima, with additional material from northern Uganda written by a Comboni missionary, is soon to be launched. It makes very sobering reading, and, if given wide circulation, could cause something of a revolution in the country.

There are three kinds of practitioners: herbalists or traditional healers who are Christian or Moslem; those who do not subscribe to any faith; and witchdoctors. The first two try simply to cure their patients by the use of herbal medicines — and the herbs they use are at the base of modern chemical medicine. The third kind deals directly with the devil. In the past, some traditional healers claimed they had encounters with spirits and supernatural powers, which were the pretext for doing harm. They tampered with herbs, added concoctions, and made their clients believe they had magical powers to do such things as settle debts or protect a man against jealous co-wives, none of which has any relationship with the medical process of curing.

Some missionaries in the early years of evangelisation failed to distinguish between the herbalist and the witchdoctor, and condemned both equally. This stigma remains in the minds of some Christians to this day. According to Brother Wasswa, traditional religions in Africa can help one to discover God, but where there is an emphasis on being African at all costs, this is suspect. He says the devil works through people who insist on remaining in their traditions, some of which are mere superstition.

Uganda experienced serious civil strife for almost 20 years, from the late 1960s to 1986. After the conflict ended the country experienced a devastating AIDS epidemic, which affected at least one member in most families; many entire families were wiped out. The last 20 years have been ones of relative peace, except for the conflict in the north. During this time the economy has prospered and civil institutions have returned to normal. Most children benefit from elementary education at least and many even secondary and university. It is a society that is trying to forget its terrible recent past and quickly catch up, but also a society where few have travelled outside their familiar territory.

In a situation of strain, uncertainty and tension like this many still turn to their traditional beliefs, "just in case" their prayers in church or mosque are not heard and problems solved quickly. Brother Wasswa says that people are not ready to suffer; they don't see the purpose. They have become too impatient. Recently on a car bumper sticker in Kampala I read: "I saw it. I wanted it. I prayed. I got it". This sums up the popular quick-fix approach to religion spread by some Evangelical Christians here. Instant gratification sells well. People in need, even imaginary need, are easily deceived by the first quack who comes along.

Customary beliefs run deep, especially in central and western Uganda and on into Congo. Most are quite localised. The Kabaka (King) of the Baganda had a ceremonial appointee: the keeper of the umbilical cord. In Baganda society twins are quite common — above the world average — and their umbilical cords are decorated and preserved. If they are harmed or lost, the belief is that the guilty one will be struck dead as punishment. In Mukono, in central Uganda, there is a tree with protrusions like breasts, which for that very reason is considered sacred. In Hoima, an area in the west, the belief goes that the dead get up at night and dig one's land. One of the deities that are commonly invoked, the "emisambwa" (which can mean in turn mermaid, snake, tree or rock), must be appeased before you can start building your house. Otherwise, strange things will happen to your property while you are asleep.

Witchdoctors practise their craft in huts, known as "shrines", which are covered with bark cloth and are dark inside. Inside, the witchdoctor will change his voice many times and thereby convince his clients that the spirits are communicating with him, for the benefit of the client. One of the common rituals in the sessions of witchdoctors is pipe-smoking. Adepts believe that the smoke will reach the ancestral spirits, which will then grant your request: a visa for travel, success in business, a marriage partner.

The common notion is that witchcraft is rampant in societies that are backward technologically, economically and culturally; that any inexplicable misfortune is attributed to witchcraft. This is so to an extent. However, in pre-colonial Baganda the witch and the nude night prowler were burnt alive. Neither was approved of. It may be true that poor, illiterate people often adhere to witchcraft as a way of explaining things, and of settling scores. But in Africa now it is the rich and educated who fall back on the "shrine", the paraphernalia and the concoctions in order to keep up their image and their expensive lifestyle. Among these are political and other national leaders who are practising Christians and who maintain that they are simply showing respect for culture and for every religious denomination. In this way they reinforce the impression that witchcraft is not only harmless but part of the culture.

Yet Uganda has had a Witchcraft Act since 1929. In the past those convicted were sentenced to a term of imprisonment, after which they were banished from the area. Now, however, convictions are rare, even though the practice is more widespread. People fear stirring up a hornets' nest because many law-enforcers and influential people believe the practice is quite acceptable.

Most alarming of all, however, is child-sacrifice. Unveiling Witchcraft has photos of sacrificed infants, of severed human heads, of older children sacrificed. Children are kidnapped, or even voluntarily offered to appease evil spirits and enable the person making the sacrifice to become wealthy. These occurrences are well known, and even reported occasionally in the national press, but no witchdoctor is ever charged, let alone convicted.

And the effects of witchcraft? Fear and superstition become more entrenched. People remain poor because the witchdoctor is greedy and insatiable, and his impoverished clients are squeezed dry. People within a community are set against one another. People do not work, but rely on the witchdoctor to solve their problems and make them rich.

The solution is a deeper evangelisation. Instil the work ethic, and preach the gospel of hard work. And include instruction on the evils of witchcraft and its effects in the school syllabus, where as yet it has no place.

Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's contributing editor for Africa. He lives in Kampala.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.