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Double, double toil and trouble: An investigation on occult forces expenditures in the heartland of voodoo Vincent Somville (Michelsen Institute, Bergen) Joël Noret (Université Libre de Bruxelles) Philippe LeMay-Boucher (Heriot-Watt University). 1. Preliminary considerations.

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Double, double toil and trouble:

An investigation on occult forces expenditures in the heartland of voodoo

Vincent Somville (Michelsen Institute, Bergen)

Joël Noret (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

Philippe LeMay-Boucher (Heriot-Watt University)


Preliminary considerations
Preliminary considerations

  • Preconception that in Beninese (West-African) context occult forces were anecdotal

  • A mere tourist trap advertised at Beninese consulates.

  • But among locals : recurrent topic, something affecting daily lives, deeply rooted & pervasive


Preliminary considerations1
Preliminary considerations

  • ‘High representatives of established Christian churches, such as the bishops of Lagos and Kinshasa, believe in witchcraft.’

  • According to the latter, this belief is shared by about 80% of all Africans.

  • ‘Even African scholars and decision makers, educated in renowned Western universities, strongly share witchcraft beliefs according to occasion, more or less openly.’

    (Kohnert, 1983; Kadya Tall, 1995)

Preliminary considerations2
Preliminary considerations

  • Jenkins and Curtis (2005) (SSM):

    What drives decision to install a pit latrine in rural Benin (40 hh)?

    →Protect from supernatural dangers (is one of the 3 main drive)

  • A Latrine can prevent / attenuate:

    1) Fear of supernatural illnesses caused by smelling or seeing others’ faeces

    2) Fear of encountering a snake: a sign of impending death in family / Fear of voodoo sorcery, magic, and dead spirits in the night

    3) Fear of enemies stealing your faeces for sorcery against you

Research aim
Research Aim

  • Based on field evidence collected in Cotonou Benin (2006):

  • What hh & ind. characteristics influence expenditures in occult forces?

  • Anthropologist preoccupied by question for a long time

  • Will our empirical evidence corroborate their findings?


Some of our key findings
Some of our key findings

  • Spending in Occult Forces is not anecdotal

  • 48% of all hh in our dataset spend positive amount in ‘Protection & Cure’

  • Expenditure on ‘Protection & Cure’ :

  • 2.7% of all monthly expenditure

  • 5.6% if we take subsample with non zero exp.

  • Our findings corroborate anthropologist assertions

What are occult forces
What are occult forces?

  • Example: the granary & the death (Evans-Pritchard 1937)

  • How? = termites

  • Why? = occult forces give answer

  • Offers explanation to misfortune

  • Complex institutional system

What are occult forces1
What are occult forces?

  • Catch-all term: different practices from region to region

  • Mystical & super-natural power: good, evil, causation; coherent ideology for daily living

    → gives interpretations of misfortune

    Not ‘belief’ about the world but self-evident & real force

    Plurality of meanings, not all of them associated with harmful activities


Example of a client
Example of a client

  • young father from a poor rural background: recently graduated from university

  • Series of misfortunes in the last 6 months: child becoming ill + wife discovers she can no longer become pregnant.

  • Interpretation: comes from an attack by occult forces →retaliation from his siblings who never attended high school and remained in the village.

  • To cure his household: buys services from local diviner.

Principal mechanism
Principal Mechanism


jealousy, familial dispute over heritage, unsettled legal dispute (land ownership), professional progression

Occult forces?

  • Symptoms:

  • Uncured illness, biomedical failed, sterility/death

  • Accumulation of misfortunes (unempl, children failing school)

Visit / diagnosis

  • Priest of the Fa

  • for a diagnosis (100-500F)

  • 2. Celestial Church of Christ

  • one candle, 25-100F

  • 3. Pastor of Evangelical Church

  • 4. Catholic Priest

Step towards




1 witchcraft sorcery
1. Witchcraft / Sorcery

  • Harm/good done by witch/sorcerers who possess supernatural powers (no divinity)

    • Witch: natural talent

    • Sorcerer: uses ‘ingredients’ & incantations

  • Evil magic consciously practiced against others

  • Both low profile (fear of accusations)

  • Services not for sale

2 system of magical belief voodoo
2. System of Magical belief: Voodoo

  • Complex pantheon of divinities

  • Voodoos = divinities with super powers, fear & devotion surrounding them

  • Perennial relationships: humans honoring them

  • Rituals & sacrifices required to activate specific powers

  • Breach of rules (or insufficient sacrifices) provoke their anger (→ illness, death)


Voodoo cont
Voodoo, cont.

  • Voodoo powers for sale

  • Tariffs flexible, depending on means of client

  • Suffice to ask a voodoo’s priest for an ‘attack’: ‘ingredients’, incantations & breach of rule

Whose decision to spend
Whose decision to spend?

  • Household financial structure: husband & wife have separate financial spheres (Dagnelie et al. 2012)

  • Each latitude to make consumption decision on basis of own income


Provision of household goods social norms
Provision of household goods:Social norms

  • Husband (breadwinner): house repair, rental fees, electricity, schooling fees, medical bills, extra money for housekeeping (complement wife’s contribution)

    • Occult forces : if hh is headed by a couple vast majority of cases males take in charge

  • Wife: cooking, care of family, water

  • Documented by: Falen (2003) + our numerous informal interviews + our descriptive stats

The dataset
The dataset

  • Questionnaire in 2 parts: a) Households characteristics, b) Personal expenditures

  • Separated women/men interviews

  • 178 households, only head of household

  • Data on expenditures on Occult Forces:


    → Nothing on ‘attack’

Hypotheses from literature
Hypotheses from literature

(1) Use/belief in occult forces is not gender-specific

(2) Use/belief is common at different levels of education

(3) Use/belief is common among various religious affiliation.

Exception: Celestial, pentecostal, rosarian Evangelical churches provide protection against occult forces

Hypotheses cont
Hypotheses, cont.

(4) Do Magico-religious beliefs play an important role in the enforcement of redistributive norms?

  • Income itself: no (can be concealed)

  • Item highly visible: auto/motorcycle

    (5) Higher transfer to hh & relatives reduces jealousy & need for protection/cure

  • Current transfers (endogenous): transfers (t-1) in 2004

    (6) Death or funerals are great source of tensions.

  • dummy if funeral inside family within last year


  • Spending in Occult Forces is not anecdotal

  • Expenditure on ‘Protection & Cure’ : around 2% of all monthly expenditure

  • Dataset seems to give evidence in favour of anthropologist assertions

  • Larger prop. of HH spend on Occult forces than on bio-medical treatments