In the Western world, witch hunting has mostly gone the way of leeching and dumping tea in the harbor — that is, only used as a political metaphor. In other parts of the world, though, honest-to-God, torch-and-pitchfork witch hunting is still a thing. In Africa, 55 percent of people believe in witchcraft, up to 95 percent in some areas.
In theory, that’s not a huge deal — a farmer will go to a shaman to get a protection charm to keep his cattle safe, that sort of thing. But it stops being fun the moment an angry mob accuses you of being a witch. Just ask “Steve”, a Peace Corps volunteer who, through a calamitous chain of events, found himself naked, filthy, and exhausted, being hunted by an angry mob …
6. It Began With Fleeing A Sexual Predator
The strangest night Steve hopes to ever have began when he and his girlfriend, both Peace Corps volunteers, decided to take a mini-vacation in a local lodge resort in rural Africa (we’re not going to name the country — what occurred next could honestly have happened in several). “We had some trouble getting there, just because none of the drivers in the area knew what we were talking about,” he says. “That should have been a red flag, in retrospect.”
On their second night, “it was probably around midnight when [my girlfriend] woke me up,” he continues. “It was either her shaking me awake, or it was me hearing the ‘thump’ myself.” Steve got up to investigate the scene at the glass doors leading to their porch, tragically neglecting to put on any clothes first. He had been sleeping — and was still — naked. Remember that, it will be important later.
corolanty/iStockIf you’re gonna have the worst night of your life, might as well be naked for the experience.
Steve immediately regretted these actions — the first regrettable action in a long night of them — when he was blinded by the flashlight that was now in his face, wielded by a man with a gun “wearing a set of blue coveralls with yellow reflective strips on it, and had on black cotton gloves, a black ski mask, and (inexplicably) a black poofy wig.” There was no time to decide between a number of appropriate reactions — the man ordered them to be quiet and get back into bed, then began rooting around in their belongings. After helping himself to Steve’s smartphone, among other things, he ordered the couple to have sex in front of him. “He wanted to watch two white people have sex,” Steve explains.
For most people, when ordered to perform sexual acts at gunpoint, logic ostensibly goes out the window with the contents of their bowels, but Steve and his girlfriend had a plan. “I said okay … She told him that we would do it, but he would have to watch from the bathroom,” he says. “He said fine, and walked over there, to the far side of the room from the doors to the porch. As soon as he reached the bathroom, we both leapt out of the bed, sprung through the partially open door, and jumped off the porch.” The couple — clad only in what God gave him and “shorts and a flimsy T-shirt” respectively — then set upon a long night of navigating the African countryside.
Mfotophile/iStockThere were two full moons out that night.
That’s right: That part was just the setup of this story.
5. They Walked All Night, Then Folks Just Started Screaming
A few hundred feet past the entrance road, “we reached the first village,” Steve says. “The first house we came to on the left, we began pounding on its thick metal door, pleading for help in English and, her, the local language. No answer. After a few seconds, we ran across the road to another house, and repeated our cries for help. This time the door opened, but we were met not with help but shouting at us and me receiving the seemingly angry kicks and punches of some random fucker. So we kept running. We tried no more houses, but just ran.”
They passed through several more villages that were of similar help until “we decided that once it was light out — light meant safety — we would walk into [the next] village and ask for help,” he says. “Surely, we would find help there in the light of day from people who would see two terrified, bedraggled young adults walking out of the grass.” That is not what they saw. “The villagers saw two white people, one naked, coming out of the bush at dawn asking for help, and assumed we were witches.”
felixmizioznikov/iStockIn fairness, a lot of evil incantations begin with pleas for clothing and shelter.
There were a few reasons for this. For one thing, they were obviously foreigners, which ironically seems to transcend all cultural boundaries when it comes to raising people’s suspicions. Also, as Steve later learned, “one belief is that if a witch flies over a church, they will fall to the ground naked and powerless.” As a result, this pair of naked honkies were particularly suspect. But they didn’t know that at the time.
“At around 6:30 a.m., we stepped out of the tall grass and walked toward the first house we saw,” Steve continues. “I had uprooted a tuft of the grass and was holding it in front of my genitals, as modesty still seemed like a good policy. At that house, a woman was coming out, and we asked her for help. Perhaps she was at first surprised to see an almost-naked white woman and completely naked white man step barefoot out of the bush, begging for help, but she did not show it. All she did was stand there on her doorstep, neither moving towards us nor away from us.”
Blaza1980/iStock“No sudden movements” is probably a sound policy around any stranger stumbling naked out of the wilderness.
Starting to become rather uncomfortable with this staring contest of inequitable nudity, they decided once again to move on. “That’s when the woman started screaming.”
4.They Were Pretty Sure They Were Going To Die.
As is most people’s instinct when strangers begin screaming at the mere sight of them, Steve and his girlfriend ran. But “as we passed another house, we saw a handful of men come running down the steps,” he says. “At this point, we were sprinting, though a night of running barefoot down dirt paths had left our feet bloodied and bruised.” As they ran, “more villagers began chasing us down the dirt road,” and any hope that these were simply helpful Samaritans racing each other for the right to help the poor bedraggled couple was quickly dashed.
Robert Herhold/I Stock A lot of stuff was being shouted, but it’s probably safe to say none of it was “Quick! Get them to an American embassy!”
“It was now fully light, and by that light, we could see the crowd of villagers behind us: screaming, shouting, brandishing hoes and shovels and sticks and throwing stones,” Steve says. At one point, a particularly large stick had hit Steve in the leg, which he picked up and carried for a while before deciding to surrender it back to the crowd, “hoping it would show them that we weren’t a threat.” Believe it or not, throwing sticks into an already frenzied mob doesn’t actually put them at ease. The crowd was closing in, and the couple started to give up.
“[My girlfriend] had slowed down, and was weeping,” Steve said. “I put my arm around her, and we limped ahead down that dirt road, in the morning light, a growing mob of inexplicably angry villagers jeering, cursing, screaming at us as they closed the distance and continued to throw stones and sticks. I was certain we would die, soon. They would catch us, they would surround us, they would beat and hack us to death as they screamed at us. We had survived that whole night, and now we were going to die in broad daylight in sight of the tarmac road.”
They wouldn’t have been the first, either.
3.There Are Whole Bands Of Anti-Witch-Hunters
Just as the couple was about to surrender to the gods of dramatic storytelling, “that’s when we saw a man come out from one of the houses in front of us, the ones that bordered the dirt road we were limping down,” Steve says. “We cried out to him for help, in both languages, as we had done to everyone else we had met that night. And he listened.”
Out of nowhere, as if delivered by those very same gods, they were suddenly surrounded by a group of the man’s friends, who seemed unsettlingly prepared for this sort of thing. “As the mob caught up to us, they formed a protective barrier between the screaming mass and us,” Steve explains. Someone had even had the presence of mind to grab some goddamn clothes for Steve, and he was finally allowed to hide his shame. Still, the mob persisted. “At one point I looked up to see one man in particular, dressed nicely in a button-up shirt and slacks and wearing a bike helmet, taking pictures of our half-naked bodies with his camera phone as he smiled.”
The couple soldiered on as their warm protective layer guided them to the road, the crowd still hot on their heels, and thankfully, “The first car we saw stopped, and one of the men ran to it and explained what was happening,” Steve said. “A door was thrown open. She, I, and the men piled in, and the car eased through the still-shouting mob. The driver turned around, made his way back through the mob, and suddenly we were speeding down a paved road, in a car, away from it all.”
2.The Police Treated It As Routine
After dropping Steve’s girlfriend off at a camp site with other Peace Corps volunteers at her request and picking up one of them to act as an interpreter, “the men drove us to the police station,” Steve says. Immediately you’ll notice that was not, unfortunately, the final sentence of the article.
Al Jazeera EnglishSpoiler: “… And the perpetrators were arrested, ending witch hunts in Africa forever.” isn’t either.
“The chief came, sat behind his desk, and asked me to recount the events,” Steve says. He did, and the chief asked questions … but mostly about Steve’s stolen smartphone. Remember the phone that the rapist burglar stole? Obviously you don’t, because you just heard a guy tell you he got witch-hunted. But so did the police chief. Something wasn’t adding up.
The chief “then told me we would go back to the resort,” Steve says. “We drove back to the resort with the police chief, the volunteer, and an officer holding an automatic rifle. On the way, the truck was met with blank, staring faces.” Again, he noticed that not even the crowd seemed to be taking his attempted stoning seriously. “As we passed that first village again, a woman pointed, screamed, and then laughed,” he says. “I don’t think I have ever, or will ever, want to kill another human being more than I wanted to kill that woman in that moment, even considering the crazed sociopath with the wig.”
In case you think that kind of mocking reaction couldn’t possibly get worse …it can.
After investigating at the resort, they returned to the camp site where Steve’s girlfriend had been dropped off. “Upon arriving back at the campsite, the police chief wanted to hear her tell him what had happened,” he says. “As we sat at a table under an awning, a bottle of soda in front of her and I each, she told him the same story I had. He interrupted her to take a phone call, and seemed more focused on the stolen smartphone than anything else.”
If it seems like the chief was bored by the whole thing, that’s because …
1. It Could Have Been A Lot Worse
It wasn’t until, “some point between being picked up by the couple in the car and finishing my story at the police station [that] I learned from someone the reason we had been attacked by those villagers,” Steve says.
“The main reason for otherwise very sweet villagers to burn their neighbor to death for giving their cattle hoof rot is that they are scared, they are angry, and they don’t know any better,” he continues. “The problem is that so much of their lives is out of their control: The amount of rainfall that year determines whether their crops do well, while the market price of their crops determines whether they can feed their own family, while the money and actions of international aid organizations determines where and when their next health center gets built. The one thing they can control is who they murder as a result of not enough rain falling on their crops.”
U.S. Embassy in GhanaThough it seems like running the Peace Corps out of the country might be a step back.
Before you feel too bad for the murderous fuckheads, Steve also learned that many of those killed, “are women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.” Children are particularly vulnerable: A shocking majority of the homeless youth in several countries have been abandoned due to suspected witchcraft, and for the most part, the local authorities don’t do a thing about it, because they’re fully on board with “kick out the witch bastards.” In one of the most horrifying incidents, 1,000 suspected witches in Gambia were rounded up to be tortured and/or killed in 2009. Why didn’t the government stop them? They were the ones who ordered it.
It turns out Steve and his girlfriend, in all their foreign whiteness, came factory-issued with several advantages. As far as these things go, the locals undoubtedly have it worse. “It’s … pretty awful,” Steve says. “Sometimes it’s not necessarily people being killed for being witches, but because their body parts can be used in witchcraft; albinos in East Africa are a huge target for machete-wielding witchcraft-doers. This reflects not just how awful humans can be in general, but how even at our most awful, we can still manage to pick on people who are different or already oppressed in society.”
As for Steve and his girlfriend, they were eventually flown back to Washington for a whole mess of psychological and medical evaluations. There, Steve was discovered to have an (apparently unrelated) blood clot, effectively ending his service with the Peace Corps without even a souvenir “I Got Witch Hunted In Sunny Africa” T-shirt. It’s probably just as well.