Cover image for Madumo, a man bewitched
Madumo, a man bewitched
Ashforth, Adam.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
vii, 255 pages ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BF1584.S6 Z7 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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No one answered when I tapped at the back door of Madumo's home on Mphahlele Street a few days after my return to Soweto, so I pushed the buckling red door in a screeching grind of metal over concrete and entered calling, "Hallo?"

So begins this true story of witchcraft and friendship set against the turbulent backdrop of contemporary Soweto. Adam Ashforth, an Australian who has spent many years in the black township, finds his longtime friend Madumo in dire circumstances: his family has accused him of using witchcraft to kill his mother and has thrown him out on the street. Convinced that his life is cursed, Madumo seeks help among Soweto's bewildering array of healers and prophets. An inyanga, or traditional healer, confirms that he has indeed been bewitched. With Ashforth by his side, skeptical yet supportive, Madumo embarks upon a physically grueling treatment regimen that he follows religiously-almost to the point of death-despite his suspicion that it may be better to "Westernize my mind and not think about witchcraft."

Ashforth's beautifully written, at times poignant account of Madumo's struggle shows that the problem of witchcraft is not simply superstition, but a complex response to spiritual insecurity in a troubling time of political and economic upheaval. Post-apartheid Soweto, he discovers, is suffering from a deluge of witchcraft. Through Madumo's story, Ashforth opens up a world that few have seen, a deeply unsettling place where the question "Do you believe in witchcraft?" is not a simple one at all. The insights that emerge as Ashforth accompanies his friend on an odyssey through Soweto's supernatural perils have profound implications even for those of us who live in worlds without witches.

Author Notes

Adam Ashforth is visiting associate professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Ashforth had been "adopted" into a South African family and community, whom he revisited after a long absence. He found that a close friend, Madumo, thought himself bewitched. In fact, Madumo had been estranged from his family after his mother's death, which he was accused of causing. Ashforth, who sponsored Madumo's fruitless educational efforts, reluctantly undertook to finance the healing of his demoralized friend. In the process, Ashforth learned that witchcraft is on the rise in South Africa as black Africans struggle with continued inequities and search for explanations for personal misfortune. After consulting the ancestors, Madumo's healer determined that Madumo's problems stemmed from resentment of his friendship with a white man, for South African blacks assume that all whites are wealthy and that any black person with a white friend has access to wealth. Ashforth, though skeptical of witchcraft, acknowledges its significance for those who believe it and also the power of what he witnessed. His venture into the intersection of South African politics, religion, human jealousy, frustration, and fear proves fascinating. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

When Ashforth, an Australian social scientist now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, returned to South Africa for the summer he found his friend Madumo, an affable, philosophically inclined, habitually unemployed young man, actively tormented by witchcraft. Cast out by his family, shunned by his friends, and plagued by bad luck, Madumo, with Ashforth's help, began a desperate search for a cure. Their quest took them to Mr. Zondi, a traditional healer (inyanga) who consulted the spirits in a small tin shack in the slums of Soweto, to the headquarters of the Zion Christian Church, an African-evangelical hybrid where they were barraged by eager prophets, and to the distant suburbs of Johannesburg, where they hosted a ritual feast for the ancestors. Journalistic in tone, Ashforth's book joins Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola in a growing tradition of personal ethnographies where the narrator is less than omniscient, confidants are friends and not "informants," and the boundaries are blurred between observer and observed, between truth and fiction. Ashforth offers his compelling story with very little in the way of explanation. He makes no appeals to anthropological theoryDthe book does not even include a glossary. Indeed, one of his major points is that spiritual beliefs are untranslatable. He concludes that witchcraft is "something akin to a religious mystery," ultimately incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Deviating from the tendency of most works on witchcraft in sub-Saharan Africa to examine and interpret the phenomenon from a broad sociopolitical and cultural standpoint, this book is a narrative of individual experiences. Ashforth (social science, Inst. for Advanced Study, Princeton Univ.) takes as his protagonist his South African friend Madumo, who seeks political and economic motivations behind the superstitious tales he reports. Not for readers insistent on scientific rigor and discipline, this work neither attempts to explain nor pretends to understand witchcraft or why it is so widespread among black South Africans. The author raises many questions without providing convincing answers. Nevertheless, the meticulously detailed accounts and contemplative discourses make the book both exciting and informative. Recommended for larger public libraries.DEdward K. Owusu-Ansah, Murray State Univ. Lib., KY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Madumo is banished from his Soweto home following the death of his 50-plus-year-old mother, a death family members believe was caused by witchcraft. Madumo's attempts to find a cure for his misfortune are the basis for this work. As fictional ethnography, this book has shortcomings. Not only is it a secondhand account of Madumo's experiences, filtered through the consciousness of Ashforth, Madumo's Australian friend and a junior professor at a New York university, but the different tongues of the work's principals pose some translation problems, as when the Sotho-speaking Madumo seeks, rather unsuccessfully, to explain to the Zulu-speaking healer, or inyanga, his comprehension of the conduct of isidliso, an affliction associated with witchcraft. The narrative distance created by the language may explain, in part, the difficulty of sympathizing entirely with Madumo, since he is frequently perceived as a small-time hustler "on the make." Finally, although Ashforth strives to illuminate the growing popularity of witchcraft in democratic South Africa, the book's limited perspective threatens to subvert its implicit aim. However, the author's more modest goal--being "kind to people who have been kind to me"--is met easily. Valuable for undergraduates and general readers alike for its access, albeit circumscribed, to practices of the occult that are shrouded in mystery. T. L. Jackson; St. Cloud State University

Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader
1 Where's Madumo?
2 Madumo's Curse
3 In the City
4 Breakfast Stories
5 Diagnosis
6 Talking of Witches
7 The Healer and His Craft
8 A Deluge of Witchcraft
9 The Healing Begins
10 Of Witches and Their Craft
11 A Witch's Brew?
12 Church
13 Madumo's Advice to the Lovelorn
14 IsidlisoNights
15 Diagnoses, Doubts, and Despair
16 Back to Square One
17 Interview with the Ancestors
18 The Homecoming
19 A Feast for the Ancestors?
20 Departures and Beginnings