Is intangible cultural heritage witchcraft? – Part 1

[By Chanda Penda]

In 2018, there was a strong wave of public reaction in Zambia against the planned introduction of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) as a degree programme at the University of Zambia (UNZA).

It resulted from a statement on the same subject by then minister of higher education, Professor Nkandu Luo.

The following is an excerpt from a national newspaper, the Zambia Daily Mail, dated 21 November 2017: “Minister of Higher Education Nkandu Luo says Zambia should consider research and the study of witchcraft as a science that can be used productively for the benefit of the country.”

Unfortunately, this image of ICH presented the highest learning institution in Zambia with the challenge of damage control from which the programme has never recovered. The ensuing social media debates specifically spelt out in the public domain that UNZA was about to introduce a degree in witchcraft studies. This discussion was especially blown out of proportion to the extent where some people even comically/satirically created images of parking lot with a car park plaque reading: “Dean, School of Witchcraft.”

Below is a randomly selected collection of reactions by Zambians on Facebook. I have grouped them into comical, opposing and affirmative responses.

Comical Reactions

The following words are on the Teacher’s Platform-Zambia Facebook page, a public forum:
“This morning I went to suggest to my Head teacher to study this new program at UNZA called witchcraft. Now instead of appreciating my effort, she is very furious with me. Was I wrong because I see all the witchcraft characteristics in her.” [sic.] 14 June 2018.

“A UNZA Student arriving at the compass to do the new course witchcraft. He want to study a degree in witchcraft and he is on bursary sponsored by UNESCO” [sic.] 13 June 2018. This is followed by manipulated image of a man being carried by a chicken, running as if it were a horse.

“And what are the entry qualifications to study witchcraft at unza. Is it still 5 O levels or born and bred in the village? If it means passes, in which subjects sure? Harry Porter.!!!!!” [sic.] 12 June 2018.

The comments in this category go on and on. Let us now look at opposing remarks.
Opposing Reactions.

The comments below were strong responses in the comments section to an article shared on Facebook on 14 June 2018 by The Mast newspaper regarding Gankhanani Moyo’s (UNZA lecturer in ICH) position as he responded to the public discussion on witchcraft:
“I will not allow this intangible stupidity put my faith in Christ Jesus my lord at risk.”

“Useless degree from this field and you know that its witchcraft issue and here you want to bend the story over cultural why most educated pipo they think foolish like this?” [sic.]

Someone even went as far as posting a prayer, something to the effect of “locusts and cankerworms”.

Another person’s prayer commanded some people to die for championing such studies.
Moyo, a UNESCO-trained Global Trainer in ICH, bemoaned that it was lamentable to reduce the programme to witchcraft.

Affirmative Reactions

“I would gladly take this course.”

“Culture must be preserved. Whether we say Zambia is a Christian nation those things are there. So let’s go and study it so that we see how best it can work.”
“A society without a culture is a lost cause. We need to preserve these things. All traditional/cultural ceremonies fall under ICH. Today I wonder how many Lozis can speak Siluyana a very important language of private communication with the Litunga. Let’s not rush to condemn things before undertaking them – don’t judge a book by its cover.” [sic.]

“Intangible cultural heritage is broad indeed. The misinterpretation only shows how low in calibre society is especially the media that are supposed to put records straight and educate the people.”

As we move on from the comments by the general public, let us analyse the article quoted above from the Zambia Daily Mail. Professor Luo urged Zambians to learn from South Africans who had, according to her, commenced witchcraft studies in some universities.

This position is clearly linked to a satirical article citing South African Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, which was published five years ago in different South African media authored by Wuraola Omisore. Whether a real name or a pseudonym, the name of the author looks Nigerian.

Furthermore, whether the article in question, titled “South African Universities To Offer Bsc Witchcraft”, was authored in South Africa nor elsewhere, its contents show that the genre is rather satirical than factual.

Another source Africa Check (Fact Check) followed up these claims and found this disclaimer message on the Ihaya News website (in isiZulu “Ihaya News” translates as “Crazy person news”):

“My name is Travis Gumba, not Trevor Gumbi and definitely not Trevor Noah.
1. Posts on this website may contain traces of truth.
2. All articles on this website have insufficient truth.
3. The truth in our articles is nowhere to be found.
4. The prophecies in our articles are accidental.
6. I accidentally wrote 6 before 5.
5. Fiction, poor satire attempt and news parody.
7. Don’t tell people about this website.”
Armed with this evidence, Africa Check published an article on their website with the title: “No, South African university not offering witchcraft course – it’s just satire.”

Moreover, the University of Venda, which was heavily implicated in the witchcraft news issued a statement on their website in October 2019, condemning the article as misleading and “fake news”.

I shall endeavour to briefly explore the field of heritage and define ICH in next week’s article.

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