Making Violence Visible: An Interview with Samuel Mark Anderson

Photo by Samuel Mark Anderson.

This post builds on the research article “A Disarmament Program for Witches: The Prospective Politics of Antiwitchcraft, Postwarcraft, and Rebrandcraft in Sierra Leone,” which was published in the May 2019 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Scott Ross (SR): In your article you introduce the notion of a “politics by prospection” which, in its many different forms, involves processes of diagnosis, revelation, and transformation. Like the diagnostic social processes captured in Erica Caple James’ (2012) concept of “bureaucraft,” you identify a similar discourse in three places: antiwitchcraft operations, neoliberal rebrandcraft, and demobilizing postwarcraft. Is there something particular about contemporary, postwar Sierra Leone that provoked such a form of politics, or is this a case study of something that you see occurring in other spaces and times?

Samuel Mark Anderson (SMA): Yes and yes. The allure of this particular case—what drove me to investigate it, in spite of certain misgivings I could discuss later—is classically anthropological. A diverse array of cultural currents that buffet and shape multiple spaces across the globe converge in Sierra Leone in idiosyncratic ways in which they could not elsewhere. Yet those particular convergences churn up shared dynamics that might remain submerged in other contexts.

To focus on the three key themes of the article, the logics of witchfinding, postwar recovery, and branding intersect in different ways all over. As spaces of radical uncertainty, war and its aftermath have always inspired engagements with invisible forces; examples that jump to my mind as a scholar of Africa (and we could find more on any continent) include analogous contemporary mobilizations of invisible forces during conflicts in Mozambique (Honwana 2003; Igreja 2015) and Uganda (Dubal 2018). Additionally, spiritual warfare has been a productive idiom for both Evangelical proselytization and Muslim conceptions of jihad. As many other academics have noted, postwar discourses and rebranding discourses have gone hand-in-hand everywhere neoliberal projects prioritize economic solutions for reconstruction and reconciliation. Finally, anthropologists have long understood witchcraft as a perversion of socially acceptable forms of exchange and thus always deeply linked to economics; the proliferation of global branding language is a relatively new source of terms and ideas, but we could reach back for analogues to Medieval European conceptions of the witch’s mark, often thought to be a literal brand of the devil.

On a broader, metaphoric level, discussions about witches, ex-combatants, and brand failures might reveal something about our social relationships with other scapegoats and targets of blame: racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, political opponents, etc. That said, we must also recognize and respect the specific, long, local trajectories of epistemological uncertainty, colonial and postcolonial violence, and economic precarity that could only have happened in Freetown and Sierra Leone, as well as the particular insights and innovations of Sierra Leone Traditional Healers Union (SLITHU) President Kabba and his collaborators, however problematic those might be.

SR: In much of the critical scholarship on Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs, we see two common themes. On the one hand, many ex-combatants face stigma because of their experience as former rebels and people’s assumptions about them, foreclosing their futures. On the other hand, these very experiences can be leveraged to “re-mobilize” former combatants back into rebellion or into other forms of violent labor. You note that SLITHU’s disarmament program faced shortcomings similar to the DDR program it emulated. Can you elaborate on what it means for someone to be an ex-witch in contemporary Sierra Leone? What can a former witch anticipate for their future?

SMA: We have to consider the issue of visibility here. The visible violence of wartime renders ex-combatants particularly visible social actors, whether they like it or not. The reasons for this conspicuousness are related partially to experience—people have seen the violent acts and their effects—but also to the issue of recognition—the national government and the international community acknowledge and respond to physical violence. This is not the case for invisible violence like witchcraft, at least not in the same way. Witchcraft violence is invisible—no one (except other witches and witchfinders) can see the violent acts, few can agree on their effects, and the national government and certainly the international community refuse to recognize it. So SLITHU’s major project was expressly to make that violence visible and recognizable to officials and funders. To the extent that their efforts went unheeded, they never really gained the kind of leverage that some ex-combatants were able, however provisionally, to win.

A witch does boast a form of power, but that power can only be exercised where it is recognized: within the context of witchfinding. Therefore ex-witches can only leverage that identity by working as witchfinders, an uncertain profession that leaves the practitioner exposed to further accusations of witchcraft. Perhaps for that reason, it was only in interactions with SLITHU that I met individuals who identified themselves as former witches. An intimate ethnography following accused individuals would have been a separate project. From my limited understanding, many such suspects took advantage of the invisibility of witchcraft violence to withdraw toward the anonymity of new communities if they could relocate, or the ambiguity of strained social relations if they could not.

SR: As a national project, SLITHU encompassed, or perhaps transcended, the various ethnic and religious groups in Sierra Leone. You note how Kabba adeptly brought these strands together. Did these differences ever come up in other ways, ways that challenged or weakened SLITHU? Did demographics influence how SLITHU operated or how people talked about witchcraft and antiwitchcraft?

SMA: Sierra Leonean social relations are complicated by a long history of various forms of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial exchange across what we today think of as ethnic groups. Such exchanges have included numerous cultural practices—for example, the widespread trans-ethnic gendered initiatory societies Poro and Sande/Bundu. Note that itinerant healers and performers wielding various mystic arts were key figures in the dissemination of ideas from elsewhere. Even today, many of the most successful herbalists in any particular village are “strangers” who have traveled across ethnic and national borders (e.g., from Guinea, Liberia, and beyond) to exploit their exoticism in offering novel treatments.

Postcolonial politics in Sierra Leone have accentuated antagonisms between the All People’s Congress (APC) party—more popular in the Northern and North West Provinces with Temne and Limba speakers—and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)—more popular in the Southern and Eastern Provinces with Mende speakers. SLITHU’s forerunner, the Sierra Leone Traditional Healers Association (SLENTHA), was founded during SLPP rule by Babara Turay, who had been based in the south at Njala University. It became branded, fairly or not, as an SLPP project. When the APC came to power in 2007, Kabba, as a northerner, more readily pivoted to the new government. Within the Union, it was clear that the majority of executives were from the north. In contrast, most of my own fieldwork was conducted in the south and east. I was present when SLITHU finally launched itself in the eastern capital Kenema after a long delay and witnessed some of the tensions. Locals considered the Union chairman assigned to the Eastern Province to be corrupt and inept, and Kabba bypassed a number of senior women’s leaders to crown a very young (if spiritually and financially powerful) herbalist as the local chairlady. Most of the Kenema healers and herbalists gave their allegiance to a breakaway organization, the Council of Traditional Healers, but that said, many of them were also impressed by SLITHU’s extravagance and the appearance of government support and so registered with both organizations. This equivocation was emblematic of broader practices and beliefs around witchcraft that addressed existential ambiguity by accumulating social ties, however contingent.

In 2018, elections brought the SLPP back to power, and the new president has demoted all the previous organizations in favor of a newly configured Traditional Healers Association of Sierra Leone. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the regionalist politics mentioned earlier, this structure is led by a southern herbalist, former Kamajor initiator Kamoh Muniru Sandy.

Discourses of non and anti-violence can often serve as a means to disavow the perpetuation of certain forms of violence. Any engagement with violence is dangerous.

SR: You cite Alexander L. Fattal’s (2018) work on demobilization and brand capitalism in your discussion of rebrandcraft. Another facet of Fattal’s research is how demobilization in Colombia is consumed by counterinsurgency. In your descriptions of SLITHU operations, healers march in formation with different roles, seize weapons from accused witches, and detain suspects, sometimes with support from actual police or soldiers. One could say this looks less like postwar disarmament and more like counterinsurgency. Do you think counterinsurgency is a useful framework for understanding any of what you present here?

SMA: You make a very good point that leads toward some thoughts that I am still working to articulate. Alex and I participated in a postdoctoral fellowship at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University on the theme of violence and nonviolence alongside Hiba Bou Akar, Joseph Fronczak, and Ram Natarajan. One theme we discussed in that forum was the articulation of counterviolence, nonviolence, and anti-violence. While different contexts have different lexicons, we might consider counterviolence as a tactic of fighting fire with fire, nonviolence as withdrawal from violence or inviting violence upon oneself, and anti-violence as actively promoting healing and justice (cf. Balibar 2015). Over the course of the twentieth century, the so-called global community appears to have largely rejected the legitimacy of counterviolence in favor of the other two approaches. But my research in Sierra Leone taught me that discourses of non and anti-violence can often serve as a means to disavow the perpetuation of certain forms of violence. Any engagement with violence is dangerous.

This point also touches on some concerns I have regarding the ambivalence of my own relationship with SLITHU and the kinds of violence they perpetuated. Like many of the individuals and organizations with whom I worked (though certainly not all of them), Kabba and SLITHU were intellectually fascinating in spite of—or perhaps because of—their potential dangers. I kept the Union at a distance, partially since they were not especially convenient to my other research sites, and partially as I realized that Kabba was using my presence to legitimate his projects. Yet if I am honest with myself in retrospect, I did so also because there were some things I did not want to know. For example, Union executives assured me that captured witches were treated humanely, but I did not push to meet with any of the individuals under their care. I expect I would have found our definitions of humane treatment to be quite different, and the delicate balance of my participant observation would have been challenged in ways I was not prepared for. Was such a choice ethically justified? In the moment, I was not even entirely aware I was making such a choice, which might be an all the more serious indictment.

SR: As you’ve already noted, the role of invisibility in witchcraft beliefs and discourses is common not only in Sierra Leone but across Africa. In response to this, part of SLITHU efforts to counter witchcraft is by rendering it visible through public displays and documenting their work—you describe the goals and pitfalls of this hypervisibility. Can you explain your decision to include images in your article and your own attempts to render antiwitchcraft visible? What exactly is the “SLITHU archive” that is referenced in your captions?

SMA: In all my work, I try to engage with multimodal and especially visual ethnographic methods and expression. If I have one orientating intellectual project, it would be to reassess the value of visual and other non-textual forms of knowledge production and political engagement. If I am to argue for the value of spectacle as a form of political expression, it is crucial that I also allow images to extend and perhaps challenge my text. Of course, this effort introduces numerous complications, logistical and ethical, that I have not always met effectively.

One big issue with the research, and I am trying not to see it as a failure on my part, was that I never personally witnessed any of the disarmament actions. As I note in the article, SLITHU had largely moved on to other projects, although those programs (like the launch in Kenema mentioned earlier) were often preceded by smaller echoes of the disarmament campaigns. So I ended up leaning on their archival materials to get a sense of the experience of the events. Because SLITHU’s authority was extremely tenuous and entirely performative, its members consistently collected and invoked records of their interactions with various sources of influence. Coverage of the witch-finding operations was archived through VCDs held by the SLITHU council, along with numerous articles published by various newspapers. Without the permanence of an office building or a hospital—the most frequently repeated appeal from Union members—such media records, alongside the ubiquitous membership ID cards, were practically all that constituted SLITHU’s material, infrastructural, and durable presence.

Performance studies scholarship offers a number of commentaries on the relationship between the singular, live performance and its preservation in video, photography, programs, reviews, souvenirs, and other forms of ephemera (e.g., Phelan 1993; Nyong’o 2002; Taylor 2003). Such discussions only have more salience amid escalating anxieties about our increasingly mediatized societies and the precarity of performative power.

SR: Since you mentioned it, I want to take a step back to discuss training, methods, and approaches to ethnography. You come from a performance studies background. How has that shaped your approach to fieldwork and your understanding of witchcraft, antiwitchcraft, and the broader worlds of your interlocutors in Sierra Leone?

SMA: Well, I should defend my own intellectual “branding” (cruel irony!) by noting that, academically, I’ve always been in the anthropology wing of performance studies. But as I just mentioned, I also dabble in various arts practices, and since my youth as a scrawny theater kid, I have been compelled by performance’s potential as a site for intersections of multiple media and inspiration for social transformation. In my own rudimentary work as a director and designer, I was deeply dissatisfied with Euro-American theatrical models that emphasized the reproduction of written scripts, and I found common purpose with the early strains of performance studies articulated by Victor Turner and Richard Schechner that pushed beyond the proscenium, as it were. What I carry from that scholarship is an appreciation for sensory experience beyond text—the images, sounds, smells, and moods that emanate from the performance site, both geographically, from the stage to the audience to the wider world and back again, and temporally, from preparation to presentation to consequences of any event. On the other hand, I do try to transcend the ways in which those classical discussions leant on a dichotomy of theater and ritual. While such models have been productive, they can also be reductive. This is one reason why I gravitate towards the term spectacle, which of course has its own intellectual baggage but I believe also offers a more constructive orientation to the kinds of programs I study than theater, ritual, or even performance.

SR: Lastly, you mention that your work with SLITHU occurred alongside a broader project on provincial performances. Can you say a bit more about how this article fits into the rest of your research?

SMA: When I started my fieldwork, very few scholars had directly engaged with expressive culture in Sierra Leone since the 1991–2002 civil war. I initially visited to find out what happened to Freetown’s urban “devil” societies, but the scope of my project shifted almost immediately during pilot research when I followed a tip from Danny Hoffman and traveled to the provinces to meet Hassan Jalloh, a former militia commander who now tours the countryside demonstrating the mystic powers he gained in wartime. As itinerant and marginal figures, so-called “cultural artists” like Jalloh roam across multiple social spheres, working both as and with healers, politicians, NGO administrators, pop stars, and other influential social actors. Jalloh’s case opened my eyes to all the ways in which Sierra Leoneans mobilize various alchemical syntheses of hyper-visual performance, invisible forces, and violence to generate new political realities. I refer to these as “spectacles” because they depend on images and crowds, but also because they exist in electric tension with the pervasive commitment to secrecy that many scholars of the region have so eloquently documented (e.g., Ferme 2001; McGovern 2013). The Sierra Leone Indigenous Traditional Healers Union is one institution that activates such spectacles, and I also investigate parallel projects sponsored by NGOs [non-governmental organizations], political parties, and initiatory societies.

At the time of my primary fieldwork, the fragility of the nation’s medical infrastructure was evident, and in fact I planned to conduct a second project on the performance of medical care. But I could not have imagined the 2014–2015 Ebola crisis. Since then, I have been revisiting my work to clarify how Sierra Leoneans have used spectacle to transmute violence into different formulations and how the outright physical brutality of war was converted into the structural violence of infrastructural collapse. I also could not have predicted the particular ways in which certain politics of spectacle would overtake ostensible democracies in the United States and elsewhere. But I hope the experiences of Sierra Leoneans might offer some suggestion about why such spectacles, however dangerous they may be, appear so promising.


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