The Confession of a Witch


A woman I know, when she was about ten, or a little older, was accused of being possessed by the devil. She does not remember on what occasion her actions as a precocious, headstrong child gave her off. But there is a moment in her memory when she is kneeling, encircled by a praying group from our childhood Presbyterian Church. After a session of prayers, she is asked to recant her allegiance to Satan. In practice, no recantation is complete without naming one’s companions. She made up identities, accusing schoolmates she disliked, or recalcitrant girls in church. “You know I don’t believe in those things,” she said. Once, her mother asked if she had a hand in the end of a preacher’s marriage, a man who visited her family regularly. She nodded in agreement. No other response had been envisaged.

Once also, a little past midnight, as a little girl, a visiting woman forcefully woke her. The visitor struck her chest repeatedly. “You heart is very hard.” She was unsure if by striking her chest the woman hoped to make her spirit softer, less unsure if by striking her chest the woman hoped to make her spirit softer, less involved with the devil. What she recalls was saying nothing to her parents about that night, telling no one all these years, except me, now that I solicit for her past. At the end of her recollection, she says, “I hope you won’t put my name in what you’re writing.”

I will let her anonymity stand2. Yet I approach the first photograph reminded of women whose memories match what is depicted. “The confession of a witch.” The photograph was published in May 1964, that month’s issue of the Nigerian edition of Drum. Accompanying the photograph is a paragraph-long description of what it denotes.

“Madam Fariyike prays on each day at Ajaye Apostolic Church. Prophet Ayodele also prays for her to ward off spirits of former witch circle. For 30 years she practiced evil witchcraft. She flew in the night like a terrible bird, and brought death to 30 people. These are the claims of Salamo Fariyike, who confesses her past to Dapo Daramola. Thirty years ago, at the age of 17, a young girl was offered what appeared to her to be an ordinary delicious akara ball for breakfast by her dying grandmother. The girl gratefully munched the akara and thanked granny for her kindness. But far from being the ordinary delicacy which the innocent girl thought it was, she claims that akara ball turned her life upside down transforming her overnight from a pretty, kind-hearted, lovable girl to vicious, cruel, bloodsucking witch.”3

I begin with the denotation. This is an image of a woman poised in surrender. “Surrender”—having confessed her past to Dapo Daramola, the then editor of Drum. “Surrender” in the sense Christians use the word: surrender your life to Christ, accept him as your Lord and personal savior. Salamo Fariyike’s surrender, however, when I consider her body in the photograph, isn’t easy to resolve. What does a woman’s half-naked body have to do with her confession as a witch? Stripped of her own volition, or not?

While this question unravels, I return to certain gestures in the photograph. All four persons move their mouths. Yet this is as far as the similarity goes. The woman on the left appears as the most energetic of all, her eyes closed, one hand stretched as if she’s ecstatic. The man next to her seems to have had a smirk at the moment of being pictured. His hand rests on Salamo’s shoulders. Then Salamo, bent over: I readily identify her as the subject of the prayer. I readily identify Prophet Ayodele as the leader of the prayer session. His hands are raised the highest. Both hands are in use—one clenching a Bible, the other a bell. Of everyone pictured only his gaze confronts the viewer. This gazing-back solidifies his claim as the leader.

This photograph as an event—the event isn’t Salamo’s confession, but her deliverance. She is pictured, in other words, after she has turned herself in. That this is an after-the-fact image, almost makes her “evil witchcraft” unproven, existing in a moment not portrayed, left in the imagination of those who cast their stones at her.

There is a second photograph of Salamo Fariyike. This time her face almost fills the frame, with room for parts of her neck and shoulders, a necklace, and the hand of Prophet Ayodele, perched solidly on her scarfed head. Contrasted with her expression in the other photograph, in this she looks utterly silent, muted even. As if, resulting from her silence, her earlier power as a witch keels over into vulnerability as a woman being prayed for.

I will like to examine the imagination of Salamo’s deliverers. They know her as a self-confessed, blood-sucking witch. She is nothing but a witch. Her future is determined by who she was as a witch. I see this especially in the bell the prophet has raised above her bending figure. The clanging sound bears witness. The testimony of deliverance reaches the ears of those present and afar.

Drum, in the years of its Nigerian operation, from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, was “a racy magazine, rich with photographs and ethnographic data.” One goal of the magazine was to produce quality pictures. During an initial trip to Accra, a West African outpost of the South African magazine, Tom Hopkinson, the then editor-in-chief, said: “Drum is going to become a picture magazine. Yes, I know you’ve had a lot of photographs in it in the past, but now the photographs are going to be the paper. People are going to buy Drum for its pictures.”  Toyin Falola and Tyler Flemming expand on this further: “For Drum, photojournalism and photograph spreads would often be the basis of the magazine, limiting the amount of text and thus allowing the magazine to attract both literate and illiterate readers. Therefore a low literacy rate may have actually served to strengthen and preserve Drum’s position as the dominant magazine throughout Africa.”5

The magazine’s ethos of precision regarding photographs allows for certain meanings. Anyone who sees both Salamo’s images, with or without their captions, will likely recognize an ongoing spiritual ceremony. The audience addressed is one learned in what happens to a woman identified as a witch. In looking at the photographs, and recognizing the context in which they were made—for whom and by whom—I do not wish to make irrelevant their widespread, consensual meanings. However uncomfortable a half-naked woman being prayed for makes me feel, I am interested in why Drum considered this story worthy of report. I am interested in how collective imagination peters into, or solidifies as, widespread belief.

There is something valid about popular imagination, something arguably true. For many Nigerians, even today, blood-sucking demons fly at night. They come in gnomish shapes to oppress their neighbors. They alter destinies. They make hard work of no consequence. Etc.—a litany of throes everyone recites, or has heard. Yet, since truisms can only take you as far as what isn’t ambivalent, I want to suspend my belief in widespread truisms. Speculating. I distrust a witchcraft suspend my belief in widespread truisms. Speculating. I distrust a witchcraft censured by stripping a woman.

I always wonder what a body placed within metaphors might look like. People aren’t ideas, but the imagination of witchcraft is so absorbing it does not stop in what’s unseen. Moving into the tactile, the touchable, it implicates the body. The biblical supposition is that a message is never without its messenger, and the spirit is not without a physical portal. A redeemer is made incarnate in the flesh, and then crucified. A martyr burns at a stake. A woman who testifies to have housed evil spirits is stripped for prayers.

In the second photograph the woman’s face is brought near. She is likely photographed by a man. Part of her head is grabbed by a man’s hand. Will a man ever look at a woman’s body guiltless of all the ways women’s bodies have been looked at and held by men? Looking at this photograph, I want to listen to women teach me how to see them. Where to look at? How to keep my gaze both desirous and free of control? How the eye is not merely an organ of desire—but something less assertive of its power, something embarrassed by the knowledge of ways men prey on women.

The arc of prayer bends towards preying—how?

I traverse both photographs with my eyes. To undo the severity of words patriarchy has thrown at women, a controlling grasp on their heads. If this essay atones, it is for my own original sin: man.

As I write, the worldviews of Nigerian Christians who believe there are witches sent to cause harm, and of those who find such beliefs suspect are irreconcilable. What proof favors either argument? Perhaps the ultimate value the photograph serves is its evidence of a witch being delivered, tendered to secular, skeptical viewers.

An essay takes a lifetime to write. I am a preacher’s son. I remind myself of the good fortune of my Church life. My father is ordained Presbyterian, a Christian denomination with a protestant slant. In secondary school I belonged to a group that occasionally prayed for demon-possessed girls. In university, attending school fellowships with an evangelical bent, I preached against publicizing the devil’s work, believing in Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice, Satan’s impotence. I have moved back and forth almost through the entire gamut of Nigerian Christianity. What I sense is that these photographs partly reckons for my foray: within the woman’s averted gaze and sealed lips are many Christian practices my intellect cannot resolve. I am learning that mine could be a lifetime of leaving my doubt unexplained, and that despite my faith.




1. Due to difficulties in obtaining copyright permission, the images referred to in this essay can only be viewed on the Baileys African History Archive website. Hyperlinks have been provided. This raises the question of how, as a web journal run by a nonprofit organization, and as independent art writers, one might approach and access the archive. An additional consideration is how you, reader, now approach and access an essay on photographs without photographs embedded.

2. While I worked on this essay, I asked my friends, women, “tell me your witchcraft stories.” The stories ranged in scope and form, sometimes as bare as being called a witch by a man, or as outlandish as being accused in a church service of demon possession. It struck me, also, while I read Tunji Balogun’s public disavowal of his wife Tiwa Savage, how he referred to his mother-in-law as a witch. Something about witchcraft in the Nigerian consciousness is synonymous with “woman.”

3. What’s untold: Was she suspected? Did she confess under duress? Or did she volunteer the information, contrite? Supposing I could search for the specifics of Salamo Fariyike’s story, I perceive the facts would be blurred by the intervening time, or by the surplus of similar stories.

4. Recall Wambui Mwangi’s essay, “Silence is a Woman,” especially the following: “The natural condition of a woman is to dwell in silence, to persevere mutely, and to communicate speechlessly. Silence becomes a woman. Silence is what a woman, in be-coming a woman, becomes. Silence is becoming in a woman because silence is the be-coming of a woman. A woman is silent. The presence of a woman is the presence of silence. Silence is a woman.”

5. A concise analysis of Drum’s years in Nigeria can be found in an essay by Toyin Falola and Tyler Flemming, “Africa’s Media Empire: Drum’s Expansion to Nigeria,” in History in Africa, Volume 32, 2005, pp. 133-164.