The dangers of anonymity: Witchcraft, rumor, and modernity in Africa

Julien Bonhomme


This article deals with a series of rumors that spread across West and Central Africa during the last two decades. These rumors of penis snatchers, of killer mobile phone numbers, and of deadly alms constitute a transnational genre that is characteristic of Africa’s occult modernity. While the literature on the modernity of witchcraft has been criticized for its macrosociological orientation, the article strives to counterbalance this bias by drawing on microsociology in order to explore the interactional repertoires in which these new forms of the occult are grounded. It shows that they exploit anxieties born out of mundane situations: shaking hands with strangers, receiving unidentified phone calls, or accepting anonymous gifts. New forms of the occult thus focus on the dangers of anonymity and point to the risk of being forced into opaque interactions with unknown others. They draw on two different situations of anonymity, which can be connected to two distinctive repertoires of modernity. Face-to-face encounters with strangers are typical of—but not exclusive to—urban modernity, while mediated interactions with distant and often invisible agents are part and parcel of technological modernity. Therefore, insofar as modernity has extended the scope of human sociality in unprecedented ways, it has extended as well the scope of the occult. This article casts new light on witchcraft and the occult in contemporary Africa, and suggests new ways of tying together micro and macro levels of analysis, by grounding the wide-ranging dynamics of modernity in the minutiae of human interaction.


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.012