British-Zimbabwean author Doris Lessing’s short story “No Witchcraft for Sale” was published in June 1986. Set in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) where Lessing herself grew up, the story portrays the conflict between modern western medicine and science and traditional African knowledge of healing and witchcraft. It also presents a poignant depiction of racism and the Black vs. White divide in a deeply racist society.
No Witchcraft for Sale | Summary
Narrated by an omniscient third-person narrator, the story opens with the birth of the only child of the childless Farquar couple, Teddy. The Farquars are white, and their son has bright blue eyes and golden hair, earning the awe and admiration of the African servants of the Farquars’ Rhodesian farm. They congratulate Mrs. Farquar, who is grateful for their admiration. The family’s African cook, Gideon, is especially attached to the child, and gives him the nickname of ‘Little Yellow Head’. Forming a steadfast friendship with Teddy, Gideon adores him, playing and spending time with him at every opportunity he can find. Because of his affection for her child, we are told that Mrs. Farquar is quite fond of him. Being raised on a mission, Gideon is religious, and comforts Mrs. Farquar on her inability to have another child since the one they have is enough. His use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ makes his mistress warm up to him even more, prompting a raise in his wages.
As Teddy grows up, he can sometimes see a little African boy of his age stare at his white skin and blond hair in amazement, just as he keeps staring at the latter’s black skin and curly, black hair, two children, not yet poisoned by racism, gazing at each other in childlike wonder and amazement. Looking at the children’s interaction, Gideon sadly wonders how one of them will grow up to be a master and the other a servant, but nevertheless accepts it as God’s will, unable to see through the human actions that created the institution of racism. Teddy’s innocence, however, doesn’t last for long as he begins to be influenced by the racist views around him, scaring Gideon’s youngest child on his bike because ‘he’s only a black boy’, and calling him derogatory, racist abuses like ‘piccanin’. On being reproached by Gideon, he attempts to pacify him, whom he loves despite the color of his skin but does not respect enough to apologize for his behavior, thanks to the internalized racism that has already begun to show itself in the child. Following this incident, Gideon begins to distance himself from the boy, and their interactions slowly take on the formality of the master-servant dynamic that usually pervaded interracial relationships in colonial times.
One day, however, Teddy stumbles into the kitchen screaming in pain, his eyes being spit on by a snake while biking, swollen and oozing. As Mrs. Farquar attempts in vain to save his son from blindness, Gideon takes it upon himself to save the child’s eyesight. Using the generational knowledge of traditional herbs and medicine, he chews the fleshy white root of a plant and spits the spittle out into Teddy’s eyes despite the protests from the mother and the child. The remedy proves effective, and as the boy’s eyes return to normalcy, his parents are overcome with gratitude towards the cook, not being able to pay off his debt of saving their only child from a life of blindness. The news of this story slowly travels far and wide, earning both awe and admiration as well as skepticism and ridicule from people who hear it. The whites who heard and shared stories of their own did that with a tinge of exasperation and frustration at their inability to gather knowledge of traditional African herbs and healing techniques from the natives who are extremely tight-lipped about them. On reaching the ears of a doctor in town, the story gained only disbelief, the doctor mocking the truth of the anecdote because of the inability of Western research to have gathered evidence about such medicinal herbs yet.
One morning, however, a car stopped in front of the Farquars’ gate, carrying a laboratory worker with a bag full of test tubes and chemicals. The couple was ‘pleased and flattered’ by the unexpected attention as they narrated the incident to the scientist, who in turn explained to them how humanity might benefit from the discovery of such a miraculous drug, and how lucratively they would be rewarded. Although not pleased with this economic approach to dealing with what was God’s miracle to them, the Farquars summoned their cook, asking him the details of the medicine he used to cure Teddy’s eyes. Gideon is deeply disturbed upon learning the purpose of this inquiry and appears to be extremely secretive about the knowledge that generations of Africans have gathered before him, and no amount of coaxing, commanding, or bribing succeeds in getting the truth out of him. Making different excuses at different times, he even leads them on a wild goose chase to find the plant, making them walk around in the sun till they are exhausted and giving the scientist some other purple flowers under the pretense of it being of the same plant that healed Teddy, which it is not. The scientist leaves unsuccessfully, but the Farquars try to continue the investigation by questioning their other servants, to no avail. All of them refuse to disclose the secret herb, feigning ignorance or forgetfulness. The stable boy throws a single hint at the Farquars, revealing that Gideon is actually the son of a powerful healer, and is capable of curing everything. This knowledge of traditional African medicine, however, remains elusive to their white masters, who go around searching in vain for it and eventually give up.
No Witchcraft for Sale | Analysis
Set in colonial Africa, the story depicts the sharp divide between the Black Man and the White Man/the Colonised and the Coloniser, as well as between traditional indigenous forms of knowledge as opposed to canonical Western science and medicine. The opening paragraph itself establishes the colonial background of the story through the African workers’ wonder at Teddy’s European features which are exotic in their land. It is noticeable that Mrs. Farquar’s gratitude only comes as a reaction to the warm congratulations she receives from the natives, and not from any sincere regard she has for them as fellow human beings. This is also true in the case of Gideon, although in his case, it is their mutual love for Teddy and Christianity that makes the Farquars bond with him. Mrs. Farquars’ agreement with Gideon that it is ‘God’s will’ that has made the Africans servants to White men betrays her internalized racism and her denial of responsibility for the actions of her family and race. Moreover, Teddy’s racist disdain towards Black children shows that his family has not taught him to treat Africans as equals. It is important to note, however, that the servants employed by the Farquars are not slaves, they receive wages from their employers, although the fairness of the received wage remains unknown.
Gideon’s ability to successfully heal Teddy’s almost-blinded eyes signifies the fact that indigenous forms of medicinal knowledge can indeed be powerful and curative, a fact that Western science tries hard to disprove. The white people’s disdainful and exasperated attitudes towards these native ‘miracles’ reflect this attitude, as well as their frustration at not being able to get their hands on these forms of African knowledge. Since colonialism, at its basic, is the control and exploitation of an external area’s resources, a knowledge of an area and its people (albeit partial and often biased) is essential in exercising power and maintaining control. Knowledge is the foremost of all sources of power, and control over native forms of knowledge has always been an inherent aim of colonialism. The natives realize this, as do the Whites. The Africans know that their knowledge of African nature, its dangers, and its remedies put them a few steps ahead of the White man in terms of survival in Africa. They realize the power that is contained in these traditional forms of knowledge, thus their fierce protectiveness and secretiveness regarding it. The colonizer also realizes the hidden potential of this knowledge and the economic gains that will fill the pockets of him and his countrymen, leaving the ones who truly deserve to reap its benefits impoverished. Thus, at its core, this is a story of racism, colonialism, and resistance to exploitation and control. The title of the story, “No Witchcraft for Sale” also echoes this idea of resistance to colonialism and economic exploitation.