Daily Telegraph (England), Aug. 4, 2002
By Lucy Jones in Bangui
The selection of sticks belonging to Martin Nagoagoumi, a “witchcraft” detective, does not bode well for Stephanie as she stands accused of sorcery at the police station in Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital.
Stacked under the dusty scales of justice are long, thin canes for beating children, metal poles with flattened tops, and a long wooden stave punched with nails for use on adults who refuse to “confess”.
Stephanie, 13, an orphan, shakes at the sight of the sticks and tells the detective that she was tricked into becoming a “witch”. A neighbour, she says, gave her a bowl of soup and after she had eaten it the woman revealed that it contained a human heart. Stephanie, the woman said, now possessed supernatural powers like her own. That night the woman took the girl to a villa belonging to one of the presidential guards where they were to enter the grounds “transformed as cats” and perform spells. But the soldier was woken by the pair and caught them.
Women and children charged with witchcraft will make up one fifth of the jail population when the country’s national prison, destroyed during the mutinies of 1996 and 1997, is reopened in the next few weeks.
Although belief in sorcery is common in sub-Saharan Africa, the Central African Republic’s legal system condemns witchcraft as a crime. Alleged witches are pursued with vigour, even though accusations often stem from hearsay, gossip and score-settling.
At Bangui police station, a team of detectives specialises in sorcery. To make the investigators immune to the spells of their suspects, they are routinely injected with “vaccinations” of herbs by witchdoctors. They say that this is necessary because the number of those practising witchcraft is rising. Hundreds of women, men and children are charged every year with witchcraft offences, and if found guilty are punished by imprisonment and even execution.
One explanation for the increase is the spread of Aids. More than 17 per cent of the population is HIV positive, and deaths from Aids are often attributed to sorcery rather than from unprotected sex or infected blood transfusions.
In the courts, “truth” herbs are used to make a suspect confess. As spells often involve burying bits of clothing, snipped clothes are dangled before the jury as evidence. A name cried out by a sick person during sleep after taking a witch doctor’s herbs is also believed to be a sure way of identifying a “witch”.
Only a few sceptics in Bangui acknowledge that jealousy and rivalry are at the heart of most accusations of witchcraft. Even lawyers in the city refuse to dismiss the powers of sorcery.
Heads of state have also been firm believers in the practice; the capital is strewn with the abandoned palaces of former presidents as incoming leaders built new residences, fearing the power of the spirits of their deposed predecessors.
The cases of those accused of witchcraft often do not reach court. In M’baiki, a large town in the south-west of the country, several women accused of witchcraft were recently buried alive. Others have been summarily executed.