Tackling ‘witch’ murders in Tanzania

BBC, Oct. 29, 2002
By Daniel Dickinson

Communities in northern Tanzania along the shores of Lake Victoria are stepping up their efforts to eradicate the murder of old people, mainly women, who have been accused of witchcraft.

The women often become targets of attacks when traditional healers identify them as the cause of an illness or other misfortune.

The healers suggest that if the so-called witch is killed, then it will help to remedy the problem.

One victim of an attack was 80-year-old Magdale Ndila, who is fortunate to be alive.

Seven years ago a man broke into her house intending to murder her.

She said that she heard a noise in her bedroom, then a light was shone in her face.

“I tried to get up but couldn’t. Suddenly I felt a terrible pain and I realised my right hand had been cut off. It fell to the ground.”

“I screamed in pain. My daughter was next door and heard me, but she was too scared to come as she knew I was being attacked. I was struck again on my other hand and then I felt blows to my head. The attacker wanted to kill me.”

To this day, Magdale doesn’t know how she survived, but she does know why she was singled out.

“The reason why they attacked me was because they thought I was a witch.

“I think this because there was a boy in the neighbourhood who was ill and then died. They said I had bewitched him.’

There are no statistics for the number of murders, but it is thought it could be more than 100 a year.

These deaths have occurred in areas in the north of Tanzania, like the Sukumaland region by Lake Victoria where Magdale lives.

Here the belief in witchcraft is still strong and traditional healers continue to wield great influence.

Mbula Habuka is a traditional healer. He sings songs aimed at chasing evil spirits away.

He has never incited one of his clients to murder, but admits there are many traditional healers who have suggested murder as a remedy.

He says that healers are playing on deeply held cultural beliefs in the power of witchcraft and the superstition that an illness is the result of a misdeed rather than a medical problem.

The murder of older people due to the belief in witchcraft is a relatively new development dating back just 30 years.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of incidents has increased recently due to a worsening economic situation.

The non-governmental organisation, Help Age International has been working in Sukumaland in an attempt to stop the practice.

Sixbert Mbaya, the Help Age project co-ordinator, says scapegoating someone as a witch is a convenient way to explain illness in the family or economic hardship.

“With increased hardship the accusations of witchcraft increase. So we believe if livelihoods improve they will decrease, but the fact remains that when people have problems they look to blame someone else.”

He says that old women are targeted the most.

“They’re often the most vulnerable members of the community. In Sukumaland they also typically live longer than men so are frequently widows living alone. But communities are now being mobilised to change attitudes.”

There are 25 troupes of actors supported by Help Age who tour the region educating villagers and performing plays which mock the absurdity of witchcraft practices.

But Mr Mbaya says changing traditional beliefs is not easy.

“In the Sukuma community, if you kill a witch it is not really considered a crime. It’s like you are doing something for the community. It’s a culturally acceptable thing to do.”

The key to changing beliefs is the traditional healers. More than 120 in Sukumaland have attended training sessions and now their diagnoses and remedies are changing.

Some are even recommending that a good deed towards an old person can help to cure an illness.

The expectation and hope is that in the future fewer old women will be murdered as witches.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 31, 2002.
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