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Vigilante killings in Tanzania spur a hunt for witch-hunters

Men burn a house belonging to a suspected witch in northern Tanzania, near the border with Kenya, on Jan 3, 2018. RNS photo by Tonny Onyulo

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (RNS) – On a recent Sunday morning, congregants gathered at a Pentecostal church in Mbagala, a slum in this port city, to pray against the witchcraft that is still commonly practiced in this East African nation of 55 million.

“In the name of Jesus Christ, I bind and break witchcraft and mind-binding spirits,” pastor David Juma shouted as worshippers began wailing, shouting, coiling themselves on the ground. “I bind and break the spirits of Ahab and Jezebel.”

Religious leaders like Juma are battling what they regard as mere superstition, but their fight against witchcraft is also directed at ending a rash of killings in a country where vigilantes regularly strangle, knife and burn alive older women they suspect of being witches.

About 93 percent of Tanzanians say they believe in witchcraft, according to a Pew Research Center report in 2012 —  a higher percentage than those who say they believe in organized religion — and 60 percent of the country depends on witch doctors for treating ailments believed to be caused by witchcraft.

Witch doctors are such a part of Tanzanian life that more than 100,000 are registered with the government’s Traditional and Alternative Health Practice Council. Millions more are not registered, according to government estimates.

There is no official certification required to be registered as a witch doctor — what matters is that a village or neighborhood believes in your powers — but most are considered to possess a profound knowledge of the local plants and herbs, complemented by divination that is sometimes used as a diagnostic tool. Witch doctors often report being visited by ancestors or spirits in dreams who reveal medicinal recipes.

But the vigilante killings of those accused of doing harm by witchcraft show the darker side of popular belief. When misfortune strikes, such as death, infertility or drought, people are quick to blame spells and conjurers for their tragedies. Many of those accused are women, especially older women.

 A report released in July 2017 by Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Center said almost 500 people were killed by mob justice in the first six months of 2017.

“The crime is still quite prevalent in the rural areas,” said Paul Mikongoti, the program officer at the legal center. “In these areas, we do not have a lot of police or awareness around the issue, and these killings still persist.”

Salome Swai, 58, fled the Tabora region in western Tanzania in May 2017 after villagers accused her of witchcraft that caused the death of her husband. They beat her, set fire to her house and killed all her cows, she said. They were determined to kill her before she escaped in the dark.

“They accused me of having red eyes, which are associated with witchcraft,” said the mother of three.“I’m not a witch. My husband died of HIV. I cannot kill my own husband. I was attacked for nothing.

“The villagers said the witch doctor told them that I was responsible for the death of my husband,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for witch doctors to be at the center of disputes that lead to the killings, since it’s believed they can tell who bewitched whom. When something strange happens in the village, residents go to a witch doctor to find a solution.

The witch doctor will reveal the name of the witch who has committed the offense, and the killings will follow.

“We trust them because they always tell the truth,” said Zacharia Hamad, 68, a village elder from the Tabora region. “They have helped us to reduce witchcraft because witches are now living in fear of attack if they happen to bewitch anyone.”

Five women accused of being witches were killed by a mob last year in Tabora, and Wilbroad Mtafungwa, the regional chief of police, is determined to end the practice. Though he’s made some arrests, many suspects go unpunished because few are willing to question the witch doctors’ identification of women as witches. Mtafungwa hopes to end the violence by raising awareness.

Christian churches in Tanzania are doing their part by preaching against belief in the occult. “We want our people to believe in true God, not in witch doctors,” said Juma, the pastor in Dar es Salaam. “In every village there’s a witch doctor and at least one elderly person has been murdered because of practicing witchcraft.”

Swai, whose hands were cut off in her attack, is now a born-again Christian who tries to convince locals to believe in Jesus Christ and not attack people suspected of being witches.

But even Swai doesn’t completely disavow the existence of witches. “It’s a sin to attack and kill a person because you suspect them of practicing witchcraft,” she said.

“You might be attacking the innocent person and leaving the real witch,” she advised.

Nonetheless, Juma said churches needed to come together to preach the gospel to end witchcraft. “Let’s preach the word and change the way people think,” he said. 

“We have had a few cases of witchcraft-related killings since last year because of the efforts from religious leaders and the government. We are going to continue to ensure the practice is completely eradicated,” he said.

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Tonny Onyulo

19 Comments

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  • “Religious leaders like Juma are battling what they regard as mere superstition, but their fight against witchcraft is also directed at ending a rash of killings in a country where vigilantes regularly strangle, knife and burn alive older women they suspect of being witches.”
    Maybe it would be helpful if they stopped believing in witches and magic entirely, instead of giving it credence ad credibility by battling that which does not exist.

  • I’m a witch and I exist. I suspect that my practice isn’t exactly what folks like this are railing against, though I have no doubt that they’d be just as unhappy with me as with those they do target.

  • Absolutely. Their idea of a witch, and yours or mine, are vastly different. I was using it in the sense that we would both decry. My apologies for not making the distinction.

  • A few years back the Archbishop of Oklahoma City exorcised a room at the Civic Center where there had been a satanic mass. And Bishop Paprocki in Illinois exorcised the whole state after same-sex marriage became legal there. These exorcisms are not violent, of course, but they are at the same level of superstition as the hunt for witches in Tanzania.

  • A belief in a Devil with minions is part and parcel of Catholic, Orthodox, and other traditional Christian denominations.

    The New Testament describes Christ, and the Apostles, driving out demons.

    Perhaps you could add this to your list, along with how the Catholic Church should be organized, for when the 5,500 Catholic bishops come knocking on your door for you to wise them up.

  • In Africa, “witchcraft” or “traditional doctors” needs the full attention of governments. Traditional or witch doctors often fill the function of a psychologist in some African societies and act a supplement to Western medicine, most of what they do is harmless but occasional can be dangerous to society with killings and exploiting sick and vulnerable people . Some witch doctors kill children and albinos for body parts as part of some ingredients to create potions or other “magic” to address an issue of a customer depending on local superstitions . Those practicing witch craft and committing murders are tried in courts that follow due process.

  • Two related questions:
    1. Is “mage” a proper term at all?

    2. What are your views of the character of John Constantine coming back to television?

  • Most are harmless, but some exploit vulnerable people and kill others for body parts in some areas of Africa.

  • Comrade Spuddie asked: “Is ‘mage’ a proper term at all?”

    Obviously, that would depend on its usage and context, Comrade:

    mage, noun:
    (paranormal), a practitioner of magic, the ability to attain objectives or acquire knowledge or wisdom using supernatural means
    (fantasy), or mage, someone who uses or practices magic derived from supernatural or occult sources

  • The Western tradition of ceremonial magic has had a strong influence on modern Pagan sensibilities through organizations like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (not the Greek ethnonationalist political party that has a similar name), the Ordo Templi Orientis, Rosicrucian philosophy, etc. Thus, I suspect there are those who probably use the term mage out there, but I don’t know any who do so personally.

    I love John Constantine, but I’m a long term fan and reader of the Vertigo line of comics. I’ve got no problem with the occult being a part of pop culture. The Funko Pop figurine of Death from the Endless definitely stands in for Persephone during some of my work!

  • Stalking me? I was asking the actual believer, not a resident MAGA-chud (probably stolen valor) nutball following me from another board.

  • Thanks for the info.

    Big fan of the Vertigo line as well (or at least was one when I was still collecting comic books back in the day). Didn’t realize they relaunched it recently.
    https://www.vertigocomics.com/blog/vertigo

    The occult and pop culture are inexorably intertwined. It is pretty obvious there is an exchange going on when it comes to imagery and tropes.

    An anime recommendation you might enjoy, “Fullmetal Alchemist-Brotherhood”.
    http://www.crunchyroll.com/fullmetal-alchemist-brotherhood
    Its setting is a modern-ish world where magic is treated like a science.

  • The Roman Catholic Church has had witch-doctors for centuries !
    Only they call them exorcists.

    Two German Dominican priests compiled the authoritative text for dealing with witches – Malleus Maleficarum in 1487.

    ” The recommended procedures include torture to effectively obtain confessions and the death penalty as the only sure remedy against the
    evils of witchcraft.[18][19] In the Malleus demons are the ones who tempt humans to sorcery and are the main figures in the witches’ vows. They interact with witches, usually sexually. The book claims that it is normal for all witches “to perform filthy carnal acts with demons.”[109]

    According to it, Pope Innocent VIII acknowledges that sorceresses are real and harmful through their involvement in the acts of Satan.[54]

    ” And they (Malleus authors) shall also have full and entire liberty to propound and preach to the faithful Word of God, as often as it shall seem to them fitting and proper, in each and all of the parosh churches in the said provinces, and to do all things necessary and suitable under the aforesaid circumstances, and likewise freely and fully to carry them out. ” — Summis desiderantes affectibus[56]
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malleus_Maleficarum#Demonology

    And in March of 2018 – this article….

    ” Vatican trains exorcists as demonic possession claims rise ”
    An exorcism course will be held at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome from April 16-21. The training will focus on
    exorcism and the prayer of liberation, a prayer commonly used for deliverance from possession.
    (Fr) Palilla told Vatican Radio that there are 500,000 alleged cases of demonic possession or activity in Italy annually.
    https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2018/03/01/vatican-trains-exorcists-demonic-possession-claims-rise/

    So the African witch-doctors have a centuries-long blueprint for their psychotic-criminal actions – courtesy of the Roman Catholic Church….

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