Posted on November 28, 2005

Tanzania Suffers Rise of Witchcraft Hysteria

Independent (London), Nov. 28

They came for Lemi Ndaki in the night. “I was sleeping when I heard a noise,” explains the 70-year-old Tanzanian grandmother. “There was no security in my hut and the door was easy to open. I got up to see about the noise and someone grabbed me and chopped off my arm with a machete. I think he came to chop my neck but I raised my hand and he only took my arm.”

A neighbour heard her cries and took her to the hospital in Mwanza, the nearest city, a three-hour drive away on the shore of Lake Victoria. “They couldn’t put my arm back on and the scar still hurts, especially when I’m cold.” That is not surprising: the open bone still pokes out from the skin below her elbow, 19 years later.

Other elderly women in her village, Mwamagigisi, haven’t been so lucky. Ng’wana Budodi was shot in the head with an arrow. Kabula Lubambe and Helena Mabula were knifed to death. Ng’wana Ng’ombe was also murdered with a machete, and when her mud hut was set alight, her husband, Sami, was burnt alive.

This is the fate awaiting thousands of old people, mostly women, who are accused of witchcraft in this rural and isolated corner of east Africa. The killings are escalating in many areas, perhaps numbering more than 1,000 a year, but the Tanzanian government and police do nothing to stop them.

Although belief in witchcraft is common across much of sub-Saharan Africa, relatively few people persecute suspected sorcerers. What exists in the regions of Mwanza, Shinyanga and Tabora — predominantly Sukuma by tribe — is a localised hysteria reminiscent of the witch burnings and trials-by-ordeal of Salem or medieval Europe.

A combination of poverty, ignorance and personal jealousies leaves fearful and frustrated peasants quick to blame any adverse act of fate — a dead child, a failed crop, an inheritance settlement where a sibling receives all the land — on witchcraft. Throw into the pot malicious gossip and an often fatal bout of finger-pointing at old women, and the result is vigilante groups of professional killers moving from village to village, accepting payments to remove the “problem” by hacking, beating or burning. Four cows or $100 is said to be the going rate.

Sometimes local outrage is such that mob rule breaks out and the “witch” is openly lynched. One of the most surprising aspects is the attacks often originate from the victim’s family.

“We are talking big numbers as not all cases are reported,” said Simeon Mesaki, a sociologist at the University of Dar es Salaam who specialises in witch killings. “They appear to be increasing in some areas. In Shinyanga region you are talking a minimum 300 a year that we know about. Mwanza is probably the same. About 80 per cent of reported attacks are against elderly women.”

In 2003 the Tanzanian government said more than 3,072 witch killings had occurred since 1970 — but a government commission said in 1989 that 3,693 had been reported to police between 1970 and 1984 alone. A regional police chief admitted they were a daily occurrence, and a leaked survey by the ministry of home affairs said 5,000 people had been lynched between 1994 and 1998. The problem is so prevalent that villages have been set up populated exclusively by accused witches forced to flee their communities. “The government figures are very low, not accurate,” said one official who asked not to be named. “I know a much higher number, and even that is not the full situation.”

The root cause of the killings is that village life is so hard, prompting neighbours and relatives into competition over resources that can spill into violence behind the smokescreen of witch hunts.

These are the most deprived parts of a country whose people have an annual income of $330 and a life expectancy of 46 years. There is no electricity or running water; home is a mud hut with a straw roof. Few roads are passable during the wet seasons and 60 per cent of villagers lack adequate sanitation facilities. Rainfall is low and unreliable so crops struggle. Lions and leopards from the nearby Serengeti attack cattle or people.

These conditions result in poor employment, literacy and general health, and susceptibility to superstition. The incidence of HIV/Aids — a mystery to some locals — is thought to be much higher than the countrywide average of one in 10 adults and is decimating the working 18-49 generation. Malaria, typhoid, polio and dysentery kill many more under-fives than the national mortality rate of 165 deaths per 1,000 children.

But life has always been hard here and witch killings were sporadic until the late 1960s. What prompted the explosion in murders was the breakdown of the traditional tribal system of governance. The collectivisation policies of Tanzania’s popular first President, Julius Nyerere, tried to bring together 120 tribes through a common language, Swahili. The dialect policy proved successful: despite Tanzania’s diversity, it is one of Africa’s most harmonious societies.

The second policy, Ujamaa, proved disastrous. It demanded socialist farming collectives, bringing together distant peasants for work and access to basic facilities (many are still waiting for these). Ujamaa’s idealism was suffocated by the lack of individual incentive and sowed a more murderous seed by disbanding the system of village chiefs, outlawed in 1963 and replaced by faraway officials.

The chiefs had been responsible for resolving local conflicts — not always amicably, but firmly. Into the authority vacuum stepped the unsung culprits of the witch killings that would tear apart rural harmony: traditional healers, or, as we would crudely recognise them, witch doctors.

This motley crew of diviners (fortune tellers), rain makers, herbalists, bone sitters and traditional birth attendants accumulated great power over their clients. Many enjoyed good reputations for patient care even if their scientific knowledge was poor. But a new generation of hoaxers has set up shop in villages and by highways to prey on passing motorists and pedestrians worried about their fate. These “briefcase specialists”, as some locals laughingly call them, attribute undiagnosed illnesses to witchcraft, and — for a price — direct their vengeful clients to the accused sorcerer. Hence the rise in witch killings.

It is the elderly, particularly those whose families have died and so have no protection, who bare the brunt of people’s frustrations and anger. Diviners spread money-spinning stories that an individual keeps hyenas and tames snakes, digs up corpses and eats the flesh, and stays up all night bewitching people — hence her bad temper, grey hair and the bags under her bloodshot eyes (actually the result of years toiling over cow dung cooking fires).

A law was passed two years ago obliging the ministry of health to set up a traditional healers’ union with a code of conduct for members, but the effect has yet to be noticed.

In Mwamagigisi, the nfumu (diviner), Gamawishi Shija, said people needed to know if they had been bewitched by a neighbour so they could “stop the problem”. The 44-year-old Maasai said: “When you have a disease which is unknown you can see it is witchcraft. Ancestors tell me who the witch is when I sleep. Then I tell the patient. When the person dies, [relatives] want to kill the witch. It is for security.”

She breaks away from her explanation to tend to a client. The ceremonial importance of handing over money is immediately apparent. Once a coin is tossed in her basket, the diviner sets off on a 10-minute, eyes-closed medley of bell-ringing, whistling and shaking a maraca — to contact the ancestors. Her chants grow louder to drown out the sound of a patient’s cough in a hut behind her. Once finished, she returns to her client: “Maybe you are suffering with your backbone, your legs?” With no easy access to dispensaries and medical advice, this is a common experience for rural Tanzanians.

The witch killings are not a problem eroded by the dribble of modernity — radios, mobile phones and cars — into villages. If anything, peasants’ growing awareness of their poverty compared to the rest of the country only exacerbates tensions.

The day we passed through Magu town, Mwanza, on the way to the countryside, a old woman was murdered in nearby Busami village after relatives accused her of bewitching her terminally ill husband to an early grave.

Many murders go unreported because villagers cover up the killings to avoid police attention. If the police do receive a report, they arrive a day or two after the attack, once a 4×4 vehicle can be found to negotiate the country trails. By then the killers have fled and there is no evidence.

The best officers can do is round up the victim’s neighbours and question them until they buy their way out of jail. Regardless of corruption, law enforcement officials lack the resources to solve the crime and prosecute the perpetrators.

“The government is condoning the killing,” said Scolastica Jullu, the executive director of the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Dar es Salaam. “Except for cases of rape of older women, I don’t find anyone taken to court. If it was a man or young woman who was killed, the police would investigate, but because it is old women they don’t worry.”

The government says with so few resources it can do little more than encourage NGOs interested in the problem. “This is an evil, repugnant practice”, the district commissioner for Magu, Elias Maaragu, said. “But if old people have no children to protect them, it is not like it is in the UK where you house them together and give them an allowance.”

Stepping into this void is a handful of NGOs targeting trouble spots with educational programmes. One charity, Maperece, is recognised as having had particular success in Magu. It gets £20,000 a year from British donors through Help the Aged’s Adopt a Grandparent scheme, allowing its 12 volunteers to support elderly people in 58 villages. But such charities are the only agents likely to intervene. Until the Tanzanian government can be embarrassed into action, and until it controls less pitifully empty coffers, that will remain the case.

Many people in the North are fearful about a spate of incidents where what they call demons are terrorising people with mysterious phenomena.

More than 10 pastors and school authorities are struggling to deal with cases of bewitchment at schools and in villages.

A 17-year-old schoolgirl from Oshidhiya village in Ohangwena Region, in Grade 8 at Ozizi Combined School, says she cannot wear clothing because it catches fire spontaneously.

Johannes Nghidipo (21) from Elyalyatika village in the Omusati Region is in the Oshakati Hospital with feet so burnt that they may have to be amputated.

And 41 schoolchildren — 39 girls and two boys — at Mumbwenge Combined School near Oshigambo in Ohangwena are falling to the ground in school, screaming for Satan to leave them alone.

“We really do not know what to do,” Helena Makili, the Principal of Mumbwenge Combined School, told The Namibian yesterday.

She said that the whole school — 514 pupils from Grade 1 to 10, 16 teachers, two cleaners and a secretary — is stunned by the phenomenon.

“This has never happened at our school and we are praying to our Lord to stop these demons as soon as possible,” Makali said.

She said the incidents started on July 8 among children in Grade 3 and it has now spread to other classes, except in Grade 1 and 10.

“We have reported the incident to our School Inspector, Linus Nakamwe, and to our Director of Education for Ohangwena region, Josia Udjombala, who still has not come to see us,” she said.

The school has called in parents and had meetings, and then decided to take the concerned children to Onandjokwe Hospital, where no illness was found.


The principal decided to contact pastors from different churches and seven have come to pray over the children.

Pastors Titus Kasindani Ngula, Hosea Namupala, Simon Iitula, Kleopas Amaambo, Nikodemus Ngula, Efraim Angula and Salom Elago all tried praying, laying hands on the children who are falling and screaming, but nothing has stopped the “demons”.

Children continue to fall, and to scream.

The school then called in pastors from Jesus Centre Church and from the Universal Church who also came and prayed for the victimised children, but without success.

“All those pastors who came couldn’t stop the demons and the children continue to be molested by these demons,” Makili told The Namibian.

She said that the children are seeing a black thing with a long stick.

“Go away Satan, leave us and our teachers, Satan, we were sent to school by our parents to learn and not to be molested by you,” the children apparently call and scream when this starts, said Makili.

“We are still calling to all Namibians and the whole world to come and help us in this big problem,” Makili said.

She said education at the school has been seriously hampered this year and she did not know whether “they will harvest fruit, in results,” as usual.

The Principal of Ozizi Combined School, Armas Kashiimbi, told The Namibian that one of the schoolgirls is being molested by some mysterious phenomenon.

Her clothing always catches fire when she is at her parents’ home.

But she is better when she is at school, according to Kashiimbi.

A source from this girl’s village (Oshidhiya) told The Namibian, that when this starts, she has to be naked to avoid getting burnt.

“The family is really in a big problem and is seeking help from the spiritual leaders,” the villager said.


Klaudia Silas (45) from Epangu village near Okahao in Omusati Region told The Namibian that her son, Johannes Nghidipo, mysteriously burnt both his feet at a witchdoctor’s house at Okapyakambidhi in Omusati last Thursday night.

She said Nghidipo was staying at her uncle Iita Namashana at Elyalyatika village near Ogongo when this happened.

She said on November 2, a woman named Angelika from Elyalyatika village asked Namashana for permission to allow her son to help her take a black cow to a certain witchdoctor at Okapyakambidhi, where she wanted to graduate as a witchdoctor.

(Black cows are traditionally given as a compensation to witchdoctors who are grooming other witchdoctors).

While there, Silas told The Namibian, her sons feet were mysteriously burnt, probably while he was sleeping with others.

“We took him to Oshikuku Roman Catholic Hospital and he was transferred to Oshakati State Hospital. I was told by his doctors that both feet will be amputated on Friday (today). I really do not know what that witchdoctor has done to my son,” Silas said.

She reported the incident to the Ogongo Police but they apparently told her that this is a traditional thing and she should go to her traditional headman.

“We went to the headmen, but were told to go to hospital,” she said.

Silas said the headmen do not want to deal with this case because they are afraid of becoming bewitched.

Nghidipo told The Namibian that he did not know what happened to him during the night of Thursday 3 November.

Speaking from his hospital bed in Oshakati State Hospital, Nghidipo said that on November 2, he and his nephew John Mathew helped the woman named Angelina to take her cow to the witchdoctor Kaputu’s house at Okapyakambidhi.

“That evening, the cow was slaughtered by Angelika, because she had to do it.

After she had drunk the blood of the cow and eaten other inside meat, uncooked, meat was then cooked for all of us and the graduation ceremony continued. Witchdoctor Kaputu accepted meme Angelika as a witchdoctor. The feast continued the next day.”

On Thursday night, they went to sleep and when he woke up the next morning he noticed that both his feet were seriously burnt.

“I didn’t feel pain, although I was seriously burnt, only later I started to feel pain. Nobody could explain how was I burnt and why,” Nghidipo said.