The TikTok Witchdoctors Cashing In on Broken Healthcare
Sam Bradpiece, The Telegraph, March 28, 2023
The young girl rocks manically back and forth on the sandy floor. Karamba towers over her, barking incantations, as he commands spirits to heal her. The girl screams and bangs her chest as her battle with inner demons appears to intensify.
The clip posted on Karamba’s TikTok feed is typical of the content he shares with thousands of followers and it has been watched 33,000 times. His videos are intended both to prove his prowess in commanding spirits, or djinns, and to act as a very 21st century viral marketing tool.
The witchdoctor, or traditional healer, claims to have control of more than 600,000 spirits that he can use for anything from curing people of illness, to firing up their love lives and advancing their careers.
“I publish videos of my work so that people can see what I am capable of. The internet doesn’t lie,” he told the Telegraph.
“People come to me because they have seen the footage. I’ve even had clients from America.”
The 40-year-old, whose real name is Cheikh Diop, has more than 220,000 followers on TikTok alone and is also active on YouTube and Instagram. His canny use of the platforms has helped him earn a fortune, allowing him to live in a three-story house with dozens of bedrooms.
Senegal is awash with traditional healers like Karamba, referred to locally as marabouts and tradi-praticiens.
They are often the first stop for anyone feeling falling sick in a country where healthcare is patchy, poor quality and can be expensive. Superstition and lack of education also swell the ranks of their patients.
Just as social media has turbocharged health disinformation, hoaxes and frauds in Europe and the US, it has also been a boon for quackery elsewhere, including Africa.
‘Messi of Djinns’
Many traditional healers are simply conmen, says Mohamadou Kane, a Senegalese analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
“They have big houses and beautiful women. They tell clients that they can help to sort out their problems. Sometimes they pay people to spread fake information about their true abilities.”
Yet few of these healers are as adept at social media as Karamba, who claims his mastery of spirits is so great that he has crowned himself the “Messi of Djinns”.
In one notable post, Karamba pours a potion over the head of a ‘paraplegic’ woman who starts to walk – supposedly for the first time in 20 years.
Business is booming as a result. Karamba runs a clinic three days a week in the outskirts of Mbour – a city 50 miles to the south of Senegal’s capital, Dakar.
On a typical work day, he welcomes dozens of clients to the small clearing dominated by a shrine of animal skulls and horns, charging £13 for a consultation and up to £400 for treatments.
He drives a 4×4, has his own theme music and employs around 20 people. His powers are genuine, he insists.
“I am the best marabout in Senegal. I have saved thousands of lives. There are white people in Europe who don’t get better at the hospital. They should come here instead,” he said.
A line of patients waiting for his time at his clinic is testament to his reputation.
Awa Ndiaye, 33, said she had spent several years living with an intense pain that hindered her ability to work.
After hospital scans failed to diagnose the problem, she visited Karamba. “He told me that I was possessed by demons,” she said. “I trust what he says. This man was gifted by God.”
Moussa Sène, a 22-year-old bricklayer from Dakar, first heard about Karamba from friends who had paid for his services. After watching the healer’s YouTube videos, he too was convinced to pay a visit and spend £280 to transform the fortunes of his business.
“I want to get more clients. I want people to talk about my work positively so that I can shine and be successful,” said Sène, who was given magic potions to wash with and instructed to inhale the fumes of burning herbs.
Many of Karamba’s other clients are women desperate to see off love rivals. Thirty five per cent of the Senegalese population live in polygamous households.
There are no reliable estimates for the number of marabouts in Senegal, but they are a ubiquitous and, according to their critics, dangerous presence.
Recent months have seen a number of high-profile healers arrested. Kounkandé, a regular guest on national television shows who once claimed he would, for a fee, split the Atlantic in two to allow migrants to walk across the seabed to Europe, was sentenced to six months in prison for fraud in January.
Senegal’s limited public health system, where there is just one doctor per 10,000 people according to the World Bank, provides a healthcare void that is easily filled by the aggressive marketing of the country’s unscrupulous healers. Many people feel they have little alternative.
“Before you go to the hospital, you consult a marabout,” explained Coumba Bodian, a 35-year-old cashier.
“If you go to a public hospital without insurance you will wait all day to be seen and even then the service is not good quality.”
She said that last year she had sought the services of a traditional healer to treat her haemorrhoids. He gave her talismans to wear and a powder to apply. The powder stung and made her worse.
She finally gave up and went to the hospital, having wasted £215 – twice her monthly salary – on bogus treatments.
“I had to borrow money and am still paying off the debt,” she said.
Stories about the miraculous feats of healers regularly appear in the local press.
Ibrahima Gueye, a preacher-turned-exorcist and one of the country’s fiercest critics of such healers, condemns such practices as “un-Islamic”.
“There is more witchcraft in Africa than anywhere else in the world and yet we are the poorest continent. If witchcraft was a positive force, we would be the richest,” he said.
“Most of my work is focused on fixing the mistakes of charlatans. Their practices are harmful and prohibited by Islam.”
Gueye once launched a direct attack on Karamba posted in a TikTok video, describing him as “mentally ill” and offering to cure him for free.
He blames witch doctors and curses for the majority of woes facing his clients but ultimately, he and Karamba are competing for the same market.
One recent afternoon, Gueye and his disciples gathered five patients in a windowless room at his healing centre in the rundown Dakar suburb of Keur Massar. Some were facing marriage problems and at least one thought he had been possessed.
As Gueye recited prayers through a loudspeaker, the patients began to sway and wail. One woman contorted on the floor and was held down by three men as Gueye pressed his hand against her head and doused her in ‘blessed water’. After half an hour the patients stumbled out drenched in sweat and barely able to speak.
They each paid £50 – nearly half the country’s average monthly wage.
Kane isn’t so convinced. “There are charlatans everywhere,” he warns.