Archive | July, 2013

Accused Elderly Witches in Africa: The Logic of Misfortune

12 Jul


Belief in the spirit world of the ancestors has withstood colonialism, missionaries, organized religion, revolution, independence, and modernization throughout all of sub-Saharan Africa. Common beliefs about witchcraft and witches have been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries and in the countries of Kenya and Tanzania everyone knows that:

Witches use the power of our ancestors against us
Witches have grey hair and red eyes.
Death comes to those who have been bewitched
A young person cannot die unless he/she had been bewitched
Never look a witch in the eye.

But lately these long-held convictions about witches and witchcraft have become particularly evident as village mobs use them to target the elderly and justify killing them in heinous ways from poisoning to burning in order to stop the evil juju (magic) from destroying the village’s good fortune. Daughters and sons as well as immediate family accuse elderly men and women of witchcraft in order to cash in on their inheritances that much sooner. And Africa is not the only continent that had has engaged in the reoccurrence of witch hunts. The countries of New Guinea, India, and Mexico have also killed their fair share of witches in the past few years.

Europe also contended with its own obsession with witches. For three hundred years (1450-1750) countries in Europe did their best to eradicate the presence of witches in their lives by conducting 100,000 witchcraft trials where a good half of these led to the execution of the ‘witch’. Even back then 75 % of all those convicted were women. While in the countries of Hungry Denmark and England 90% were women. Yet in all fairness, 90% were men in Iceland and another 50% were men in Estonia and Finland.

But here is a timeline of recent witch killings in Africa alone and these were only the more sensationalized cases. Remember, for every reported incidence authorities suspect that are at least ten more elderly residents who suddenly go missing and their disappearances are not reported to the local police.

July 5, 2013 – Kenya, police report that at least 20 elderly people killed monthly in Kilifi County on account of witchcraft allegations.
May 10, 2013- Zimbabwe, two elderly women accused as witches die after drinking a potion forced upon them by a local healer
March 30, 2013 – Zambia, two elderly people identified as witches axed to death. Woman (63) axed to death by her nephew and man ( 89) by his son
Feb.12, 2013- Kenya, 11 elderly residents identified as witches burned to death by a Kisii mob
June 2012- Mozambique, 60 cases of violence against elderly connected to witchcraft reported in first quarter of 2012.
June 2011, Mozambique, 20 elderly people identified as witches killed between the years 2010- 2011.
June 2009 – Kenya, 5 elderly suspected of witchcraft (two men and three women) burned to death in Kisii in front of the entire village. (There is a video of this on YouTube.)
March 2009- Gambia, 1,000 villagers most of whom were elderly rounded up by police, army, and President Yahya Jammeh’s personal guard then made to drink potions which made them very ill and several died, all because it was claimed that president’s aunt died on account of witchcraft.
May 2008 – Kenya, killing of 11 elderly suspected of witchcraft ( eight women, three men) in Kisii.
April 2003- Uganda, 1 man beheaded because of suspected witchcraft.
June 2001- DR Congo, 800 alleged witches reported killed in the dry region of the Congo
May 2000- Ghana & South Africa, several hundred woman killed by mobs in refugee camps accused of being witches.
1998-1994- Tanzania, 5,000 people killed in witch hunts over four years ( Amnesty International) 80% were elderly women killed by young men between the ages of 16-35.
1988- 1970- Sukumaland, Tanzania, 3,072 accused witches were killed in Sukumaland more than two-thirds of the total witch killings for Tanzania. Approximately 80% were women between 50 and 60 years of age

Finding witches and removing them for the good of the community was a tribal affair even in colonial Kenya. In the famous Wakamba Witch-killing Trials of 1931-1932 , Mwaiki, a Kamba woman was killed in 1931 by tribal leaders and members of the ruling council of her tribe after they established the fact that she had bewitched another woman in the village. The case was known as Rex v. Kumwaka s/o of Mulumbi and 69 Others, and tried in the Supreme Court of Kenya. Sixty of the original seventy defendants were sentenced to death. Their death sentences were ultimately commuted by the Governor of Kenya but the defendants were sentenced to prison terms instead. In their defense the men maintained that as leaders of the tribe they had the legal right to identify and remove witches for the good of the community by killing them in the traditional way.

 Might this be caused by poverty?

But what is responsible for causing this recent resurgence in the preoccupation with witchcraft and the need to rid the community of witches? According to Jenni Irish in her article, Massacre. Muthi, and Misery: Women and Political Violence (1993), in regions where the belief in witchcraft is entrenched accusations of witchcraft and witch hunts escalate in communities under stress. Communities under threat seem to revert back to long-held superstitions.”

In his report , Poverty and Witch Killing – 2005, Review of Economic Studies, Edward Miguel, used rainfall variations to estimate the impact of what he called ‘ income shocks’ on murders in rural Tanzania. He found that extreme rainfall ( drought or flood) led to a large increase in the number of witch killings (elderly woman killed by either relatives or mob violence) but no other types of murders. He claims that poverty and violence go hand in hand due to poor harvests and famines and determined that there were twice as many of this type of murder in years with extreme rainfall as in other years. Kenya’s unemployment rate rose to a staggering 40% in 2013 compared to a mere 12% in 2006. As of 2013, 16 million Kenyans had no formal employment and 70% of those who are employed are underpaid. (United Nations Development Program , 2013). According to Mr. Kenneth Kamto deputy governor, Kalifi County there are three reasons why young men kill witches: lack of education, dire poverty, and lack of employment.

 Is  this  a gender issue?

Watch any woman in rural Kenya and you will be exhausted just watching her perform her many duties. Village women build the houses, plant the crops, tend the gardens, cook the meals, care for the children, and operate their own businesses on the side yet are still considered the property of their husbands and any profits they make are turned over to their husbands. There is a wise saying about Kenyan women. “Give a Kenyan man a few shillings and he will piss it away. Give a Kenyan woman the same amount and she will start her own business doubling her money in a week.”

Men have control over women except for widows. Older women living alone, making their own decisions, owning their own homes, controlling their own money and resources may make the men of the village somewhat jealous at first but then their belief in witchcraft could very well taint their logic. It could cause them to think: “ Here is a woman living by herself healthy and prosperous at an age where there are not that many old people alive due to hardship and disease especially the AIDS epidemic.” Now if you were a young man with no one over thirty in your immediate family you might find it odd that here is a woman clearly more than double that age making out better than anyone else in the village. It might make you mad especially if you were not doing all that well yourself. ( 80% of Kenya’s unemployed population is between 15-34 years of age.) And so at some point you would probably ask yourself; What could account her good luck? Remember most of the elderly killed in African witch hunts are women.

And there are not that many older people alive in Kenya to begin with where life expectancy for women throughout the country is 57 years of age (World Bank,2012) especially in the rural villages because they would be the age of the first group of AIDS-related deaths starting in 1981 and prior to the distribution of free anti-retroviral medications. Their loss is very evident in the current demographics for Kenya, 85% of all Kenyans are less than 35 years of age that figure does not leave much room for a large elderly population. (United Nations Development Program , 2013) So even getting to see a very old person in your village might be a rare sight.

Could traditional healers be to blame?

Most village healers cure their patients by placing the blame for the illness or the misfortune on someone else rather than something else and seek retribution or retaliation for their client. They also receive hefty payment for their services? So who is the safest person to blame in this situation certainly not a real witch? Well it’s best if it is someone who would not be able to retaliate and someone who looks the part? Want to make sure your client is satisfied and pays on time- then accuse the elderly. According to statements made by the woman and men currently residing in the few Rescue Centers across East Africa many of them were identified as witches by traditional healers in their villages- some of whom urged the mob to come for them.

And what about the real witches like the ones who live in the mountains above Kitui? The ones none of us mention but everyone knows exist- the ones able to inflict the real damage. No one accuses them of anything or would dare mention their names out loud and no mobs of young boys hunt them down or burn them in the village square. Why not? It’s because these men, and they are all men, have the real power and the knowledge to use it. We all know about them but the real wa’ganga truly scare us and have yet to be mentioned in any articles regarding witchcraft I’ve seen so far. After all the accounts I have read on individual witch burnings not one witch stood up and cursed the people trying to kill her. Now don’t you find that a bit odd if she really was a witch? What would she have to lose? But we all know what the real wa’ganga would do in the same situation and that is why they are left alone.

And then there are religions such as Islam and Christianity who have done an exceptional job of introducing the idea of the devil and evil into the previously neutral idea of African magic (juju) and in creating a lucrative business by charging exorbitant fees to perform exorcisms or cleanse witches. Not only are these victims abused by family and neighbors but exploited by the same religious organizations that profess to love them.

Although police throughout East Africa seem to be trying to stop these witch killings more elderly will die until this craziness has finally been made to stop. Hopefully more Rescue Centers will be opened in all of the rural counties in Kenya and Tanzania giving these poor souls a place to go where they will not be harmed. Imagine defying the odds by living for so long in such a harsh environment only to have your eyes gouged out and your hands chopped off by the very people you once raised only because your hair has turned white and the smoke from the fire caused your eyes to become red- now that is the real tragedy here. I suspect that most elderly men and women accused of witchcraft really die of broken hearts.

Kat Nickerson                                            Kingston, Rhode Island      USA


The Business of Witchcraft: Child Sacrifice in East Africa

1 Jul
Children of Kitui , Kenya  KN- 2007

Children of Kitui , Kenya KN- 2007

According to Humane Africa in its January 2013 Report, Child Sacrifice and the Mutilation of Children in Uganda, cases of child sacrifice are on the rise and at least one child dies every week as a result of a ritualistic murder. The Lively Minds Initiative, a group working in the schools to combat this heinous crime, defines child sacrifice as “the killing, mutilation, or removal of body parts from a child for the purpose of witchcraft, ritual practices or sale”. In 2011 alone Humane Africa estimated that upwards of 9,000 children had gone missing between 2007 and 2012.

But before I begin to explain this deplorable practice two things have to be made clear: 1.) child sacrifice is not a new ritual in East and Central Africa but has been practiced in these regions for centuries and 2.) there is a systemic belief throughout Africa regardless of tribe or country that blood- letting and the acquisition of certain human and animal body parts brings great prosperity.

Many tribes still engage in traditional initiations that require them to shed blood as well as collect body parts. Read the following excerpt from Xinhua, then tell me what year you think this article was published?
“Two Killed, Dozens Wounded at Ritual Killing at Kenya-Ethiopian Border”

Ethiopian warriors killed two Kenyans and wounded 14 others on Wednesday night in a ritual killing barely a fortnight after deadly clashes between Merrile and Turkana tribesmen killed dozens others along the common frontier.

Survivors and officials said on Thursday that hundreds of Merrile youths aged between 13 and 18 are queued for a circumcision ritual between this month and August and cultural dictates that they exhibit braveness by killing an enemy before being circumcised.

Once they kill, they chop off private parts and other organs of their victims, including ears, noses and toes, which they carry away and present as a sign of bravery.

And on Wednesday night, Merrile initiates from Namurupus area, Southern Zone travelled over 40 km inside Kenya and indiscriminately fired at a dancing crowd during Wednesday night attack at Kokuro village.”

This event occurred not one hundred years ago or even twenty- five years ago but a mere four years ago on June 18, 2009. “The desire for blood-letting has never left the East African male” a dear Kenyan colleague, who I emailed about this matter, reminds me, “ and all East Africans, despite their ivy-league diplomas and fancy suits, are absolutely convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that juju (black magic) exists all around them.”

Placide Tempels, the Franciscan missionary famous for his book Bantu Philosophy states in his study of the African psyche “every misfortune that an African encounters is attributed to an outside force that has acted upon the individual.  So things like illness or misfortune are a direct result of another more powerful entity having a greater hold on the person than his/her own life force. Death does not alter the personality or end the present life of the individual only changes its condition so the dead are able to actively participate in the life of the present community and continue to communicate with the living in the form of ancestors or wandering ghosts.”

The Kenyan religious philospher, John Mbiti wrote that “the belief in the continuation of life after death for African peoples does not constitute a hope for a future and better life. To live here and now is the most important concern of African religious activities and beliefs. Even a life in the hereafter is conceived in materialistic and physical terms. There is neither paradise to be hoped for nor hell to be feared in the hereafter” (Mbiti 1969, pp. 4–5).

According to traditional lore in Congolese kindoki (witchcraft) a witch can live in two separate worlds simultaneously the visible one and the invisible one called the’ second’ world. Life in the second world mirrors what takes place in the first but is all about the acquisition of power and the conquest of others in order to do the witch’s bidding.

And although the practice of Voodoo or ‘Voudon’ originated in West and Central Africa and has been closely linked to the slave trade in this region beginning in the fifteenth century strong beliefs in witchcraft or sorcery as it is called in the French-speaking nations has always dominated East African cultural and social beliefs. Kenyan’s magical lore involves ‘muti’ the use of spells and charms to help a person achieve their goals so in Kiswahili the word for witchcraft is kamuti. And the person who has been trained to negotiate with the spirit or second world is called a m’ganga (witchdoctor) or wa’ganga ( witch doctors).

I clearly remember walking by a ithembo (spirit shrine) one Sunday afternoon in Kitui before the group I was with understood what they had done. There were five Kenyans, all college-educated professionals and one medical doctor with me that day and. every one of them was petrified that we had insulted the spirits and therefore would bring bad juju down on us. They were so concerned that no one moved until we stopped and discussed the matter then agreed to a solution. We eventually decided to leave about twenty-five dollars in Kenyan shillings near the site with a message taped to it that stated, “This money belongs to the spirits dwelling in the ithembo and no one else.” Only then could the members of the group walk on .

I also remember while living with the Kamba in Kitui sitting around the campfire at night listening to their tales about the most powerful witches who they said lived in the mountains we could see from the back of our guest house. The members of the Kamba tribe,( Wakamba) are rather famous among the rest of Kenya’s tribes for their use of magic and spells and were known to sacrifice children to their gods a century ago in order to bring the rain. No man or woman, native or mzungu ever openly scoffed about juju or witchcraft in my presence while I lived in Kitui- kamuti was considered as much a part of their lives as the act of breathing or eating.

So why the emergence in child sacrifices in East Africa beginning around 2007? If one looks at the Ugandan and the Kenyan GDP during this time the killings began just when Uganda and Kenya’s economies began to dramatically improve for the better. Businessmen located in Kampala and Nairobi became wealthy in a few short years and their stores prospered. Middle class Ugandans and Kenyans suddenly grew rich and able to purchase homes in the better parts of town. A new class of merchant was born – one who had not been born rich but had made his money through hard work and shrewd business acumen. But as quickly as the economy flourished by 2009 it started to take a sharp turn for the worse. In Kenya, where the unemployment rate was around 12% in 2006 by 2012 it had steadily increased to 40%. (United Nations Development, 2013) And in Uganda where it was 1.90 % in 2007-2008 , it rose to 4.20% from 2010-2012. The nouveau riche in Kampala and Nairobi began to feel desperate convinced that their current good fortune could leave them  unless they thought of a way to keep it with them.

“And this was about the time a group of unscrupulous witch doctors began to recognize the fear and desperation in their clients’ voices and started to resurrect the old ritual of child sacrifice in order to vanquish their clients’ fears and at the same time profit handsomely from these deals”. According to the information passed along to me by a well- informed friend living in Kampala. “It was a time when a very resourceful network of criminals saw a way to make a quick buck at the expense of children”.

According to an Apr. 24, 2009 article there are about 160,000 traditional healers practicing in Uganda. 100 times the licensed medical doctors working in the country and according to a local news poll 4 out of 5 Ugandans have admitted to consulting with traditional healers. Most of these healers are moral, dedicated individuals who would never condone or take part in child sacrifices. No, these murderous wa’ganga were a new breed of assassins altogether; most of them were men, some of them were women and all of them were willing to murder children for a price.

These wa’ganga were scam-artists at best and in no way connected to the more reputable healers serving the people in both countries. Most of these men (and a few women) had received little to no training about the spirit world and invented their rituals on stories they had heard as children while a few others had been incompetent healers at best. All of them were violent criminals more dangerous because of the guns and the poison they used than the spells they claimed to cast. They had no problem condoning the  murder of  innocent children and asking for certain body parts. They managed to engineer a profitable scheme based upon an ancient practice and began charging exorbitant sums of money to arrange these child sacrifices  to ensure wealth, health, and prosperity for their clients. To a man they preached that slaughtering a child pleased the spirits more than anything else ensuring the individual the greatest good fortune.

Some local healers began informing authorities that many of these ‘evil’ witch doctors had entered Uganda and Kenya from Tanzania after the government there cracked down on human sacrificing and on the sale of human skin in 2008. Albinos were especially being targeted across Tanzania because their body parts were said to be especially potent when used in protection rituals. Wherever they originated from, the child- murderers emerged advertising their services on radio, internet, and signs posted on roadways and bragging about their ability to heal and perform spiritual services for those able to pay their fees.

In doing so, these men discovered a valuable, new commodity- a surplus of vulnerable children. And there was an ever- plentiful supply. According to the (United Nations Development Program 2013) 80% of all Kenyans are less than 35 years of age and 77% of all Ugandans are less than 30 years of age. Many of these children were neither loved nor wanted and already placed a considerable burden on their families to cloth and feed. They were easy to trick, abduct, and subdue. Many of them were so hungry that they would go with anyone who offered them food to eat. Plus they were worth hundreds of dollars apiece to the right buyer.

And so the trade in child sacrifices was established and quickly became a lucrative business endeavor. The m’ganga’s message was a simple one- when you offer blood or body parts from a living child to the spirits, they will acknowledge this great sacrifice by granting you continuous wealth, health, and prosperity. Children’s body parts were also used as good luck charms and when buried under a new house or store secured lasting good luck for the owner. Or blood and body parts could be left as an offering at an ithembo on the altar directly in front of a spirit tree, (an old tree where the spirits are known to dwell).

The goal is to find an unmarked child who has no piercings or marks on his/her body- the purer the child the more money charged and the more effective his/her blood and body parts during the ritual. Securing a child can be done in two ways: by stealing the child or by purchasing the child. Parents in rural areas near big cities have  been more than willing to sell off their children for a price and have also been known to kill their own children in similar rituals in order to guarantee continuing prosperity for themselves and their business endeavors. Boys are more valued for their heads, genitals, and blood and girls for their blood, heart, and liver.

In 2008 the Ugandan police reported that ritual murders had increased over 800% from the year before and that children were the victims, most disappearing from rural villages located near the capital city of Kampala. By May, 2009, the US State Department had declared Uganda a ‘ hub’ for human trafficking because of the spike in the number of children reported missing. Uganda was embarrassed by the United Nations into creating Uganda’s Anti- Human Sacrifice Taskforce. Backed by the Uganda Witchcraft Act of 1957 the policemen assigned to this taskforce have been charged with collecting the evidence needed to bring the evil wa’ganga to justice but they have yet to show that they are up to the task. Complaints of corruption and bribery within the ranks of the taskforce have hurt its image considerably and Ugandan families who have lost children are not confident that these men have either the skills or the commitment necessary to locate their missing sons and daughters. According to their own records from 2006-2010 of the 138 cases relating in some way to human sacrifice the taskforce brought 83 to trial in a court of law and only one person was convicted as a result.

How can adults  treat children as livestock, willing to  engage in selling them – even murdering them?   But even as I ask myself this question  I know differently. Young children and old people are the first to die whenever the primary group’s survival has been threatened by war or natural disaster. Dire poverty makes people do desperate things and as countries like the United States and European Union begin to recover from the downturn in the economy remember that the residents of third world countries have been hit that much harder. When there are no jobs available the cleverest among us invent our own and as the pool of accessible commodities shrink we get real inventive and consider more  novel ways to earn money using those things that were previously considered illegal or taboo. In many developed nations there are people who go to bed hungry at night but have access to centers, shelters, and other ways to secure food the very next day. Go to bed hungry in a hut in rural Tanzania because your crops have failed to grow and you and your entire family could be dead by the end of the week. This type of desperation makes monsters of average people who will do anything in order to survive – the jackals, we call them.

It is easy  to choose  morality on a full stomach but would any of us act differently if we faced a similar lack of resources and death loomed that much closer each and every day? Think about it.

Kat Nickerson                                           Kingston  Rhode Island       USA