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


One Response to “The Business of Witchcraft: Child Sacrifice in East Africa”

  1. sid October 10, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    this news really make me sad …. i first read about this act here

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