Vigilante killings in Tanzania spur a hunt for witch-hunters

The dark side of the country's widespread belief in witchcraft is that people are quick to blame supposed conjurers — mostly older women —for their misfortunes.

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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