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Tanzania suffers rise of witchcraft hysteria
Thousands of elderly people, mostly women, are being accused of witchcraft and then murdered or maimed by vigilante groups in Tanzania. But the police and
government do little to prevent the deaths, reports Oliver Duff from Mwanza
Monday, 28 November 2005




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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
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. 7/12/2010

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