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Monday, July 5, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK

World: Africa

Eyewitness: Suspected witches murdered in Tanzania

This elderly woman was forced to flee her village

By Ruth Evans in Dar es Salaam

In a small house on the outskirts of Mwanza, Tanzania, lives a frail, toothless old lady in her eighties. She moved there after being driven out of her home village by neighbours who thought she was a witch.

If she had not gone to live with her daughter in Mwanza, the chances are that she would have fallen victim to the series of brutal murders which have swept the Tanzanian shore of Lake Victoria.

Many of the murdered are elderly women, often widows, brutally hacked to death with pangas or machetes by people who suspect them of practising witchcraft.

[ image: Most of the killings have taken place near Lake Victoria]
Most of the killings have taken place near Lake Victoria
Lawrence Mabele, news editor for Mwanza-based Radio Free Africa, says his station has been regularly reporting between five and 10 such killings a month for the past few years and, he believes, the problem is getting worse.

Since many of these killings have been taking place in remote rural villages, finding out the details can be difficult job.

"Sometimes it is difficult to prove that killings are actually as a result of witchcraft allegations," he says.

The ferocity of these attacks is now causing much concern among many members of the local community. People dislike the killings, even though most still strongly believe that witchcraft does exist.

Millennial superstitions

Mboto Milando is a former diplomat and senior civil servant who has now retired to his home area.

Despite his broader perspective on life, he too believes in the existence of witchcraft and he has his own particular theories about why witchcraft allegations are now so prevalent in this particular part of Tanzania.

He links it to end-of-millennium fears and ignorance and superstitions.

[ image:  ]
"Satan is very ignorant, " Mboto tells me.

He argues that both the media and the churches have an important role to play in curtailing the killings. He also believes such things have always happened, but because of the speed with which news is now reported globally, people get to hear of them more often and more quickly.

People, he says, should "love the witch, but hate the witchcraft."

Red eye fears

[ image: The woman's reddened eyes may have made people believe she was a witch]
The woman's reddened eyes may have made people believe she was a witch
All too often, however, it is the suspected witch that ends up as the object of hate.

In the case of the old woman in Mwanza, it appears that she was singled out because of her eyes which are milky-white with cataracts and red from years of cooking over smoky fires.

People are afraid of red eyes, Denis Moyo says, because they are associated with those of Satan.

They are unaware that cooking fuel can cause this problem, or that it can simply be a medical condition such as conjunctivitis.

Similarly, conditions of old age such as senility and frailty are so little understood that they are confused with witchcraft.

Another woman I met believed traditional healers are responsible for whipping up hatred against suspected witches. She cited the case of a young boy who killed his own mother after a traditional doctor had told him that she was the cause of all his problems.


In other cases, sick children had died from easily preventable or treated diseases after traditional healers had given them poor diagnosis or inadequate treatment.

In such instances, traditional healers often then looked for a scapegoat to blame rather than admit their medicine may have failed.

Ignorance about diseases and health issues, along with the lack of basic health care, certainly plays a large part in the problem here.

When someone dies, someone is to blame, and witchcraft must be involved.

Ulterior motives

[ image:  ]
Sometimes, though, there may be more to these killings than meets the eye. Tanzania's land laws are currently being reformed, and there are efforts to untangle the complex layers of customary, colonial and socialist land laws, in accordance with a new era of privatisation.

Where land is in dispute, it is often the most vulnerable - the landless peasant and nomadic herdsmen, the sick, the widowed and the old - who fall victim to ruthless land-grabbers.

One woman tearfully told me about her sister, who had been married, but was unable to have any children. Her husband, however, had conceived children by other women. When he died, the children were unhappy that her sister had inherited his land and property .They spread allegations that she was a witch, and organised for her to be brutally killed.


There is no doubt that many of these killings are planned. People repeatedly spoke of a gang of killers paid to murder suspected witches. Although the killers were known and were caught and sentenced, they were released less than a year later.

The community was either too scared to do anything about them or condoned their presence. The police and local authorities too often turned a blind eye, or could be bribed to release the perpetrators.

Now, community leaders are calling on the government to take strong measures to prevent such killings.

Mboto Milando told me, "The government needs to review the law and its understanding of the problem. The legal framework must be strengthened. The people must be educated that witchcraft is bad, killing is bad and taking the law into your hands is bad."

Government's dilemma

[ image:  ]
Sebastian Magage, a former party secretary for Karagwe district, denies the government is running away from the problem, but concedes that it is in a dilemma as to how to deal with witchcraft without appearing to give the issue further credibility.

"In my view it is not proper to give the issue credence by changing the laws, because this makes it look as though the government also believes in witchcraft. Trying to address the problem this way could actually make the situation worse.

"It is a question of educating the people. In other areas of the country where people are better educated, we don't face this problem."


Emmanuel Uchawi, a member of Saidia Wazee Tanzania - a local organisation working to improve the rights and the status of older people in the community - also thinks that development is fundamental if witchcraft allegations and the spate of killings are to be stopped.

"You cannot separate witchcraft beliefs from the issue of development. The more developed people are, the less they believe in such things."

Desirable though development may be, it is obviously not going to provide an instant solution to the killings. Mr Mboto thinks that people should also be looking closer to home - to themselves.

"We must look to our own hearts and abide by the law always," he says. "There are no other short-term solutions."

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