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In hiding for exposing Tanzania witchdoctors

By Vicky Ntetema
BBC News

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Undercover filming with a witchdoctor

I am living in hiding after I received threats because of my undercover work exposing the threat from witchdoctors to albinos living in Tanzania.

I do not regret it, even if I am very scared.

Mine is just one life, compared to the several thousand people living with albinism in the country.

If nothing is done about this network, they could kill every albino in the country - estimates vary between 4,000 and 173,000.

This year, at least 25 people with albinism have been killed, mostly in the Lake Victoria Zone, especially the Mwanza, Shinyanga and Mara areas.

Winifrida Rutahiro (2nd left), her six-year-old son (3rd left) and Tabu Rutahiro (1st right) - Nyerere Rutahiro's daughter
Winifrida Rutahiro (2nd left) is one albino who fears for her life

They are being killed because local witchdoctors say their body parts provide the potent ingredient for magic charms, which many local people use to bring success in business and love.

The bodies are left limbless and sometimes with a huge hole in the neck, from where blood would have been drained.

Families not only grieve because of the loss of their loved ones but are also shocked at the state in which the bodies are left by these murderers.

As if that is not enough, they have to bury their dead in the house, guard the graves on their farm and or build them with stones, metal bars and cement to prevent the killers from stealing the body parts.

Talking to chickens

So I posed as a businesswoman who wanted to get rich and "consulted" 10 witchdoctors.

The consultations included talking to a hedge and telling my problems to a chicken.

Once, albinos used to seek shelter from the sun. Now they have gone into hiding simply to survive, after a series of killings linked to witchcraft

These are regarded as intermediaries between the witchdoctor, their ancestors and the spirits, or "jinns".

They used old German and English coins with holes in the middle, cowry shells, pebbles, nails, nuts and bolts, screws, crosses with the little figure representing Jesus, and beads which they would shake in a red or white cloth and throw on the ground, while incense burned from all around.

Sticky green stems or old money notes are put between pages from the Koran.

Then the witchdoctors would speak in Arabic and the local Sukuma language and translate or use an interpreter to get the message through to me.

I presented the same case to all of them and got different solutions.

The consultation fee ranged from $20 to $100 per session, with a promise of returning for a further problem-solving process.

All of them gave me different suggestions of who my enemies were - not by name but by description.

None got anything right, most importantly my true mission.

But that did not stop me from praying for my safety, as that was the only defence I had.

Ground organs

Never in my life had it occurred to me that I would one day be sitting in front of a witchdoctor, also known as sangomas or voodoo priests and priestesses.

Coming from a religious family, it was unthinkable to approach or even go near the compound of such people.

A man builds Nyerere Rutahiro's grave
The graves of albinos are guarded or sealed with cement

I met a registered traditional healer who uses African herbs to cure ailments in Magu, the town that shares the name with the district which is known to be the hub of sorcery.

This man condemned the way "conmen and foreign witchdoctors" lured locals into trusting them, before hiring murders to organise raids on homes of albinos just after sunset.

Two witchdoctors promised to get me a magic concoction mixed with ground albino organs. The starting price was $2,000 for the vital organs.

Another told me said that the police were among his customers and that he could make a special potion mixed with ground male and female private parts to enable people to commit armed robbery without being caught.

The encounter with witchdoctor number three was in a village called Gambusi, the most feared area in the region.

The compound had about eight huts around the outside, with a more elaborate structure in the middle.

Here a man in his forties wearing a white T-Shirt and khaki trousers with a mobile phone on his belt asked me whether I had brought a chicken.

A gang of men went round the small town where we had stayed, searching all the guest houses

"What for?" I asked.

He laughed and said that I was forgiven because he realised that I was a novice in the business.

He demanded $2 for a tiny three-week-old chicken and $3 for the fortune-telling.

I was then told to get out of the compound, face south-east, where I hail from - Dar es Salaam - spit on the bird's head, back, tail and on my hand and have a heart-to-heart talk with the chick revealing all my problems.

He asked for $200 for the consultations and said I should spend two nights there before completing the process.

But when I told him that I had only $30 he told me to go away and return when I had the full amount.

Chilling message

When I went back with other BBC colleagues, his nephew was there to receive me.

He said he knew what I wanted and said he would find me albino blood, hair, leg and palms for $2,000.

map

He charged me $55 for the initial consultations and asked me to return with the rest of the money.

I found the last witchdoctor in Lamadi, a tiny rural town which lies at the junction of the roads leading to Kenya and Uganda.

He charged me $100 for the first session and said he would give me the magic potion with albino and other human organs for a price.

While I was there, a man came for a consultation - the witchdoctor said he was a police officer but he was wearing civilian clothes.

However, he was made to wait until my session was over and, I later learned, told the witchdoctor that I was involved in a sting operation.

Shortly afterwards, the threatening phone calls started.

And a gang of men went round the small town of Magu, where we had briefly stayed, searching all the guest houses. Luckily, we had already moved on to the nearest city, Mwanza.

One particularly chilling message came on my mobile phone: "What have you done now? Watch your back."

The witchdoctor had boasted of working with a powerful network across East Africa, which included police officers and armed robbers.

I knew they were involved in the murder of albinos, so I was terrified.

At first, I did regret taking on this mission - especially for the sake of my family.

Had I put their lives at risk?

But then I realised that I had done the right thing.

Even if I die today, those involved will have been exposed.


SEE ALSO
Ambassador for Malawi's albinos
23 May 06 |  Africa


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