On witchcraft in Tanzania – some sources, etc.

An excerpt from an email originally sent to a journalist friend looking into Witchcraft in Tanzania

First, did you know that Sumbawanga has a literary pedigree in terms of witchcraft? Specifically, JK Rowling wrote a book for the UK charity Comic Relief called Quiddich Through the Ages, in which the Sumbawanga Sunrays were mentioned. A couple of links here: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Sumbawanga_Sunrays and http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Quidditch_Through_the_Ages_(real)

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Sumbawanga has a serious reputation for witchcraft, and I’m sure that’s why you decided to start there as well.

But on to more serious thoughts. There was some interesting research published recently by the Pew Foundation, looking at religious belief (including belief in witchcraft) across Africa. I did some analysis of the data at the time for Daraja’s blog, which can be found at the address below, along with the links to the original research and various other news items on witchcraft in Tanzania: http://blog.daraja.org/2010/04/93-believe-in-witchcraft-in-tanzania.html

This post got more reaction than any other blogpost I’ve written (though that’s not saying very much), mostly on Daraja’s facebook page though also on a couple of other blogs.

There was also an interesting throwaway comment by Mwalimu Nyerere recorded in a book by Randal Sadleir (Tanzania: Journey to a Republic) when Sadleir commented that witchcraft was mainly rural issue these days (this was back in the 1970s or 80s) and Nyerere replied that nothing was more central to the lives of most Dar es Salaam residents. See http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=randal+sadleir and http://www.tzaffairs.org/2000/01/reviews-23/ for more.

That’s an old source, but my suspicion is that the same remains true up til now. I can attest from personal experience that witchcraft beliefs remain very strong and widespread, but deeply hidden from outsiders.

For an academic perspective, Prof Maia Green is the world’s leading academic expert on witchcraft in Tanzania. I don’t have any specific references or contact details for her, but I’m sure you could find them.

It might be worth investigating the Tanangozi electricity wire case as well, which is just outside Iringa. There is a spot on the main road between Iringa and Mafinga where the electricity wires jump across from one side of the road to the other and then back again about 100m later, to avoid the graves of former tribal leaders. The story is that they cut down some trees beside the graves several times in order to put in a pole, but that they kept coming back the next day to find the trees back again as if they were never cut at all. Any discussion of witchcraft in and around Iringa always seems to bring up this case, though I’ve no idea what the truth of the story is.

Another local interest is that there is one famous witchdoctor, Mwandulami, who lives and works just outside Njombe. He is a very wealthy man, with several “clinics” around Iringa region. He doesn’t crave publicity by any means, but he’s also pretty well known and I know several people who claim to know him.

I’m not sure that you really want my personal answers to the questions you plan to explore, but a couple of them are particularly interesting. The question you ask about people’s willingness to hold beliefs in witchcraft and Christianity or Islam at the same time doesn’t need to be that complicated. A lot of churches (and probably mosques too) in Tanzania talk pretty openly about their faith offering protection against witchcraft. Both witchcraft and more formal religions involve some kind of belief in what cannot be proven by science and both involve the “spirit world”, so I don’t see that the two are particularly contradictory. Someone who believes in one is more likely to also believe in the other.

But your final question is, I think, the most interesting – about the effect of witchcraft-related beliefs on governance and freedoms. I touched on this very briefly in my blog post, but I think the biggest issue is how witchcraft acts as a brake on success. Those who achieve some success in life, whether in politics (where witchcraft-related practices are rife), business (ditto), or even in personal life, witchcraft-related blackmail is very common. Beyond that, there’s probably a lot more to be said on this question, but I’m not at all sure what the answers are.

That’s probably plenty – I’ve just realised how carried away I’ve got on this! But just a final word of advice/caution. You will probably find it difficult to get people to speak openly on this, certainly about their personal experiences, and I suspect they will be more reluctant if speaking in English. I would suggest starting with talking to a few people who you know well, and see if you can get anything of a more personal nature that you might need from them. Others should be ok talking about generalities and society, but I wouldn’t expect them to talk much about their own experiences or beliefs. But I might well be wrong.