Looking closer at Tanzania’s witchcraft ban

The Citizen, 24/8/14

The Citizen, 24/8/14

Tanzania bans witchdoctors,” says the headline on The East African website. For those who speak the language, the BBC Swahili website puts it a little more elegantly: “Wapiga ramli kupigwa marufuku.”

Both articles, along with many more in the Tanzanian papers this week, report on the announcement by the Minister of Home Affairs, Mathias Chikawe, of new efforts to address a spate of violent attacks against people with albinism in Tanzania. Such attacks have been going on for some years, linked to a demand for the body parts of people with albinism for use in witchcraft, but a rise in attacks last year and the abduction last month of a four-year-old girl in a village near Mwanza has refocussed attention on the issue.

As well as the ban on witchdoctors, the renewed efforts announced by the Minister included formation of a task force that will campaign against the abuses, including working with local communities to identify those responsible. The task force will comprise representatives of the police, the Ministry of Local Government and the Tanzania Albinism Society (TAS).

The move has been welcomed by the press. “Ni mwafaka ramli kupigwa marufuku,” said an editorial column in Nipashe newspaper – It’s right to ban witchcraft. HabariLeo had a very similar line: “Zuio kwa wapiga ramli limekuja wakati muafaka.”

But there’s a lot more to these articles and to this issue than the headlines – it’s worth a closer look. Here are three simple questions, to start with:

1. What exactly has been banned?

The Swahili news coverage largely uses the same words used by Minister Chikawe: “wapiga ramli”, or a slight variation, “waganga wa jadi wanaopiga ramli“. It’s hard to translate “wapiga ramli” directly – Google reckons it means “divining arrows”, which isn’t particularly helpful – but in essence it means diviners, soothsayers, or fortune tellers.

The Minister usefully explained further that “we are against those who cheat people (telling them) that they will be rich by possessing charms, as well as fortune tellers and those distributing talismans.” From the Daily News: “Mr Chikawe explained that the witchdoctors being targeted in the operations are different from those who dispense traditional or alternative medicine.” And from the East African, “the ban does not cover traditional healers who use herbs to help the sick.”

"Intelligence in the classroom, a quick wedding, money from water, results in 3 days"

“Intelligence in the classroom, a quick marriage, easy money, results in 3 days”

The distinction between those who “use herbs to help the sick” and those who “cheat people”, etc, is a significant one, but in practice it can be very hard to tell the difference. The two groups overlap substantially. And when “traditional healers” claim they can cure HIV/AIDS, etc., or increase “nguvu za kiume” (male prowess), or help someone find love, is that “alternative medicine” being practised, or is it cheating people?

And there’s a third significant group as well – those who help people with more malicious intent – who (claim to) cast curses or to cause harm to others. The Minister doesn’t appear to have mentioned them at all, though again, there’s substantial overlap with the other two groups.

2. On what legal grounds has it been banned?

Does the Minister / Ministry have the legal authority to unilaterally ban something? I think it’s unlikely, and none of the reports of his press conference give any details of the legal mechanisms used to enact the ban.

3. Has anything been banned that wasn’t already illegal?

Abducting a four-year-old girl is obviously against the law, as is murder, and attacking someone with a machete. Thorough investigation and prosecution of these violent crimes would be a good start.

But also, it is against the law in Tanzania to practice witchcraft, or to claim the power of witchcraft, or to possess any item used in witchcraft. I’m pretty sure that anything the Minister has now banned was already illegal.

(Incidentally, it is also against the same law to accuse someone of practising witchcraft. It is very possible, therefore, that people providing the new task force with information will be breaking the law.)

So it’s not clear what exactly has been banned or on what grounds, or whether it includes anything that wasn’t already illegal. In other words, it begins to look like there is nothing here of any substance at all, like this is entirely about presentation, looking tough for the press, sending a message.

Two final points:

First, an interesting contrast in views between the Minister and the chairman of the Tanzania Albinism Society, Mr Kimaya, almost slipped by unnoticed. According to the Minister, “most people who believe in witchcraft are desperate. Some need money and others have various complications.” Mr Kimaya, however, called on the government to allow the United Nations to investigate, explaining that “since politicians and other wealthy people were associated with killings of people with albinism, it is important for a UN-led independent team to investigate.”

It is certainly worth looking at who turns to witchcraft, and why, but is it the poor and desperate (as the Minister suggests) or the rich and desperate (as Mr Kimaya claims)? Nobody can say for certain, but given the money involved – in this gruesome market, albino body parts are reported to sell for over $600, a whole corpse for $75,000 – and the wealth of some of the more high profile “traditional healers”, it surely can’t just be the poor.

Second, a line from the Nipashe editorial is worth quoting in full (translation below):

“Jamii iliyotawaliwa na fikra za imani za kishirikina, daima huamini kwamba kila kifo ni cha kurogwa na hakuna kinachotokana na mapenzi ya Mungu ama maradhi yanayotokana na mazingira yetu tunayoishi.”

“A society ruled by belief in witchcraft believes that every death is the result of a curse and that nothing comes from the will of God or from diseases that stem from the environment in which we live.”

There’s enough in that single sentence for a whole essay. (Perhaps alongside the cartoon above.)

2 thoughts on “Looking closer at Tanzania’s witchcraft ban

  1. I.P.A. Manning

    Witchcraft is sorcery; witchdoctors are used to counter sorcery, and to heal in general. You have not made this clear

  2. Pingback: White Shadow review (in the Guardian): a brutal, honest portrayal of Tanzanian albinism | mtega

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