“Elderly woman drops to earth while travelling in the air,” apparently

Mtanzania 310115

In Mtanzania today, a remarkable story, particularly when you note that this is a respectable newspaper, nothing like Sanian elderly woman apparently fell from the sky above Shinyanga.

The article doesn’t explain how she was “travelling through the air”, but it doesn’t need to: travelling by ‘ungo’ (flying basket) is a familiar concept in Tanzania. Fallen-from-the-sky stories appear fairly regularly in the press. Occasionally, they are told with some scepticism. But often, as in this case, they are told entirely at face value.

This time it made the front page – the three photos on the left:

Mtanzania front page 31/1/15

Mtanzania front page 31/1/15, via millardayo.com

I have translated a few choice excerpts into English (the original Swahili is at the end of the post).

Let’s start with two quotes from the (female) occupant of the house where the unfortunate old woman was found:

“I have properly protected my house, so when this old lady flew above it, she encountered my protections and so found herself having fallen.” (1)

“You know, whenever a witch falls to earth, if you leave her for a long time without speaking she can lose her life, so because I had no grievance with her, I saw it was best that I save her by talking to her.” (2)

Next up, another witness:

“This old woman will be a witch, see how even her hands are covered in scratches, she could be someone who turns herself into a hyena and walks on her hands. And her eyes are not normal. She has an excessive arrogance, which is the case with many witches.”  (3)

And finally, an extract from the article itself:

… police arrived and saved the old woman from being attacked by angry people. Nevertheless, the police were not able to take her to the station, as they claimed that government doesn’t believe in witchcraft, so they let her go to continue with her travels. (4)

That sounds like a remarkably sensible conclusion to an unhappy tale. But there are two brief points I want to make about this story.

First, at no point in the article does the reporter display any scepticism at all about the “facts” of the story. Much of the article is made up of quotes from various witnesses, but on several occasions the reporter also makes statements of fact, not least the headline. It’s not “Shinyanga residents claim old woman fell from the sky”, but simply “Old woman fell from the sky.”

Second, the quoted witnesses express considerably familiarity with the ways of witchcraft and witches. “Whenever a witch falls to earth …,” says one, as if it happens regularly. She had also previously explained that she had “protected her house.” Another explains that “many witches have unusual arrogance.”

It may be a rare enough event to make the papers, but its still entirely consistent with this community’s understanding of how the world works.

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Further reading:

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Original Swahili of quotes:

(1) “Nyumba yangu nimeizindika vilivyo, hivyo kikongwe huyu alipokuwa katika safari zake na kupita maeneo ya nyumbani kwangu ndipo akakutana na balaa hilo na hatimaye akajikuta ameanguka na kuingia jikoni kwa ajili ya kujificha.”

(2) “Unajua siku zote mchawi anapoanguka na ukimwacha kwa muda mrefu bila ya kumsemesha, anaweza kupoteza maisha, hivyo kutokana na mimi kutokuwa na ubaya naye, nikaona bora nimsemeshe ili kumwokoa.”

(3) “Huyu bibi atakuwa mchawi, angalia hata mikono yake imekatwa katwa na imekomaa kweli, huenda huwa anajigeuza fisi na kutembelea mikono, halafu macho yake siyo ya kawaida, ana kiburi kupita kiasi na ndiyo tabia za wachawi wengi.”

(4) … polisi walikuwa wamekwishafika na hivyo kumnusuru bibi huyo kushambuliwa na wananchi waliokuwa na hasira.Hata hivyo, askari hao walishindwa kwenda naye kituoni kwa kile walichodai kwamba Serikali haiamini uchawi na kumruhusu bibi huyo kuendelea na safari yake.