“Traditional healers” and us. What it means when children are being murdered in Njombe

The Citizen front pages, Jan 30 and Feb 3, 2019

The tragedy is unspeakable, the acts incomprehensible: eleven children murdered in and around the town of Njombe in the space of a few weeks. There are, it is feared, likely to be more whose bodies have not yet been discovered.

Terror now grips the local community. Rumours swirl – more children taken, this businessman is involved, that politician. We can all, surely, understand how panic and fear can fuel a demand for revenge or justice that can all-too-easily boil over into mob-violence. The killing of several people suspected of involvement in the children’s deaths cannot be justified, but it can at least be understood.

Killing children for personal gain cannot. What greed or desperation can possibly motivate someone to do such a thing? What makes them think it will work?

I feel this personally. I lived in Njombe for several years, the names of people and places are familiar. Friends are telling me of their despair, of the sense of chaos. It hurts.

There seems to be no doubt that the killings are related to witchcraft and superstition. The children were not just killed, but dismembered, with various body parts taken away – a practice previously seen in attacks on people with albinism.

This makes “traditional healers” – a slippery term – an obvious target for blame. Government leaders pointed quickly in that direction, and everyone seems to agree. Nobody seriously doubts that one or more “traditional healer” will be involved in some way.

The “healers” have argued back. Speaking on behalf of the Njombe Regional Association of Traditional Healers, Anthony Mwandulami (a very well-known name in the region), has spread the blame in various other directions instead: traditional healers from outside the region, local government for not regulating these incomers properly, and unresolved disputes involving some of the children’s families.

It’s worth stepping back for a moment at this point, to unpack the term “traditional healer”. Whether in English or Swahili – “waganga wa kienyeji” – it seems so innocuous. Who can object to someone who provides treatment for a range of ailments using locally-available plants and recipes passed down from their ancestors? Perhaps such remedies really work? After all, aspirin, artemisinin and many other “western” medicines derive originally from plants and were previously used by “traditional healers”. Perhaps the “traditional healers” of Njombe and the surrounding area have real, effective remedies that just haven’t yet been scientifically tested and manufactured in tablet form?

Or perhaps, some / many / all of them hide behind the respectability of the term to conceal practices that have no place in any society? “Witchcraft” is illegal in Tanzania, “traditional healers” are registered.

The horrors in Njombe are revealing on this point. Nobody doubts the involvement of “traditional healers.” Even Mwandulami, their leader in Njombe, concurs, as shown by his suggestion that “healers” from outside the region may be responsible. When one “traditional healer” points the finger at other “traditional healers” for the mass murder of children, it is pretty clear that the term “traditional healer” doesn’t just refer to someone who treats joint-pain with ancient herbal concoctions not yet known to science.

Mwandulami made a separate point that is also worth unpacking; he suggested that some of the murdered children’s family members had long-standing disputes with each other. This hints at one possible answer to the question I posed earlier – what greed or desperation could motivate the killing of children?

On this, though it seems insensitive to put it this way, the question becomes one of economics: supply and demand. If the “traditional healers” (if I must use that term) are supplying a service; then who is behind the demand?

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

For the everyday customers of “traditional healers,” the problems to be solved are everyday problems: illnesses, particularly when clinics and hospitals have tried and failed; success in love, in business, in school; money troubles; land disputes and more. See the photo, and see what finds its way into the newspapers. Life is hard and some things lie beyond easy understanding.

But everyday customers are surely not responsible for the killing of children. Higher risk must demand a higher price, only affordable to a few, and a higher expected reward.

Local police announced on Monday morning that twenty-eight people have been arrested, including six “traditional healers” and several “prominent businesspeople”. It may be that they really are involved, or it may be that they are innocent victims of an angry public demand for justice. Perhaps wealth is itself grounds for suspicion? Rumours swirling in Njombe – but unreported in the press – also point at political leaders preparing for elections later this year and in 2020. Similar rumours – with, it must be said, little if any evidence to back them up – have circulated in Njombe for years.

"The best doctor: puts marriages back on track, gains promotions, makes you attractive, gives intelligence to students" - From Mwananchi, November 2018
“A great doctor: puts marriages back on track, gains promotions, makes you attractive, gives intelligence to students” – From Mwananchi, November 2018

Another key issue is belief. Nobody, however desperate, hands over their money or agrees to horrific acts being carried out in their name, unless they genuinely believe they stand to benefit as a result. People must really think this stuff works.

So how can it all be stopped? And prevented from recurring?

In the short term, good policing is the clear and only answer. That doesn’t mean jumping in response to every rumour or public accusation. In fact, in some cases, it means offering protection those being accused. But it does mean real police work – investigations, probably some undercover activities, probably some confidential informants – and the careful gathering of evidence. Quick arrests may calm the community, but only real and visible justice can put a stop to the attacks and prevent them from happening again.

Longer term, the underlying problems can be addressed by targeting both the supply and demand sides. Prohibiting “traditional healers” completely would probably only drive the problem further underground, but they could be much better regulated – the specific services they offer listed, for example, and unannounced inspections carried out followed by penalties for those found to be willing to offer something “extra”.

On the demand side, people surely only go to such horrific lengths when they see no alternative route to success. If opportunities in business and politics are fairly available to all, if success can be achieved through talent and effort, and if those found to have cheated are held to account, the temptation to resort to such drastic measures would surely be reduced.

And finally, we have to find a way to stop people believing that any of this actually works. The message is not a complicated one. Witchdoctery doesn’t work. Love potions don’t work. Casting curses doesn’t work. And above all, killing children brings no wealth, no success, no happiness.

I’ve had conversations where people have argued otherwise, not for killing children, but for the power of witchcraft. For various reasons I haven’t always argued back. I’m sure the same applies to many others as well.

So what I am suggesting is that we should make this horrible tragedy the moment when we say enough is enough, when we start arguing back. Because when we don’t, when we stay silent, we’re doing much more than avoiding a difficult conversation. We’re allowing the belief to grow, unchallenged.

And when we do that, we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.

2 thoughts on ““Traditional healers” and us. What it means when children are being murdered in Njombe

  1. Steve

    Good post. There is a link to prosperity churches prevalent across Africa. All respond to a common source of demand: poverty juxtaposed with the wealth of the big man, and the knowledge that most big men did not achieve their wealth entirely honestly. Shortcuts to success are seen as the only way to success. Would better, fairer, more transparent political economies reduce this demand? I’d be interested in analyses of such things from Rwanda and Botswana.

    As for pushing back on witchcraft not working: I think it really depends on who is doing the pushing. Easy for the mzungu to be delegitimised in such debates through accusations of neo-colonialism. Ends up being counter-productive.

Comments are closed.