The mutilated body of an albino toddler has been found in Tanzania with his limbs hacked off, the latest such killing for body parts for witchcraft, the police said on Wednesday.
The United Nations condemned the attack, warning that with general elections looming – when people may turn to witchcraft to boost political campaigns – albinos in Tanzania were facing a “dangerous year.”
The one-year old boy, Yohana Bahati, was seized by men with machetes from his home in northern Tanzania’s Chato district overnight on Saturday, with police finding the body on Tuesday afternoon in a forest area close to his home.
“His arms and legs were hacked off,” regional police chief Joseph Konyo said.
The baby’s mother Ester Jonas, aged 30, is in a serious state in hospital with machete cuts to her face and arms after she tried to protect her baby.
The killing follows the kidnapping in December of a four-year-old albino girl also in northern Tanzania. Multiple arrests were made but the child has not been found.
UN country chief Alvaro Rodriguez said he was “deeply concerned by the abductions of these two young children,” saying that at least 74 albinos have been murdered in the east African country since 2000.
The UN repeated its fears that attacks against albinos could be linked to looming general and presidential elections in October 2015, leading political campaigners to turn to influential sorcerers for help.
“These attacks are accompanied by a high degree of impunity, and while Tanzania has made efforts to combat the problem, much more must be done to put an end to these heinous crimes and to protect this vulnerable segment of the population,” he added.
“This is the year of elections in Tanzania and, as some analysts have suggested, it could be a dangerous year for people living with albinism.”
Albino body parts sell for around $600 in Tanzania, with an entire corpse fetching $75 000, according to the UN.
Albinism is a hereditary genetic condition which causes a total absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes. It affects one Tanzanian in 1 400, often as a result of inbreeding, experts say. In the West, it affects just one person in 20 000.
The child’s father, who was nearby during the attack, is being questioned by police.
Tanzania has banned witch doctors in a bid to curb a rising wave of attacks and murders of albinos whose body parts are prized for witchcraft after a four-year-old albino girl was kidnapped from her home by an armed gang.
More than 70 albinos, who lack pigment in their skin, hair and eyes, have been murdered in the east African nation in the past decade for black magic purposes, according to United Nations figures. Many were hacked to death and had their body parts removed.
The government has accused witch doctors of fuelling these killings by luring people to bring albino body parts which they grind up with herbs, roots and sea water to make charms and spells that they claim bring good luck and wealth.
The nationwide ban come less than a week after UN fficials urged the government to step up efforts to end the discrimination and attacks after a girl was abducted last month from her home in northern Mwanza region. She is still missing.
Tanzania’s Home Affairs Minister Mathias Chikawe said the government has formed a national task force involving the police and members of the Tanzania Albino Society to arrest and prosecute witch doctors defying the ban.
“We have identified that witch doctors are the ones who ask people to bring albino body parts to create magical charms which they claim can get them rich. We will leave no stone unturned until we end these evil acts,” Chikawe told reporters.
Chikawe said the operation would begin in two weeks time, initially targeting five regions, including Mwanza, Tabora, Shinyanga, Simiyu and Geita, where the government believes attacks against albinos are most prevalent. The operation would be expanded to other areas later.
He said the task force will also have the mandate to review previous court cases of albino attacks and killings to gather new evidence and further research the motive for attacks. The Director of Public Prosecution would prioritise these cases.
The government has previously been widely criticised for failing to act to stop these macabre murders.
The Tanzania Albino Society welcomed the move, saying it would help end the worsening plight of albinos.
“I believe we can work together to end these acts of pure evil,” said spokesperson Ernest Kimaya.
But Rashid Mauwa, a traditional healer from the Bunju area of Dar es Salaam, said he feared the ban would lead to victimisation of healers of whom only a few engage in witchcraft.
“I am not engaging in any witchcraft. I am only using traditional herbs to help people who do not respond to conventional medicines. Why am I being punished?” he said.
Albinism is a congenital disorder which affects about one in 20 000 people worldwide, according to medical authorities. It is, however, more common in sub-Saharan Africa, affecting an estimated one Tanzanian in 1 400.
When I first arrived in Nairobi, I saw the signs but didn’t know what they meant. Once I started understanding Swahili, I learned that the profusion of ads, nailed to fences, stuck on poles and printed on A3 paper, were for waganga (witchdoctors) offering assistance mainly in matters of business, money, love and infertility. In just about every suburb of Nairobi, you’ll find at least one ad, hand-painted, on a little plate, nailed high up on a pole. For an average of around 6000 shillings (R600) you can get to see one of these mgangas but it is advisable to avoid those who advertise on paper. They are reputed to be con artists.
There’s a distinct undertow of witchcraft to the interpretation of many unusual events in Kenya. Even Christians, confronted by some unexplained phenomenon, might exclaim “juju!” (black magic) in the middle of the conversation, and usually everyone will agree.
There are two main ‘currents’ of witchcraft practised in the country. The first, often termed kamuti (kah-moo-teh), is attributed to the Kamba people. It is Bantu witchcraft, similar to that known in South Africa and involves the use of charms, ‘muti’ and spells to achieve the client’s ends. This type of witchcraft is heavily traded in the areas of Kitui and Kitale, not far from Nairobi.
The second stream of witchcraft derives from the Mohammedan influences in East Africa – from the Arabs who landed here centuries ago – and involves the deployment of ‘genies’ (as in Aladdin) to achieve one’s ends. It is grounded in texts from the Qur’an and here, you ‘rent’ the services of a genie to fulfil your wishes for you. You can even buy a genie to work for you permanently and exclusively if you have a few hundred thousand shillings at hand. This type of witchcraft is heavily traded in Mombasa, at the coast, and is reportedly common among the Swahili people. It’s even more strongly associated with Zanzibar, and Dar es Salaam on the Tanzanian coast.
Recently, a friend of mine was involved in a minibus accident. She was the only one without a scratch. The makanga (conductor) with a bleeding face wanted know where she got her juju from because he needed some.
Another friend’s sister was victim of a grenade attack at a church in Mombasa. Shattered glass went everywhere but she, standing at the window, was not injured. She said that people were muttering things about the protection afforded by genies. Interestingly, she was at church but had recently converted to Islam, not that anyone knew. Not anyone visible, anyway.
From the Bantu-Kamba kind of witchcraft there’s a tale so oft-repeated it has reached the level of urban legend. It’s the story of an unfaithful wife and her temporary lover who become “stuck” after having sex, like what happens to dogs. Of course, medical science refutes the possibility of this occurring among humans. But it happens – a YouTube video says so.
The clip shows a rather large woman and a rather small guy lying on top of her, unable to do anything to release himself. The woman is covering her face from the peering crowd, and the guy looks terrified. They are eventually released from each other when the husband comes into the room and does something to free them. One can’t see what he does in the video but the stories I have heard mention the uncapping of a Bic-type pen or the flicking of a Bic-type lighter.
Stories of “Nairobi girls” using this kind of witchcraft to secure a man is also legend. This kamuti involves the insertion of herbs or crystals into the vagina to keep the man abnormally attracted and emotionally ‘stuck’. The man will also be unable to gain an erection with any other woman. These kinds of stories are discussed very matter-of-factly in Nairobi. It is known to be a part of the girls’ personal arsenal, and is reputed to be a common practice.
Despite its widespread acceptance in Kenyan culture, witchcraft obviously has it detractors too. There have been horrific incidents of ‘witch’ lynchings – in 2009, five elderly men and women were burned alive by villagers in western Kenya who accused them of bewitching a young boy. Last year, The Star newspaper reported that elders in the coastal Kilifi Country were fleeing their homes out of fear of being killed for practising witchcraft.
Speaking to other Kenyans, mainly from the coast, I have heard stories of genies and what they can get up to if their master is properly paid and clearly instructed on the client’s wishes. I met a guy called Gilbert who told me he was forced to have sex in his car with a work colleague who had a crush on him. His brand new car refused to start and wouldn’t move when he tried to push it. Once he had done the deed with her, it started on the first turn.
During the mayhem that followed Kenya’s disputed election results in 2007, shops were looted and burned. A Mombasa youth grabbed a TV from a shop and escaped with it on his head. When he got home, he was unable to get the TV off his head. He only managed to remove it when he went back to the shop to return it. The clip isn’t on YouTube but millions of Kenyans saw it on national TV.
Skeptics will be wont to dismiss these juju stories as just that: stories. But before you do, let me add my own experience for light reflection: A few years ago, when I was researching witchcraft for a book I was writing, I was referred to an mganga based in Mombasa. He agreed to be interviewed on condition I undertook ‘rehma’ (spiritual cleansing) with him. I couldn’t resist.
I met the mganga at the Nyali bridge, just outside Mombasa. He looked very ordinary, wearing a plain shirt, khaki pants and flip-flops. He took me to a small, corrugated shack in the village of Bamburi. A fire was lit, molasses tobacco smouldered near it and incense was stuck in a banana to attract the genies. Evidently, genies like sweet things.
The ritual involved handfuls of rice sprinkled over me amid chants of a Muslim prayer. A goat was forced to inhale my recollection of negative experiences over a small fire and I was washed down by a live and wetted chicken. Salve (mafuta) was spread on my breastbone and applied to my palate and I left with little packets of sticks and ointment that I was to apply every morning to ward off evil. It took about 20 minutes in all, and I paid the mganga 8 000 shillings (R800) for the privilege. I didn’t feel any different afterwards, but the guy that had introduced me to the daktari (doctor) warned me that rehma would make me become “a magnet for women”. I laughed at the time and didn’t think any more of it.
I don’t consider myself to have any special appeal to women, but let’s just say that for the few weeks after my rehma, I had a torrid time of it all.
Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly.
Author’s note: Please be cautious of the claims and contacts that are provided in the comments section under this article. Readers have been given misleading information and have lost money. Exercise proper judgment.