We perish because we know not… #TLENews
The East African country of Tanzania has reportedly banned witch doctors in an effort to prevent further witchcraft-related murders of albinos.
According to a story reported by Agence France-Presse, “The ban follows the kidnapping last month of a four-year-old girl by men armed with machetes, who took her from her home in the northern Mwanza region. Police have since arrested 15 people, including the girl’s father and two uncles, but she remains missing. ‘These so-called witches bear responsibility for the attacks against albinos,’ interior ministry spokesman Isaac Nantanga told AFP Wednesday.”
In Tanzania and Burundi at least 50 albinos have been murdered for their body parts in recent years according to a 2010 Red Cross report. In November 2009, four people were arrested and sentenced to death in northern Tanzania for killing an albino man to harvest his body parts.
A month earlier, albino hunters beheaded a 10-year-old boy and hacked off his leg. In May of last year two witch doctors were arrested in connection with the death of an albino woman who was murdered for her body parts.
Throughout Africa witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing (or removing) magic curses or bringing luck in love or business. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti. Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts, and other body parts from their living victims.
Some of the news headlines about Tanzania’s effort are misleading; for example AFP wrote that “Tanzania Bans Witch Doctors in Attempt to End Albino Killings.” Sensational headlines aside, as a practical matter there is no chance that witchcraft will be effectively abolished in Tanzania or elsewhere in Africa.
It’s been tried before: Colonial governments, and the British Empire in particular, instituted various anti-witchcraft laws in the 19th and 20th centuries. By passing those laws the governments did not officially endorse the reality of magic or witchcraft but instead implemented them to curb accusations of witchcraft.
Tanzania’s neighbor Zambia, for example, passed a law known as the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957, which criminalized “on the advice of any witchdoctor, witch-finder or other person or on the ground of any pretended knowledge of witchcraft, uses or causes to be put into operation any means or process which, in accordance with such advice or his own belief, is calculated to injure or damage any person or thing.”
This would of course include the harming or killing of albinos for their body parts to be used in magic spells.
Despite such efforts, attempts by African countries to outlaw witchcraft have historically failed. Gerrie ter Haar, a professor of Religion, Human Rights and Social Change, writing in “Imagining Evil: Witchcraft Beliefs and Accusations in Contemporary Africa,” notes that “a law that makes witchcraft a criminal act punishable by the state…would seriously undermine the integrity of the law. Whereas the law properly operates on the basis of written rules and strict procedures that follow international standards, witchcraft accusations are generally based on gossip and hearsay that lacks actual proof since it is based on belief, and not on evidence of a type required in court. Whereas law enforcement is fully institutionalized, witchcraft accusations operate beyond any institutional control…. The Witchcraft Suppression Act that is still in force in South Africa appears to have done nothing to reduce the widespread fear of witchcraft.”
“Most of the literature on the efficacy of Western education for combating witchcraft belief holds that insight into the natural causes of diseases and other misfortunes will show Africans that their fear of witchcraft is unfounded.”
South African Professor of Theology and Religious Studies Selaelo Thias Kgatla, writing in the same book, explains that legislation against witchcraft is ineffective because it fails to address the root of the problem.
In other words as long as people believe that the bad things that happen to them are caused by enemies’ black magic instead of random chance or bad luck, they will seek magical protections and remedies against them — including, sometimes, albino body parts.
The vast majority of witch doctors and traditional healers throughout Africa are not involved in muti murders, though they routinely offer magical services to attract luck or dispel curses.
As Zimbabwean constitutional law scholar in Professor Welshman Ncube noted in an African news article about witchcraft legislation, “I don’t believe or disbelieve. It’s difficult for outsiders to understand, but African daily life relies heavily on the spirit world, for good or evil.”
Though the new efforts by the Tanzanian government are unlikely to stop the albino murders, the fact that the issue is being taken seriously and drawing international attention is a step in the right direction.
By Benjamin Radford