Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Thousands of elderly people, mostly women, are being accused of witchcraft and then murdered or maimed by vigilante groups in Tanzania

Oliver Duff:

They came for Lemi Ndaki in the night. "I was sleeping when I heard a noise," explains the 70-year-old Tanzanian grandmother. "Someone grabbed me and chopped off my arm with a machete. I think he came to chop my neck but I raised my hand and he only took my arm."

A neighbour responded to her crying and took her to the hospital in Mwanza, the nearest city, a three-hour drive away near Lake Victoria.

"They couldn't put my arm back on and the scar still hurts," she says. That is not surprising: the bone still pokes out below her elbow, 19 years later.

Other elderly women in her village, Mwamagigisi, have not been so lucky. Ng'wana Budodi was shot in the head with an arrow. Kabula Lubambe and Helena Mabula were stabbed to death. Ng'wana Ng'ombe was murdered with a machete, and when they set fire to her hut they killed her husband, Sami.

This is the fate awaiting thousands of old people, mostly women, accused of witchcraft. The killings are escalating and the Government does nothing.

A combination of poverty, ignorance and personal jealousies leaves fearful and frustrated peasants quick to blame any adverse act of fate - a dead child, a failed crop, an unfair inheritance settlement where a sibling receives all the land - on witchcraft. Throw into the pot some gossip and an often fatal bout of finger-pointing, and groups of professional vigilante killers move in to remove the "problem" for payment. Four cows or US$100 ($144) is said to be the going rate.

A leaked survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs said that as many as 5000 people had been lynched between 1994 and 1998, and a local police chief has said they are a daily occurrence.

The root cause is that village life is so hard, prompting neighbours and relatives into competition over resources that can spill into violence.

These are the most deprived parts of a country whose people have an annual income of US$330 and a life expectancy of 46. There is no electricity and no running water; home is a mud hut with a straw roof. Few roads are passable during the wet seasons and 60 per cent of villagers lack adequate sanitation facilities. Lion and leopard attacks are common.

HIV/Aids is rife and malaria, typhoid, polio and dysentery kill many children before they reach 5 years old.

The witchcraft problems are exacerbated by a motley crew of "witch doctors" which attribute undiagnosed illnesses to witchcraft, and - for a price - direct their vengeful clients to the accused sorcerer.

It is the elderly, particularly those whose families have died and so have no protection, who bear the brunt of people's frustrations and anger.

Back in Mwamagigisi, the "nfumu" (diviner), Gamawishi Shija, said that people needed to know if they had been bewitched by a neighbour so that they could "stop the problem".

Sitting on the ground between four spears, the 44-year-old Maasai said that she derived her authority and magical powers from her ancestors, who were healers. "When you have a disease which is unknown you can see that it is witchcraft," she said.

Many murders go unreported because villagers cover up the killings to avoid police attention. Corruption and a lack of law-enforcement resources only add to the problem.

"The Government is condoning the killing," said Scolastica Jullu, executive director of the Women Legal Aid Centre in Dar es Salaam. "Except for cases of rape of older women, I don't find anyone taken to court for this."

The Government wipes its hands and says that with so few resources it can do little more than encourage NGOs interested in the problem.

"This is an evil, repugnant practice, a repulsive tradition," said the district commissioner for Magu, Elias Maaragu. "But if old people have no children to protect them, it is not like the [West] where you house them together and give them an allowance. That is a faraway dream for us.

"We have so many things to do: build roads, control malaria, fight HIV/Aids and dysentery, build hospitals, take electricity and water to rural areas."

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