The old woman averts her eyes from the camera, her face a patchwork of sewn skin and flesh. Angry scars and deep indentations meander around her face in a way that makes it unsymmetrical. Her mouth is permanently twisted – slightly to one side – from where she had two months of operations to stitch her face back together.
“They started chopping me because they had machetes. My face was in agony. After they cut me here, my cheek was left hanging,” she says to Unreported World as she points to the engorged scar that sits like an embedded ball in her cheek.
Since surviving the brutal attempt on her life, she now lives in a remote area of Tanzania. After the death of her parents, her brothers accused her of using witchcraft to kill them. To exact revenge on her, they broke into her house one night when she was sleeping.
Thousands of Tanzanian women – in particular, older women – have been murdered over the last two decades after being denounced as witches. It is linked to hundreds of years of beliefs where magic and superstition explicated calamities such as death, sickness, and poor crops. To date, laws still exist in the East African country banning witchcraft.
According to a Pew Research Center report in 2012, around 93 per cent of people in Tanzania still believe in witchcraft, while 60 per cent of the population still rely on witch doctors to rectify maladies associated with witchcraft such as illnesses, drought, or death.
There is no specific accreditation that validates someone as a witch doctor. Generally speaking, the only supporting evidence required is that the local community believes in the person’s “powers”, along with supposed in-depth knowledge of herbs and potions.
Frequently, it is the witchdoctor that seals the fate and demise of the accused. It is widely believed that they possess the insight to pinpoint the witch and her crimes. When peculiarities occur, the villagers will flock to the trusted local witchdoctor, who will then be able to tell them who bewitched whom. The mayhem and killing will commence once the witch’s name is revealed.
A village leader told Unreported World that, often, accusing someone of witchcraft could be a means of frightening the person into signing over land or inheritance.
He spoke about a woman who was denounced as a witch because her family wanted to prevent her from obtaining an inheritance of land. In the end, she had to petition the court to get her family to hand over her share of the money from the 40-acre land sale.
“The brother wanted to sell the land so he could have his share of the money. When she asked for her share, they called her a witch. In the past, land wasn’t worth much but it’s become more valuable. Now there are lots of disputes about land,” he explained.
The Legal and Human Rights Centre reported that 501 people were killed due to mob violence and witchcraft suspicion from January to June 2018, and that at least 17 people were killed each month because of witchcraft beliefs.
Some of the reported incidents included that of Ndilu Mbogashi, a 65-year-old resident of Taba Village in Kilauwa District, who was reportedly killed by an angry mob over witchcraft-suspicion in March 2018. It was claimed that a woman, Amina Lufungulu, who was sick, went to a witchdoctor – who pointed a finger at the late Ndilu Mbogashi.
Another woman in Bukulu Village in Nyangw’ale District was reported to have strangled her six-year-old son to death, claiming that he disguised himself as an old woman during prayers.
Human rights organisations have called for changes to these unfounded accusations coupled with the lack of prosecutions – causing many in remote areas to live in angst and fear.
Witchcraft continues to be a controversial subject in Africa, flourishing on superstition. The legal system is often ill-equipped to fully address the issue with the level of urgency and importance that is required. A report by the University of Dar es Salaam concluded that witchcraft beliefs are too strong to be driven out by legal methods. It instead advocates for the removal of ignorance by introducing a scientific view of the world through [mass] education.