Witch doctors, spirits and killings

April 17, 2009

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Is it the global credit crisis? Is it the evil that lurks? Or is the world just getting madder? Whatever the cause, there’s a spike in ritual murders in this impoverished African country.

While most crimes are down (having your cell phone ripped off remains the most common incident) here are some of Uganda’s recent headlines: ‘Girl beheaded in ritual murder,’ ‘Witches confess trickery,’ and ‘Witchcraft exposed.’

The victims are often innocent kids. James Wanzaale, 12, Joseph Kasirye, 12 and Ismael Ssekajja, 9, were beheaded in separate incidents. Jimmy Turyagyenda, 11, was almost sold to a witchdoctor for three million shillings ($1,720 Cdn) … by his father. And the body of an unnamed seven-year-old boy has been found with no head, tongue, genitals or heart.

Most recently, a mob lynched 64-year-old John Manziyabo and his son Polly to death. For good measure, the mob then razed their homes and killed their 10 pigs. Manziyabo, allegedly a long-time witch-doctor who left bodies around his home, was suspected of ritually killing a man known to the mob.

This all in a deeply religious country. Local churches are full and energetic, an extension of a 20th Century revival that lasted for decades and left East Africa – Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania – heavily Christianized. (Africa now has an estimated 400 million Christians, about half the continent’s population.)

Responding to this rise in occult activity, Ugandan church leaders recently called for 40 days of prayer and fasting to help heal their land. Ending at Easter, that different kind of human sacrifice, their national campaign was co-ordinated with police and community efforts.

Their ongoing challenge is with Africa’s traditional spirituality, a worldview where everything is seen through the spirit world. You had a car accident? Blame the spirits. The brakes failed? It’s the spirits. The brakes were left un-serviced due to your own negligence? It’s still the spirits. In fact, your accident may have resulted from a hex that someone cast on you, so you better find a way to reverse it.

Ugandan psychologist Kajumba Mayanja puts it this way: “People want an explanation on everything. If I lose my job, why me? Or my child falls sick; why me and not the other?”

One can’t overstate this mindset of spiritual cause and effect. Thanks to the influence of his Ugandan babysitter, even my three-year-old son, who fell and scraped his knee recently, blamed the devil in a way he wouldn’t in our Canadian home culture.

So going to your local traditional healer, a.k.a. witch-doctor, is as common as going to the corner store. It’s estimated four out of five Ugandans have gone to get this or that.

This is where things get murky. Uganda has about 157,000 traditional healers. That’s 100 times more than medical doctors. And none are regulated.

Many use common herbs to cure what ails you. But if clients want something else, say money or power or some relationship, the good doctor may ask for something more potent to offer the spirits: like a head.

How the global economic crisis may play into this is anyone’s guess. It is true that the developing world is very dependant on the west. About half of Uganda’s revenue comes from foreign donors. And Ugandans who work abroad are now sending less money back to needy relatives.

But the global economy may be a secondary factor at best. Some argue that there, in fact, is no link between poverty and this spike in ritual sacrifices. Otherwise killings would be higher in Uganda’s poorest regions, and upper-middle class businessmen would not be involved.

As an observer who has seen the beat here for several years, I tend to agree. The bigger issue is that a false belief system pervades daily life. And what we believe – for better or worse – has a profound impact on not just who we are, but what we do.

That’s as true where you are as it is here. The only difference is in what the two cultures tell us, and if we can sort spiritual truth from deception.

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April 17, 2009 • Posted in ,
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