Swahili, slavery, socialism and superstition – IV

There is such strong belief in the magical powers of albino flesh that albino men, women and children are hunted down for their body parts. In Tanzania, an albino body part fetches $3,000, a full body or a full set of body parts brings $75,000.

 (Daily Times, 13 March 2013)

Superstition is as old as us humans. Since recent discoveries trace the origin of our species to Africa, it is hardly surprising that superstition is most entrenched in that part of the world.  Most superstitious beliefs are rather benign, such as those relating to black cats crossing one’s path, walking under a ladder or spilling salt.  But in its extreme manifestations, superstition leads to beliefs in black magic, sorcery and witchcraft, leading to torture of fellow human beings, trade in human body parts and ritual murder.

According to a report in the Canadian Globe and Mail (April 26, 2010), 93 percent of Tanzanians believe in witchcraft, the highest in Africa. There is such strong belief in the magical powers of albino flesh in Africa, in general, and in Tanzania in particular, that albino men, women and children are hunted down for their body parts.  In Tanzania, an albino body part fetches $3,000, a full body or a full set of body parts brings $75,000, with the result that they are sometimes betrayed by their own relatives for a profit. 

A recent report on American National Public Radio quotes Isaac Timothy, an albino activist in the gold-mining town of Geita: “When you bring [a witch doctor] a body part, such as an arm, a leg or a finger, the witch doctor will make a potion with it. A miner will pour it in the ground where he wants to find minerals or a fisherman will pour it in his canoe.”  A fisherman on the shore of Lake Victoria is quoted as saying that “I don’t believe albino body parts are useful to catch fish, but other people use albinos to catch more fish and become rich.”

In Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Morvan Tsvangirai urged his countrymen last month to acknowledge different diseases and love their children. “In the 1920s, tradition dictated that if twins are born one of them had to be killed. My father was a twin and one of them had to be killed.. . .My grandfather Chibwe suffered from [epilepsy] and because tradition dictated that such people be burnt alive in a hut, that had to be done,” Tsvangirai revealed.

Among the Bariba tribe in northern Benin, children from pre-mature or “abnormal” births, or whose births coincided with the death of a parent, are supposed to be immediately killed or abandoned. According to a report in the Guardian, in November last year officials linked the digging up of 100 graves in Benin to an underground trade in human organs for black magic rituals.

Writing in the Sceptical Enquirer, Leo Igwe says: “Nigerians believe that magical potions prepared with human heads, breasts, tongues, eyes, and sexual organs can enhance one’s political and financial fortunes; that juju, charms and amulets can protect individuals against business failures, sickness and diseases, accidents, and spiritual attacks. Every year, hundreds of Nigerians lose their lives to ritual murderers, also known as head hunters. These head hunters go in search of human parts, head, breast, tongue, sexual organs, at the behest of witchdoctors, juju priests, and traditional medicine men who require them for some sacrifices or for the preparation of assorted magical potions.”

Australia’s northern neighbour Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a stronghold of superstitious beliefs, witchcraft and sorcery. It was reported last month that “a young mother has been stripped naked, tortured with a hot iron, doused with petrol and burned alive in PNG over claims she was a sorceress. . . . There is a widespread belief in black magic as a cause of misfortune, illness, accidents or death in the impoverished South Pacific island nation”.  AIDS victims in PNG are often thought to be the victims of witchcraft. Women accused of being witches are alleged to be responsible for the AIDS epidemic.  As a result, many have been tortured and murdered by mobs.

In Europe, from the end of the 15th to the middle of the 18th century, anywhere from 60,000 to 300,000 persons were killed after being accused of being witches.  The vast majority were women, who were burned alive after witch trials.  The epicentre of the witch-burning hysteria was in Germany.

The hysteria spread to America.  To quote Douglas Linder, “from June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over eighty years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges.”

Even now, “belief in the supernatural is strong in all parts of India, and lynchings for witchcraft are reported in the press from time to time. It is estimated that 750 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the states of Assam and West Bengal since 2003. More than 100 women are tortured, paraded naked, or harassed in the state of Chhattisgarh annually” (source: Wikipedia). According to the National Crime Record Bureau cited by R A Ghosh (“In rural India, it’s always the season of the witch”), 768 women have been murdered in India since 2008 after being accused of practicing witchcraft.

In a detailed study entitled “Children Accused of Witchcraft; An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa” published by UNICEF (April 2010), Aleksandra Cimpric divides the “vulnerable children” accused of an act of witchcraft into three categories.

(1) Orphans who have lost one or both natural parents; children with a physical disability, illness or any physical abnormality; especially gifted children; or children showing any unusual behaviour. (2) Children whose birth is considered unusual or abnormal, such as twins, those born prematurely, or in any variety of breech positions, or in the posterior, face‐up position during delivery. (3) Children with albinism.

While such atrocious beliefs and criminal practices are now a thing of the past in the Western world and regarded as aberrations or deviations in most of the rest of the world, it is not so in Africa.  Cimpric notes that “belief in witchcraft is widespread across sub‐Saharan African countries. It was previously believed that these beliefs and socio‐cultural practices would disappear over time, but the current situation indicates the contrary.”


By Razi Azmi


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2 Responses to Swahili, slavery, socialism and superstition – IV

  1. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Too gruesome to be true.As usual my admiration to the author for letting the readers learn what they could never have imagined.We are still very quick to blame the west for all the ills and evils in our lives when we ourselves can’t come out of these sickening practices.High time for the governments of the respective countries to take appropriate actions to stop these activities.

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Azmi Sahib, Thank you for the detailed history of of superstitions and witchcraft in Africa.
    I think supersitions based on false interpretations of religion are the reason of the sectarian strife and suicide bombings here. This superstition is more dangerous than one seen in Africa.

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