Tuesday 23 March 2010

The Heart of Darkness

A few years ago I spent some time in Uganda, Kampala mostly, though I also managed to get up country. I'm very sociable and I like making friends, not at all a problem in this lovely country, for the people are even more sociable than me. A close interest was always taken in my planned excursions, with advice on what to do, where to go and what precautions to take. When I said that I was going to go to Kigali, the capital of the adjacent Rwanda, that I was most surprised: I should not go, I was told with genuine concern, there are too many witches there.

I've since learned how powerful the African belief in witchcraft is, witchcraft in general and magic in particular, and these come not in any benign neo-pagan sense but in the darkest forms imaginable. An article by Rob Rickard in the April issue of The Fortean Times emphasises just how dark, focusing on the murder of albino people whose body parts are used in muti or medicine magic, a trend that seems to be particularly marked in East Africa, especially Tanzania.

Albinos already have a hard time, enduring insults and discrimination of all sorts. Many of them are raised by single mothers because, given their skin colour, fathers have a tendency of leaving, accusing their wives of having affairs with white men. If this is not bad enough the children also have to cope with the widespread belief that they have magical powers. This includes the belief that having sex with an albino will cure diseases, even diseases as grave as AIDS. A number have been raped in consequence, leaving them HIV positive. But by far the worst abuse comes in the shape of muti magic.

There is a huge demand for charms in Africa; charms to bring luck, money or success in business. Just as the Chinese believe that ivory has aphrodisiac properties, many Africans believe in the potency of albino body parts. The one has led to ivory hunters, the other to albino hunters. In November 2009 the International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies (IFRCCS) released figures showing that at least forty-four albinos had been killed in Tanzania and a further fourteen in Burundi over the preceding year. For the hunters it's a lucrative trade. The IFRCCS report also said that a complete set of albino body parts can fetch as much as $75,000. The growing anxiety induced by the trade has led to at least 10,000 people being displaced or going into hiding.

Muti is a Zulu word meaning 'medicine'. Those who believe in this - given the prices involved clearly not just the poor and ignorant - will go to traditional medicine men, witch doctors, if you prefer, who will tell their clients which body parts are required for their specific needs. A 'shopping list' is then passed on to middle men, people who commission the muti hunters.

The worst thing about this, the thing I found most distressing when I read Rickard's article, is that the victim is not first killed and the parts removed; no, for if the medicine is to have greatest effect the parts in question, limbs, genitals, eyes, ears, even the whole skin, must be removed while he or she is still alive, in the belief that their agonising screams add to the potency of the magic. One of the worst cases occurred ten years ago in Tanzania, where twenty-year-old Enicko Simkoko was attacked and skinned alive. The perpetrators of this outrage were later caught in the town of Tunduma, drying his skin in a hotel room.

I have no solution for this horror; I doubt if anyone has. The trade is now more organised and more lucrative that ever. It's a sign, more than anything, of the anxieties of a modern age in a continent where people face all sorts of pressures, where they have only one hand to play and no other, turning to the past and tradition, no matter how perverse or wicked, in looking to secure their own futures.


  1. Omg...I had no idea these things happened...
    I'm also very shocked about people raping albinos to cure diseases...sigh...great post. I'm shocked.

  2. How terrible, Anastasia. I'd heard bits and pieces of stories like this, but had no idea how pervasive it was. So, so sad.

  3. Ana, if anything could make me despair of humanity, it's cruelty like this. No practice is too barbaric where ignorance prevails and the money is right.