Elderly women in Tanzania fear spate of murderous witch hunts
A blood-stained machete outside a mud-walled shack in a remote Tanzanian village is a reminder of how Pili Kidawa narrowly escaped death after coming under attack from a mob of angry villagers accusing her of being a witch.
Kidawa, 78, of Igigwa village in Tanzania’s northwestern Tabora region, is one of a rising number of women targeted by vigilantes accusing witches of fuelling the murder of albinos whose body parts are prized in black magic.
The Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Centre estimate that 765 people accused of being witches were killed in the east African nation in 2013, of which 505 were women. This was up from 630 in 2012 and they want action to stop the number rising.
Most of the women attacked were in their late middle age or older and many were said to have red eyes, perceived by many Tanzanians as a sign of being a witch, the group said. It also reported a rising number of cases of people being buried alive.
“These killings of innocent older women have been increasing from year to year despite various awareness campaigns, law enforcement organs must take serious efforts to stop them,” said Hellen-Kijo Bisimba, the executive director of LHRC.
Kidawa said local villagers, accusing her of bewitching and killing an 11-year-old boy, surrounded her home at nightfall.
“I was about to go to bed when I heard someone shouting it’s your turn to die you witch .. while pelting me with stones. I fell on the ground and fainted,” Kidawa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Tabora.
Kidawa, a widow, who sustained facial injuries in the assault, said her attackers vanished after they thought they had killed her.
“I don’t know why they attacked me. I did not kill anyone. I leave it to God,” said the frail woman who relies on a walking cane.
The rise in witch hunts has come amid a backlash against witchdoctors who were banned by the government in January in a bid to stop a wave of killings of albinos.
More than 75 albinos have been murdered since 2000 with their body parts selling for around $600 and entire bodies for $75,000 to make charms and spells that claim to bring luck and wealth, according to the United Nations and Red Cross.
President Jakaya Kikwete has described the violence against albinos, who lack pigment in their hair, skin, and eyes, as “disgusting and a big embarrassment for the nation”.
But the United Nations has warned this spate of killings could increase ahead of an election later this year as aspiring politicians seek good fortune at the ballot box, fuelling vigilante missions to crackdown on suspected witches.
Human rights groups have condemned the rising wave of witch killings but few culprits have been prosecuted, causing anxiety among elderly women living in rural villages.
“I fear for my life. I don’t have anywhere to go. I know one day I might be attacked because I am old,” said 76-year-old Saada Juma, a resident of Igigwa.
Susan Kaganda, Tabora Regional Police Commander, said vigilante killings related to witchcraft were increasing in the region with killers usually breaking into a victim’s house in the middle of the night.
“The killers often do not harm other members of the family in the house or take anything. Even the machetes or axes used to kill are usually left at the scene,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
According to Kaganda, most women are killed after the death of a relative or someone in the community.
Local experts say the belief in witchcraft is so deeply ingrained in northwestern Tanzania that whenever misfortunes strike, such as the loss of a life or poor harvest, someone is held responsible.
This belief cuts through all classes of society, the rich and poor, the educated and the uneducated, and the young and the old, according to LHRC.
Simeon Mesaki, a Tanzanian anthropologist and researcher on African witchcraft, said witchcraft related killings were aggravated by a belief that there was no alternative means to control witchcraft and no access to justice.
“The yawning gap between the people and courts have forced villagers to take the law into their own hands,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.