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Murder and magic as Tanzania tackles ‘witchcraft’ killings

Albino babies carried on the back/FILE

Albino babies carried on the back/FILE

MAGU, Jan 23- It was a hyena that killed the boy, but four elderly women got the blame. Villagers slashed them with machetes then set fire to their bodies for casting spells on the wild animal.

“They cut her with machetes,” said Sufia Shadrack, the daughter of one of the murdered women in her small village in Tanzania’s northern Mwanza district. “Then they took firewood, mattresses, an iron sheet and burned her like you would cook fish or meat.”

In Tanzania, hundreds of people are killed each year accused of being witches.

Like Shadrack’s mother, many victims are elderly, vulnerable or marginalised – or own property that greedy relatives seize after accusing of witchcraft.

But while some are killed falsely accused of black magic, others are murdered by the “sorcerers” themselves: scores of people with albinism have been killed and their body parts cooked up for spells.

After UN condemnation, the government this month promised a crackdown to stem attacks.

However, activists fear promises may prove little more than rhetoric, as previous government measures have had little or no impact on the deep seated beliefs.

“I am worried about getting older,” said 50-year-old Shadrack, who must walk past the charred wreckage of her mother’s house to visit her grave.

“The ones who killed my mother, I don’t know how they think about me,” she added. “Maybe they will kill me too.”

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– Sacrifices to prevent evil –

Tanzanian rights groups recorded 765 witchcraft related murders in 2013, but warn the real figure is likely far higher.

“The huge number of people who have been killed only includes cases reported,” said Paul Mikongoti from the Legal and Human Rights Centre. “There are so many people that we can’t get the number.”

Simply having bloodshot eyes can be a sign of “witchcraft”, something all too common after decades spent cooking over smoky fires.

At least 74 albinos have been murdered since 2000, according to United Nations experts, who say an entire corpse can fetch $75,000 (64,500 euros), a fortune in the impoverished country.

Observers say attacks against albinos are increasing as Tanzania’s October 2015 national elections looms, encouraging political campaigners to turn to witchdoctors for good luck.

Beliefs of the east African country’s 49 million people are roughly divided equally between Islam, Christianity and traditional religions.

But some 93 percent also believe in witchcraft, by far the highest level recorded in a 19-nation African survey by the PEW Research Center in 2010.

– ‘All about my inheritance’ –

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While Tanzanian law gives women equal inheritance rights many oppose that, and activists say some relatives use witchcraft as an excuse to grab property.

“Normally men like to dominate but when the sisters start to be a bit resistant they think the only way to access that property — be it cows, be it farms — is to claim this lady is a witch,” said Flavian Bifandimu from HelpAge, which advocates for the rights of older people.

“That justifies her death, then automatically the man will take the property. Simple as that.”

Mage Benge, from the small village of Magu, was attacked five years ago after she was accused of using spells to kill her parents. Men hacked her with machetes before leaving her for dead.

“It was all about my inheritance, cows and farmland,” said Benge – adding that had she been able to use magic, she would have protected herself.

Instead, she shows her scarred face, and says she still sees some of the men who attacked her walking free in her village.

“They hurt me badly and made me poor,” she said. “Before I could farm on my own, now I am a beggar.”

The witchcraft ban does not cover traditional healers who use herbs to help the sick, which two-thirds of Tanzanians use, according to government surveys.

In a small hut, traditional healer Hana Mazoya warns of unscrupulous pretenders.

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“If you tell the patient that they have been bewitched by somebody, you just create a conflict between the two, that is when killings can happen,” said Mazoya, dressed in a beaded crown of long black feathers.

She divines the future, but says the spirits that guide her do not dabble in the dangerous practice of denouncing witches.

“My ghosts do not know wizards,” she said.

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