A Tanzanian woman (Photo by Tim Theuer / Creative Commons / Flickr).
Brentwood School

Revisiting the modern witch hunts in Tanzania

“When I returned home in the evening, I found the body of my mother lying 10 metres away from our house, while the body of my father was burnt inside the house,” Josephat John told BBC.

His parents were two of seven Tanzanians killed by a group of villagers in 2014, under the suspicion of witchcraft. 

From the years 2005 to 2011, over 3,000 people were put to death in Tanzania for the crime of witchcraft. Before that, around 50,000 to 60,000 more were killed between 1960 and 2000 for the same reasons. The majority of these victims were elderly women, who fit the Tanzanian witch stereotype.

However, accusations have been made on all grounds, such as if a woman has red-tinted eyes. Others were accused of simply living in poverty. Or if the village had a poor harvest. Or blamed for uncontrollable diseases such as HIV.

No matter the justification, these women were shown no mercy in their deaths: beaten, chased, stoned and in more dramatic cases, burned or buried alive. In most instances, the murderers did not face punishment as law enforcement is stretched thin over the region. 

These witch hunts were a response to the kidnappings of albinos, people who lack skin pigment, across the east African nation. In Tanzania, it is not uncommon for albino people to be sold for their body parts, which are said to bring good fortune and luck; the power of which is believed to be based on how much the victims scream or how young they are.

Often, these body parts reap thousands of dollars in revenue. Many believed that witches were responsible for this problem and chose to combat these deaths with more violence. According to a 2012 Pew Research Report, 93% of the nation believes in witchcraft, while 60% rely on witch doctors to expose and exorcise these women.

Even the government has taken strides to put an end to this witchcraft. In 2015, a ban was placed on witchcraft, though the Tanzanian presidential race in October of that year brought fear for a new wave of violence. Many political campaigns used albino body parts to predict their political success, which further encouraged the use of “witchcraft” and therefore the killing of any accused practitioners. 

While there have been no detailed reports of witch hunts in Tanzania this year, it is more than likely that they are still occurring and this issue should not be forgotten.

Based on the history of witchcraft in Tanzania, it is clear that this violence will not end through the enactment of any law but will remain a problem in Tanzania until the population changes their mindset on the existence of witchcraft itself, which is not in the foreseeable future.