Witches of Shinyanga

As an October baby I’ve always had a thing for Halloween. When I was little I would dress up every year and go as the same thing – a witch.

It’s not exactly an offbeat costume choice but my love of witches ran deeper than that. I admired their strength and smarts. From my almost-namesake Sabrina the Teenage Witch to Hermione Granger, they were some of my biggest childhood role models.

But my understanding of the term “witch” is wildly different from what it evokes in others’ minds. To many people a witch is just a convenient label for any woman who won’t conform to their idea of what a woman should be. Throughout the Middle Ages it was used as an effective tool of oppression. According to estimates, more than 200,000 “witches” were tortured, burned or hanged in the Western world between 1500 and 1800. Who hasn’t heard of the Salem witch trials of 1692?

It wasn’t until my trip to Tanzania that I realised these sentiments live on. Older women in rural communities – particularly unmarried and windowed ones – run the risk of being accused of witchcraft, captured and murdered. The issue is prevalent enough that there is an entire project, funded by the European Union (EU) and run by Help Age, dedicated to fixing it.

The reasons for these senseless killings are multifold and vary by region. I visited Itilima Ward in Northern Tanzania which has its own unique set of problems. To find out what some of them are, I sat down with district commissioner Nyabaganga Taraba.

According to her older women seem to become victims because they are given social power in the family. This specifically relates to ownership of cattle, land and chickens, but they also tend to be the main decision makers for family matters. Some of the young men now demand that they have asset ownership instead – and they’re willing to go to great lengths to gain it.

But that explanation only paints part of the picture. In some cases the accusers can be scorned suitors. In others it’s jealous neighbours or upset relatives. Just like back in the Middle Ages the witch label has become a convenient way of forcing women to get in line, whatever the issue.

The witchcraft debate wouldn’t be complete without taking into consideration local healers. They fulfil the same role as doctor but their approach is different, relying on rituals and herbs rather than traditional medicine. I was lucky to sit down with a healer by the name of Richard Kulwa and ask him a few questions.

He cures people who are ill, he told me. He can even cure someone who is bewitched. “How do you know someone is bewitched?” I quizzed him, genuinely curious. He sat very still for a moment making me wonder whether he’d understood the question. “How do you identify a witch?” I tried a different angle.

I could see his body language change, his shoulders slumping a little. “I cannot identify a witch,” he confessed. “I’m not even completely sure witchcraft exists. But I know there are many people suffering from disease who need help. And if those who bring them in believe they are bewitched that is what I have to cure.”

It was an interesting scene. Sitting in front of me was a traditional healer, the man people turned to anytime the issue of dark magic came up. Yet despite playing such a central role in the fight against witchcraft, not even he was convinced it was real.

It made me feel for him – what a confusing minefield to navigate on a daily basis. But even more than that it made me feel for the victims of these needless crimes. One of them was 60-year-old Justina Gaga, a slender woman with a kind soft smile.

One day she was walking around her neighbours farm and noticed him pruning some trees. She asked him whether she could come back later to gather some of the branches and he happily agreed. But by the time she got around to picking them up the man had sadly passed away and his children were not happy to see her in their garden.

When they asked her why she was there she tried to explain she was just collecting firewood. But they refused to believe her and instead accused her of witchcraft, suspicious that she had something to do with their father’s passing.

Justina took matters into her own hands and reported the incident to the village officer. In the past similar situations had often escalated in killings, so her concern wasn’t unfounded. But thanks to the NGOs’ involvement the older people’s forum interfered and was able to amicably settle the matter.

It’s easy to blame the accusers and write them off as bad individuals. But it’s important to understand that these conflicts tend to arise not out of a place of evil but a simple lack of knowledge. Take Shija Kulwa for example, a pleasant woman in her early forties. Her mother recently turned eighty and had been unwell for quite some time.

Shija and her husband decided to take her in and care for her in their home. But ever since she arrived she has been rude to her daughter and made her life very difficult with her constant demands. Luckily the old people’s forums quickly realised what the issue was – the older lady was suffering from dementia.

Now they are mediating the situation by explaining to Shija what dementia is, and why her mother’s behaviour has been so uncharacteristic and unpredictable.

I could go on, as the EU-funded project has seen many such success stories since its conception. And the victims are not the only ones noticing a change for the better. Richard Kulwa, the local healer I wrote about earlier, described a gradual shift in the local attitudes toward older women. Not only them – also men and persons with albinism, a condition the charity is helping normalise in the villagers’ eyes.

Their achievements have been very impressive. According to Help Age representatives the project has reached 639 community and family leaders and 29,800 community members in 16 villages. More than 200 leaders have even trained on issues of ageing, including previously unknown diseases like dementia.

My favourite aspect of the charity’s education efforts was their youth involvement. They have mobilised 16 youth groups and 32 school clubs who now champion the rights of older people and persons with albinism. They share their message of peace through poems, songs and plays. As of late they’ve also been supporting their elders by fetching water and firewood, as well as helping them write down their life stories in “memory books”.

If anything, my visit has made me feel like young people in the West could take a leaf out of these children’s books. After all, we don’t need witches to make somebody’s life a little more magical.

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