Witch-Hunt: The Hidden War on African Women

Johann Hari

Johann Hari

A couple of days ago, I read this article in the Huffington Post by Johann Hari, “The Hidden War on African Women.” My emotions varied between anger, sadness, outrage, and disbelief.

This is not an easy read, but the information it contains is important for us to know and to act on.

I am reproducing the first several paragraphs to give you a taste of the content. To read the entire article click on this link: witch-hunt-the-hidden-war-on-african-women.


Across Africa, a war is being waged on women — but we are refusing to hear the screams. Over the past fortnight, I have traveled into the secretive shadow world that mutilates millions of African women at the beginning of their lives, and at the end. As girls, they face having their genitalia sliced out with razors, to destroy their “filthy” sexuality and keep them “pure”. As old women, they face being hacked to death as “witches”, blamed for every virus and sickness blowing across the savannah.

For decades, we have not wanted to know, because it sounded too much like the old colonialist claims of African “primitivism”, used as an excuse by our ancestors to pillage the continent’s resources. Our bad memories stop us hearing their bad experiences. But today, a rebellion of African women has begun, in defense of their own bodies, and their own freedom. They are asking for our support, and receiving it from Comic Relief and the tens of thousands of people raising money for them tomorrow. This is the story of the great African feminist fightback — and how you can be part of it.

Witch-killing country

I am driving deep into witch-killing country, with the address for the latest lynching. To get to Kagaya village, you take the single asphalt road that rolls for hundreds of miles through Sukumaland, Northern Tanzania. The land is flat and dry and thirsting on to the far horizon. It is interrupted only by great fists of granite that punch through the earth towards the sky, and by bush-trees that look like mutant broccoli, vast and out of perspective. Somehow, my guide knows which of the endless dirt tracks, feeding off the road like tributaries, takes us to Kagaya. We swerve out into the bush.

Everybody in Kagaya knows where the lynching happened. “There,” they say. “That house.” The village is small and seems to be in the process of being swallowed by the greenery that looms and spreads its branches over every shack. Outside the victim’s house — a small, sturdy red-brick building with two bare rooms — 11 people are lolling. Some little girls are peeling potatoes. An old man with a wooden leg is playing a board game with a child. A group of women are weeping and shaking their heads, because the blood just won’t wash out.

They are bemused by the arrival of a muzungu (white man), and reluctant to talk. But gradually, they tell their story. Two days ago, Shikalile Msaji — a woman in her eighties, living alone — was here in this house, looking after her eight-year-old granddaughter. She had spent the day tending her crops in the fields out back, and cooking. But at six in the evening — when it is pitch-black here, the only light coming from the moon and the stars — three strange men appeared.

“Your days are over, old woman,” they said after smashing in her front door with a rock. Her granddaughter ran into the next room. “Stay there and shut up, or you will die, too,” they shouted after her. Then they slashed into Shikalile’s skull with machetes, and tried to cut off her hands — suggesting this was
a witch-killing. Her granddaughter hid until morning, then ran for help. It was too late. Shikalile’s blood still stains the walls, and the small wooden chair where she sat in her last moments of life. Her family — huddled here for the funeral — have to sleep in this room. They have nowhere else to stay until they return to their own villages.

Shikalile’s youngest son, Matseo, is wandering around, dazed. “My mother was a very kind person… I am worried people think she was a witch, she wasn’t,” he says, looking down, almost mumbling. A neighbour speculates: “Her grandchildren have had sicknesses and fevers lately. They have not been well. So maybe she has been blamed. Maybe they said she bewitched them.” Others huddled here, in the shade and the sadness, believe her children just used the charge of witchcraft as an excuse to get her out of the way and claim their inheritance. The villagers have petitioned for them to be arrested, and her eldest daughter has been taken away. Nobody will tell me the details. At the back, in the fields of maize and cassava she planted, Shikalile has just been buried. A dog digs idly at the grave, only to be shooed away.

Witch killings are a daily event in Sukumaland. The victims are almost invariably old women, living alone. These women are frightening anomalies here: they have a flicker of financial independence denied to all other females. It has to be stopped. “Of course witches must be killed!”, Emanuel Swayer tells me, leaning forward. “They are witches!” We are sitting in the nearby town of Nasa-Gin now, in the soft breeze by Emanuel’s fields. A skinny dog is lolling at Emanuel’s feet. He is regarded as a local expert on witches — and how to dispose of them.

“Witches are people who use the power of our ancestors to harm others,” he explains, with a jeer. Most people here believe there are two realms: the physical one which we can all see, and a higher realm, where the spirits of our ancestors reside, eternally watching us. Everybody can appeal to the ancestors for help, by making offerings to them — but only witches ask them to do harm. “The worst thing about witches is if you make a tiny mistake, they’ll kill you,” he says. “It happened to my grandfather. One day he got pricked by a thorn, and he died the next day. How can a thorn prick kill somebody? He must have angered a witch. It is the same with my father. He was a mentally well man. But then he was bewitched and became confused and disappeared and we haven’t seen him since.”

But the witches’ most evil act in their war on Emanuel Swayer was to kill his baby son, Yusuf. “He got severe diarrhoea and died,” he says. “It was the witches. Of course, they deny it — they say I’m not, I’m not, I’m not — but they are. Long ago, in 1984, the Tsungu-Tsungu [a local vigilante group] captured some witches and they admitted it. They admitted it was all true, and this is what they do.”

As I speak to the witch-believers, it becomes clear what is happening. In this bitterly poor, bone-dry land, death is constantly swooping above their heads, ready to strike at any moment. But to accept that their lives are precarious and arbitrary — that something as small as a thorn prick, or diarrhoea, can end their story, and soon — would be excruciating. So it is, perversely, easier to imagine they are in a celestial war against evil, represented by the old women all around them. Suddenly, the grief has a meaning — and can be killed. A witch is death made flesh – and who has not dreamed of slaying death?

To continue reading the story follow this link: witch-hunt-the-hidden-war-on-african-women


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