When ageing becomes a curse

Ms Mageni Benge shows of the machete marks she got after being attacked for being a suspected witch
Ms Mageni Benge shows of the machete marks she got after being attacked for being a suspected witch

Shamiso Yikoniko recently in Dar es Salaam

While in other communities, ageing is seen as a precious gift from the Almighty, in Tanzania, the opposite is true.

Ageing is, in fact, a curse!

A blood-stained machete outside a mud-walled hut in a remote Tanzanian village is a reminder of how Ms Mageni Benge narrowly escaped death by a whisker, after being accused of being a witch by a mob of angry villagers. The scars in her hands, arms, neck, face, shoulders and head are a constant reminder of that fateful day.

She spent a better part of her life caring for her elderly parents – looking after them when they got sick and fed them. When her parents passed away within a short time of each other, Ms Benge’s brother and sisters approached a witch-doctor, who accused Ms Benge as the killer, as she wanted to get her hands on their parent’s land and livestock.

Ms Benge was in tears as she narrated her ordeal.

“Two days after the witchcraft accusation, I was attacked in my sleep. I woke up and found two people standing at the foot of my bed. I asked them what they wanted from me but they didn’t answer. They then started attacking me with machetes,” she said.

“My only shield were my arms which I used to protect myself, I then fell down on the ground when I couldn’t stand the pressure of the attack. I had sort of given up on life.”

Perhaps a rude awakening was when Ms Benge heard her own brother saying, “Come on, let’s go, we’ve finished her off.”

Only then, her attackers left. Ms Benge struggled to get back on her feet as she staggered and collapsed back on the floor, where her 15-year-old daughter found her.

“It is sad that women are targeted in these attacks. The only sin we seem to have committed is to grow old,” added Ms Benge.

Ms Benge is a case of the rising number of elderly women targeted by vigilantes accusing them of witchcraft. Most of the women attacked are past their middle ages and many are said to have red eyes, perceived by many Tanzanians as a sign of being a witch.

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. Legal and Human Rights Centre executive director, Dr Hellen Kijo-Bisimba, said cases of witchcraft killings are rampant.

“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,” she said.

“Another reason of targeting women in witchcraft killings is associated with property ownership, whereby old women with land or any other immovable property become vulnerable to attacks and killings, using witchcraft as an excuse, to obtain their property.

“The truth, however, is that the killers want to eliminate those women in order to take over their properties. Unfortunately, those who kill might be close relatives to the victims, including their own sons. And those who are old and are poor they don’t face these atrocities.”

LHRC has a report from the police showing that for the period of six months from January to June 2014, a total of 320 people were reported to have been killed as a result of witchcraft allegations. In comparison, for the full calendar years of 2012 and 2013, the reported incidents were 336 and 303 respectively.

Tanzanian home affairs minister, Mr Mathias Chikawe, however, refuted the numbers of witchcraft killings.

“LHRC figures are inflated, I would say 40 or 50 killings per year,” he said.

Mr Chikawe, however, said the police have been making arrests based on witchcraft killings.

“We have been making arrests though I can’t readily give the exact statistics,” he said.

“Murder is a crime punishable by death through hanging, of which hanging is an order given by the President only and we haven’t hanged anybody since 19 years ago. The last president to order hanging is Ali Hassan Mwinyi.”

Witchcraft is a common practice in Tanzania through all walks of life. It has existed for generations, even before the introduction of modern major religions of Islam and Christianity. Witchcraft beliefs and practices are now a fact of everyday life, existing side by side with these major modern religions.

HelpAge International Tanzania country director, Mrs Amleset Tewodros, said the misconceptions about the physiological changes due to ageing triggers witchcraft killings.

“Land and property related issues are the underlying issues but what is triggering witchcraft killings are misconceptions about ageing-women with red eyes, dementia, where one wakes up at night and start wandering around and loss of teeth,” she said.

“Traditional healers are also using witchcraft accusations as solutions to people’s problems which prompt these killings. And these acts are used as scapegoats to problems in the home.”

Witchcraft in Tanzania is regulated by the Witchcraft Act of 2002.

According to the LHRC report (2014), this legislation has many shortcomings and has failed to address the problems caused by witchcraft beliefs and practices.

“Among the shortcomings is the meaning of ‘witchcraft’, whereby the definition as provided in the Act is very broad and does not give a clear picture of what witchcraft is,” reads the report.

According to the Act, witchcraft includes, “sorcery, enhancement, bewitching, the use of instruments of witchcraft, the purported exercise of any occult power and purported possession of any occult knowledge”.

Mr Chikawe added that the belief in witchcraft is so deeply ingrained in north-western Tanzania that whenever misfortunes strike, such as the loss of a life or poor harvest, someone is held responsible.

“The majority of the people there don’t have a religion, so their concept of crime or sin is different from what Christians or Moslems perceive. They take the matter in their own hands,” explained Mr Chikawe.

“When we make arrests they don’t deny to committing the crimes because they will be convinced that the so-called witches would have performed the act. And to them that’s a good reason to kill. Also, a large percentage of people in these regions are not educated so ignorance of the law is rampant and beliefs in witchcraft are high.”

Hired gangs, called watu wamapanga (people of the sword) are used in witchcraft killings.

LHRC believes that witchcraft-related killings are aggravated by a belief that there is no alternative means to control witchcraft and no access to justice. The gender bias that witchcraft problem has taken is also very alarming. Most of the witchcraft killings and harassment victims are older, poor women.

“Gender bias of the problem can be explained as a result of women marginalisation in society. This is especially true in the rural areas where, due to long use of firewood for cooking, a woman usually ends up having red eyes as a result of being subjected to firewood smoke,” added Dr Kijo-Bisimba.

HelpAge International, a non-profit organisation that works to help older people, launched a two-year project to improve community awareness about older women’s rights while also providing legal advice and counselling to any victims.

“We want our children to grow up knowing that witchcraft killings are a human rights abuse,” added Mrs Tewodros.

“And that they are also growing old and the same act of violence will be performed on them if they don’t transform their perceptions about ageing.”

In the same vein, Dr Kijo-Bisimba added that they “have since embarked on awareness campaign on human rights and educate the masses why it’s important to respect these. We have also set up para-legal centres in the areas mostly affected by witchcraft killings.”

Tanzania has about 1,4 million people aged over 65, or about 2,9 percent of its 50 million population.

Most killings are reported from Mwanza, Shinyanga, Geita, Simiyu and Musamo regions which are situated in the West Lake part of Tanzania. Globally, witchcraft killings are also practiced in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, India, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal and South Africa.

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Shamiso Yikoniko’s reporting from Tanzania as part of its African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.

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