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Richard Petraitis Witch Killers

The Witch Killers of Africa (2003)

Richard Petraitis


In June of 2001, villagers of Congo’s northeast provinces began a bloody witch eradication campaign, sparing neither neighbor, nor friend. Alleged witches were unceremoniously hacked apart by machete-wielding vigilantes, bringing about a scene of carnage unmatched since the machete killing-sprees of the Rwanda Crisis. The innocent victims were first “smelled out” (identified by tribal healers as witches) before they were savagely beaten into incriminatory confessions about others allegedly engaged in the black arts. After the unsuspecting parties were identified, the executions started in earnest throughout the rural areas. Three hundred villagers were killed in the first days of the witch paranoia.[1] In the following weeks, the death toll rose to nearly eight hundred victims.[2] Hundreds of Congolese fled to the relative safety of Uganda, many bearing machete wounds on legs, arms, and torsos.

The Ugandan army intervened to stop the mass killing spree.[3] However, the use of military power to stop the witchcraft killings in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) only cooled the witch hysteria temporarily and the jungles of the Congo still remain a hotbed of belief in magic power. Even government rebels, the infamous Mai-Mai insurgents, believe they can repel bullets with magic water blessed by a witch doctor. However, Mai-Mai fighters, and members of other magic militia within the region, fear witchcraft so fervently that they will execute suspected witches, usually women, on the spot. One brutal method of executing witches in Central Africa is by burying the accused alive![4] Unfortunately, Uganda’s military intervention was but a short term solution to a very long term problem–the persistence of Old Age beliefs in a Modern Africa.

Not only the Congo, but also much of Sub-Saharan Africa remains a bastion for tribal healers, sorcerers, and wizards of every stripe. Sweeping across Africa’s Horn, magic practitioners number in the thousands. So called “tribal healers” hold great sway over millions in Central Africa’s rural and urban centers. Legions of magic practitioners claim the ability to bring rain in times of drought, to expel evil spirits, to find lost property, and to make one wealthy. Sadly, millions of Africa’s adherents to the major monotheistic faiths literally believe a “healer” can exert control over Nature by the use of spells or secret incantations. It is with great tragedy that the monotheistic religions continue to promote a belief in a Universe full of spirit beings–be they angels or demons. It is just such a spirit laden worldview that gives birth to all manner of magic men and women.

Inside the DRC, exorcist cults thrive and prey on homeless young children. One of the most controversial cults is led by a man who calls himself the Prophet Onokoko. According to a BBC News report, this prophet has claimed to have cast out dozens of demons from some of Kinshasha’s allegedly possessed street children.[5] In 1999, hundreds of children were thrown out of their homes and onto the streets of the capital city because family members believed them to be demon possessed.[6] Unfortunately, it isn’t a far reach for Africa’s superstitious to also believe that evil spirits find allies among the adult members of society. These perceived allies of demonic agents are branded by the more credulous as “witches.” Those called “witch.” by the true believers, often find themselves at the receiving end of a lynch mob. The culturally catastrophic impact of these Old Age beliefs is reflected in the horrific death toll of Twentieth Century Africa’s witch killings.

In one decade alone, (1991 to 2001), Tanzania had 20,000 persons accused of witchcraft, murdered by her citizenry–a disproportionate number of the suspected witches were female octogenarians. Tanzania’s Ministry of Home Affairs claimed that 5,000 victims of witch lynching were murdered between 1994 and 1998, all suspected by fellow Tanzanians of magical high jinks.[7] Red eyes, believed to be the mark of a witch, sparked many of these tragic neighborhood witch-hunts. Apparently, many Tanzanian women possess red eye color due to the smoke of their cooking fires.[8] If the execution of grandmothers isn’t horrific enough; trials by ordeal are making a comeback as the means of identifying a person as either a witch or sorcerer. During the nineteenth century, thousands of Africans were killed in trials by ordeal, by something known as the poison oracle. (From 1828 to 1861, over 200,000 persons were killed in poison ordeals administered by the Medina ruling class of Madagascar.[9] One of the greatest witch slaughters in world history, this witch paranoia depopulated entire Malagasy villages and towns.) Currently, in Eastern Africa, to prove their innocence, accused witches aren’t subjected to the poison ordeal, but the “witch” is given a sporting chance to retrieve a bracelet from a pot of boiling water. The theory behind this practice is that an innocent party won’t receive burn marks on his, or her, arms. The unlucky ones failing the ordeal have a nail driven through their head or they are administered some other form of ghastly execution–usually a death sentence via benzene fire.[10]

The Twentieth Century’s last decade became one of the bloodiest in African history. In 1992, some 300 Kenyans accused of witchcraft were executed by vigilante mobs who burned the homes of the accused parties down over their heads.[11] In 1995, over 50 Ugandans were killed by witch hunters.[12] That same year more than 70 people in South Africa’s Northern Province were lynched to death as suspected sorcerers.[13] In 1997, South African police investigated over 150 murders of alleged witchcraft practitioners.[14] The list goes on and on.

Sadly, these examples of witchcraft killings are only a sampling of the occult crime stories highlighted by the press agencies across Africa. Researching African news archives, I have calculated that between 1991 and 2001, a total of 22,000 to 23,000 Africans were lynched to death, by fearful neighbors, as witches. (The actual figure may be even higher, but it is difficult for police and humanitarian agencies to collect statistics from some of Africa’s more remote, war-torn regions. I have also omitted the victims of occult belief who fearlessly throw themselves in harm’s way believing they are immune to gunfire.) Compare these alarming fatality figures, caused by magical thinking, to the number of accused witches actually executed during Europe’s Inquisitorial years, from 1450 to 1750, a number reaching perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 victims.[15] Certainly, to a secular humanist, these are disturbing numbers to ponder indeed!

Currently, African societies are at the same critical historical juncture that propelled much of Europe out of a period of deadly superstitions, nearly three centuries ago, a time when Europeans executed those believed to be witches and warlocks–a worldview challenged by Enlightenment men. Thankfully, a subsequent Scientific Revolution eliminated Western Man’s fear of black cats and haggard old women. Today, in the West, there are only a handful of Old Age believers who think of witchcraft as a plausible explanation for natural phenomenon.

It may take several generations to win, but a crusade against irrational beliefs, south of the Sahara, must be won to free many Africans who are held prisoner by magical thinking. I am heartened that there are a number of African secular humanists, a small minority to be sure, waging a war against witchcraft beliefs. Like the organized rationalists of India who launched successful campaigns to discredit India’s “god-men,” these champions of Reason may have a great impact on the erroneous thinking of the more credulous parts of the population.

The literacy rate in many regions of Africa is low, however, posing a formidable barrier for the secular humanists who challenge local beliefs in ghosts, sorcerers, magical animals, and witches. .[ Education of the masses will certainly be the key to breaking the chains of superstition that bind so many. Especially effective will be the educational programs that will teach basic scientific literacy to thousands. The time has come to send the local “witch-doctor,” or if you prefer “tribal healer,” packing. These magic men need to be fought and discredited on their own turf by the rationalists who have the courage to help fellow Africans climb out of the dark pit that is superstition and witchcraft belief.

Works Cited:

[1] “Frenzied Mob Hacks 300 Witches to Death,” by Michael Dynes, The Times (UK), Wednesday, July 04, 2001. Accessed Jan. 01, 2002

[2] “More Than 800 Killed In Massive Witch-Hunt,” Ananova (Story filed: Thursday, July 12, 2001.) Accessed Dec. 28, 2001

[3] “Month of Hunting Witches Leaves 240 Dead,” Ananova (Story filed: Monday, July 02, 2001.) Accessed Dec. 28, 2001

[4] “Massive Violations Kill Human Decency,” Amnesty International Annual Report 2000: Congo Democratic Republic Of. Accessed Dec.10, 2001

[5] “Congo Witch-Hunt’s Child Victims,” BBC News: World Africa, Wednesday, Dec.22, 1999

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Witch-Hunts on the Increase in Tanzania,” by Odhiambo, Nicodemus. Daily Mail & Guardian. Johannesburg, South Africa, June 14, 1999. Accessed April 29, 2000

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Women, Servitude and Demography in Imperial Madagascar, 1820-95,” by Campbell, Gwyn. University of Avignon. Accessed Dec. 26, 2002

[10] “Witch-Hunts on the Increase in Tanzania,” by Odhiambo, Nicodemus. Daily Mail & Guardian. Johannesburg, South Africa, June 14, 1999. Accessed April 29, 2000

[11] “Witch Hunt Part 2,” Bethancourt III, W.J. Accessed Sept. 07, 1999

[12] “Four Sentenced To Death For Witchcraft Killings.” Reuters Limited, 1998. Accessed May 12, 2000

[13] “Witch Hunts in Africa.” (A Chronology of Witch Hunts.) Accessed March 30, 2003

[14] “Modern Witches-Saudi Arabia and Africa,” by Roberts, Jani F., 2000. Accessed March 30, 2003

[15] Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbors: the Social Context of European Witchcraft, New York: Viking Penguin. 1996.

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