Witch-hunts in Tanzania

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

In Tanzania, socially vulnerable and discriminated groups such as the LGBT+ community, elderly women and people with albinism are running the risk of being murdered in the context of witch-hunts. The murder of people who are suspected to be practicing witch-craft is not a new phenomenon in Tanzania: Already between 1960 and 2000, around 40,000 people have been murdered after being accused to practice witch-craft (Müller & Sanderson, 2020). Certain communities try to find a scapegoat for their problems; they try to blame, for instance, “diseases such as HIV/AIDS or female infertility on witchcraft” (Müller & Sanderson, 2020). Tanzania is not the only country facing this problem: witch-hunts are practiced in 36 other countries around the globe (Müller & Sanderson, 2020). In this article, I will focus on the situation of elderly women, people with albinism and the LGBT+ community.

Elderly women

In the last 20 years, thousands of elderly women have been murdered in the context of witch-hunts in Tanzania (Müller, 2020). Most vulnerable are those women who are not protected by their families (Müller, 2020). Oftentimes, poverty plays an important role. If there are no pension systems, elderly women are dependent on the help and financial support of others to make their living; they are thus perceived as a burden. The introduction of a pension system could contribute to a safer environment and provide “an incentive to keep them alive” (Migiro, 2017). According to Migiro (2017), another reason for witch-hunts is land: If the husband of a women dies, the widow has the right to live on the land the husband possessed. Only after the death of the widow, the land can be passed on to male relatives of the husband (Migiro, 2017). This can increase likelihood of attacks. Accusing the widow of practicing witchcraft represents a method to get rid of the women and to get access to land (Migiro, 2017).  Elderly women are thus particularly vulnerable to be victims of witch-hunts.

People with albinism

In comparison with other African countries, the rate of albinism is very high in Tanzania: It is estimated that “around one in 1,400 people have albinism in Tanzania, while in most other parts of Africa it occurs in one in every 5,000 to 15,00 people” (Velton, 2017). Between 2000 and 2017, “around 80 people with albinism in Tanzania have been murdered” (Velton, 2017). People with albinism are believed to be “ghosts or haunted beings” (Chang & Thompson, 2017).

Some parts of the population also believe that body parts of people with albinism can be “used to extract potions against all sorts of ailments” (Müller & Sanderson, 2020). Witch doctors spread the idea that “bones and other organs of persons with albinism if mixed with a magic potion” will make clients rich and successful (Chang & Thompson, 2017). People with albinism are thus dehumanized and exposed to an immense threat.

The LGBT+ community

In 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet warned of a “witch-hunt (which) could be interpreted as a license to carry out violence, intimidation, bullying, harassment and discrimination against those perceived to be LGBT” (Burke, 2018). The threat of a “gay witch hunt” has spread a lot fear among the Tanzanian LGBT+ community (Bhalla, 2018). Since President John Magufuli’s election in 2015, attacks against the LGBT+ community have risen (Bhalla, 2018).

Conclusion

Overall, social vulnerability is an important factor (Migiro, 2017). All the mentioned groups (elderly women, people with albinism and the LGBT+ community) are socially vulnerable in Tanzania. These groups need particular protection and support. The pension system for elderly women (which would make them more independent and less prone to attacks) is a good example of how this protection can be achieved.

grayscale photo of human palms
Photo by Om Prakash Sethia published on Unsplash

References

Bhalla, N. (2018, November 01). Gay witch-hunt sparks fear and panic in Tanzania’s LGBT community. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-lgbt-rights-idUSKCN1N65PB

Chang, J., & Thompson, V. (2017, December 28). Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://abcnews.go.com/International/tanzanian-children-albinism-hunted-body-parts-receive-prosthetic/story?id=49496498

Migiro, K. (2017, March 21). Despite murderous attacks, Tanzania’s ‘witches’ fight for land. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-women-landrights-idUSKBN16S2HU

Müller, C., & Sanderson, S. (2020, August 10). Witch hunts: A global problem in the 21st century: DW: 10.08.2020. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://www.dw.com/en/witch-hunts-a-global-problem-in-the-21st-century/a-54495289

Müller, C. (2020, August 10). Witch hunts, not just a thing of the past: DW: 10.08.2020. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://www.dw.com/en/witch-hunts-not-just-a-thing-of-the-past/a-54509188

Velton, R. (2017, April 25). The ‘silent killer’ of Africa’s albinos. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170425-the-silent-killer-of-africas-albinos