A museum that demystifies witchcraft

The electronically manipulates fetishes used by witch doctors.

Above right, other fetishes used in witchcraft displayed at the museum photos by john k abimanyi

What you need to know:

Witchcraft or magic if you prefer to call it are part of the lives of many Africans. However while these believe in it wholesomely, a community in Rakai has set up a museum to show that nothing is as it seems. What is thought to be magic or intervention of the spirits is actually tricks and gimmicks to fleece people.

The woman, who was evidently advanced in age with wrinkle lines across her face and dressed in a traditional busuuti, sat on a large decorated piece of barkcloth. She went about preparing her makeshift shrine. She fondled with numerous small white cowry shells, throwing them about on the barkcloth. By her right hand side, was probably the most important part of her trade, an offering basket, haphazardly thrown about.

This woman was a former witchdoctor. Her antics were playing away on a black TV screen inside St Luke Community Museum in Kyotera, Rakai District.
A man, her client for the day, sat across the woman, in a similar position of the legs crossed at the back. His hands were joined together in his laps in a sign of humility. He knelt forward and placed an unknown amount of cash into the basket. The witchdoctor then proceeded to consult the spirits. She moved the cowry shells about in small endless circles as if they could reveal the future.

And she made it seem like they could indeed reveal the future. She expertly lined them up in a straight line, raised her head as if something important had just struck her mind. She told the man, “Are you planning to make a long journey soon?” The man replied to the affirmative. This trick always worked, she would later say. If the client said no, she would then ask them about the trip they had made to the shrine, which would most likely be a long journey too.

Then she proceeded to invite the spirits to descend upon her and send her into a stupor. She lifted the cowry shells and tapped them on her breasts. Suddenly, she started shaking uncontrollably. Her low-toned voice gave way to a sharp almost faint shrill. The spirits had now taken over. The spirits were now speaking through her.

They addressed the client as “muzukulu”, Luganda for grandchild. They told him about all his problems (which he of course had told the woman), and then they went about explaining the things he would have to bring to solve his problem. The client kept on replying in respectful tones of “yes sir/madam”.

And then, just like that, they were gone. The woman returned to her senses. She seemed not to have noticed what had just been going on. She explained to the man that whatever the spirits had told him included bringing Shs1m, a goat, chicken among other sacrifices.

Demystifying witchcraft
When the client tried to petition the charges, he was advised to pay more cash into the offering basket, so that the spirits could be summoned once again, with the faint hope that maybe, they could cut down on their demands. And yes, he paid again. And the witchdoctor smiled even wider, all the way to the bank, if at all she kept her money in a bank.

This five or so minute video is part of an exhibition at St Luke Community Museum. It is a unique presentation by any standard; for St Luke is not like any other museum where objects of artistic, scientific and cultural or historical importance are stored and displayed.
St Luke does all that, but it goes the extra mile, taking the extraordinary steps of shuttering the mysteries tied around witchcraft and its practice in Uganda.

All around its shelves and display tables, are relics and tools of rich cultural importance, especially in Buganda where the museum is located. Money-minded witchdoctors tapped into this culture and attached undue spiritual significance to these tools. And the museum’s aim is to separate the real from the complete fantasy. The catalogue runs from such simple things as knives and baskets, to the more complex like horns and fetishes.

The museum also runs a herbal medicine clinic. Again, the same principle applies, selling a medication without attaching spiritual connections to its efficacy.

St Luke’s moving exhibition will show you many a trick that modern day witchdoctors use to charm clients, like the use of electronically powered horns and fetishes, in a display that will make you gawk at just how easy it is to give in to superstition.

At the heart of St Luke’s work is an act of returning pride to cultural tools whose misuse in witchcraft had led them to being shunned by a society that gets more westernised by the day. Also, there is the fight to bring an end to acts that lead to rape and spread of HIV, as seen in the way some male witchdoctors handle female clients. And, the museum has worked to help return a positive work ethic among the populace in its vicinity, pushing them to work hard instead of expecting a ritual sacrifice to bring a bumper harvest.

Electronic deceit
Probably the most eye-catching artefact on display is the use of electronically powered fetishes and horns. One has a sort of doll-like sculpture with horns protruding at the side. Wires run from a motor inside the doll to a set of battery cells. In an ideal shrine situation, the wires are hidden by barkcloth. With the simple connection of wires, the doll starts strong vibrations, jumping up and down on the desk, in a way that would surely frighten any client who did not know the science behind.
“Because people want to see miracles, witchdoctors have ended up constructing electronic soldier spirits. You go to the shrines, and because they cover them with barkcloth, you will see it shaking.

The witchdoctor who brought this even used to rape women. He would say put off the blouse, and put it on the doll, then the skirt, then the knickers, then you remain naked. Now you are two people in the shrine, what ends up happening is that you get raped,” Douglas Mayanja, a heritage practitioner at the museum, says.

Another was a cow horn that was also covered in barkcloth. It has got a speaker connected to a microphone. Someone outside the shrine speaks through the microphone, and makes it look like the horn is talking.

Mayanja says these artefacts were retrieved from witchdoctors who were talked out of their practice and chose to come clean. Because the practice was a source of livelihood, there has been a problem in resettling those who have left the act. “Some have gone back,” says Mayanja. Some, on the other hand, have taken up projects like piggery and other forms of farming.

Finding solace in herbal medicine
Herbal medicine is a central part of witchcraft. Mayanja says because witchdoctors know the efficacy of herbal medicine, they dispense it to unsuspecting clients and instruct them to take it in certain ways, say while naked in the middle of the might. Mayanja says the museum’s herbal medicine clinic now dispenses herbal medicine to patients, but assuring them that gods or spirits have nothing to do with the medicine.

Witchcraft would not be as wide spread as it is if there were no people who claimed it works, and, hence recommend it to others. Mayanja says Brother Anatoli Wasswa, who started the museum, has offered Shs10m and a car, to any witchdoctor who can publically prove that witchcraft actually does work, say through making horns talk, without the aid of microphones and speakers. To this day, no witchdoctor has come up to claim the prize. And now there is a suggestion to double the amount to Shs20m.

St Luke Community Museum manages to get a mysterious, very-much-feared dark world of wizardry and witchcraft, and makes it look so ordinary. It lays bare any complexity that its practitioners have struggled to build by covering it up in secrecy. It will show that witchcraft has indeed evolved and tried to move with the times, using technology to push its agenda. It will show you that a lot of culture that was pushed away as satanic by western religion is not actually so, but has just been misused. And in the end, after digesting all the tools of deceit on display, you will stand to appreciate the sheer ease with which the human mind gives in to superstition.

Cultural tools misused by witchcraft

Traditional bag
It is a small bag made from barkcloth. In Buganda, everybody who reached the age of 18, was supposed to have this type of bag. It acted as a bank, and normally, there was only one person who was supposed to withdraw money from it...the head of the family. You could only remove money from this bag to answer to an emergency, but you would have to return the money later. So it helped people to save. But when banks came, we left these bags. We no longer use them. The witchdoctors will tell you, “Look here, you must have this bag, and every month, you must put money inside,” which you then take to the witchdoctors and they eat it,” Douglas Mayanja, a heritage practitioner says.

Smoking pipes (emindi)
Smoking pipes were commonly used to smoke tobacco in the past. Now it is common, especially among women. “We have discovered that when women go into shrines, the witchdoctors put opium into the pipes. So, the women smoke the pipes and when they pass out, the witchdoctors rape them.”

Traditionally used to store food and drinks, they are now used to scare people. People are told that this is your god, take it to your home and worship it. They are wrapped with beads to frighten people, and sold expensively, say at Shs3m. People are told to keep them safe so the gods can come and drink from them.

Wooden sandals (obukalabanda).
These were footwear in ancient times. But now witchdoctors, who know somebody making the sandals, will say that the gods want people to wear these sandals, so that they can sell them and very expensively. Or, they may have just one pair of these sandals, and then they will say that for you to walk around their shrine, you should wear the shoes, and of course, you have to pay some money, maybe Shs5,000. It is like someone having a chicken and selling it 100 times.

The barkcloth is now considered as a worldwide masterpiece, even by UNESCO. “It is what we call ekifundikwa. It is normally worn by heirs during last funeral rites, and is used to signify a sign of responsibility. It identifies the heir from other people. Witchdoctors will today normally tell you that for instance, you have a grandparent who died long ago, and that it is they who are disturbing you. So the witchdoctor will tell you to make ekifundikwa, at a cost, so you will get healed. So someone will buy it expensively.”