Are evil spirits killing people in rural areas?

Monday April 29 2013

The family of Ms Dezi Nanteza in Bajjo village,

The family of Ms Dezi Nanteza in Bajjo village, Nyimbwa Sub county in Luweero District on April 13 were left stranded after a mob razed their home.The residents accused Ms Nanteza of practicing witchcraft, leading to death and misfortune in the village. Photo by Dan Wandera 


When two people at Kataba Village in Kamengo Sub-county, Mpigi District suffered from a “strange illness” which had similar symptoms, (a running stomach, loss of appetite and vomiting), the residents around took it for granted.

The health personnel at Kataba Village tried to diagnose the disease that was claiming their patients but their efforts were futile. The two passed away and were buried. Nothing much was thought of their deaths at first. But when days later, six other people started complaining of the same symptoms, the village was thrown in panic. Rumours started going round the village, that the death of those people was an act of evil spirits that were “bought” by one of their colleagues.
A mob gathered and moved on to Abdu Mukoka’s home destroying it and banishing him from the village after accusing him of practising witchcraft.

Police intervene
Central region police spokesman, Lameck Kigozi says, after Mukoka’s property was destroyed, the Police intervened and brought in traditional healers to establish whether there were evil spirits killing people, but none was detected.

“One traditional healer suggested to the residents that they take the victims who had reached 10 in number to Mpigi Hospital to be examined,” Kigozi says. The medical results showed that all the victims were suffering from chronic typhoid.

“District Health officials found out later that the main spring well supplying the village had been surrounded by faecal materials, which they suspected to have spread typhoid to tens of the village residents,” Kigozi said.

Kigozi says, the problem as that of the Kataba village case is widespread in the country, especially in Buganda and Busoga regions. At least 22 people are killed in mob action on suspicion that they used witchcraft to cause death or disease to others, countrywide, annually.

Police say, in most cases where people are suspected of practising witchcraft, the real issues are about land conflicts, business rivalries, love triangles and jealousy. Kyabaggu Musanje, the general secretary of Uganda N’eddagala Lyayo, a herbal medicine association, who is often called in by police to detect suspected evil spirits agrees with Mr Kigozi saying that 98 per cent of cases where people claim that their colleagues sent evil spirits aren’t true.
Uganda N’eddagala Lyayo is an organisation of traditional healers in Uganda.

Witchcraft is an excuse
“When we analyse most cases are related to land conflicts, business rivalry, personal disagreements between neighbours and untreated diseases. But one party will convince the entire village to believe that a rival party is sending evil spirits,” Musanje said, adding that the village will then attack the victimised party and lynch its members.

From his experience, Musanje said, when he is called in to catch evil spirits, they first carry out sensitisation to cleanse the people’s minds of beliefs that they were bewitched.
“After sensitising the community, I call those who claim that they were bewitched. If they are in bad shape, I first take them for medical tests to establish whether they are suffering from diseases and they are given treatment first,” he said.

Police say most residents in the central region prefer to self medicate and when they fail to get well, they consult traditional healers and herbalists on what could have been the cause of the suspected diseases.

“In cases of death, you find that the residents will start attributing it to witchcraft and then they will consult traditional healers, who often attribute the death to family rivals. This is where we end up with cases of mob action,” Kigozi said. In Kasawo Sub County in Mukono District, a woman in her late 20s had suffered from an illness which local clinics failed to diagnose.

After taking a lot of medication without getting better, she decided to consult a traditional healer, who told her that another area healer was responsible for her illness. A dispute that could have ended up in murder prompted police to investigate.

“We took the woman to Nagalama Health Centre. Doctors found out that she was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease. The doctors started treating her and her health improved,” Kigozi said. The challenge may be due to shortage of health care centres that have capacity to detect these diseases in the rural areas.

The Health Ministry’s take
Ministry of Health publicist, Ms Rukia Nakamatte says, they don’t have mobile units moving around the area, but sensitise people in the rural areas about diseases during the Child Days Plus programme.

“Between April and October, vans move out sensitising people on prevention. We can only have mobile units when there is an emergency or an epidemic,” Nakamatte says.
Musanje also attributes this problem to some of his members who want to take advantage of the differences between the rival camps, and undiagnosed diseases of their people to inflame the situation.

He says, some have intentions of making money from the aggrieved parties. “I went to Zirobwe in Luweero District and traditional healers had claimed that one group had sent evil spirits to another and that the spirits were aiming at killing members of the latter. “The traditional healers had demanded Shs2m to remove the evil spirits but the allegedly affected group didn’t have the funds,” Musanje says.

So, he was involved. When he went to village, he found that the two parties were fighting over ownership of land. “I told them that there was no evil spirits. I also contacted the traditional healer who pleaded to me not to expose him because he just wanted to make money,” he says.

Despite the high number of deaths, not so many people suspected of practising witchcraft are prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act which commenced on 1957 due to the law’s vagueness. Section 1 of the Witchcraft Act states, “For the purposes of this Act, “witchcraft” does not include bona fide spirit worship or the bona fide manufacture, supply or sale of native medicines”.

Vague law on witchcraft
Phillip Mukasa, the police spokesman in Katonga region, says the vagueness of the law has made it difficult for them to distinguish between spirit worship and witchcraft since both share some practices like use of herbs, and keeping curios and articles.

The witchcraft law has punishment ranging from five years in prison to banishment, and life sentence in case of someone threatening another with death by witchcraft. But a 1997 petition to the Constitution Court by Salvatori Abuki and Richard Obuga, who had been convicted and sentenced to more than 22 months and 10 years of banishment from their villages for practising witchcraft in Lira District, turned things around.

In 1995, Abuki and Obuga were arrested and prosecuted for allegedly practising witchcraft on Albatina Agol, Okai Alisandoro and David Ongola. After a long legal battle, the Supreme Court held that Section 7 of the Witchcraft Act, which had banishment orders, was unconstitutional. An exclusion order under section 7 of the Witchcraft Act prohibits for such period as may be stated therein, the person in respect of whom it is made, from entering and remaining in a specified area including and surrounding the place in which the offence was committed.

Now police are left with no option but to use sensitisation programmes to change people’s mind set on witchcraft.The case in Mpigi District shows just how witchcraft can lead to the death of innocent people.

Kigozi, who witnessed the check-ups, says they picked district health officials and drove to the village to establish the cause of the typhoid fever in the community. “We gathered the village people to tell them about those ‘evil spirits’ that were killing their members.”
And it was nothing to with witchcraft.

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It commenced on March 28, 1957
An Act to make provision for the prevention of witchcraft and the punishment of persons practising witchcraft.

1. Interpretation
For the purposes of this Act, “witchcraft” does not include bona fide spirit worship or the bona fide manufacture, supply or sale of native medicines.

2. Offences and penalties in relation to witchcraft
Any person who directly or indirectly threatens another with death by witchcraft or by any other supernatural means commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for life.
Any person who directly or indirectly threatens to cause disease or any physical harm to another, or to cause disease or harm to any livestock or harm to any property of whatever sort or another by witchcraft or by any other supernatural means commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten years.
Any person who practises witchcraft or who holds himself or herself out as a witch, whether on one or more occasions, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.
Any person who hires or procures another person to practise witchcraft or who for evil purposes consults or consorts with another who practises witchcraft or holds himself or herself out as a witch commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.

3. Imputation of witchcraft
Any person who, other than to a person in authority, imputes the use of witchcraft to another, if any harm results to that other as a result of the imputation, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.

4. Possession of articles used in witchcraft
Any person, other than a person in authority acting in the course of his or her duty, in whose possession or control any article used in practising witchcraft is found, other than bona fide for scientific purposes or as a curio, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.
In any prosecution under this section the prosecution shall be required to show that the article found is by common repute or belief an article which is used for the purposes of witchcraft, but shall not be required to show the particular purpose or significance of the article.

5. Evidence of reputation
Notwithstanding the provisions of any law or practice to the contrary, where any person is charged with the commission of an offence under this Act, evidence may be adduced— to show the reputation of that person as a witch;
to establish that by common repute any substance, means, process or ceremony proved to have been administered, used or performed, or attempted or caused or advised to be administered, used or performed, is commonly administered, used or performed in the practice of witchcraft.

6. Confiscation and destruction of witchcraft implements
A court on convicting any person for an offence against this Act shall order the confiscation and destruction of any article brought before it either before or after the trial which the court is satisfied was or might have been used in the commission of the offence.