The witch-killers of Kenya’s Coast reveal who we really are as a nation

Wednesday January 11 2012

There is a widely held view in East Africa that Tanzanians practise the most witchcraft. More than that, its juju men have a reputation as the “best” in the region.

I was quite amused recently in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to be told that Tanzania’s veteran diplomat Salim Ahmed Salim, managed to be the secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the current African Union, for the longest period because he “had the most powerful juju of any secretary-general”.

Africa can be a distressing place sometimes. I was told the practice of the dark arts at the OAU and now AU is quite rampant.

There have been secretaries-general who shocked the organisation with scenes of half-naked and feathered witchdoctors dancing in the reception areas of their offices to ward off evil spirits.

At one time, there was an SG who, every month, had the witchdoctor’s smoke billowing from the windows of his office.

Another SG has not used the official office for over 10 years now. Salim’s successors are reportedly too afraid of Tanzania’s potent medicinemen to dare sit in it!


Kenya, though, has now become the East African leader in the lynching of suspected witches. In the past two weeks, according to reports, 20 people suspected of practising witchcraft have been killed in Malindi and Magarini districts.

To get a sense of just how big that number is, the Kenya Defence Forces has not officially reported that number of casualties for its soldiers who have been fighting Al-Shabaab militants inside Somalia for four months now.

In other words, it is safer to be a Kenyan soldier at the frontline than a witchdoctor.

There is no agreement on why superstition still has this grip on many African (and, indeed, Asian, Pacific, and Latin American) societies.

In South Africa, The Sun newspaper became, by far, the nation’s best-seller by peddling stories of juju. The Ugandan Bukedde TV channel, owned by the semi-state New Vision media group, has a hugely popular programme that offers up bizarre stories of demons and witchcraft, mixed with rapes and beheadings.

Some argue that it is a mark of pre-industrial or poor societies (it was as prevalent in the Western world at one point). That when we become highly technological and rich, it will die away.

However, infamous cases in Kampala in the last few years have shown that while people resort to witchdoctors to help make them rich, they similarly resort to them when they are rich purportedly to protect their wealth against the envious.

For that reason, the most persuasive scholarship on African superstition is the one that holds that in ancient times, it played the role that rules, laws, and the police perform today.

In 1000 AD, for example, all of Africa didn’t have constitutions, police forces, standing armies, criminal investigation services, or prisons.

The only way to keep order and peace was through fear. That fear was instilled through superstition.

Thus, it was believed that if you stole a neighbour’s chicken, you would grow a third eye in the middle of your forehead.

Superstition still thrives for pretty much the same reason today. A woman, who is not aware that she can go to a fertilisation clinic to get a child, or who can’t afford it, will go to a witchdoctor.

Because the African state is still weak and does not work for its lowly citizens, a villager cannot expect the police to bother investigating who stole his goat. Inevitably, he will seek the help of the juju man to catch the thief.

If the state system is tribalised, and you are not from the ruling ethnic group, you are more prone to seek the help of a witchdoctor to help you get a civil service job.

If you operate in a system where you fear you can be sacked arbitrarily because the new minister or permanent secretary is from another district, you are likely to head to Tanzania’s witchcraft capital to seek immunity.

Witchcraft then tells you three things today. First, what the most dominant mode of production is – scientific or traditional. Secondly, how fair the political and economic system is. Thirdly, how developed the state is.

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