In September 1992, the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom held a conference on the theme of Order and Disorder in Africa at the University of Stirling. I organised and chaired a “panel” on the theme of witchcraft in contemporary Tanzania, and I report briefly on this on the invitation of the Editor of the Bulletin.
Three papers were presented and were well received. One paper, on “witch killings in Sukumaland” by Simeon Mesaki of the University of Dar es Salaam, was summarised from the chair because the author himself was unable to attend. The other papers, on “Witches, Witchcraft and the Question of Order: a view from a Bena village” by Solomon Mombeshora of the University of Cambridge and on “Shaving Witchcraft in Ulunga” by Maia Green of the London School of Economics, were presented by the researchers themselves. All three authors are doctoral candidates in anthropology and have a close knowledge of the areas they discuss. It is intended to put the articles together into a small book, along with one or two other papers on related themes, and it is hoped that the volume will be published by the Cambridge University Centre of African Studies in a similar format to my earlier edited book on Villagers, Villages and the state in Modern Tanzania, (1985).
Witchcraft in contemporary Tanzania presents several practical and intellectual problems. As in many other parts of modern Africa, beliefs in the power of individuals to harm each other mystically or magically are still widespread there, in both urban and rural communities, and there is little if any sign that they are disappearing. Because such beliefs have largely, though by no means wholly, lost their force in many parts of Europe, it is often assumed that they will also fade away elsewhere, but this may be an unwarranted and ethnocentric assumption. Moreover, there is certainly no shortage of other, at least equally “unscientific” beliefs in Europe about intrinsic qualities of evil within human beings, as the horrors of so-called “ethnic cleansing” and panics about “satanic abuse” to take two extreme examples patently and at times tragically reveal.
It seems clear that most of the villagers discussed in the conference papers consider witchcraft to be a dangerous reality which they would like to see controlled and, if possible, eradicated. There is, however, evidence of substantial temporal and local variation in the degree of general concern involved, and in the methods adopted to deal with the problem, though the documentation of such variation is sometimes difficult.
The issue of methods of attempted control is the most straightforward. There are sharp differences, for example, between Pogoro (in Ulanga) and Sukuma patterns in this context. Pogoro have developed peaceful forms of purification which involve both suspected witches and their accusers visiting a ritual expert and having their hair ritually shaven. Among the Sukuma, on the other hand, there has been a worrying tendency to resort to violence against suspects. This has resulted in a number expulsions and even murders of suspected witches, and in the flight of many suspects, who are usually old women, from their villages into the towns. Some such women have subsequently been resettled elsewhere. Not surprisingly the Government has been very anxious about this development. In the Bena area of Njombe District studied by Mombeshora, there is also some evidence of a resort to violence, but this seems to be on a substantially lesser scale than among the Sukuma.
A historical perspective on these practices seems useful. Public accusations of witchcraft and violent retribution against suspects were strongly discouraged under the colonial regime, which was often thought of as protecting witches, and different ways of dealing with the problem developed in many areas. Witch finding movements such as Mchapi in the 1930s spread north from Zambia, and reappeared in some parts of Tanzania in the 1960s (Willis, 1968). Some suspected witches were expelled from their communities, and many of those who felt themselves at risk from witches moved elsewhere (cf. Abrahams 1981).
A spate of witch killing emerged among the Sukuma in the early 1960s, and there is evidence to suggest that some hotheaded villagers mistakenly believed that the newly independent government would approve of such behaviour (Tanner 1970). There seem also to have been many murders in the 1970s and 1980s. A further element in the situation appears to have been the villagisation “operations”. There is a great deal of comparative material which suggests that people’s anxieties about witchcraft increase when they are forced to live in close proximity to each other, and many Nyamwezi villagers expressed fears about this to me in 1974-5. Some of the comparative evidence on this issue, in Tanzania and elsewhere, goes back well beyond this period to the days of colonial sleeping sickness settlements. Indeed, the modern, peaceful pattern in Ulunga partly harks back to measures adopted during such colonial population movement, although its cultural roots go back beyond this also.
Another complicating element in the Sukuma area has been the development of Sungusungu “vigilante” groups (Abrahams 1987 and Abrahams and Bukura 1992). These grass-roots groups began to operate in part of the Nyamwezi/Sukuma area in the early 1980’s, and they spread very rapidly to other parts of the area and beyond. They were aimed at raising the prevailing levels of law and order in the rural areas, and the control of cattle theft was the main focus of their activities. Some groups, however, also directed their attention against witchcraft, which they saw as a serious threat to rural security . It is not clear to what extent these groups and their leaders have affected the situation beyond providing an institutional forum for the expression of anxieties about witchcraft. Nor, more generally, is it clear exactly how many suspected witches have been murdered among the Sukuma. Available statistics are hard to interpret, and I suspect that many of the figures quoted are too high. Nevertheless, it is clear that there has been a serious problem, and that the pattern of recent reaction to suspicions of witchcraft has been much more violent among the Sukuma than among the Ulanga Pogoro.
There are many paradoxes in the contemporary situation, and some of these are interestingly highlighted by Mombeshora’ s paper on the Bena. He shows how structural conflicts between senior and junior generations have been exacerbated by the emergence of new development-oriented attitudes and institutions, and by new possibilities for younger people to seek economic and religious independence from their elders. This leads the young to question both the wisdom and authority of their seniors, who in turn try harder to assert that authority through warnings of mystical punishment, which are in turn read as witchcraft threats by those at whom they are directed. In earlier days, such threats probably appeared more legitimate, and those so threatened could relatively easily move away to a safe distance if they wished, but population increase and modern controls over movement have inhibited the possibilities of doing this.
It remains to be seen whether recent reforms and relaxation of controls on settlement and economic enterprise in Tanzanian villages will help or hinder the resolution of these problems. The greater freedom of individuals to choose where they live may once again permit them to establish ‘safety zones’ between themselves and others, but it is also possible that this will be offset by increased jealousies and suspicions arising from further economic differentiation between richer and poorer sections of the population.
Abrahams R. G. The Nyamwezi Today. Cambridge Univ. Press. 1981 ‘Sungusungu: village vigilante Groups in Tanzania’ African Affairs. April 1987. (ed) Villagers, villages and the state in Modern Tanzania. Cambridge African Studies Centre. 1985
Abrahams, R G and Bukurura, S. Party, Bureaucracy and GrassRoots Initiatives in a socialist state: the case of Sungusungu vigilantes in Tanzania’, in C Hann (ed) Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies and Local Practices. Routledge. 1992.
Tanner RES. The Witch Murders in Sukumaland – A Sociological commentary. Scandinavian Inst. of African Studies. 1970
Willis, R. ‘Kamcape: An Anti-sorcery Movement in Southwest Tanzania’. Africa. 1968.