April 24, 2009 Volume 23, Number 03
Ritual murder on the rise in Uganda
By Thomas Froese | ChristianWeek Columnist
A poster calling for Ugandan churches to pray and fast against human sacrifice. PHOTO: THOMAS FROESE
KAMPALA, UGANDA"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to talk of many things." From Lewis Carroll's nonsense verse "The Walrus and the Carpenter," this is what comes to mind when I read the newspapers here. Is the world getting madder?
"Girl beheaded in ritual murder," "Witches confess trickery," "Witchcraft exposed," "Family killed over ritual murder" are among Uganda's recent headlines. Ismael Ssekajja, 9beheaded. James Wanzaale, 12beheaded. Jimmy Turyagyenda, 11almost sold by his father to a witchdoctor for three million shillings ($1,720 Cdn). Joseph Kasirye, 12beheaded. An unnamed young boybeheaded with tongue, genitals and heart missing.
While crime in general in Uganda is down, ritual murder is up. Bodies, often of children, are being found in places from pit latrines to golf courses, dumped by perpetrators asking the gods for favours like health or love or money.
The crimes often involve so-called traditional healers who may ask their customers for impossibilities like certain body parts. Uganda has an estimated 157,000 of these 'healers.' That's more than 100 times the number of medical doctors. Most simply use herbs and other legitimate means to, arguably, treat people to better health. But there are othersoften referred to as witcheswho are deep into the occult, if not fraud.
A couple dozen fake healers in Uganda's Apac district recently met at a Roman Catholic church to confess that they would hoodwink customers into believing they had supernatural powers by varying their voices (apparently by adjusting their noses and tightening their anuses) in a dark shrine. Or, to make more illusions that they were talking to spirits, they'd play with objects at arm's length.
"People are desperate for what they haven't toiled for," says one pastor, Martin Ssempa of Makerere Community Church. "A woman needs a child and rushes to the witchdoctor. Why don't you pray to God and consult your [medical] doctor? It's the same with academics and business. Why do you want to be rich without working?"
Keep in mind that Uganda, like the rest of East Africa, is very poor, deeply religious and culturally "Christian." Even Satan's name can easily pop up in the mainstream press. Church leaders recently responded to the surge in ritual murders with a national campaign of prayer and fasting. The government and police are also moving to regulate traditional healers, short of banning them outright like in neighbouring Tanzania.
But the process is slow. And the public's mindset seems entrenched. It is estimated that four out of five Ugandans have seen a traditional healer, a trip like going to the corner store. Someone as harmless as Richard, my friendly gardener, once noted that "there's no magic like African magic."
Nkamahayo Rwacumica, a historian and director of the Great African Centre, says despite the impact of western culture and Christianity, traditional healers will "go on for a lifetime" because they offer cultural identity. "It's only that Africans were great discoverers of something that scientists didn't want to acknowledge, so they branded it as witchcraft."
As a result, places like Uganda are left to sort through occultism, quackery and culture.
Certain heads were once put atop the London Tower, and other enemy heads were sometimes taken by western soldiers wanting trophies from wars in Japan and Vietnam. Themes of human sacrifice can be found in Shakespeare, Mozart or your local video gaming outlet. Even the atoning death of Christ is a type of human sacrificealbeit God-ordained with a divine purpose that trumps the sin so evident in these other examples.
For this foreigner in Africa, this is the lesson learned: know who your God is. Because what we believe about Him has a profound impact on who we are and on what we do. Wonky theology combined with desires of our fallen nature, regardless of where we live, always has consequences. Sometimes they're incredibly horrible.
Thomas Froese is a Canadian journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. He is the author of Ninety-Nine Windows: Reflections of a Reporter from Arabia to Africa and other Roads Less Travelled, available at www.thomasfroese.com.