Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Letter from Butiama: The modern day "witch"

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011.
Whether you are superstitious or not, witchcraft is unavoidable in most African societies. The village of Butiama is no exception.

Last May* an alleged witch, who I will call Mystio, was expelled from Butiama by villagers who accused him of harbouring and supplying zombies to clients. It is believed that zombies provide labour on farms as well as for some professional occupations.

An employee of the hospital whose colleague, a doctor, died recently says his colleague now runs a dispensary in the mystical world of the deceased. The dispensary is understaffed and the expelled "witch" is the suspected head-hunter.

Mystio had the habit of carrying out normal activity during unusual hours. When most villagers were getting ready for bed he would order masons to resume construction of his house during hours that, coincidentally, those legendary assistants of witches - hyenas and owls - are also said to be particularly active.

It is interesting that one of the masons who for a time also built Mystio's house at night told me there is no better time for construction; at night there are no idlers who tend to slow down the pace of construction by engaging him in conversation. The mason quit after receiving a stern warning from members of the council of elders, abanyikura.
The elders then summoned Mystio and asked him to justify his unusual working hours. He was asked to carry on with construction during the day like everyone else and heeded for a while but later changed his mind and resumed nighttime construction. He received another summons from the elders but not only did he ignore to attend he also threatened to send the group of old men to jail if they persisted. If true, it was a fatal mistake. The council of elders is a powerful traditional institution. You just don't wish them away, let alone threaten them.

Abanyikura are the equivalent of a government. Mystio was treading on dangerous waters. In retaliation, the wanyikura began to apply sanctions. No one was allowed to talk to him. Anyone breaking the sanction was liable to a fine, usually a cow, depending on the circumstances surrounding the breach. The effects of such a sanction in an urban environment is laughable, but in a village, where social interaction is necessary for most activities, social sanctions can be devastating. I was told a shop owner was reprimanded by the elders after he sold telephone recharge vouchers to Mystio.

"He should have just heeded the call by the elders, accepted to pay a fine, and switch back to daytime construction. He would still be around," commented the mason. There would have been no excuse to expel him. He ignored the elders and created fertile ground for the suspicious to campaign for his expulsion.

If you consider that the local variety of a witch is depicted as an extremely fearless and cruel being, roaming the night in search of victims and, more often than not, on the back of a hyena as the preferred mode of transport, I found Mystio to be a very poor specimen. One evening, I was driving back from Musoma and was flagged down by a group of people standing next to a pick up truck. I recognized him among the group and stopped the car. He explained to me they were on their way to Musoma, but after finding large boulders blocking the road on a spot I had passed just before reaching them, they hastily retreated fearing an ambush by armed bandits.

They asked whether I found the boulders on the road. I had not seen any boulders and told them it was likely that after their retreat the "bandits" had probably dispersed fearing that an alarm will be raised.

Some of the passengers found my explanation reassuring and began attempts to persuade the driver to drive through the same spot onward to Musoma. The only person who decided that heading to Musoma was not only potentially risky but highly irresponsible was the alleged witch, and he hitched a ride with me back to Butiama.


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