Monday, 23 February 2015

Where Superstition Runs Unchecked, Pain Suffering and Death Will Follow.

Tools of the trade of a Tanzanian witch doctor. The Machete a reminder of the potential brutality of such superstition. 
You would struggle to find an image more synomous with the mock horror fun of Halloween than the pointed hatted, wart ridden, wicked witch. Of course it hasn't always been fun and games. An accusation of witch-craft in the middle ages was almost certainly a death sentence.

Between the 1400s and 1700s its estimated that up to 100,000 individuals were put to death as a result of such charges.

Things couldn't be much different nowadays in the Western world. Wicca is one of the World's fastest growing religions. Its fictional practitioners are pop culture heroes and heroines, celebrated in shows show as Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Unfortunately in some areas of the World witchcraft and its practice can still be deadly.

 On the 23rd Febuary the Telegraph reported on the discovery of the mutilated remains of a one year old child in Tanzania.  One can only wonder what would drive anyone to kill a child in such a way? Why was Yohana Bahati's life cut so tragically short?

The answer is, Yohana was an albino, and in Tanzania, that means constant discrimination and mortal danger. Due to the widespread propagation of witchcraft, albinos are looked upon not as human beings but as commodities to be exploited. An albino body part, it is believed can bring wealth and good fortune.

A Red Cross report on the subject states:
"Senior police officers in Dar es Salaam said a complete set of albino body parts – including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose – was fetching the equivalent of 75,000 US dollars."
In an extremely poor country this offers the incentive to disregard the stiff penalties for such action and engage in the hunting of other human beings.

The United Nations states that since 2000 at least 75 albinos have been murdered as a result of these beliefs and practices, a further 58 brutally mutilated. Thousands of albinos and their families have been forced to flee as a result of this persecution. Schools and compounds founded by the Red Cross are subject to 24 hour armed guard, but they can't take in everyone.

 And, unfortunately, things only stand to get worse this year.

The Tanzanian elections are due to be held in October and the UN fear that many of the countries politicians will turn to witchcraft and witch doctors to improve their prospects. The Red Cross are currently pushing for current and future governments of Tanzania to increase legal protection for albinos, as well as conducting public anti-discrimination programs. Unfortunately as Vicky Ntetema, executive director of Under the Same Sun, a Canadian non-profit working to defend albinos, points out the response so far has been luke-warm at best:
There’s absolutely no political will among leaders to end these macabre killings.”
She goes on to point out that often it is albino's own families that are key in their murder and dismemberment. In the case mentioned above, the child's father is currently being questioned, though no charges have yet been brought.

A UN representative said:
"These attacks are accompanied by a high degree of impunity, and while Tanzania has made efforts to combat the problem, much more must be done to put an end to these heinous crimes and to protect this vulnerable segment of the population," 

Those suspected of witch-craft are also the subject of brutality and murder, in October 2014, 23 people were arrested in  Murufiti, a village in the western Kigoma region for burning 7 people alive. Such incidents are not rare. The legal and human rights centre in Tanzania estimates that over 600 elderly women were killed in such incidents in 2011 alone.

In 2010 the Pew Forum on Religious and Public life carried out a survey in several African nations, finding that belief in witch-craft in Tanzania was at a much greater incidence than bordering nations. Of the Tanzanians interviewed, over 60% held a belief in witch-craft and spirits, regardless of their underlying religion.

Anthropology professor at Dar Es Salaam University, Joachim Mwami suggests that such beliefs are rife in Tanzania because it was "Less colonised by European powers" than other African nations, resulting in the recourse to witch-craft to explain anything inexplicable.

So what is the answer here?

No one can argue that the Red Cross suggested method of reducing the discrimination toward albinos is crucial, but it seems like there is a different issue that is being avoided here. The reason that albinos are seen as less than human, is the continuing propagation of superstition. It seems obvious that over-turning these beliefs, showing how fallacious they are, is the key to reducing these killings, and over time, ending them all together.

As long as these superstitions hold albinos will always be seen as a commodity. They will continue to die brutally until this belief system is legitimately challenged through, better education regarding both science and critical thinking.

So why isn't this superstitious nonsense attacked head-on, first and foremost? Could it be doing so directly involves attacking the foundational beliefs of an entire nation? Surely when lives are at stake this sensitivity should thrown out of the window.

Tanzania definitely need more men like Suleiman Musa. Whilst living in fear, as he himself is an albino, he sets out to both debunk the claims of witchcraft practitioners and educate his fellow Tanzanians about the legitimate genetic causes of albinism. He maybe one of the bravest "skeptical activists" that you've never heard of, operating in a place where critical thinking is essential to save lives.

His plight reminds me of Narendra Dabholkar, an Indian skeptic, rationalist and author who travelled India exposing the fraud of the shaman, tantrics and holy men claiming to heal the sick.... at a price of course. One of his main aim was to have an anti-superstition law enacted in the state of Maharashtra.



Narendra was murdered in August 2013, shot in the back by two unidentified gunmen who escaped by motorcycle. Police suspect that the murder was planned in advance, and a direct result of Dabholkar's activism. He began receiving death threats as early as 1983.

The Anti-supersition and Black magic act was passed days after his death. It outlaws practices related to black magic, human sacrifices, use of magic remedies to cure ailments and other such acts which exploit people's superstitions.

Next time someone suggests that advocating critical thinking, science and skepticism doesn't save lives, remember that Suleiman, Narenda and others believe this is wrong so strongly, they stake their lives on it.