Magu, where elderly women are labelled witches

Sunday June 8 2014

Leah Makubi and her father, Kapelele Makubi.

Leah Makubi and her father, Kapelele Makubi. Leah’s face has been disfigured following an attack by unknown people who accused her of witchcraft. (Bottom) Magu District Commissioner, Jacqueline Liana. PHOTOSI ESTHER MNGODO. 

By Esther Mngodo

In Mwanza Region’s Magu district, you cannot avoid being called a witch if you are a woman. When your husband dies, you are the one who killed him. And if his wife dies, then it is his mistress that killed her.

Blandina Lucas, 42, a traditional healer in Kahangala village says it scares her that she is a woman; it scares her that she is getting old; it scares her even more that her husband might die before she does. The thought of this terrifies her.

“I am afraid of what might happen to me when I get old, or if my husband dies before I do – God forbid. They will call me a witch of course. And then my life will be over. Even now, when my children go to draw water nearby, people call them names saying that ‘your mother is a witch’. It will worsen when I get older and that scares me,” she says.

Mzee Kapelele Makubi spends his afternoons lying on a rug under the shade outside the house he and his wife Masabuda Nkanda built together. In a torn shirt and worn out kitenge around his waist, Mzee Makubi walks to his wife’s grave behind his house. He then stands on top of the grave and narrates how she died. The old man seldom speaks Kiswahili but Kisukuma. His daughter, Leah Makubi helps to translate what her father says. Mzee Makubi recalls how his wife was killed on 19 October, 2010. It is inscribed on the gravestone that she was born in 1931. Mzee Makubi isn’t sure how old he is, “In my 80s,” he says.

He narrates: “They came at midnight while we were asleep. My wife cried for help. She called out to me – I am dying my husband, help me, help me – I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing that I could do. I was too weak to fight them. It breaks my heart that I was lying right next to her, but there was nothing that I could do. And so they killed her,” he says.

It’s not a sin to be a woman


Leah, his daughter, explains that there was a land dispute just before her mother was killed. The dispute involved her brother, and hence the attack was a form of revenge. She was attacked a few months later. Her husband was not harmed.

The family reported both cases to the police who said that they would follow up the cases. They have not seen the outcome of the investigation to this day.

“As a society, we must reach a point where we understand that being a woman is not a sin. Getting old is a blessing,” says Magu District Commissioner, Jacqueline Liana. “I am also scared of getting old and living here. Being an old woman has become a negative thing. Instead, it should be celebrated and embraced,” she says.

Liana says that although the government has done a lot of sensitisation in the community, it is high time that special programmes were designed to educate children. From childhood, one grows up to know that once you are an old woman, you are automatically a witch.

“A belief system starts rooting itself in a person from a young age. If we can teach our children that being old doesn’t mean being a witch, we can change this line of thought and the impact it has on the society,” she says.

Liana says that what happens is - when someone dies people go to a traditional healer and ask him to tell them who killed their relative. They do not rest until someone names the killer.

But traditional healers are on the forefront in helping the police catch these soothsayers, says Mr Makoye Songe, 60, chairman of Traditional Healers’ Union of Tanzania, Magu district.

Songe has been a traditional healer since 1971. He says that there are 220 traditional healers in Magu district and about 140,000 in the whole region. Some of the killers are hired from other districts, he says.

“Men can also be witches. But I have never met any in my life” he says. Songe explains that he has organised security committees in every ward comprised of traditional healers who report to him, giving reports on activities that might jeopardise the security of elderly women in the area. They work closely with the police.

Long-standing belief

Lucas Kaliwa, Kahangala village chairman is Blandina’s husband. He and his wife are both traditional healers. Lucas says that people of the Sukuma tribe believe that old women are witches.

“The Wasukuma believe that if you are a woman, you are more powerful as a witch. It is just like that. It is very hard to change what people have believed in for years,” he says.

He knows that his wife will be in trouble if he dies before she does, that is why he is in the process of writing a will. “Men must make sure they write a will in their lifetime so that their wives are at least secure if they die before them,” he advises.

Blandina says that as a female traditional healer, she feels bad that her work is associated with killings of elderly women. “Of course I cannot mislead people that some woman has bewitched them. But the problem is, they will not stop until they find a traditional healer who can give them that information,” she says.

Athanasio Kweyunga, Civil and Legal Rights Coordinator with Maperece (Magu Poverty Focus on Elderly People Rehabilitation Centre) who has been an activist in Magu district for 21 years, says this is just a cover-up of the real issue.

“The real issue is that the society wants to maintain male dominance in land and economic issues. As a vulnerable group, elderly women are prone to attacks. With this in mind, the issue should be dealt with differently” he says.