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Will Arresting 'Witchdoctors' Stop Albino Killings in Tanzania?

Sun, 15 Mar 2015 Source: Igwe, Leo

Leo Igwe

In what appears to be another desperate attempt to bring an end to the killing of people living with albinism, the government of Tanzania has reportedly arrested and detained over 200 'witch doctors and traditional healers' in the country. Those arrested were ''healers and soothsayers'' who were operating without licence. What were found in their possession included ''lizard skin, warthog teeth, ostrich eggs, monkey tails, bird claws, mule tails and lion skin".

I must commend the government of Tanzania for its commitment to tackling this vicious practice and hope that its effort pays off and leads to the eradication of albino killings in the country, and in East Africa as a whole.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that the Tanzanian government has taken action against witchdoctors and traditional healers. Still the practice of albino murders and witch killing continues? So what is wrong with state intervention in this matter? What is missing in the state response so far to the problem?

First of all, we need to ask: How will the mass arrest of 'traditional healers' lead to the eradication of this murderous behaviour? If state action has not been effective in the past, why would it yield positive and lasting results this time?

No doubt, some traditional medicine men have been linked to this harmful practice in the past. They ask people to bring the body parts of albinos for ritual sacrifice. But there is nothing in the latest report indicating that those arrested were implicated in any albino killing. So why were they arrested? Why were they detained? Are they going to be prosecuted and jailed for being ''witch doctors or traditional healers or soothsayers''? Are the materials found in their possession going to be used to prosecute them? Will they count as evidence? Evidence for what?

According to the report, the 'witchdoctors' were arrested because they were not licensed 'healers and soothsayers'. Is the government saying that 'unlicensed healers' are responsible for albino murders and if the country gets rid of them then the killings would stop? What does it mean to be a 'licensed soothsayer' in Tanzania? Do the so called licensed soothsayers or healers not use some of the materials found in the possession of arrested witchdoctors? If the licensed witchdoctors do not use these materials for their work, what do they use?

The government of Tanzania needs to let the world know how the arrest of witchdoctors would help combat the magical belief that drive albino killings in Tanzania. Tanzanians are killing albinos because of the belief that the skin can be used for rituals which will bring wealth or good luck. Will the arrest get the people of this country to abandon this belief? I do not think so.

Instead the government should focus on getting Tanzanians to understand that this belief has no basis in reason or in reality. That it is a misconception based on fear and ignorance. The government of Tanzania should put in place programs to dispel and debunk this irrational claim. Until the people of Tanzania abandon this superstitious belief, the savage act of killing albinos would not stop even if the state authorities decide to arrest all licensed and unlicensed traditional healers and soothsayers in the country. By arresting the traditional healers and soothsayers, the government has made a statement that whatever the traditional healers have been doing is illegal or at least it is something which the state frowns at. But the state needs to make an unequivocal statement that the belief in the magical power of albino skin is nonsensical, baseless and should not be entertained by any thinking human being in this 21st century.

Otherwise the government runs a risk of driving this obnoxious traditional practice underground where it would continue to fester.

State authorities in Tanzania should embark on a public education campaign to enlighten the people - both children and adults in rural and urban areas. They should work with traditional medicine men in the country in prosecuting this campaign. Instead of arresting and jailing unlicensed healers and soothsayers who are not implicated in any case of albino killing, the Tanzanian government should get all licensed and unlicensed traditional healers to form a public enlightenment team and help in reasoning the people out of this mistaken notion about albinos.

Traditional healers can become invaluable resource in this campaign because nobody understands better than them the absurd, baseless and irrational nature of the belief in the magical power of albino skin. Nobody can help the government stop the business and trade in albino body parts better than the witch doctors and other ritualists. So the government of Tanzania should see and treat traditional medicine men as allies not adversaries in the campaign against albino killing and other superstition based atrocities in the country.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo