Bewitched in Uganda?
From the Parkville Luminary
NOTE: This is the first of two columns on witchcraft in Uganda. The second part will appear in this space next Saturday.
KAMPALA, UGANDA—When allegations surfaced that former U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell was a witch, many Americans snickered.
However, when reports of witch doctors and witchcraft occur in Uganda, it’s no laughing matter. Not a week goes by without at least a couple of stories in the media about evil spells and witch doctors. Examples abound.
“Students of St. Mark Naminya High School in Nieru, Mokono district engaged police in running battles and destroyed property worth millions (of Ugandan shillings)… after management kicked out witch doctors hired to perform rituals at the institution. Two witch doctors, called in to cleanse the school of demons which are alleged to have been sexually assaulting students, had been hired by some school administrators following consultations with the sub county leadership.” (Daily Monitor, March 31, 2010)
“…Local leaders in Nabiswera sub county…had hired an exorcist to cleanse a government health unit which had been haunted by mayembe (evil spirits).” (New Vision, Sept. 5, 2007).
It is common in Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa, to blame illness on witches, spells, and evil spirits.
“Rev. Paul Ssemwogerere (Kasana-Luweero’s Catholic Bishop) said because of the ungodly beliefs, many Nakasongola residents attribute all ailments, including malaria, to witchcraft. ‘Even when a person gets malaria, the people will point out that the mosquitoes which inflected him were sent by someone,’ he said.” (New Vision, Oct. 7, 2010).
Physical and mental handicaps are also frequently blamed on witches or evil spirits. “Disability is often associated with witchcraft. In some instances, families break up if a child is either born crippled or deformed.” (New Vision, Oct. 4, 2010).
In fact, almost any misfortune can be blamed on witchcraft and evil spells.
“A mysterious fire has burned 30 houses in Kapchorwa District. Residents have attributed the fire to spirits which they allege were brought by a witch doctor. However, police have ruled out this possibility.” (Daily Monitor, Oct. 26). The article did not mention which investigative and forensic tools police used to determine that witch doctors and evil spirits were not involved. Can police dogs be trained to sniff out evil?
Belief in witchcraft and evil spirits is commonplace in Uganda, though I was unable to find any reliable statistics on the matter. Not only are these beliefs commonly found among rural, illiterate Ugandans, but they also seem to be embraced by a number of more sophisticated, educated Ugandans as well. My friend, artist and peace activist Fred Mutebi, noted. “You will be amazed that it is the most educated who mainly flock the shrines of witch doctors, purportedly to protect their jobs.” James Onen, a “freethinker” and social commentator in Uganda, agrees. He wrote, “My conversations with many Ugandan scientists and doctors have revealed that a large number of them actually believe that witchcraft ‘works’ (though they insist they would never partake in it). When I asked them, being scientists, about what empirical evidence they had encountered that justified this belief, they all said there was none.” (Daily Monitor, March 3, 2010)
I discussed witchcraft with four educated, worldly Ugandan friends. One said she absolutely believes in spirits and witchcraft. A second friend, while not exactly admitting this belief, did that say that witchcraft may explain unusual occurrences. A third friend noted that she doesn’t believe in witchcraft, but then said that if one thinks that an evil spell will work, if often does. My fourth friend said he believes in spirits, but wondered how they can be managed, and how (or if) they are consistent with Christianity.
So, how does this widespread belief in witchcraft and evil spirits, even among the educated, impact Ugandan society? We’ll examine that question in the second part of our look at witchcraft in Uganda.