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Why are we killing our witches off?

Photo: Hypable

When you think of witches, what comes to mind? Probably a mean witch with a green face and a wart, like this:

Flickr: Insomnia Cured Here

And probably with a black cat. Or, even a nice witch with a wand.

Photo: Hypable

Here in the US, I only see witches on the screen or on Halloween.

“Real” witches seem to be a thing of the past, i.e. from the Middle Ages in Europe, or the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. You might have even heard about “witch doctors” in Africa, that the media so playfully perpetuate as evil weird beings (which is not really true). So, imagine my surprise when I learned that witch hunting occurs in Tanzania right now.

Here is what’s going on in Tanzania: people are accusing others of being witches and then actually going through with killing them off, or at least attempting to. Watch this video, courtesy of Al Jazeera, to grasp how the victims feel about this.

WARNING: Though I urge you to watch the whole video, it is pretty graphic so I quite understand if you stop before the end. At least watch the first 2 minutes!

If you’re going to skip the video, I’ll describe the moment at 2:04. The accused victim is basically insulted that she was considered a witch (and the fact that she’s been attacked because of it!). The men in her village argue over whether witches even exist. One reasoned that one day there was no food and thus accusations ensued. This seems ridiculous, until we look back in history and find that the reasons for witch calling were similar to those of today’s in Tanzania.

Let’s go back in time for a bit where witchcraft in the popular mind looked more like this:

Photo: Wikimedia

1. Middle Ages  in Europe

Witch trials were started by the church (they were also a part of the Catholic inquisition) during the latter part of the middle ages (5th -15th centuries) in the 13th century. The Church started this out of fear of inexplicable natural catastrophes.

There occurred a “little ice age” period between the 1590s and the 1730s. This “unheard” of phenomenon needed a plausible explanation. What’s more plausible than magic? This gave rise to the later norm to think witches were at the cause of anything “unnatural”.

2. Salem Witch Trials in the US

That same Middle Age mindset of placing blame on “witches” made its way over the Atlantic, to Salem, Massachusetts. Here’s a short video of an explanation of how the witch trials started.

3. The UK tries to “Stop” Witchcraft and Sorcery

The U.K had to enact the “British Witchcraft Ordinance of 1928”, barring anyone intending to cause harm through sorcery. This, I find to be quite hilarious, that is until I realized Tanzania adopted the same ordinance–Which I will come back to.

4. Now back to Tanzania, Today

Witchcraft is an “official” problem in Tanzania. In 1965, the nation followed in the steps of the UK and passed a law banning witchcraft.

In Sukuma, western Tanzania, witchcraft is rooted in local culture, particularly its system of knowledge and morality. A Tanzanian local explains: “In the Sukuma community, if you kill a witch it is not really considered a crime. It’s like you are doing something for the community”.

Witch doctors (ironically considered to be helping with the witchcraft problem rather than contributing to it)  have taken to “healing” albinism in Tanzania, through essentially killing them. Albinos, in part because of their different appearance, are considered to be powerful in sorcery. In this case, a brutal and deadly form of prejudice. This is actually quite horrific and a story for another time.

What makes people hate witches?

There are a number of theories, from sexism when it targets mostly women. It has been recorded in history as a tool to remove powerful/mysterious women from positions of influence. Since the beginning of modern culture (think the story of Genesis for an early example) women have often borne the punishment for communities’ fears and problems.

But in Tanzania it goes beyond simply persecuting women. Some researchers have found that blaming and targeting witchcraft is a long standing form of communal “scapegoating” that blames a perceived “other” (a person that’s different) in a community for inexplicable natural catastrophes.

I came across some intense academic research backing this up. Research has shown that in Tanzania and during the Middle Ages in Europe there are twice as many witch murders in years of extreme rainfall. This extreme rainfall causes agricultural output to decline resulting in less food for everyone. With that in mind, here are two charts to explain the big numbers in witch killings in both Tanzania and the Middle Ages.

Tanzania: As rainfall increases, so do witch murders.

Chart: Edward Miguel

Middle Ages: As temperature decreases, witch trials increased.

Chart: Emily Oster


Unsurprisingly, the accusations of witch naming increased during times of environmental and economic hardships. In Tanzania, efforts are being made in spreading awareness that elderly women and albinos are normal human beings and have nothing to do with witchcraft. There are a number of organizations in Tanzania working towards these efforts. They are also primarily working to improve the quality of life for these persecuted communities by improving their homes, medical services and agricultural development. This is definitely a big first step, but more efforts are obviously needed as news of killings continues.

Talking about witches may seem outside of the realm of interest for most global citizens, but it’s important to remember all of the various forms of prejudice and hatred there is in the world. We, as global citizens, need to strive to end all forms of discrimination and work to a world of acceptance. Ending on a happier note, let’s relegate our fear of witches to the big screen and not our people. We can take a few tips from the film Practical Magic, where there is a lot of feminism in witchcraft. It is in our human nature to feel and empathize with others and that’s a powerful message in this film.

Photo: BDCWire

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Joline Faujour