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Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 | ISSN 1556-5696

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The healer reveals a witchcraft item 'found' in the accused man's house to the crowd. It probably came from the pockets of his assistant's padded jacket.

The healer reveals a witchcraft item “found” in the accused man’s house to the crowd. It probably came from the pockets of his assistant’s padded jacket.


About this week’s eSkeptic

In the small Ugandan village near the capital city of Kampala, a man named Ronald Kapungu had been accused of practicing witchcraft or hiring witch doctors to curse a nearby family. In this week’s eSkeptic, freelance reporter and travel writer, Justin Chapman, describes his experience at the witchcraft ceremony that he witnessed while covering the story with local journalist Luke Kagiri.

Justin Chapman is an author, poet, actor, and journalist. At age 19 he was elected to the Altadena Town Council and chaired its Education Committee. He has written for numerous publications, including the Pasadena Weekly, L.A. Weekly, Patch.com, and Berkeley Political Review. He received his degree in Media Studies from University of California, Berkeley.

All photos by Justin Chapman. Used with permission.

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Witch Doctors and Con Artists
A First-Hand Account of Witchcraft in Africa

by Justin Chapman

I’m a freelance reporter and travel writer. Over the course of three months in 2012 I traveled by myself by buses and trains from Cape Town, South Africa to Mityana, Uganda. One of the things that struck me was the apparent contradiction of the practice of witchcraft, especially in East Africa. As I reached Zambia I started to hear about the history of witchcraft. I was surprised to find out in Uganda that the practice is still very much alive, even among otherwise intelligent people.

The Ugandan constitution allows all kinds of worship, but has a (very weak) provision from 1957 called the “Witchcraft Act” setting forth punishments for those who practice it. However, a court later voided the sections about witchcraft for having vague definitions. You are not allowed to threaten someone with witchcraft, but proving that someone has practiced it, let alone succeeded in utilizing evil spirits, is impossible at best.

Unfortunately, the villagers are wary of modern hospitals and doctors, and once they are convinced witchcraft is being practiced, the sick will not visit a hospital because they think the doctors will not be able to find, let alone cure, the problem. This really is a tragedy because if someone has malaria, for instance, obviously the hospital is the place to go. But if they believe witchcraft is the source, they won’t go, leaving themselves open to sickness and death.

While in Uganda I traveled around with a local journalist named Luke Kagiri and helped him cover his various assignments. One day we rode on a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) about halfway between Mityana and the capital city of Kampala, about an hour’s ride, for a witchcraft ceremony. The driver turned off the highway onto a walking path that led us deep into the bush to the village where a man named Ronald Kapungu had been accused of practicing witchcraft or hiring witch doctors to curse a nearby family. As proof of Ronald’s wrongdoing, the afflicted family claimed that a male relative had died, the husband was supposedly acting crazy like he was possessed, and the wife was ill.

Several villagers had attacked Ronald’s house the week before and he fled the village, hundreds of miles away. Riot police had to come and shoot tear gas into the crowd to disperse them. So the villagers called a “traditional healer” to come and use his “powers” to confirm or deny whether Ronald had in fact been practicing witchcraft.

When Luke and I arrived, there were about 200 people from the surrounding small villages to witness the ceremony. I was the only mzungu (white person) there. Of course everyone was staring at me, but they knew I was with Luke and that we were filming the ceremony for Bukedde TV, the local news station. This gave us access that the crowd didn’t have.

Under the Ugandan constitution, large gatherings of people are not allowed without permission from the police and without police presence. Indeed, there were several uniformed officers, who stood in front of the crowd (which was compacted together on a small hill 20 feet from Ronald’s battered house, people watching among the trees, cows, pigs, and chickens in the bush) while riot police, automatic rifles at the ready, stood at various points in a circle about 40 feet from and around the crowd.

The traditional healer, a well-dressed man in his late 50s wearing an expensive watch (not what you would picture a witchcraft healer would look like or be wearing), had to get clearance from the local police as well as the chiefs of the village before he arrived.

The healer took his time, walking around the square house, tapping at various things with his black walking stick that curved near the top like a handle and continued up another foot (supposedly the source of his “powers”), and finally entering the house to look around. He didn’t bring a bag, but two men came with him and one of them had a thick black rain jacket on with many pockets. The healer exited the house and the three of them took a canister filled with local brew and walked around the perimeter of the house, splashing the alcohol against the outside walls of the house. They did the same thing with a canister of milk, then one of the guys tossed small stones up to hit the tin awning that stretched out beyond the roof.

A 'traditional healer' performs a ceremony in the doorway of the house of an accused witch. The walking stick outside the door is the source of his power.

A “traditional healer” performs a ceremony in the doorway of the house of an accused witch. The walking stick outside the door is the source of his power.

The healer then placed a bag of flour and a wooden bowl filled with an unknown substance at the foot of the door. He lit his pipe, smoked slowly, answered his expensive cell phone and talked for a minute or so, looked around like he didn’t care, and used his stick to mix the substance in the bowl. After smoking for a few minutes, he went back into the house. Luke motioned for me to follow him. We walked into the house in time to see the healer’s associate, the one wearing the black rain coat, slip a curved, cone-shaped wooden handle with herbs sticking out of the top into a soft, weathered briefcase on the ground.

We went outside and the healer emerged with the bag, which he informed the crowd he suspected contained the witchcraft items.

After another few minutes he opened the bag and pulled out the wooden handle. He held it up to show the crowd (see photo at top of this article), which went wild with excitement, for this was supposed to be the witchcraft item used by Ronald to bewitch the family. I already knew the whole thing was baloney, of course, but when I saw what the healer did, I realized the scam. The man who was wearing the black raincoat had the cone-shaped handle hidden in his jacket pocket the entire time.

Their suspicions confirmed, the villagers began throwing large pieces of wood into a pile in front of the house to make a fire. They brought two chickens over and removed the feathers from their necks, then sliced the heads off right in front of me and threw them into the pile. A guy doused the wood with kerosene and lit the fire. The healer threw the bags in as well as the witchcraft item, which supposedly contained all the evil spirits. People grabbed whatever they could and threw the stuff into the fire. More gas was splashed on, and it became the tallest, hottest bonfire I’d ever seen. Everyone had to back away about 20 feet because it was so hot.

As about 200 people watch, gasoline is poured on a bonfire and the alleged witchcraft items are burned to destroy the evil spirits.

As about 200 people watch, gasoline is poured on a bonfire and the alleged witchcraft items are burned to destroy the evil spirits.

Then the already elated, besotted crowd marched behind the healer down a path to the victim family’s home, about 100 yards down the hill. Luke and I ran in front to get pictures and film the single file hikers. When we got there, the healer approached the sick woman and rubbed the curve of his stick around her head, muttered a few words, and gently lifted his hands to the air, as if to say, “Evil spirits be gone.”

I followed the healer into the victim family’s home, which he inspected thoroughly but still with an uninterested attitude. I saw the room where the family members slept, on thin mats on a hard floor.

The crowd was angry. They wanted vengeance. Everyone marched back to Ronald’s house with the intention of destroying it. The police were there to stop them, and Luke told me, “If there is violence, stand behind the police, because they will shoot in front of them into the crowd, not behind.” So we stayed behind the police who stood between the crowd and the house. Ronald’s father, a very old, frail man on crutches, claimed that his son was innocent. The police told the crowd to disperse. The crowd timidly backed off, but would surely be back later to demolish the house.

The police told Luke and me that they were leaving and that we should leave as well, because if something happened they would not be able to protect us. I wanted to see some mob violence, but it’s probably better that we got back on the boda-boda and booked it out of there, following the healer who also rode on a boda-boda. I didn’t think we were in danger but Luke told me that the crowd knew they could be identified on television and so when the police left they could potentially attack us.

The villagers will go looking for Ronald, and if they find him or if he ever returns to the village, he will be killed. Many people die this way. Even if Ronald was practicing witchcraft or had hired a witch doctor to put a curse on the family, so what? This stuff isn’t real. The only thing he is allegedly guilty of is sending bad vibes. The accused are the victims, not the “bewitched.” People practice witchcraft in Africa for various reasons, but usually because they are jealous of someone for having more money, allegedly having an affair, having beautiful children…anything. And people are killed and their homes destroyed because of it.

Meanwhile, the traditional healer is paid between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Ugandan shillings (about $200–$400 U.S.) for his “services,” which is a lot of money for villagers to cough up. He’s ripping them off, and he also adds to the confusion by spreading rumors about certain people practicing witchcraft.

According to the Ugandan constitution, in order for the police or a traditional healer or anyone to search your home, they must have a search warrant, like in America. At this ceremony, they had no search warrant and yet the healer and others were allowed to enter Ronald’s home, search it, seize items from it, burn them, probably destroy the house, and later most likely murder him. If Ronald knew the law, which he doesn’t, he could sue the police, the healer, and others. He could say his name and image were tarnished and be compensated 2,000,000 shillings for that as well as for the destruction of his home and property, such as the bags. The chances that he would win the case are extremely high, because how can anyone prove in court that evil spirits were the cause of the victim family’s illnesses and death? I told Luke I wanted to help Ronald, to give him the pictures and footage we took of the ceremony so he could use them in court to prove he was not served with a search warrant.

“Ronald could only use the footage and pictures if we published them in the newspaper or broadcast them on TV,” Luke told me. “If we supply him with the raw clips and photos, the villagers would think we were spies trying to help him the whole time, instead of attending the ceremony to write and shoot a legitimate journalism story about it.”

We would be outcasts in the community, and since Luke lived there and people knew who he was, he couldn’t do that for Ronald. The fact remains that if these people really want to hold onto this outdated belief system, fine. But why not try a healer and a real doctor in a real hospital? What have they got to lose? They just think it’s a waste of time, because the real reason for unexplainable things is invisible spirits and powers that can’t be proved. The fact that Ugandans are mostly Christian doesn’t dissuade uneducated segments of the population from letting go of their superstitious beliefs regarding witchcraft.

How interesting. How bizarre. END


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14 Comments »

14 Comments

  1. Roy Niles says:

    What are the odds that a lot of the people in the village know this is basically a ritualistic show, used mainly to get rid of people that most of them have come to dislike. More sophisticated societies have more sophisticated ways of doing this, but all have rituals for false accusations that are eerily similar.

  2. Kay Scaramelli says:

    This was an extremely ethnocentric and disrespectful article. I am surprised that Skeptic published it. Any ritual taken out of context seems “bizarre”. Imagine how a Catholic Mass or a costumed mascot at a football game would seem to someone who did not have the cultural background to understand it. Why wouldn’t one expect a healer to wear Western style clothes and a wristwatch? This is 2013 and access to these goods is easy in this globalized economy. “I wanted to see some mob violence”. This is a dreadful remark, that only reflects on the disrespect this author feels for the people he was observing. I am offended by the tone and the message of the article and expect more careful screening of future submissions. This “skepticism” borders on insensitivity, prejudice and racism.

    • Justin Case says:

      Kay, having been raised Catholic, I can only tell you how the Mass seems to someone who has the cultural background to understand it. If you think eating human flesh and drinking human blood is only weird taken out of context, and if you think the priest has the power to convert bread and wine into flesh and blood, and you don’t find that a bit strange, well ….

      Taken ‘in context’, to you, seems to be taken with the indoctrination these people suffered.

    • SkeleTony says:

      Utterly ridiculous. Nonsense is nonsense, regardless of which culture it comes from. Are you seriously suggesting that skeptics not report on nonsense in Africa because you feel that is racist?!

      @James E. Lassiter

      The scope of this article is not, and should not be, so broad as you would like. It is an ARTICLE. Not a comprehensive textbook about Africa and it’s people, their politics, eating habits etc. I think most of us know already that the root of their particular nonsense detailed in this article is poverty and it’s ‘third world’ status (where superstition and mysticism of the most harmful varieties flourish) and not an indictment of African people, racially.

  3. Bob Pease says:

    ” One of the things that struck me was the apparent contradiction of the practice of witchcraft, especially in Denver . As I reached Colorado I started to hear about the history of witchcraft. I was surprised to find out in ith United States that the practice is still very much alive, even among otherwise intelligent people.”

    Submitted a a parody of a stupid article worthy of “TRUE” magazines of times gone by .

    This type of rave is off-topic for eSkeptic and reads like a letter home from a teen-age visitor who is shocked at the presence of ” SINFUL Activities and lawless attitudes in countries which are supposed to be ” civilized.”

    Please select articles by someone having some scientific credentials.

  4. paul hill says:

    What about this example of white man’s witchcraft, the allopathic oncologist.

    A MODERN ‘MIRACLE’..
    About 18 years ago a young woman I knew went to northern Qld and got a job in a motel. Her mother kept me informed about what she was up to as she had a bad peptic ulcer in the base (pyloris) of her stomach. She suffered a lot of mood swing as well. Anyway a couple of months passed and her mother told me that she’d collapsed at work. Her ulcer was bleeding very badly and her doctor had prescribed a new drug for. Nothing for a couple or more months and she collapses again, has endoscopy and found to have a very fast growing stomach cancer.

    The new drug, Cimetidine. I thought Cimetidine, I’ve got a book on that somewhere. I found it, 50 cents at Dymock’s bargain basement. It was called ‘Safety Evaluation of Nitosatable Drugs and Chemicals’. Some stuff about nitrates in sausages & water etc. but mostly about Cimetidine, about how when taking sodium bicarb as an antacid, certain bacteria breed in the alkaline conditions, which convert the drug to a carcinogenic nitosamine.

    So I photocopied the relevant bits and sent them, along with some Diastix to help her eliminate refined sugar from her diet and the stress underlying the ulcer formation. A few more months pass and her mother gets a call to say she’s just had endoscopy done by her oncologist and the CANCER HAS DISAPPEARED, ALONG WITH THE ULCER. As soon as she got the info from me she became so disenchanted with the medical profession for having prescribed the drug she threw it away, snatched her job and laid on the beach, presumably just waiting to die.

    Now I assume that she has gone through some sort of rebirth, accepting the inevitability of death and calmed right down, aided by getting off the sugar, because her mother told me that a different person walked in the door when she got home, calm with no more temper tantrums.

    This validates what I have long suspected, that some cancers grow to actually deactivate a poison, in this case the nitrosamine, before it can get into the bloodstream where it can cause a lot of damage. In other word they grow for a reason so their growth is not random. Take away the cause of it’s growth, in this case Cimetidine, and it will disappear as it is no longer needed.

    Because of a unique set of circumstances this was the outcome. Normally it would be ‘cut, poison and burn’. Chemo, more poison, vastly more stress, no change of diet. Surgery, poisonous (hepatoxic) anaesthetic Halothane and on and on. I wrote a booklet about this experience and handed it out at a Lorne Cancer Conference I attended about 12 years ago. (I went every year for about 12 years. 500 witch doctors all together.) A woman researcher remarked sarcastically, “It’s all anecdotal.” Of course it’s anecdotal because people who undergo total remission do so by getting out of the clutches of the medical profession and it’s witchcraft before it kills them.

    • SkeleTony says:

      No one wants to buy your book or ‘alternative medicine’ scheme. Your tale is “anecdotal” because there is no way anyone can scrutinize it to verify what you are claiming. The overwhelming majority of people enjoying remission from cancer do so through the modern, scientific medicinal treatments you so despise.

  5. paul hill says:

    What could be more witchcraft than the Catholic mass or Eucharist. As Ian Paisley puts it “Caaaathlics are all cannibals, they eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus”

    LAST SUPPER SECULARIZED..
    The Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, ‘Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me’. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself.

    This is Paul’s version, 2nd Cor the one used in the Eucharist, sacrament, communion, whatever Christian denomination wants to call it. Only in the Catholic Church are the elements supposed to become the actual body and blood of Christ, therefore can only be partaken in the body of the church. Now I’ve got a huge problem with this for three major reasons, it is of Paul who is the very embodiment of bigotry, chauvinism, coercion, self loathing, and very pro Rome. Second problem is ritual. To me the real Jesus totally eschewed ritual, that it was hollow, empty, meaningless and futile. He plucks analogies out of Nature, the birds of the air, trees, clouds etc. Third the above text is full of threats, guilt and damnation. Is this LOVE???

    The last supper was, I believe, a Caucus to give Judas a chance to make a challenge for the leadership. He is making his case and hit’s way below the belt, saying. “What about John the Baptist, eh Jesus.” “I wonder just how Herod knew his whereabouts, nothing to do with you I suppose’.. (Barbara Threiring reckons that John had the blood line for the (provisional) High Priesthood based at Qumran, so by John being executed by Herod, Jesus automatically became provisional High Priest and King). In actual fact it was Judas who betrayed John’s whereabouts knowing that Jesus would be blamed as he had most to gain. As John didn’t have a heir there was no other option. Get John first then Jesus and Judas inherits both positions. Judas Iscariot is actually Jesus’ step brother and had a legitimate blood lineage, whereas Jesus didn’t

    Jesus, a bit drunk and thinking about how kings used to be eaten when they died to absorb their power, tears steaming down his face at being so utterly alone because of the mistrust of everyone present, crocodile tears as far as Judas is concerned, a great act. He’s going to turn supergrass in court and they’ll all be arrested and executed. His hand shaking violently, Jesus rips a piece of bread apart and says sarcastically, ‘This is my body’. Then he gulps down the whole glass of wine and croaks, “and this my blood.” They all look at each other nonplussed and whisper “What’s he mean?” Nothing really. It’s hopeless. Everything he says, every gesture has to have some hidden esoteric meaning. Oh, to have just ONE friend. Who needs disciples? He’s going to HAVE to die to demonstrate that he CAN be trusted, absolutely. If only there was some way out, some sliver of hope, but of course there isn’t.

  6. James E Lassiter says:

    This regrettable piece does a great disservice to African peoples and is unworthy of the normally high standards of the Skeptic Society. The author, a journalist of very limited experience in Africa, has portrayed a reality of witchcraft in Uganda, not Africa as his title claims. He no significant attention to the fact that such practices are abhorred by most Ugandans, be they Christian, Muslim, non-believer, urban, rural, educated, or uneducated. The author gives no mention of freethinker groups in Uganda (Freethought Kampala; Friendly Atheist) and elsewhere in East Africa (Freethinking African) who actively pursue scientific-secular causes such as the promotion of science knowledge among the public and secular governance. Finally, this essay is yet another example of Western and some African journalists preferring to portray Africans as primitive in comparison to non-Africans. For more information on this persistent approach see the following: How Not to Write About Africa and Is Africa’s Negative Image Justified? I fully realize the point of the essay was to show that witchcraft is still practiced and believed in Africa and therefore something of interest to skeptics. That it was not intended as a comprehensive treatment of the subject. Still, The Skeptic Society can do much better than this. James E Lassiter – Being Human: Our Past, Present, and Future in Nature

  7. paul hill says:

    Just testing to see if I have been locked out of comments as I have been on Everythingologists by Daniel Loxton.

    • SkeleTony says:

      Not yet but keep spamming nonsense and maybe it will happen. Then you can go to another site beating your chest and declare “Look how afraid skeptics are of me! They ban me for ‘speaking truth’(translation: ‘They ban me for spamming absurdity!’)

  8. Brendon Cahill says:

    I find it surprising that once again ignorant westerners are complaining about bias and unfair descriptions of Africa and specifically it’s witchcraft rituals. As someone who grew up and lives in Africa I would like to point out two general misunderstandings readers have when responding to the article. I think it’s important to do this because especially in the west it seems people on large still abide by the neocolonialist idea of the ‘noble savage’. (There’s some really good literature out there dealing with neocolonialism which I suggest anyone really interested in the topic should read to inform their position a bit better.)

    As @Kay pointed out that Catholic rituals will seem as bizarre when viewed by an outsider does not prove that African witchcraft is not bizarre but quite the contrary. The point we have to take away is that religious beliefs around the world are by default bizarre, and this is just a particularly deadly version of it. As a side note I would like to remind readers of the untold amounts of death and suffering caused by these mindless and vicious acts. It is an unfortunate by-product of poverty and illiteracy which can can only be solved with active promotion and support of education and the eradication of superstitious beliefs.

    I would recommend researching some of these rituals via youtube to shock themselves out of their naivety – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsDtsWJ5ibE Please note that this as well as other videos are quite disturbing, but it’s worth watching if you want to conform your opinion with the reality of Africa.

    And secondly regarding the “I wanted to see some mob violence” comment. I myself had to take pause for a moment, and I think it was not necessarily a good comment to make. Once again though, readers of this article need to understand that the prevalence of mob justice in parts of Africa are so commonplace that surely the participation in mob riots is far more insulting to the intelligence than a misplaced sense of curiosity.

  9. James E Lassiter says:

    I think Mr Cahill is grossly self-deceived in thinking he possesses THE truth about the rich diversity of human life in Africa, and wrong in his notion that those of us who negatively commented on this article are ignorant and naive about Africa. Most importantly, Mr Cahill is also unjustified in claiming that Mr Chapman’s article sufficiently and comprehensively presents its subject.

    Having studied Africa and its peoples since 1970 and lived and worked in Africa since 1980 I can assure Mr Cahill that I am not one of those “ignorant Westerners” he looks down upon. I am not someone lacking knowledge about pre-and post-colonial African history and cultures. Finally, I am not a driveling hand-wringing liberal outsider bemoaning the treatment of Africans and seeking to preserve my noble savage misconceptions about them.

    My objections concerning this article have to do with the incompleteness of Chapman’s coverage and the fact that he does more harm than good for scientific-secular thinking about witchcraft in Africa. Regrettably, there remains a lot of ignorance and prejudice in the West about Africa and its peoples. Perhaps Mr Cahill, having lived in Africa for so long and being so deeply steeped in its history and cultures, has been insufficiently exposed to such persistently negative Western ways of thinking.

    Mr Chapman’s article lends support to Western (and all other) prejudices about Africa. It does not adequately address outsider ignorance about the continent’s peoples in that it fails to present anything close to a comprehensive truth about African witchcraft. Neither does Mr Chapman give a qualifier acknowledging the incompleteness of his approach.

    Mr Cahill’s defense of Chapman’s treatment of this subject gives support to long-standing prejudices and ignorance about Africa by not acknowledging the former and not helping clear away the latter.

  10. David Fortune says:

    I would just like to thank Justin Chapman for his informative article. I have noticed that there are always so many more critics than authors and I guess that’s because it’s easier to criticise an article than to publish one. Good job Justin for putting your life at risk to highlight these superstitious and fraudulent practices that still exist in so many parts of the modern world

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

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Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Topics include: chiropractic, the placebo effect, homeopathy, acupuncture, and the questionable benefits of organic food, detoxification, and ‘natural’ remedies.

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Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

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