Tanzania: Witchcraft and the Law

Witchcraft has a long history in the east-African country of Tanzania. The idea that spiritual forces are at play in day-to-day life is integral to many of the nation's tribal cultures, especially in poorer or more rural areas. Caesar Bubani, a lawyer and human rights activist, explains his country’s conflicting attitudes to the supernatural

When I first studied to become a lawyer I frequently came across conflicts between witchcraft and the law. Even today it’s common to find that the respect people have for sorcery overrides their obligation to abide by man-made rules and regulations. In practice, both systems work side-by-side, but every so often a situation arises that highlights the contradictions between the two.

Predominantly the cases I see concerning witchcraft involve people from the poorer rural communities. To a certain extent I feel sympathy. Although my job involves interpreting the law, I have no difficulty in understanding witchcraft. I believe in its existence, and am comfortable representing cases in which witchcraft is the underlying premise.

Witches are often portrayed in a negative light, and many of those labelled as witches are subject to violence and persecution. I was recently informed about an elderly woman who was attacked by a gang of men. The crops in their village were failing, and as a newcomer the woman was blamed for the event. The men broke down her door in the middle of the night and attacked her with a machete, chopping off an arm at the elbow and leaving her partially blinded. She survived the assault. Her family are seeking legal redress through the courts – but trying to use the legal system to adjudicate on matters of witchcraft is complicated.

Events like crop failure make little sense to people and are often understood in terms of the work of supernatural forces. Witchcraft explains things that seem irrational. The other primary role of witchcraft is as a medium through which followers attempt to improve their opportunities. Those who choose to see a witchdoctor do so hoping to better their lives.

An example of the more benign aspects of witchcraft can be seen in my own family. When I was studying to become a lawyer my parents consulted a witchdoctor, asking to improve my chances of passing the legal exams. A chicken was sacrificed and herbs and plant extracts were collected and used in a ritual. I passed my exams. This was harmless, but the aim of bettering oneself through witchcraft sometimes comes at a cost to another person. The recent increase in crimes of witchcraft against albinos is an example.

Ten years ago my practice saw few cases associated with albinos. Their appearance has always made them subject to rumour and stigma, but over the past decade ideas about them have changed. Today, some regard albinos as possessing supernatural powers, making them a threat to the local population and witchdoctors. Devotees of this belief think that if they obtain the body parts of an albino, the extrasensory powers of that individual can be transferred to themselves.

It’s sad that in this day and age – with all the developments of Tanzania – some people choose to engage with these aspects of witchcraft. The practice is officially outlawed, but legislation has only served to group together a collection of harmless beliefs with the dangerous and reckless activities of a few.

Among the vast majority who accept witchcraft as a reality in Tanzania, only a tiny minority believe in the powers attributed to albinos. Until these beliefs are challenged and focus turns to rational and scientific explanations of genetic conditions, it will take many years before albinos are truly accepted among the population.

Witchcraft in all its guises is still taken very seriously in this part of the world, and will be around for the foreseeable future. Unless this is accepted it will prove very difficult to tackle the dangerous practices of the minority without compromising our traditional beliefs and rituals. It is not easy to strike a balance between our history and our development, but until we look at this issue realistically, both could be in jeopardy.


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