An incredible 93% of Tanzanians believe in witchcraft, compared to only 27% in Kenya, 29% in Uganda and 37% in Nigeria. That’s according to a recent survey on religious belief in sub-Saharan Africa by the Pew Research Centre. Out of 19 countries surveyed, Tanzania has by far the highest belief in witchcraft, with only Cameroon (78%) coming close.
Other findings of the same survey support this, with Tanzanians also believing strongly in evil spirits, juju, curses, the ability of spiritual people to offer protection and the value of sacrifices to ancestors. In all these cases, more Tanzanians believe in these things than in any other country surveyed. The charts below present these findings for selected countries.
All of this raises two important questions. First, why are these beliefs much more widespread in Tanzania than in the other countries surveyed? And second, what impact does this have on Tanzanian development?
The first question is beyond me. I don't have enough knowledge of the culture of other African countries to compare them to Tanzania in this way. But I can give a few examples of how this belief affects Tanzania's development, from a combination of personal experience, discussions with friends and colleagues, and witchcraft-related stories in national news.
As a first example, lets look at the story of parliament back in June 2008, when a mysterious powder was spread around various seats in parliament. A chemical analysis was conducted which found the powder to be harmless, but this did not convince many either in politics or in the media, whose typical response was that witchcraft was beyond detection by scientists. But leaving aside the chemical or supernatural qualities of the powder, in a country where 93% of the population believe in witchcraft and 80% in spells and curses, MPs may well feel uncomfortable with speaking out of certain issues if they suspect they could be cursed as a result. More recently, there have been witchcraft-related threats made to potential candidates in this year's general election. So witchcraft can undermine democracy and good governance.
The trend of albino murders in recent years is a second, very clear example of the damage that can be done by witchcraft, in this case affecting the livelihoods and lives of an already-disadvantaged group.
Less high profile, but probably more destructive overall, is the damage done to ordinary Tanzanian citizens through witchcraft-related threats. I have come across many examples where Tanzanians, usually those who have had some financial or social success, are held to ransom, threatened with curses. I have seen up close how this can hold people back from achieving their full potential - they can spend a lot of time (and money) fighting off these threats and they can have very damaging psychological effects. If success is punished in this way, it undermines those most likely to stimulate economic and social development and it discourages others from trying to succeed.
As Maggid Mjengwa recently wrote, belief in witchcraft is a form of ignorance. A few make a profit from the fears and ignorance of others - spreading fears and then selling solutions - while society as a whole is held back. That this form of ignorance is so much more widespread in Tanzania than elsewhere in Africa is very worrying - another major challenge to be overcome.