8 Jan 2013

Cecilia: How I lost my dear husband to witchcraft claims

Originally published in Daraja's Kwanza Jamii Njombe local newspaper, in Swahili, this article has since been translated and republished in the (Tanzanian) Guardian newspaper (see here). 

Cecilia: How I lost my dear husband to witchcraft claims
By Sauli Gilliard

It is five o’clock in the evening and Cecilia Haule, a resident of Ibani village in Ludewa is returning home from work. The mother of three had been labouring for almost ten hours at a maize farm to earn only 1,000/- at the end of the day.

Perhaps she could be saving some of this money for the rainy days if her husband had been alive. Unfortunately he is not and so as her family’s sole breadwinner, she spends all the money she earns to cater for her family’s needs.

With her hand to mouth earnings, Cecilia finds the burden of taking care of her family too heavy for her to carry. Two of her children are still in primary school and her eldest daughter dropped out of school when she was in standard six following a strange illness.

Cecilia’s husband, Lawrence Mkwera was killed by unidentified people in November last year after a long period of accusations that he was a witch. He was burnt in their house at midnight while he slept after the house was torched by unidentified people. Before he was killed, Cecilia and her husband used to work hard to make ends meet. Today Cecilia feels empty without him.

Cecilia and her children had to move in with Cecilia’s family after her husband’s death since their house was destroyed in the fire. Cecilia, famously known as Mama Sara, blames superstitious beliefs that dominate in her village, which sometimes lead to killings and harassment of innocent people. They also destroy their property just like it happened to her husband, Lawrence who was famously known in the village as ‘Mseminari’ meaning a Seminarian.

Despite the long time witchcraft accusations levelled against Mseminari, his wife never saw any indication that he was a witch.

“I heard the accusations but I had never witnessed anything to prove the allegations,” says Cecy.

The house raid
Explaining what transpired on the day her marital status changed to widowhood, Cecy says; “while we slept at midnight with our children Sara, Lawrence and Ester sleeping in the sitting room, my husband and I were awakened by shouts from our children in the sitting room who cried; ‘we are dying, we are dying.’

Cecilia and her husband quickly woke up. They heard a hard knock at the door. The children who were sleeping in the sitting room ran to hide in their parents’ bed room.

“My husband ran towards the door to open it but could not since there was heavy smoke coming in through the door. A fire had been set at the door,” Cecilia explains.

According to the single parent whose life today totally depends on casual labour, while all these was happening, she was looking for an alternative to get out of the house. She managed to make a hole in a wall in their bedroom and managed to escape with the children. Her husband did not make it as he chocked in the heavy smoke and got burnt in the inferno.

“Neighbours came to our rescue after they heard our cries for help. However, it was too late to save my husband and our property,” Cecy says.

After the burial of her husband, Cecilia had two main things on her mind. Where she would live with her children and how she would feed them.

She decided to go back to her parents’ home to stay with her mother who is now old and helpless. The village government helped her with her children’s school transfers. Sara, her eldest daughter was taken by her aunt residing in Njombe town.

Living in isolation
The witchcraft allegations not only led to Mseminari’s death but to stigma against his family. Ester, Cecilia’s second born says it reached a point where children refused to play with any child from their family believing they were witches.

“They even stopped eating anything in our home because their parents believed if they did they might die. My friends used to tell me they loved me but that their parents said our family was not good because we were witches,” says the standard five pupil sadly.

The village administration says the isolation of Mseminari and his family was manifested during the burial ceremony. Due to the witchcraft allegations, people didn’t participate well as they usually do in other burial activities.

Ludewa Mjini Village Executive Officer, Alfred Mgimba says some people in his village still believe in witchcraft. He singled out the death of Mseminari and the burden of caring for the children left behind as the effects of superstition beliefs.

Mgimba confirmed the news that surfaced the village alleging the deceased to have been involved in the superstition practices. But till his death, no one had come up with a vivid example to prove the allegations against Mseminari.

Ward Executive Officer for Ludewa town, Onesmo Haule says within a few months, two people including Mseminari had been killed for witchcraft claims.

Before Mseminari’s death, villagers claimed he was the one causing trouble in their area. “Foreseeing what might happen to Mseminari and others who were accused with him, the local government held a public meeting involving the police. The aim was to educate people on human rights and the impact of mob justice especially to those accused of witchcraft. Five police were involved,” he said adding that; “Despite the education we provided, a few days later Mseminari was murdered. It was irritating and terrible to watch his body because he was burnt beyond recognition.”

The Songambele head teacher, Ramon Lugome says some innocent people have been denied their right to live mercilessly. He said this is why some parts of Ludewa are underdeveloped because experts including teachers fear to be harmed and so shun the places.

Officials in Ludewa district say the suspects in Mseminari’s murder have been sentenced to jail for an undisclosed period.

National police statistics show that in the 2010/2011 period, 385 cases relating to brutal killings of innocent people were reported.

Last year’s Legal and Human Rights Centre Report shows that an estimated 600 elderly women were killed in 2011 due to the suspicion they were witches. This is an indication that not only men are at risk of such killings but women too.