The thing most Westerners fail to realize is that Africa – the real, deep, dark, “bush” Africa, not the faux-touristy Africa so often portrayed in movies or on TV – is… different. It’s so different, it’s almost impossible for one not raised there to comprehend it. Even urbanized, allegedly “modern” Africa is different. To illustrate: until recently, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was situated on Diagonal Street in that South African city. Every morning, one could watch black stockbrokers on their way to work. Almost all had Bachelors degrees, and many had post-graduate qualifications. They’d stop at the stalls of street sangomas (shamans, witch-doctors) and solemnly buy a little packet of dried herbs and parts of animals’ bodies, called muti (“medicine”), to bring them luck for the day. Sometimes they’d pay a little more for some extra-strong muti, guaranteed to bring bad luck to their rivals. No matter how educated and worldly-wise they had become, the hold exercised over their minds by animist beliefs and tribal culture could not be gainsaid.
I once sat out a severe thunderstorm on the porch of a farmhouse in the Northern Transvaal. With me was a school-teacher from the local town, a man with a Bachelors degree and a post-graduate Diploma in Education. He solemnly informed me that the animist spirits of the trees were at war, and the spirit of that tree – the one that had just been struck by lighting – had lost his battle. He was an educated man, who knew all about, and daily taught, physics and chemistry to school pupils… but he was also a product of his tribe and his culture. He really believed what he’d just said. He absolutely was not joking. When I tried to argue, he told me openly that he pitied me, because I was so blind to the spiritual reality that could be seen, plain as a pikestaff, right in front of my eyes.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Africa is different. Most of her people are different. They think, behave, and react differently. That’s not a racist statement; it’s just the way it is.
That difference has just been demonstrated yet again in the sleepy South African farming town of Estcourt (or, at least, when I knew it in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was still a sleepy farming town – things may have changed since then).
A rural village in Escourt‚ KwaZulu-Natal‚ is abuzz with allegations of black magic‚ muti and cannibalism after four men‚ one of whom is a traditional healer‚ stand accused of murdering a woman and eating parts of her body.
The group made a brief appearance in the Estcourt Magistrate’s Court on Monday facing charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Their arrests followed the confession of a man who walked into the Estcourt police station at the weekend‚ declaring to officers that he was tired of eating human flesh.
When officers questioned his outlandish statement‚ the man produced part of a human leg and a human hand.
. . .
Ward councillor Mthembeni Majola said that the community had been shaken after hearing about the macabre discovery by police and held a meeting on Monday morning.
“There was a community meeting because I wanted to find out their position on this and the extent of the involvement of the accused. They came from our ranks. Their families confessed that they knew about the killings … It cannot only be one body. When the police were following this matter they discovered eight ears in a pot where one man was staying. That means there is much more to this‚” Majola said.
There’s more at the link. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.
If the report alone doesn’t boggle your mind, consider that the families of those committing the murders knew what they were doing, but did nothing to stop them. That demonstrates the power sangomas, or traditional healers, have over the credulous tribespeople who ‘believe’ in them. Furthermore, there must be families in the region who have lost loved ones to these criminals . . . but they did not report their missing loved ones to the police. Again, they would have been prevented from doing so by the fear that the sangoma(s) in question would have used their spiritual ‘powers’ to retaliate against them – perhaps even putting them on the menu, so to speak.
I’m sure this mess will turn out to be much worse than it appears from the initial report above. I have little doubt that the death toll will increase as more evidence is uncovered. This sort of thing is not new in Africa. There are many who still believe that muti containing human body parts is particularly powerful and effective. Some of them can afford to (and do) pay large sums for it. Where there’s a market, someone will satisfy the demand. That’s as good as a law of nature, in economic terms.
Some human bodies, particularly those affected by albinism (and, among them, children in particular, because of their perceived ‘innocence’) are considered particularly efficacious for muti – so much so that in Tanzania, where that belief is rampant, many albinos have to live in separate villages or ‘safe houses’ (that aren’t always safe enough), guarded for their protection against gangs of criminals seeking to kidnap them for sale to local witch-doctors.
And so the sleepy farming community of Estcourt, that I remember well, has been thrust into the glare of the national and international spotlight, all because of rampant superstition. I’m sure many of the locals are cursing those responsible . . . but it’ll likely happen again. Tribal culture and animist beliefs are too deeply rooted to be suppressed for more than a short time. They’ll be back.
May the souls of the victims, through the mercy of God, rest in peace; and may those they leave behind receive what comfort they may.